Desert Survival

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​The Southwest desert, with its broad range of climates and topography, attracts many visitors each year. Although pleasant and mild most of the year, the weather ranges from ice cold wintertime temperatures high in the mountains to stifling heat in the summer on the flat, sandy desert floor. Many who venture into the desert do so without taking necessary precautions. There are inherent risks to those who travel into the desert including brilliant sunshine, low humidity, low rainfall, sparse shade and wide temperature fluctuations.  All present threats to the unprepared.

There are many things to consider before taking a trip into the desert. Make sure your vehicle is in good repair. Extra engine coolant, radiator water and a tool kit (complete with extra hoses, engine oil and fan belts) should be brought along. Obtain a map of the area being visited and identify a travel plan that includes main roadways, trails, closest towns, etc.

Before leaving for a trip into the desert, inform a neighbor or relative as to exactly where you are going and when you expect to return.  Keep them informed of your progress, especially if your plans change.  Search and rescue organizations spend thousands of dollars each year looking for lost victims who neglected to tell anyone where they were going or when their plans changed.

Be sure to carry at least three gallons of fresh drinking water for each person in the vehicle. Some other items recommended for desert travel include waterproof matches, a cigarette lighter or flint and steel, a survival guide, pocket knife, metal signaling mirror, iodine tablets, a small pencil and writing materials, a whistle, a canteen cup, aluminum foil, a compass a first aid kit, and possibly a small hand gun with ammunition.

There is a risk of becoming lost when traveling off-road or hiking on trails.  Become familiar with a map of the area and check local landmarks.  When traveling, turn around occasionally and look back to familiarize yourself with the land layout from the other side. This will help make a mental picture of what it will look like when you return, or in case you become lost.  When hiking, stay on established trails when possible.  Mark your trail route with blazes on trees and brush, or making trail ducks, which are piles of three rocks stacked on top of one another.

When driving off-road through the desert, be sure the vehicle is designed for this type of activity.  Start with a full tank of fuel, and bring a tow rope, tire pump, filled water cans and a shovel. In most cases, four-wheel drive vehicles are used for traveling over especially difficult terrain.  If unfamiliar with the area, check difficult terrain for undercarriage clearance on foot before proceeding. Be alert for flash flooding when it is raining. If you become stuck in the sand, apply power slowly to gain gentle traction.  Let a little air out of the tires.


If you become lost while hiking on foot or traveling by vehicle, stay put! Sit down for a while and take stock of the situation. Stay with your vehicle if you came in one. Most lost or stranded victims would be rescued sooner if they resisted the urge to walk for help. It is better to conserve energy and prepare distress signals.
If you feel you can retrace your steps, mark your spot and leave a note. Then backtrack by following footprints or vehicle tracks. Consult a map and try to identify landmarks and other surroundings. Don't take shortcuts. Go to a high point and look around. Always move downstream or down country, but travel the ridges instead of washes or valleys.

Move with a purpose. Don't wander aimlessly. If you aren't absolutely sure you can follow your tracks or prints, stay put!


During hot weather, walk through the desert slowly and rest for 10 minutes every hour. Begin early in the morning or late in the day. Water and body temperature are critical to survival. A person requires about a gallon of water each day. Be sure extra drinking water is available as it may be the difference between life and death.
To reduce water loss, keep the mouth closed, breathe through the nose and avoid conversation. Do not drink alcohol. It causes dehydration. Digestion consumes water so don't eat food if there is not a sufficient amount of water available. Don't ration water in hot weather. When you are thirsty, drink. Conserve water as best as possible and look for more.

In the summer, ground temperatures can be 30 degrees hotter than the surrounding air temperature, so, when resting, sit at least 12 inches above the ground on a stool or a branch.​

Body temperature is absorbed in three ways: from direct sunlight, hot air and heat reflected from the ground. Stay in the shade and wear clothing, including shirt, hat and sunglasses. Clothing helps ration sweat by slowing evaporation and prolonging the cooling effect. Travel at night or early in the day if possible.

Water sources can be located at the base of rock cliffs or in the gravel wash from mountain valleys, especially after a recent rain. Water may be found by digging three to six feet at the outside edge of a sharp bend in a dry stream bed. If wet sand is found, dig down into it to find seeping water. Green vegetation, tree clusters and other "indicator" shrubbery, such as cottonwood, sycamore, willow or tamarisk trees, may indicate the presence of water. Animal paths and flocks of birds also may lead you to water.

Cactus fruit and flowers may be eaten when food or water is scarce. Split open the base of cactus stalks and chew on the pith...but don't swallow it. Carry chunks of pith to alleviate thirst while walking. Other desert plants are not edible.


While the desert becomes very hot in the summer, it can become very cold in the winter. To avoid the cold, wear layered clothing including waterproofed garments. Eat when you are hungry. Exercise to keep body heat up and drink warm liquids. Be aware of behavior that isn't normal, such as excessive giggling, silence, excessive talking,

To combat hypothermia, shelter the victim from the wind and cold. Insulate them from the ground with newspaper, clothing, leaves or grass. Replace wet clothing with dry clothing. Wool or polypropylene is preferable over cotton or synthetics because it stays warm when wet. The victim may have to be placed inside a sleeping bag with someone else to keep them warm. Provide warm liquids, food and sweets, but don't force them on someone who is unconscious.


There are several things one can do to alert others for help. Disturb the natural appearance of the area such as with brush, rocks or dirt. Lay out signals and start a controlled fire. Three fires set in a triangle is an internationally-recognized distress signal. Generally, a fire can be built using any available fuel such as wood, a car tire or a car seat, which has been taken out of the vehicle.
In daylight hours, it is better to have a fire produce black smoke like a tire fire. Bright fires are best at night. Keep the fire burning at all times, if possible. If your fuel is limited, keep a small kindling fire burning and have your resources nearby to make the fire bigger in case you see someone who could come to help.

There are other distress signals which you can use. In a clearing, use newspaper or aluminum foil weighed down with rocks to make a large triangle. This is an accepted distress signal. A large "I" indicates to rescuers that someone is injured; an "X" means you are unable to proceed; an "F" indicates you need food and water. An adult may elect to fire three shots from a gun, which also is a recognized distress signal.