The desert is one of the harshest environments on the planet. God forbid you should ever get stranded there, but it does happen—more often than you think. And, it’s usually a situation where the poor soul that ends up there, is unprepared both gear-wise, and knowledge-wise. In fact, I had a group of kids in Death Valley one time on a week long survival quest, and one of our instructors got lost while wandering. He only had to spend one night before we found him, but even as knowledgable as he was, he made a couple of simple mistakes that could have ended up a lot worse. There is very little margin for error in a desert survival situation. Here’s a few tips on how to give yourself the best odds of being found alive in the desert.

Be prepared

This seems like a no-brainer, but you can’t imagine how many people go out on an adventure without a fire-starter, compass, enough water or a filter, or even adequate clothing. You should always have the essentials with you anytime you wander off the beaten path. These common mistakes will get you in trouble in any survival situation, and the desert is much more unforgiving. Plan on having a gallon of water per person, per day . . . you will need it!

Coming to terms with your situation

Let’s face it, getting lost is absolutely terrifying, and, people do all sorts of mindless things during the panic stage. The Aussies have a great method of getting their heads together in a traumatic situation—they brew a cup of tea. It’s actually a great way to calm down, gets the mind off the present situation and gets a fire started, which is calming and comforting even when you’re not stressed out. You are lost so time isn’t too much of a factor, you need fire to purify water and eat, and it gives you time to think, talk about your situation, and decide on a plan.

The biggie—dehydration

Dehydration and exposure are the things that will kill you in the desert. The sacred order of survival is shelter, water, fire, and food. Sometimes, the order gets changed. An old desert survival saying is “ration sweat, not water.” Try to limit your activity during the day and do the work later when it cools down. Find or make shade so that you keep your sweating to a minimum. Wrap a piece of fabric around your neck to catch the perspiration and you can even use urine to dampen your clothing. NEVER DRINK YOUR URINE! Look for water in creek beds (you can dig for it) and also where there’s plants. Don’t bother with gimmicks like solar stills because you will lose more sweat digging than what you’ll gain in water. Look for animal tracks, they will often lead to water. If you dig in a creek bed or near foliage, dig until you reach damp sand/soil and water will seep in. It could take awhile. Remember, drink a good slug of water when you’re thirsty. People have actually been found dead from dehydration with a canteen half-full of water. Also, watch for flies and mosquitos. They are usually near water. Bees will travel a straight line to and from water. Don’t use cactus unless you want to vomit and become even more dehydrated.


Considering that you can live for over three weeks without food, food is last on the priority list. And, what many people don’t know is that food can increase your water needs when it comes to digestion, so I would recommend eating as little as possible and focusing on keeping yourself hydrated. If you’re lost in the desert for over three weeks, chances are that you will be food for the vultures and coyotes.

So, there are different survival scenarios, which require different techniques to get you out alive. What remains the same is the key to it all which is preparation. Remember the mantra “expect the best, prepare for the worst” and chances are pretty good you’ll get home alive.

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