The idea of trying to survive in the desert is terrifying to most of us, but the truth is that deserts were the cradle of our civilization. People are actually well suited to make do in the desert with only primitive means of survival available. Archeologists are constantly digging up remains of once great and powerful kingdoms in desert climates. Those people survived without air conditioning or energy drinks, and you can too. But making it long enough to be rescued will take some strategies you may not have thought of.
Of course your first priority will be water. Deserts are created by lack of water, so finding more is a priority and using what you have wisely is a must. But oddly enough, your body needs no more water in the desert than it does in any other place. What the desert does is take away your body’s water more quickly and refuse to replenish it easily. Expert desert survivalists say to drink water when you need to, and instead ration sweat and energy expenditure. Keep your activities in the heat of the afternoon to a minimum and travel at night. The temperature at night in the desert can drop significantly, sometimes below freezing, so moving at night will help keep your body temperature up. Reversing your normal behavior pattern is a lot smarter than sweating out all your water by walking in the daytime, then shivering in the cold trying to get a little sleep all night.
You’ll need shelter to protect you from the sun during the day. You want shade, but you don’t want to build an oven to cook yourself in either—open sides that allow for breezes to come through are best. In an earlier blog article I wrote on six survival shelters that could save your life, I explained how to dig a “sniper hole” that can help you keep cool and protect you from the elements. Whether you dig your own shelter, use a survival tent of some kind, or create a makeshift shelter from found objects, you’ll want to prepare your shelter at night and stay in it during the daytime.
If you need to leave the shelter during the day, the clothing you wear is important. A wide brimmed hat that protects you from the sun is a must. A human being standing up receives only 60% of the solar energy that an animal on all fours does, and most of that 60% comes right down from above. In desert action-adventure movies the hero usually has his shirt sleeves cut off to reveal his sculpted shoulders and muscular arms. Forget it! Clothing is much better than sun block at protecting your skin, and there’s another benefit—it traps relatively cooler air between your skin and your body, and maximizes the cooling effect of the sweating you’ll be doing anyway. You don’t want to dress like Jake Gyllenhaal in “Prince of Persia,” you want to dress like a Mexican farmer.
Food is a necessity but must be balanced with water. Food takes extra water for your body to process. Unless you have more than the minimum amount of necessary water available, you shouldn’t eat at all. You can eat cactus fruits if they are in season, and the beans sprouted by various legumes, but the desert is also full of plants that are toxic and poisonous to people. Avoid any unknown plants with milky sap, spines, fine hairs, or thorns. If you have a fire going and enough water to cook with, boil any plants you are going to attempt to eat, and start by taking just a small bite to start with. If it tastes like burning (and I don’t mean in the same way as your favorite buffalo wing sauce), spit it out immediately, drink additional water and scrounge for an alternate food source. You may be tempted to eat reptiles, which are plentiful and relatively easy to catch, especially at night when the colder temperatures slow them down. But be aware that salmonella exists naturally on the skin of these creatures, so if you don’t cook them fully and wash your hands (with precious water!) after touching them, you’ll get poisoned by it. If you are already malnourished a bout with salmonella can finish you off.
Navigation in the desert can be seriously problematic. T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia” traveled with Bedouin nomads who could navigate long distances without even a compass, using their knowledge of prevailing winds to tell direction from sand dune shapes and rock erosion patterns. In featureless desert they had a system where they could use their own shadows as sun dials—if they knew the time, then they knew the position of the sun for that time, and could look at a shadow cast by a saddle horn and gauge direction with a surprising degree of accuracy. For the rest of us, its easy to get very lost in the desert and difficult to cover significant amounts of ground without expending a lot of energy. Unless you have prior desert experience, a location you can realistically reach and you are sure of how to get from point A to point B, you need to focus on survival skills like water, shelter, and food and leave desert traveling to those with camels. Make your shelter obvious, carve a big “S.O.S.” in the earth, and use a signal mirror to reflect the sun’s light at passing aircraft or dust clouds that may be vehicles. Flag them down and your days in the desert are over!
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