This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I'll earn a small fee at no extra cost to you.*
As someone who grew up in Arizona, I can assure you that survival in the desert is a very different beast. The dry air sucks the moisture out of you so quickly, it can be difficult to stay hydrated even while working in your own backyard. Without water, you won’t survive in the desert for nearly as long as you would in a humid climate.
In a place where water is scarce and even the plants and animals struggle to stay alive, getting by without modern conveniences can be a real challenge. Whether you find yourself lost in a desert or living in a desert when disaster strikes, survival is going to require some hard work and a lot of ingenuity.
To help, here are 15 desert survival tips that could save your life.
1. Don’t Eat Too Much
The more food you eat, the more water you will require to survive. If water is scarce (as it most likely will be), you’ll want to only eat as much as you need to keep your energy up. Any more than that and you risk using too much of your precious water supply. In fact, if you have little to no water available and are just holding out for rescue then it is better if you do not eat at all.
2. Prepare for the Cold
If you’ve spend any time in the desert, you know the nights are every bit as cold as the days are hot. At first, this can be a welcome relief, but as the night wears on you may find yourself freezing cold. It’s important, therefore, to prepare for both the cold and the heat by having clothes that work for both extremes as well as a good shelter and the ability to build a fire. Another option is to…
3. Move at Night
It’s better to rest during the day and move at night. Not only does moving during the heat of the day increase your chances of becoming overheated, it also causes you to sweat, hastening dehydration. Try to find a shady area and sleep during the day so that you will be rested and ready to travel when night falls.
4. Wear Sunglasses
The desert sun reflecting off the sand can be extremely hard on your eyes. Not only will it spoil your night vision for hours into the night, it can also cause severe headaches and blurry vision. To avoid this, you will want to wear sunglasses if you have them. If you don’t, do your best to make a sun shield using your hat, cardboard, or whatever else you have available.
5. Keep Your Clothes on
It may be tempting to start shedding your clothes when the temperature climbs, but it’s better if you don’t. Exposing your bare skin to the sun hastens dehydration and puts you at risk of severe sunburns.
6. Cover Your Head
This might seem counterintuitive as most people cover their head to keep it warm, but if your head and it’s possibly dark hair is exposed to the sun all day, it is going to absorb a lot of heat and make it difficult for your body to stay cool. Ideally, you’ll want to cover your head with a light-colored hat or shirt. Speaking of which…
7. Wear Light Colors
Light colors reflect sunlight while dark colors absorb it. When keeping cool is a priority, the former is far more desirable than the latter.
8. Cover Your Mouth
The body loses a lot of moisture when you exhale, especially through the mouth. Try to breathe through your nose, or better yet, cover your mouth with a bandana or another article of clothing.
9. Watch for Floods
Floods may seem like the last thing you have to worry about in a desert, and 99% of the time this is true. However, when it does rain in the desert it rains hard, and flash floods are the norm. If you see thunderheads approaching, avoid dry washes (arroyos).
10. Wear Chapstick
Time spent in the desert without chapstick is certainly not going to be enjoyable. If you have chapstick available, you will definitely want to apply it frequently. If you do not have chapstick available, avoid licking your lips. The temporary relief will not be worth the long-term misery.
11. Find Water
Being stuck in the desert without an ample water supply is an incredibly dangerous situation. Thankfully, there are a few ways you can collect water in the desert. If it’s summertime, keep your eyes peeled for cactus fruit. Eating cactus fruits will help keep you hydrated, however, you’ll want to be very careful because too much of it could make you sick, dehydrating you even faster. So even if you find some cactus fruit, keep searching for water. Some ways to find water sources in the desert include:
1. Following animals to a water source. Watch for instances where multiple trails seem to converge in the same direction, especially downhill. Also, if you see lots of bees, mosquitoes, and other flying insects, there may be water nearby.
2. Search the shady side of canyons. If you live in the Northern hemisphere, search the Northern side of canyons for areas that are shaded through most of the day. (If you’re in the Southern hemisphere, search the Southern side.) You’re far more likely to find standing water here.
3. Look just beneath the surface of dried up creek beds. Obviously, this has a much better chance of working if it has rained recently (perhaps during Monsoon season). Find the lowest point of the creek bed where plants are growing, and dig. If you don’t find water within a foot of the surface, move on.
Or you could…
12. Build a Water Still
If you are unable to find a sufficient water source, you can collect some water by building a water still. To build a water still, you will want to dig a hole, fill it with vegetation, place a container in the middle of the hole, and cover the hole with plastic sheeting. Place rocks around the perimeter of the sheeting to hold it in place and put one small rock in the center of the sheeting directly above the container. As water evaporates from the vegetation, it will condense on the plastic sheeting and drip down into your container.
However, a single solar still will only get you a little bit of water, so I would only do this if you’re staying put and waiting for rescue. If you’re on the move, there are much better ways to gather water (see the previous tip). You should also only do this during twilight or nighttime, as you might lose more water through sweat while digging than you would collect from the still.
13. Don’t Sit Down
Lying down on the rocks or in the sand may seem like an intuitive way to conserve energy. However, the rocks and the sands in the desert are often upwards of 30 degrees warmer than the air, causing you to overheat much faster than you would if you were standing. In addition to this, poisonous snakes and scorpions can hide underneath rocks and beneath the sand. If you do need to stop for a rest, try to find a shaded area and carefully make sure no dangerous critters are already using it.
14. Travel in One Direction
Common wilderness survival advice is to go downhill until you find a creek or river, and then follow that until you find a road where you can flag down someone for help. But what if you’re in a large flat desert and there is no up, down, or creek (not even a dried up one)?
In that case, your best bet is to find North and then choose whichever direction is most likely to lead to civilization and stick with that direction. Avoid straying from that one direction or you’ll likely end up going in circles. Take breaks and find North again to make sure you’re still heading in the right direction. If you are able to survive long enough, you are bound to eventually find a road, a town, or some other means of rescue.
If you’re in an area with lots of hills and valleys, on the other hand, you’re better off staying put and waiting for rescue. The last thing you want to do is slip and break your leg.
15. Drink the Dew
Mountain Dew isn’t a good drink to survive in the desert, but morning dew is. In the early morning hours before the sun has risen, you should be able to collect dew that has gathered on nearby plants. Use a cloth or your shirt to soak up dew from plants, then squeeze it into your mouth or a container.
Drinking dew won’t provide much water, and it will only be available in the early morning hours before the blazing sun evaporates it, but in a situation where every drop counts, drinking the morning dew could be the difference between survival and dehydration.
Hopefully, you won’t ever find yourself stranded in the middle of the desert, but in case you do, these desert survival tips will mean the difference between life and death.