Find food, water and shelter in scorching desert temperatures. Learn the secrets of Arab desert nomads and Desert Indians from the American Southwest. Route finding, map reading, water procurement, hidden springs, wells, and underground rivers. Desert hunting tips and desert wild edibles and insects.
In many deserts day time temperatures can soar over a hundred degrees and even beyond the 120 degree mark.
Evening temperatures in some deserts -- especially in the United States -- can plummet to the forties or just above freezing. If the heat doesn't kill you in the desert during the day, the cold that night will.
1) You might be in a commercial airline that crash lands in the middle of a desert with hundreds of people on board and minimal food and water and no communications.
2) You might have to evacuate a region of the country that has been struck by a catastrophic disaster -- including nuclear strikes on Western cities (U.S., Australia, etc.).
Most of us remember the Mad Max movies.
It's very possible you could end up in a desert survival situation one day. Several million people live in the American southwest states -- specifically California, Arizona, and Nevada -- they are surrounded by deserts. Several million more people live in the State of Texas -- another state with vast stretches of desert.
If America ever suffers a widespread disaster, perhaps in the same way Japan experienced it's recent tsunami in 2011 (and meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant), causing the death of several thousand people and the evacuation of countless more people -- a large number of Americans may find themselves one day evacuating across a hot, dry barren wilderness area, stretching hundreds of miles in every direction.
Though some sheiks are known for wearing white, the reality is that black robes make for the best clothing for traveling through a hot desert. Case in point: The Bedouin, a tribe of Arabic desert nomads, wear black.
Though the color white does reflect sunlight, it also reflects your body heat right back at your body. Black on the other hand absorbs sunlight, but it also absorbs your body heat.
In the end, with a loosely worn robe and hood, black overall is a better color to wear in the desert than white.
1) To prepare for a journey on foot across a desert, have a black robe on hand (preferably wool, see below), folded in your pack. Where do you get a black robe for an extreme survival scenario that takes you into a barren, hot desert? The same place that Arabs living in the U.S. do -- Arabic stores and suppliers.
2) If conditions get hot, the desert too vast, put on this robe and survive. See: Summer Science: Clothes Keep You Cool, More Or Less. Though the author here points out that when a thick black Bedouin robe can't be had, light-colored, light weight clothes are the second choice.
A trek on foot across a hot desert though is a lot like a trek across the Yukon or even Siberia in the dead of winter -- it is dangerous, the weather and terrain can kill you if you're not prepared. If you plan on crossing a desert, go out of your way to be prepared. Failure to properly plan may easily cost you your life.
Need more evidence that a black robe (worn correctly) is the right attire for the desert?
Consider this 2004 article in New Scientist that quotes author William McDonough, who researched and spent time with the Bedouin, as saying: "As a young person, I could not understand why the Bedouin wore all these layers of black clothing while it was 49 degrees C with no shade, nor why their tents were black. I was staying in a British white canvas tent, wearing shorts and khakis. Then I realised that the Bedouin were protecting themselves from ultraviolet. They were holding in their moisture. The average Bedouin lives on a litre of water a day; I was living on 19 litres a day."
Ski goggles in your survival pack can play a secondary role in the desert -- protecting from sand and dust, not just snowfall.
One final note about the Bedouin -- they make their clothing from the wool of camels, sheep, and goats, common animals the Bedouin are known for. Pulled tightly to the body, wool clothing will help keep a person warm at night in the desert. During the day wool clothing must be worn loosely though, allowing air to flow and help keep a body cool during the daytime, especially when walking. See: Why Wool?
A survivalist in the American Southwest, preparing for a disaster, should consider that an evacuation on foot could one day occur. If this evacuation takes place in the summer months, desert temperatures could be near 130 degrees -- an extreme yes, but still a possibility.
Piecing together an outfit (a wool black robe) for a possible desert exodus may prove to be a life-saver.
If a wool black robe seems like an extreme step, or you simply don't have one on hand that day, wearing a loose fitting long sleeved shirt and pants and a wide brim hat with a crown might be the next best thing -- and of course sun glasses to protect against the UV rays of the sun.
Tip: When you drink water in the desert, take a good, long drink. Reports indicate that people have been found dead in the desert, even with water in their canteens -- it's believed they sipped their water, rather than taken longer drinks. The problem with taking sips of water in hot temperatures is this -- it's not enough to hydrate your brain and internal organs, which leads to death.
To find water in the desert, your best sources of fresh water are going to be streams and springs -- though yes, they are going to be few and far between, perhaps impossible to find in vast stretches of desert. Any available streams may in fact be underground.
Water can be so sparse and deserts so hot and dry that you can die of thirst or heat stroke before ever finding a new location to replenish water.
Lakes, in the desert, may have high salt content -- if you detect a salt-water taste, this is water that will need to be distilled first, to remove any salt. (To learn how to distil water in a desert survival situation, see: How to Find Water in the Wilderness).
Study the terrain and vegetation on maps; notice lines of green vegetation that may signify a dry stream bed or that there is a shallow underground river.
A few deserts have major rivers that cut across, such as the Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon and into the Mojave Desert where it reaches in Nevada.
One researcher on the Mojave Desert writes: "The Mojave Road followed along the river from Soda dry lake to the Cajon Pass. Desert Indians used this as a trade route where water could easily be found on the way to and from the coast. Later, the Old Spanish Trail and Salt Lake Trail (Mormon Road/Trail) joined up with the river near where Daggett is today." See: Finding water in the Mojave Desert
In a worst case scenario, remember what you learned above -- if you're on the ground and need to find water, study the terrain; look for areas of dark green vegetation; here you're looking for a dry stream bed; follow that stream bed until it bends; look for water (in the ground) on the outside bend -- that is where gravity would pull the most water when that stream was running above ground (following a rare rain, for example) and where an underground trickle may still exist.
Dig seeps, build solar stills and capture water from condensation sources. (To learn how to dig seeps, build solar stills, and other methods for finding water, see: How to Find Water in the Wilderness).
Dew can also collect on desert grass -- run a towel or other cloth through the grass and once soaked through, squeeze drops of water into a water bottle. Collect as much as you can and squeeze from the towel into any containers that you have with you. You just might collect enough to get you through the next few hours -- until you can find a spring, lake or stream.
Most cactus fruits are edible -- for example, the fruit of the saguaro cactus has been important to Native Americans in Northwest Mexico and the Southwest United States for many centuries. When it comes to wild edibles though, always know what you're eating -- we can't say that enough.
Finally, a large goat skin may have been all a Bedouin nomad had to carry water in.
Whatever you use to carry water in the desert, be sure it's large enough to carry enough water to keep you hydrated until you can reach the next location to replenish water.
When it comes to finding water in the desert, the questions to ask are: How much water can I carry before setting out? What routes can I take and where does water exist along these routes?
If you have to scavenge materials from your home, prior to an evacuation, grab a large roll of aluminum foil and duct tape -- you can make your own reflective skin for a desert shelter when nothing else is handy.
Tip: Consider heavier duty space blankets. Many space blankets are thin, light-weight material that tears easily and usually only good for 1 or 2 uses. A heavier duty space blanket will be more versatile, allowing more use.
Note: Don't use a space blanket as clothing. It will reflect heat in also; worn close to your body you will heat up in the desert (only do this in the evening hours when the temperatures drop).
Note: In Afghanistan, the Taliban has used space blankets at times to hide their heat signature from Nato forces.
Tip: If there's no time to build a shelter when the sun is scorching the desert below, build a make-shift umbrella (like one you'd carry in the rain) out of a few thin, sturdy sticks, something to tie with, and a space blanket (this won't work in high-winds). Use it to provide shade as you walk. Use light weight sticks so that you're not carrying more "weight" -- added weight will mean greater physical exertion, which you want to avoid when the temperatures are hot.
Watch out for dangerous insects and snakes.
1) Look for a shallow area in the ground, between two dunes for example.
2) Dig a space deep enough for you to lay in about two feet deep.
3) Pile the dirt or sand dug from the trench around the top edge of the trench.
4) Use four sticks as stakes, planted at the four corners of the trench. Tie a corner of your darkest covering (tarp, sheet, blanket) to each stake, so that it forms a flat roof, over the trench.
5) Be sure to leave a few inches of space between the top of the trench and the covering so that air can flow.
6) Using four taller stakes and a white sheet (for reflecting sunlight) or a space blanket, hang a second flat roof a few inches above the first flat roof. (If you have nothing to tie with, use piles of rocks to anchor down the corners of each layer of cover).
Done right, the physics of a trench desert shelter are reported to be several degrees cooler than a simple shelter that only supplies shade. The white sheet (top layer) reflects the sun, while the black cover (bottom layer) absorbs your body heat. Space between the two layers as well as between the bottom layer and the ground allow for air movement.
This is a shelter for extreme desert conditions -- sometimes shade may be all you need instead. Sometimes though, especially in temperatures soaring over 100 degrees, you'll want to put more thought and effort into your shelter, remembering to sleep during the day and travel at night.
By choosing routes that pass over shallow crevices and near dark green vegetation you're increasing your chances of finding edible wildlife. In the desert that is likely to be snakes, reptiles, and scorpions, but in some areas could include rabbits and other small mammals and even birds and insects like ants and centipedes.
Tip: If you're short on water, avoid eating food. Digestion will use up your body's water stores -- which you need right now to keep your brain and internal organs functioning.
Your goal should be to exit the desert -- not suddenly try to survive in the desert long term -- not without actual desert survival training where you would learn first-hand methods for identifying wild plants that are safe to eat as well as hunting and trapping methods.
The desert is simply an obstacle -- there are more fertile lands to live off in the far off distance -- lands with cooler temperatures, more sources of water, and larger game animals. If your goal is to live off the land long term, set your sights on these distant areas, which may be hundreds of miles north, east, or west if your journey is across a desert in the American Southwest.
For our Australian readers, that land of course may be to the south, depending on your location.
Once pinned, cut off the head with a knife or simply crush it with a large rock.
Once removed from it's body, bury the head of any snake you kill -- a careless step in in the dirt and those fangs could still inject venom into your blood.
Rabbits: Some desert areas will have rabbits (think jack rabbits) and other varmints. A coyote or Hawk or other predator may have caught an animal that you can turn into food. Any flesh they're eating is likely to be fresh -- chase away the predator and then cook the carcass thoroughly and you just got yourself a free dinner.
Rabbit holes may be found in areas of sage brush. Set fire to the sage brush -- once it burns down, sit at the base of a rabbit hole with a short, thick stick, out of sight of any rabbit in the hole; club any rabbit as it exits.
Lizards, out in the open, can be killed with a swiftly thrown rock or "throwing stick". Also, in the early morning hours, look for lizards under flat rocks. Pin it with a stick or kill it with a rock.
Snakes may be found and caught easiest with minimal risk when they're sunbathing on a rock (the risk is greater when you have to look under rocks for snakes -- they can catch you by surprise).
Oven Baked Lizard, Insects or Snakes: Place insects, snakes, or lizards on a flat rock. Arrange a small pile of rocks around the flat rock. Place a larger flat rock over the top, creating a small box (that will work as an oven) with a partial opening where you can keep an eye on your food as it's cooking. Build a fire next to this box (not in front of the open area) and check on it periodically -- you want it to cook and blacken from the heat -- you don't want it to catch on fire.
If you're going to have a rifle on hand, you increase accuracy and firing distance for taking down an animal in the desert. You don't even need a real gun -- a .20 caliber or .22 caliber Air Rifle is enough to take down large varmints.
Set out on this trip across the desert carrying more water than you'd typically carry into the wilderness, knowing you'll need a gallon of water a day or more in hot temperatures.
If you know exactly where water can be found as you cross the desert, you may be able to carry less water -- which will mean less weight, and less physical exertion -- like the Bedouin who know where wells are located in vast stretches of desert.
So do your homework -- talk to people who know the desert, especially people who have researched the lives of indigenous people in your region of the country (like the Desert Indians in the American Southwest) and find out what routes they traveled, where they found water, and also where water can be found today. As a caution, the sources of water that existed just a few centuries ago could be vastly different today.
Talk to farmers and ranchers in the area -- they may have spent some time in the desert and may know about water sources -- springs, wells, caves, and underground rivers -- that aren't known by other locals. Mark these on your map.
Today, consider short jaunts into the desert to locate a few of these before you're in a survival situation, if you have the means -- you want to be sure the information you've been given is good information.
Always let people know where you're going in the desert and when you'll be back -- that way they know where to look for you if you don't return or call by a specific time.
The desert might look harmless -- but it has it's dangers -- the desert can kill the unprepared or over-confident person quickly. Learn how to navigate these dangers and you can be successful in the desert a lot like Desert Indians in times past or the Bedouin in Arabic deserts today.
* Note: In an evacuation of Southern California cities or cities in Arizona, New Mexico or Texas, an ATV or similar off-road vehicle can turn a desert exodus into a much less grueling experience, getting a person 100 - 200 miles or more into and or across the desert on a single tank of gas, carrying more water, more food, more supplies.