How To Survive In A Desert

Tips for desert survival, including conserving and finding water, avoiding heat prostration, and increasing visibility for quick rescue.

Deserts, areas receiving fewer than ten inches of rain annually, are found on every continent in mountains, valleys, and plains. To the unprepared, being lost in a desert is a life-threatening ordeal. Knowing how to attract attention, conserve water, and prevent heat prostration helps lost travelers and wayward hikers survive in a desert until they are rescued.

While deserts may seem like vast, open spaces where an out-of-place individual would be easily spotted, the rolling curves and graceful monotony of most deserts make spotting one person exceedingly difficult. Visibility is crucial for a quick rescue because many rescue parties rely on planes or just a few searchers to cover vast stretches of terrain. If you are lost or stranded, stay with your vehicle (if applicable); its size and shape are easier to spot from a distance. If you must travel, stay along ridges or other high areas where you can see further and have a better chance of being spotted by rescue parties.

You can create several types of signals to attract attention in the desert. During the day, build smoky fires from green plants or tires, and at night keep a bright, clean flame burning as a beacon. If you have flares available, set them off when you spot a distant rescue party or passing aircraft, or use them periodically (not more than every hour or two) if you are near a road or other inhabited area. You can also signal passing cars, planes, and rescue parties with reflective surfaces such as mirrors, aluminum foil, or glasses. Flash a steady, repeating signal in a distinctive pattern. For further visibility, create large signals on the ground: an SOS indicates distress, an I means you are injured, an X means you are stranded and unable to proceed, an F indicates you need food and water, and a triangle is an international distress symbol. Use any material - tarps, extra clothes, tires, rocks, branches, cacti, or miscellaneous trash - to make signals as large and bold as possible.

For lost or stranded travelers, conserving water is vital for survival. Rationing water is a mistake: if you do not drink, your body cannot cool itself. Drink regularly throughout the day, at least once per hour even if you do not feel thirsty. Breathe through your nose to keep your mouth and throat from drying out, and with each drink moisten your lips, mouth, and throat before swallowing. Refrain from talking, smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating, all of which use water or dry out membranes, speeding dehydration. Ideally, you should drink one gallon of water per day, but that amount can be significantly reduced if you remain in the shade and do not engage in strenuous activities.

If you are lost for an extended time, you will need to find additional water sources. The base of rocky cliffs is a likely place for water, as well as in mountain valley gravel, especially after a rainstorm. If you find a wet area in an otherwise dry streambed (most likely the outer edge of a sharp curve along the stream's course), dig down several feet to reach water. Animal herds, bird flocks, and greenery oases are other likely indicators of water sources. To make your own water, seal clear plastic bags around green plants (avoid species with thorns): as the plants transpire, they release water vapor that condenses on the bag. As a last resort, break off a cactus stalk and chew on the pith - the flesh - of the plant to collect its moisture. Many cacti are toxic, however, so be sure to carry an emergency handbook to identify safe species.

Desert temperatures can reach over 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, making heat another frequent desert hazard. Shaded areas are naturally cooler, and if possible, sit or lay at least twelve inches above the sand's surface. Sand temperatures can reach nearly thirty degrees higher than air temperature and easily cause burns. Work slowly and rest frequently while digging, traveling, or signaling to avoid heat prostration. If possible, travel and work during the early morning, late evening, and night - the coolest times in the desert.

It is imperative to keep your clothing on in the desert - many people mistakenly believe that shedding layers of clothes helps cool the body. In reality, however, clothing prevents sweat from evaporating too quickly and prolongs the body's naturally cooling process. Long sleeves, hats, and long pants are also necessary to prevent excessive sun exposure. At night, desert temperatures drop rapidly and often dip below freezing during winter months, making clothing vital to retain heat.

Heat and water are not the only concerns for desert survivors. Flash floods and dust storms occur without warning, and poisonous spiders, snakes, and scorpions inhabit even the most remote deserts. Always travel along ridges or other high ground, not only to be as visible as possible, but also be forewarned about severe weather. Before sitting or lying down, inspect hollows, cracks, and crevices for dangerous creatures. If you remove any clothing, shake it vigorously before putting it back on to dislodge any insects or unwelcome guests.

The best survival skill for desert travelers is to be prepared and avoid becoming lost. Always tell someone where and when you are traveling, and carry adequate emergency supplies with you, including a minimum of one gallon of water per person, per day. Keep emergency kits containing first aid supplies, flares, matches, and other equipment in your vehicle, and know how to use different tools to aid your survival.

Lack of water, extreme heat, and poisonous snakes are only a few of the hazards that threaten travelers lost in the desert. By taking proper precautions and knowing survival strategies for desert situations, however, it is possible to survive for days or weeks until rescued. Savvy travelers need not fear the desert, because even this menacing land holds much natural beauty waiting to be discovered by properly prepared adventurers.

© High Speed Ventures 2011