Part of being ready to survive is understanding the environment you’ll be surviving in. Every environment has advantages and disadvantages that savvy preppers must be aware of.
But, if there’s one environment that’s harsher and deadlier than all the others, it has to be the desert. Desert survival is always a grueling test or endurance, one that will suffer no mistake, no arrogance and no weakness.
Deserts will test your physical, mental and emotional limits, and even the most sound survival techniques must be modified with desert survival specifically in mind.
To help you do that, I am bringing you a list of 15 dangers that you must be aware of in the desert.
Table of Contents
Deserts are utterly synonymous with intense, relentless heat, and this extreme high temperature poses a serious threat to your survival.
The scorching sun overhead and high air temps will cause profuse sweating which can quickly lead to dehydration.
This intense stress on the body can cause symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, and even life-threatening conditions like heat stroke.
In addition to the heat, direct exposure to the sun can lead to severe sunburns. These burns not only cause considerable discomfort, but can also lead to further complications, notably increased moisture loss, skin damage, and worse.
Surviving in such harsh conditions mandates proper clothing. Loose, clothing that covers all of your skin can help protect against sunburn and also aid in the evaporation of sweat, keeping the body cooler.
While deserts are rightly known for extreme heat, they can also be dangerously cold! Nighttime temperatures in the desert can plummet dramatically, making hypothermia and death from exposure a genuine threat.
This drastic drop in temperature is so counterintuitive to what most people expect from a desert environment it can catch many off guard.
Adequate cold-weather clothing and shelter become mandatory when facing these nighttime temps.
Layering clothing can help preserve body heat, while a well-insulated shelter can provide protection from the icy winds and help retain generated heat.
It’s essential to remember that the desert is a land of extremes, and surviving it requires preparation for extreme temps high and low!
3. Temperature Shock
Temperature shock is a phenomenon that occurs whenever someone experiences a precipitous, rapid change in temperature, and it poses yet another danger in desert environments.
In the desert, the ambient temperatures can swing from extremely high during the day to frigidly low at night, and vice versa, very quickly.
Experiencing such swift temperature changes can lead to a form of physiological stress; temperature shock. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, including nausea, confusion, loss of muscular control and even loss of consciousness.
This not only further intensifies the health risks associated with the harsh desert environment normally, but also increases the likelihood of accidents and mishaps due to impaired judgment or physical incapacity.
And again, the best way to mitigate the effects of temperature shock is by dressing in layers.
This allows for easy adjustment to changing temperatures on demand, providing warmth during the cold desert nights and the ability to shed layers during the heat of the day.
Sandstorms are another iconic peril that one may encounter in the desert at different times of year. These natural phenomena occur when high winds lift large amounts of sand into the air, creating a dense cloud that dramatically reduces visibility.
The dangers of a sandstorm are many: The most immediate threat is to your respiratory system; inhaling the fine sand particles can lead to lung damage or suffocation outright.
Visibility is also significantly reduced, often to zero, making it incredibly easy to become disoriented and lose your way. For groups traveling together, a sandstorm can easily lead to separation, increasing the risk of getting lost in the vast desert.
Furthermore, the high winds can turn otherwise benign objects into deadly projectiles, posing a legitimate physical threat. In such situations, finding shelter as quickly as possible and protecting your eyes and lungs becomes paramount.
It’s also advisable to stay low to the ground or behind solid cover, reducing the risk of being hit by flying debris.
5. Flash Floods
Flash floods are an ironic sort of threat in the desert. These events occur when sudden and intense rains, either nearby or far off, send torrents of water rushing through natural watercourses and low-lying areas.
The speed and intensity of these floods can prove lethal, sweeping victims away, drowning them, or crushing them.
Despite the arid conditions typically associated with deserts, and despite what a seeming godsend a literal wall of fresh water might seem otherwise, flash floods are surprisingly common and result in many fatalities each year.
The danger lies in their unpredictability and the rapidity with which they can transform a seemingly safe area into a deadly trap.
Even the most experienced desert explorers must remain vigilant and aware of the potential for flash floods, and you must be prepared to get to higher ground anytime you are in a low-lying area, canyon or arroyo.
Dehydration is perhaps the most constant and relentless killer in desert environments. The extremely dry conditions endemic to deserts can quickly desiccate, or dry out, anything.
This, combined with the intense heat common in such regions, means that your body’s requirement for water becomes drastically increased.
Failing to meet this demand can have serious, and rapidly fatal, consequences. Dehydration can set in within hours in the desert, leading to symptoms like dizziness, confusion, cramping, and fatigue, which can severely impair your ability to seek help or find resources.
Ultimately, dehydration will cause death in a desert, and faster than anywhere else on Earth. Thus, carrying and planning to provide an adequate water supply is one of the most critical aspects of desert survival.
Hyponatremia is a serious health condition that can occur in the desert due to excessive sweating and the subsequent replacement of lost minerals with water alone.
It represents a critically low level of sodium, or salt, in the blood. Sodium is an electrolyte, and it plays a vital role in maintaining the balance of water in and around your cells.
In extreme heat conditions like deserts, one can lose salt through sweat. If this lost salt isn’t adequately replaced, it can lead to hyponatremia.
The symptoms of hyponatremia can be subtle at first but can escalate quickly. Early warning signs are much like those of dehydration alone and will compound them, including headache, fatigue, nausea, and in severe cases, confusion and seizures. It may also lead to unconsciousness and coma.
Thus, while water is utterly essential for hydration, equally crucial is the replenishment of electrolytes, including salt.
You must ensure a balanced intake of both while surviving in a desert. Electrolytes can be taken in with food or with supplements you mix with your water.
Photokeratitis, often referred to as “sand blindness,” is one danger in the desert you might not expect…
It’s essentially a sunburn of the cornea, the clear front surface of the eye, caused by intense and prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from direct and reflected sunlight.
Deserts, with their near-constant, unobstructed sunlight and highly reflective sandy terrain, are prime locations for this condition to occur.
The symptoms of photokeratitis can be extremely painful. They include redness, a gritty feeling in the eyes, extreme sensitivity to light, and excessive tearing.
In severe cases, it can cause temporary loss of vision or near-blindness. This will obviously severely hamper your ability to navigate or perform other tasks, making your chances of survival dubious at best.
You can protect your eyes with wrap-around sunglasses or goggles, or by crafting improvised eye protection.
Deserts are commonly associated with solitude, a stereotype they have earned. Deserts are among the most uninhabited regions on Earth and for good reason.
The immensely harsh conditions of heat, dryness, and sparse vegetation make it totally unsuited for human habitation in the first place! This isolation factor becomes a serious threat unto itself when emergencies occur.
In such unforgiving regions, help is generally many, many miles away, if not completely unavailable.
When things go wrong, even on a short-term basis, the likelihood of encountering someone to assist you, the proverbial Good Samaritan, is extremely low.
This stark reality makes survival in the desert a true test of your endurance and resourcefulness. You are essentially your own rescue team, and must rely solely on your skills, knowledge, and preparedness to make it out alive.
Disorientation is yet another insidious danger that lurks in the beguilingly beautiful desert landscape. Deserts, by their nature, are often featureless or nearly so.
The endless stretches of sand dunes or sparse, rocky terrain can look strikingly similar from all angles, making it incredibly easy to lose your bearings.
Without distinctive landmarks to guide you, it’s an easy thing to get turned around. Even with navigational aids, without an expert understanding of the area and terrain, you might find yourself lost in that endless sea of sameness.
This can lead to wandering aimlessly or in circles, which puts you on a certain countdown to dehydration, exhaustion, and exposure. Therefore, mastering desert navigation techniques before venturing into such an environment is of paramount importance.
Mirages are a fascinating but, of course, potentially dangerous optical phenomenon common in deserts. They are formed due to the refraction of light, caused by temperature variations in different layers of air.
This bending of light creates the illusion of water or distant objects, playing tricks on the observer’s eyes.
In the harsh desert, where every step counts, this can lead you off course when you can least afford to waste time, energy, and resources.
Especially when you’re already tired and stressed, the deceptive appearance of a pool of water or an oasis may tempt you to deviate from your path, only to realize that it was merely an illusion.
It’s crucial to understand this phenomenon and not underestimate the impact of mirages on your navigation and survival strategy.
Deserts around the world are home to a variety of wildlife, including many venomous snakes. All such species of snake have adapted to thrive in the harsh desert environment, and they pose a deadly threat to those unprepared for an encounter with them.
Many desert snakes are nocturnal, seeking shelter from the blazing sun during the day and coming out at night when temperatures drop.
This means they could be attracted to sources of warmth at night, such as your body heat or your campfire.
Inadvertently stepping on or disturbing these venomous inhabitants while setting up camp or moving around at night can lead to life-threatening snake bites- envenomation with no hope of a medical intervention!
Scorpions are another creepy-crawly concern in desert environments: Small, silent and easily going unnoticed until it’s too late.
Many species found in various deserts around the world are highly venomous, and a sting from one of these can cause severe illness or even death outright.
Even the stings of less deadly species can be life-threatening if you’re already weakened by dehydration or other health issues attendant with desert survival.
While many people disproportionately fear scorpions, it’s important to remember that they typically only sting in self-defense.
Avoiding accidental encounters is always your best defense: Always check your shoes and bedding before use, employ nets or zipping tents to keep scorpions out, and don’t leave packs or cargo out that they can infiltrate. And be extra careful when lifting rocks or other objects…
14. Lack of Food
Deserts are indeed places of scarcity. Characterized as they are by extremely low levels of rainfall, this leads to sparse vegetation and subsequently little animal life.
For us, this makes finding any food in the desert a daunting task, even for those fluent in desert survival lore. The few animals that do inhabit these regions are often nocturnal, hiding during the day to avoid the extreme heat.
Edible plants are rare, and many that do survive in these conditions aren’t safe to eat under any circumstances.
Bringing enough food, knowing how to ration it properly, and making maximum use of every, single edible calorie might make the difference between life and death.
15. Spoilage of Supplies
Making a dire food situation even worse, food spoilage is a significant concern. The intense heat can quickly deteriorate your food supplies, turning what was once nourishment into a potential health risk.
And don’t forget those extreme temperature shifts: These dramatic changes in temperature can further accelerate the spoilage of even well-preserved foods.
Dried or freeze-dried foods may fare better, but even these are not immune to the effects of the desert. It’s important to consider this when packing rations for a desert journey or survival kit and plan accordingly.
Use insulated containers whenever possible, choose items with heavy-duty packaging, keep food out of direct sunlight at all times, and consume the most perishable items first to minimize the risk of spoilage.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.