Arid Survival: How To Thrive
 In A Desert Survival Situation

Whether your plane crash landed, you took a wrong turn, or had a camel trading session with a Bedouin go seriously south, finding oneself in the middle of a desert is the cause of many a death in movies.

In case you happen to find yourself in a desert survival situation, here's the guide that'll keep you alive and get you out.

Hope you enjoy.

​​Stay Nourished

​​​The number one rule in any survival situation is to make sure you have food and water.

Desert survival is no different.

Food: Food in the desert is pretty sparse. For that reason, we're gonna toss a little bit of a strange rule at you: unless you have water, do not find food.

It's crazy and counterintuitive, but here's the reasoning behind it:

Water is horribly difficult to find in the desert, but sweat is easy to lose. The human body can go three weeks without food, but less than three days without water in the desert.

If you don't have a source of water, bite the bullet and go without food. Your sweat is more valuable than your calorie count if you don't have a water supply that you can rehydrate yourself with.

If you do have a steady supply of water, trap-setting is often far more effective than hunting in a desert survival situation. Ideally, making a lot of them is better than a few of them.

Finding videos of traps to make in the desert is very difficult, as most YouTube traps are using wood as a primary tool. If this were available in the desert, that'd be great.

But it isn't.

So here are a couple of videos that, if you find the right materials, will be useful.

Here's a neat little guide that goes pretty in depth in trap making. It explains several different traps, gives pictures, and explains how to make them.

A great food source in the desert will, sadly, be reptilian in nature. Reptiles aren't usually too difficult to catch and will probably show up where you least want them, so no traps necessary.

Since reptiles often carry disease, it is highly recommended to boil them in water prior to eating them. I've never tried it, but I hear the tail meat is the best.

As far as plants and berries go, here's the checklist of things to avoid:

  • ​Yellow or white berries
  • ​All mushrooms
  • ​Anything that smells like almonds
  • ​Leaves of three
  • ​Shiny leaves
  • ​Anything with umbrella shaped flowers
  • ​Anything with a bitter or soapy taste

If you do find some plants you think may be tasty but may also be poisonous, try letting it sit on your tongue for about 15 minutes. If, at the end of the time period, you don't feel anything that indicates poison (itching, burning, nausea, etc.), then that part of the plant is probably safe. 

Pretty much all bugs are fair game. One of the best ways to eat bugs is to make a stew out of them: put the bugs in some water and boil the water. It kills the bugs and makes sure that they are sanitized.

Water: ​Finding water in the a place that, by definition, gets less than ten inches of rainfall per year is going to be unpleasant. As general rules...

  • ​Go downhill​: Water naturally travels downhill. If you have an option between uphill and downhill in a search for water, your chances of finding that precious liquid are always better downhill. This is particularly true in areas that are especially low, such as canyons.​​​
  • ​Follow wildlife​: Like most creatures on God's green earth, animals in the desert require water. If you see birds circling, insects gathering in swarms, or run up on a collection of reptiles, you are probably fairly close to a water source.​​​
  • ​Follow vegetation​: Same rule applies as wildlife. You can also try eating the local veggies, but if you don't know the terrain, follow the poison test mentioned above by holding it on your tongue for 15 minutes.​​​​​​ If you are unfamiliar with the local flora, try finding the greenest looking plants and the trees with the broadest leaves. These will most likely require the most water and will most likely have access to it.
  • ​Dig​: Once you've found a spot you think is a good candidate for water (a low area, damp soil, near tree roots, etc.), you will probably have to dig to find the water. A good rule of thumb is that you should dig a hole one foot deep and one foot in diameter. Look for damp soil as you dig down and across. If you don't see any, then move on to a new location. ​​​
  • ​Avoid cacti​: While this works in movies, it doesn't often work in real life. The vast majority of cacti do have liquid in them, but it is almost always poisonous to humans. It may satisfy your thirst for a while, but you'll probably end up vomiting or having diarrhea.​​​ They are not good for drinking.

​I've included some videos below. Three are about finding water in the desert and are great. The only problem is the first one suggests drinking from a cactus, which can be dangerous.

If you noticed, much of the water in the two videos that show it is pretty disgusting. It probably won't kill you, but it's certainly not stuff that Dasani would use.

​I've included a video below on how to filter water. ​This does not purify it​. It just means that you won't be drinking mud.​​​

The only thing about this method is that is requires charcoal; that means you'll have to have already made a fire and harvested some charcoal from it.

If you had a choice of any item to bring with you, we recommend Sawyer Mini for water purification. It filters out over 99% of harmful bacteria and can be used to drink straight from any water source, even a cactus. It's a great survival tool.

​Resource Conservation​: A key to surviving in the desert is to preserve the resources you already have. Calories are vital and sweat is gold in a desert survival situation​​​​​​​​​​​.

This leads us to a few important conclusions, some of which have already been discussed:

​Order of Importance​: Water is more important than food. If you don't have a steady source of water, don't worry about searching for food, building traps, or other calorie-hunting activities.

​Conservation​: There are times in the desert when no activity should be done. The height of the day and the middle of the night are the two most dangerous times in the desert, but the hottest part of the day is by far the more dangerous.

If you notice yourself sweating excessively, it is time for you to seek shelter. Find nice outcroppings of rock if possible, but dig a hole if you have to. Make sure to stay out of the sun.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

The two best times to work will probably be before dawn and after ​dusk. That isn't much time, so use it wisely and efficiently.

​Good Intentions​: Much advice about desert survival is well-intentioned but ultimately useless. Drinking from a cactus is one of these pieces of "wisdom" that may get you killed.

Other pieces of advice are great (put up a rain tarp), but ultimately difficult to pull off (who has a tarp in their back pocket?). With this in mind, remember that some tasks are not worth the effort. Use your time and energy in the most efficient way possible. Your survival is #1.​​​

Use Tools To Survive

Fire: Fire is always a valuable tool for cooking, heat, and light provision. Deserts have a nasty reputation of getting bone-chillingly cold at night.

Starting a fire in the desert has unique advantages and disadvantages.

Advantage: Many plants you find in the desert will by dry as a bone and shouldn't have much problem catching fire. 

Disadvantage: Starting a fire won't be your biggest problem; keeping a fire going will be. The lack of trees, sticks, or any other significant fuel in the desert will mean that you are unlikely to have a blazing, roaring fire to keep you warm at night.

I've attached a video below showing you how to start a fire using what I consider to be the most simple natural method. He uses sticks, so it may not be entirely realistic for some desert survival situations.

That said, I figured that if you had enough sticks to keep a fire going, you probably could use at least two of those sticks to get it started.

Be sure to allow your fire to breathe if you build a rock base around it. One common mistake I see is that people build huge rock bases around their fires, especially if it's in a fire pit, and the fire is unable to get enough oxygen to survive.

When organizing your sticks on top of the fire, either form a square over the fire where the top is continually more narrow like a pyramid or make a teepee shape.

A good rule of thumb with fire is that you always go from small to large fuel source. Start with ashes, then go to kindling, then small sticks, then branches, then logs. Remember that fire burns up, so stack your wood on top of other pieces of wood for the best fire.

Helpful Tools: Tools such as knives and axes may come in handy while in the desert for self-defense, trap setting, or other reasons. Assuming you've brought pretty much nothing of these on your desert survival journey, we'll explain and show how to make these tools using materials you'll have on hand.

The following video shows how to make a stone knife and a stone axe. He goes more into depth with the axe, but you can make a knife the exact same way as he does the axe.

​Stone tools are usually not useful for very long. This isn't true of all types of stones, but you can expect that it won't last much longer than a few good hits against something.

​Besides chipping rocks and using the fragments, you can also "shave" the rocks against another rock until a satisfactory edge is found.

Wood can also be turned into a helpful knife by sharpening the tip and sides of it using a knife or rock. If you do it skillfully, the middle of the blade will still be fairly thick. This blade will not last long.

​Self-Defense​: Fires, knives, and axes all make for fine self-defense tools in a rainforest. However, the most useful self defense tool at all is probably a spear.

They are very easy to make. If you have a knife, those work best. If not, a stone axe will probably go further than a wood or stone knife will when splitting, chipping, and sharpening your spear.

​​​​​​This guy used a throwing knife to form the tip of his spear. Any regular knife or sharp rock will do.

When making a spear, I suggest going about your body height if you intend to throw it. If your primary goal is to keep predators at bay, I suggest finding a branch that is your body height plus two feet. 

If your spearhead is wood or if you're using a wood knife, fire-hardening can be an invaluable tool for you. ​​​Fire-hardening is done by placing wood away from a fire at a distance where it is receiving heat but isn't going to burn. Here's a video on how to best do that.

Shelter: When not moving across the terrain with the intention of trapping, gathering, or escaping, shelter will be one of the absolute most important parts of your survival plan.

The desert has brutal heat during midday and miserable cold at night.

A good shelter is one that is protected from the sun, blocks out insects or other crawlies, and can be insulated so you can keep warm. In the desert, good shelters are most easily made by utilizing rocks or large mounds of sand.

There are several ways to make a shelter. Here's a guide about shelters in the desert, but it's not the best since many of their tips involve having prior materials on hand (like a parachute).

So here's a few videos of how to build one.

Even though these shelters are great, without the proper materials they may be extremely difficult or impossible to build.

Another type of shelter is one that is shown in the video below: a rock shelter.

Rock shelters can be caves (watch out for snakes and bugs) or shelters that you build yourself using rocks found in the desert. Here is a video with all the details.

​Escape The Jungle

​​​​​All your efforts in a desert survival situation won't mean much if you can't actually escape.

Unless, of course, you are totally and completely fed up with world politics,​ Hillary Clinton, "safe" zones in schools, the NFL, or your internet provider.

Now that I say it like that...

Assuming you do still want to leave the desert, there are a few practices that are better than others.

If you have a working phone that has GPS, you can try getting to the highest point available and check for signal to pull up a map or get an emergency call out.

​We do recommend this if the situation permits, but ​do not spend much time on your phone if this method isn't working​.

If it doesn't work the first time, get out of there. You have more important things to focus on.

Conserve your resources. Travel during the parts of the day where you are least likely to sweat but also able to see where you're walking (and what you're walking on). Usually dusk and dawn are great times for travel. Avoid midday and midnight as these are brutally hot or cold.

Always head downhill. It's not a command, but a really good suggestion. Traveling uphill will destroy your precious calories and produce a more significant sweat than going downhill. Also, water is more likely to be downhill than up.

Pick a direction and stick to it. Yes, you may have chosen the worst direction possible. You may truly be the most unlucky person on the planet, but I can guarantee that you won't get anywhere by traveling in circles.

Unless you receive hard evidence that another direction is best, don't stop going in the direction you're headed.

Find a road. If you can find a road, you can follow it to civilization. Do be warned that it may be miles to civilization on that road and you may not see anyone during your time following it.

If you have to, don't be afraid to get away from the road to find good shelter, food, or water.

​Never, ever, ever give up​. This is really the most important rule here. Never, ever, ever give up on your chance for survival. Decide that you will not allow yourself to be beaten. You will conquer this no matter what.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​


​​​​Thanks for reading! We value our readers above all else. Tell us in the comments below: if you found yourself in a desert survival situation, what's the first thing you would do?

Stay safe out there. God bless.

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