Desert Survival Tactics

The desert can be a demanding environment to put it lightly. Never — repeat — never underestimate the serious nature of desert survival and the plethora of problems it can create for you. Being in sound physical condition before it’s too late is one way of preventing or lessening the effects of fatigue. Never work so hard at a given task that exhaustion sets in. When the senses become dulled from exhaustion, your predicament takes a potential turn for the worse.

When we stepped from the air-conditioned comfort of our vehicles, there was no doubt we were in a desert. What struck me first about the place beside the heat — was the brightness. I quickly retrieved my polarized, UV blocking sunglasses from the car, and put them on. That was the summer we put to the test our survival desert tactics. This article will discuss a systematic approach to survival known as the “Pattern For Staying Alive,” as they apply to one of the most challenging survival environments — the desert.

Desert Survival Tactics

Desert survival and Thirst

Water is going to be a primary concern for the survivor in a desert, obviously, and if he wishes to prolong his existence for some time, he must act quickly and efficiently to procure water. His every action must be carefully thought out for one mistake out here, and the gig is up.

In the deserts of the American southwest, humans have learned to survive under the most difficult conditions because they adapted to the situation, much like the plant and animal life that have existed there for thousands of years. A desert dweller knows how to find water — yes, it is there — and use it wisely.

For instance, arroyos, which are gullies carved out by water during times of heavy seasonal rains, often hold water a short distance below the surface. Try digging down ways on the outside bends of the watercourse, or at the base of concave banks. If there is any green vegetation nearby, dig at the downward edge of the growth.

Other indicators of water are bird droppings along rock crevices — water may be at the base of the crevice —insects gathering in a particular area, birds all headed in one direction at dawn and especially dusk, and where two game trails converge, following the single trail the two form frequently leads to the water.

Read next:  Water Procurement In The Wild Using Smart Techniques

Got a map with you? Check it over carefully. Topographic maps usually show the location of wells and cisterns that may still be usable.

Procuring water

Can’t find any water? No big deal. Break out that transparent plastic bag you stuffed into your survival kit and create one of the most efficient water creators known to survivors: a water transpiration bag.

This rascal will put a solar still to shame if set up correctly, and it beats a vegetation still as well. If you have five minutes to spare and some cordage to tie the bag off and down, plus some form of living vegetation, you can make one. Here’s how:

  1. Place the bag over a branch of the vegetation, in direct sunlight, and tie it off around the limb.
  2. At the lowermost corner of the bag, gather some of the material together and tie it off with one end of a suitable length of cord. Tie the other end of the cord to a rock or other heavy object so that the bag is pulled down somewhat. This lower end of the bag is where the water will form.

Just how much water can you expect from your transpiration bag?

That depends primarily on the plant you are using. I have seen one plant yield just over a gallon of water per day for six days, with a different branch being used daily. I have placed as many as six bags on one shrub and had excellent results. If you don’t have a plastic bag or two in your kit, put one there. Now

The vegetation still and solar still can both be quite effective, too, but are not as productive as the transpiration bag. Remember that the next time you are wandering in the desert.

Oh, by the way, purify the water your bag produces before consumption, just to be on the safe side.

Pre drinking is believed to be an excellent way of preventing dehydration for acclimatized people in the desert. By drinking more than what feels or seems adequate before setting out in a low humidity desert, a man can substantially reduce the risk of dehydration because the excess water will be used in the perspiration process via decreased urinary output. This “internal canteen” effect has saved many a desert dweller’s life.

Rationing water to survive longer

Desert Survival And Thirst

Thinking about rationing that water you have? Forget it.

That water is doing you no good whatsoever in your canteen. Drink it now. Get it into your body so it can be used. Countless men and women have been found dead of dehydration in the desert with plenty of water in their canteens. They were rationing. If you feel like lowering your position in the food chain, ration your water. The vultures will appreciate it.

A must-read:  Drinking Water Survival Myths You Should Know

To reduce the rate at which your body loses water, avoid hasty or strenuous actions, if possible. Plan out your tasks and perform them in a steady, methodical manner with frequent rests. These tasks should be accomplished in the early evening and early morning. The night should be used for travel.

When resting during the day, never lie down on the ground. Build a low platform just about 18 inches high to sleep on. The temperature at ground level might be 45 degrees higher than a mere 18 inches away.

Wear sunglasses if they are available. Glare reduces your ability to judge distances and hinders night vision, too. Since you will be traveling at night, this is not good. And keep your sleeves rolled down, your head covered and footwear where it belongs — on your feet. All these things will help reduce the chances of sunstroke, heatstroke, sunburn, etc.

Desert survival and Hunger

You are undoubtedly aware that water is generally more important in a survival situation than is food. However, long-term survival will demand you acquire food, and the desert is just the place to get it. The deserts of the world, especially those such as the Mojave, are ripe with vittles of all sorts, plants, and animals alike.

Unfortunately, many of the plants do not appear to be readily edible to the untrained eye — and stomach — and during the day, animal life seems downright non-existent The reason for these outward appearances is simple — Mother Nature has provided the desert’s flora and fauna with keen defensive instincts and strategies. Many of the desert’s plants are tough, grizzled, thorny, and plain uninviting. They have to be in order to survive.

And the wildlife?

They’re there, but during the brutal day, they hideout to escape the heat, only to venture forth once the baking sun sets. Quail, coyotes, deer, doves, rabbits, mice, rats, bats, insects, and a staggering array of reptiles call the American deserts home. All you have to do is catch them.

So what is the key to finding out what plants are edible and how one should go about catching these critters? Easy. Study. That’s right. Learn about the desert’s flora and fauna long before setting foot in the sand. Know the ecosystem. Know the habits of the animals and the appearances of the plant life. You need not be at Ragnar Benson’s level of trapping and snaring, though that is a worthy, albeit lofty objective, nor need you be a Bradford Angier or Bernard Shanks along the lines of flora identification. You simply need to become proficient at knowing what creatures are where and when to find them.

Once that is done, a simple trap or snare will almost always do the trick. Plant identification, on a basic level, can be accomplished by reading and some practice in your spare time. If there is a survival course being offered in your area, check it out. It probably contains information on your neighborhood plants. If you live some distance from a desert, consider one of the courses offered by a variety of organizations in the southwest.

You should as well. Keep your traps and snares as simple as possible, and remember to design them for one species of animal. General-purpose snares are generally less effective. Desert critters often dwell in burrows and crevices or beneath overhangs. A series of snares in these locales will often produce for you.

Vary your diet. Don’t just eat plants and don’t just eat animals. Your body requires fats, fiber, carbohydrates, minerals, protein, and so on. No one type of food can provide for all your body’s needs.

Desert survival and Fatigue

The desert can be a demanding environment to put it lightly. Never — repeat — never underestimate the serious nature of desert survival and the plethora of problems it can create for you. Being in sound physical condition before it’s too late is one way of preventing or lessening the effects of fatigue. Never work so hard at a given task that exhaustion sets in. When the senses become dulled from exhaustion, your predicament takes a potential turn for the worse.

Work and travel should be performed during the coolest parts of the day and night. Early morning hours just after dawn are a good time to do whatever needs to be done, be it shelter building, food, and water procurement, fire preparation, signal construction, or what have you.

And be damn careful when traveling at night. Use a walking stick to probe ahead of you if there is insufficient moonlight or when traversing rugged terrain. Watch where you step. That branch you are about to trod upon may have fangs and a bad attitude. Avoid placing your hands in places you can not see into or onto, such as crevices and outcroppings.

Removing yourself from the problem is a proven method of survival. However, depending upon the situation, movement may not be the wisest course of action or even be possible. You must have a destination, and it must be attainable. You must have a logical and effective plan of attack. Think.

Where am I? Must I move to live, and if so, where will I move to, and how will I get there?

Desert Survival And Fatigue

You’ll love it when a plan comes together and be dead when it doesn’t. Simply put, be sure to engage your brain before placing your body into motion. Pain is a messenger of sorts, a messenger that must never be ignored or put off for a while. Pain tells you of injuries and malfunctions you have sustained. Tend to these immediately, or stand-by to become buzzard bait. Scrapes, punctures, blisters — no matter how minor in appearance — can all become life-threatening in a very short period of time.

One of the best ways of preventing pain is prior preparation and common sense employed as one. Common sense dictates that those new Danner’s you just picked up should be broken in before setting out on an outing. A light-colored, full-brimmed cotton hat is a good idea in desert country, as are a light pair of gloves. When moving at night, wear eye protection—no need to perforate an eyeball with a mesquite twig. Think about pain avoidance.

Self-aid skills are of paramount importance to the survivor. So, you weren’t using a walking stick when traveling at night, fell into an arroyo, and gave yourself a technicolor com-pound fracture of the right femur, eh? Little problems such as these are not good for morale. Not good at all.

Before you blackout from the Zen level of pain you are experiencing, you must stop the bleeding, which may be arterial since the femoral artery lies adjacent to the femur, and quickly gather splinting material. Then you must apply traction to prevent further damage due to crepitus (the grinding together of the bone ends) and achieve bone realignment. Then you must apply the splint properly and dress the wound to prevent additional damage and infection. Partner, with this type of wound, you only have a few moments to heal thyself. Could you?

Your first-aid kit had better be complete and present in your survival kit. You had better have taken some first aid courses. The next time, you had better use a walking stick.

Desert survival and Fear

Fear is a healthy emotion. It lets you know when you are in danger or are about to be. The fearless man is a myth. Every time that I strap on a parachute and find myself standing or sitting in a precarious position at the exit of some sort of aircraft, I am a trifle scared. A bit fearful. Somewhat frightened. Okay, I’m downright petrified! But that’s good because it means I recognize the situation as being potentially hazardous. The day I no longer feel that fear is the day I quit jumping.

Fear, when properly channeled, makes you act. You come across a seven-foot-long western diamondback rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox. It is ten feet away. You could just go around it, but despite your fear of this animal, you choose another course of action.

Selecting a hefty rock, you project it toward the vile beast in a manner designed to impede its further existence. The rock strikes, but does not kill the snake. Plan “B” is brought into action. You commence whomping the bejesus out of it with your walking stick. You kill it, skin it, cook it up, and chow down. Your fear of the snake did not cause you to act. Rather, it was your fear of continued hunger.

Self-confidence will help reduce your fear to a manageable level. An extensive acquisition of survival knowledge and practical experience will boost your self-confidence.

Recommended reading:  Exiling Fear in Survival Mode

Strangely enough, many survivors have described profound feelings of boredom during their survival episode. They had a difficult time staying busy, despite myriad tasks they could have performed to make their situation safer and more comfortable, though the latter is certainly the less important of the two. If you feel bored, you are not doing everything in your power to ensure your survival. You are not applying the “Pattern For Staying Alive” (first aid, signals, fire, food & water, and shelter) to its fullest extent. In short, you are lessening your chances of survival.

Productive action will also reduce if not completely eliminate the feeling of loneliness, despite the fact that you are quite alone. Indeed, idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Get off your butt and do something!

Temperature extremes are the norm in deserts, and a wise survivor must be prepared for them. That 125 degrees F. daily high may plummet to 40 degrees at night. And although only about 20 percent of the Earth’s land surface is made up of desert, there are plenty of them around.

Learn from desert people

Learn From Desert People

The Chihuahuan, Sonoran, Mojave, and the Great Basin are the primary deserts of North American, and the Kalahari, Sahara, Gobi, Arabian, Atacama-Peruvian, and Australian are the other major deserts of the world. Because of the temperature extremes, scarcity of water, and the general harshness of conditions in the deserts of our world, only about four percent of the world’s population live in them, and these are hardy people) indeed. The Bushmen of the Kalahari are a classic example of such people.

Desert people, in general, wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothing from head to foot. This protects them from not only the effects of the sun’s heat but blowing sand, insects, and sunburn as well. Sleeve cuffs are loose, and keep your trouser legs bloused. Dressing in this mode will create an area of raised humidity between your skin and clothing. This effect will help cool the body, and therefore reduce perspiration, thus reducing the chances of dehydration.

Just before sunrise, locate a spot to build your shelter. You may be able to find a natural shelter already built for you, but be sure to evict current residents before moving in. Arrange your shelter to allow whatever breeze nature provides you with to flow through it, thus cooling you down some. Avoid constructing shelters in dry streambeds. In the desert, they have a nasty way of filling up suddenly due to storms in the surrounding mountains. Desert flash floods take lives every year in this country.

In your kit, you should have sufficient material to create a two-layered roof with about 12 to 18 inches of space separating the two layers. This type of design will substantially reduce the temperature inside the shelter. Optimally, the outer layer of fabric should be white to reflect the sun’s rays, and the inner layer should be medium green or international orange for UV protection.

Either dig down into the desert floor 18 inches or so or build a sleeping platform about the same distance above the floor to further reduce your chances of becoming dehydrated via your body now being away from the heat of the desert floor. Stay away from large rocks, as they will reflect heat. On the other hand, those same rocks may provide you with radiant heat when the temperature starts to drop.


The desert, like any other environment, is not hostile. It is totally neutral, impassive. It doesn’t hate you, nor does it particularly like you. Hostility implies a certain level of aggression. In a survival situation, it is you who must be aggressive.

Become an ace in applying the “Pattern For Staying Alive,” those five vital areas of survival expertise — first/self-aid application, signal construction and use, fire building, food & water procurement, and shelter building. Believe in your abilities. Hate the situation, not your own initial carelessness or rotten luck—Foster a powerful will to live, a factor in itself that may save your life. A determined man, or woman, is a formidable foe. Nature likes that kind of attitude.

Useful resources to check out:

25 projects for your quarantined homestead

Learn how to Safeguard your Home against Looters

Knowledge to survive any medical crisis situation during a major disaster

The vital self-sufficiency lessons our great grand-fathers left us


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