How to Survive in the Desert – The Ultimate Guide

Bugging out in the desert is very extreme, so being prepared for the grueling temps and terrain is very important. Before you do it, make sure you’ve researched the location you’re headed well in advance. If you rush headlong into the desert without enough skill and resources, you won’t last very long.

In fact, because of the punishing environment, your likelihood of survival without skill or resources is very slim. To increase your chances of surviving during a desert bug out is to research, get prepared, and go.

the Rum Desert in Jordan

People have survived in the desert for many years, relying completely on the land and the resources that were available to them.

The Native American Indians, for example, learned how to adapt to the land around them, building natural shelter and making use of the resources that were available to them.

They’ve been known to have adapted to living in the Mojave, Sonoran, Great Basin and Chihuahuan deserts. These deserts are among the harshest and most punishing in the country.

What Exactly is the Desert?

When you think of a desert, you might think only of a barren wasteland that’s hot, dry, and void of life.

While that can be true, a desert environment doesn’t have to be nearly as hostile as you might think.

Deserts can be extremely dangerous but it’s important to remember that the human race is well adapted to survive in deserts – some of the world’s first civilizations, after all, were in these environments!

A desert can be hot or cold, though most survival situations occur in warmer desert regions. The tips below will help you address every aspect of desert survival, from finding shelter to finding water – so that you can be as prepared as possible if you find yourself in such a situation.

pickup truck in desert

Bringing a Vehicle into the Desert

Are you bringing a car into the desert? If you are, make sure it has the ability to handle desert terrain. If it doesn’t have off road capabilities, it’s not a good idea to travel into the desert as it could leave you stranded.

You should also have some experience in navigating difficult desert terrain – just having a vehicle with four wheel drive doesn’t make you an excerpt in how to drive it!

Most desert survival situations start with someone who is in the desert and left stranded by an unreliable vehicle.

Make sure your car is in good working order, and that you are prepared for everything – bring extra gas, water, and oil. Pack some spare fan belts, a spare tire, and extra hoses. Learn how to make any repairs before you head out.

Sheltering in the Desert

Finding shelter is one of the most important tasks you’ll need to do. Locating and securing suitable shelter ranks right up there with finding water and food.

If you’ve packed a survival tent with you, just unpack it and set it up wherever you, preferably in a shaded area. If you can’t find a shady area to pitch your tent, make sure you cover it with a tarp to keep it cool inside.

If, for some reason, you don’t have a survival tent in your bag, you could find natural shelter or just build you one.

Find Natural Shelter – The best place to find shelter in the desert is in a shady place. Huge rock boulders and canyons in the shadow of a mountain are best. Anything that casts a shadow that can shield you from the sun is good shelter.

Build a Shelter – The main purpose of building shelter is to keep you safe from the elements, and in this case, the harsh heat of the desert. When doing it, it’s important that you find a place that allows for a breeze to pass through.

Find an area that’s flat and preferably has a rock or sturdy wall where you can construct an easy lean-to Some that are easy to create are:

  • Poncho Lean-To
  • Poncho Tent
  • Three Stick Teepee
  • A-Frame Poncho Tent
  • One-Man Shelter
  • Debris Hut
  • Below Ground Trench Shelter

Finding shelter is essential not only for nighttime sleep, but also during the day. A shade shelter will keep you out of direct sun and help you conserve energy and water.

While your immediate need will likely be for temporary shade, you can construct a better shelter as the sun’s rays start to get less intense at the end of the day.

For temporary shelter, look for even small amounts of shade cast from cacti or shrubs. You can also look for larger shade shelters like ravines or the northern sides of rock outcroppings.

Either way, get yourself out of the sun during the day, and travel or look for food only when it’s cooler, during the evening or early morning hours.

One other note on finding shelter – do not lie or sit directly on the ground. It can be about 30 degrees F warmer than the air temperature so you are going to find yourself sweating a lot more than necessary.

There’s also a greater likelihood of coming into contact with a snake or dangerous insect.

How To Find Water in the Desert

Finding Water in the Desert

A desert is defined by its lack of water. Therefore, it’s important that you think carefully about how and where you will find water if you find yourself in a survival situation in the desert.

Contrary to popular belief, not all cactus plants are good sources of water. In reality, a majority of cactus plants are poisonous, and drinking its water could either kill you or make you seriously ill.

Before you venture into the desert, it’s very important to know where your water sources are. But if you didn’t have time to adequately locate them, here are a few ways to find water:

Follow Animal Life

Animals tend to stay close to water sources, so keep your eyes open for:

  • Groups of flocked animals.
  • Bees. Bees will fly in a straight line from the hive to a water source. Don’t run from them, but carefully follow them.
  • Look up for birds circling the air and watch for sudden dives.
  • Gnats, flies and mosquitoes tend to swarm near water.
  • Burros and javelinas are two other types of animals that are exceptionally good at finding water and digging it up in creek beds – if you see these animals, follow them!

Look for Green Life

Green plant life means there is a water source nearby. Greener is better. Look for the plants that have the deepest color. That’s a giveaway that water is near.

Dried River Beds & Canyons

Dried up riverbeds are a source for water because not all water has dried up. If you dig deep enough you’ll be able to find some.

Upstream and tucked in a shadowy canyon you’ll possibly find water. Most canyons that stay shaded during the hottest parts of the days are home to a supply of water.

Look for Reflections

When you’ve exhausted all your options, find a high place and scope the terrain for reflections. Water reflects. Take note, and map your course to the water source.

Avoid Parlor Tricks

If you do a quick Google search, you’ll find all kinds of “hat tricks” that people say they can rely on to find and produce water in the desert.

One example is digging a solar still – while this is a technique that, in theory, does work, it’s going to take you more energy and produce more sweat (further dehydrating you) to dig a hole for a solar still than it’s worth in terms of how much water you will gain.

Instead, learn how to locate water through flights of birds, converging animals trails, and areas of green vegetation. This will be much more production.

Don’t Chug the Water

We almost titled this “don’t drink the water” – but that sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Of course, you should drink water. However, you shouldn’t chug it at the first sign of thirst. Instead, ration yourself.

Take steady (though not small – take a good drink so the water fully hydrates you) sips consistently throughout the day and monitor your urine for signs of dehydration (dark colored urine indicates dehydration).

Whenever you stumble upon water, be sure to think carefully about whether you want to actually drink it. It might not be potable, and chugging contaminated water is going to lead to severe consequences, like diarrhea, that will only further dehydrate you.

Now, if you are truly thirsty and have water, don’t ration it to the point of stupidity – lots of people have been found dead in the desert with water in their canteens. Drink if you’re thirsty, just don’t overdo it.

Plan Ahead for Water Needs

The best thing you can do to prepare for a survival situation, at least in terms of water, is to bring all the water you might need with you.

You will want to plan for at least one gallon of water per person per day, but keep in mind that this does not take into account cooking, bathing, pets, or any other needs – just basic hydration.

Getting Rescued In Case You’re Lost

If you happened to get lost, the single most important goal you should have is getting found and rescued. You can use certain items in your backpack to signal your position.

A signaling mirror or a Mylar blanket can be used as a reflecting device. Using these can signal people at great distances or who may be flying over in a plane. You could use a flare gun if you’ve packed one. Also, smoke signals from burning dried up brush could serve as an excellent method.

Any signals that you use should be easily distinguishable from nature. A mirror, therefore, is one of the best options for the desert, since it can be seen for miles.

Try to flash it at aircrafts, dust clouds you see (which could be vehicles), and keep scanning the horizon. You can use a flare at night if you think it might be seen, but use these conservatively.

Wearing bright-colored clothing while trekking in the desert is another way to ensure you will be seen if you are lost.

Yelling is not a great option when it comes to signalling. It will be difficult to hear and to discern from natural noises. If you use a gunshot or a car horn to signal for help, time these in bursts of thee, since just a single blast can sound like a bird’s cry from a distance.

If you have a vehicle with you, stay with it. You can tie a bandanna to the antenna to signal for help and as such a large object, your car has a much higher likelihood of being seen than you do.

If you do decide to hike out – more on this later – avoid walking during the hottest times of day. If you leave your car behind, leave a note indicating which direction you travelled in as well as the day and time you left.

What’s in Your Backpack?

Here’s a list of some of the items you should consider packing into your desert bug out bag.

  • Water (Emergency water pouches and boxes are lightweight)
  • Trekking or flap hat
  • MREs & other freeze dried snacks
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Poncho or a light wind jacket
  • Emergency Mylar blanket
  • Survival Mylar tent
  • Rainproof Reflective Tarp
  • Gloves
  • Long-sleeve shirt and Long pants
  • Batteries and Flashlights
  • Compass
  • Compact Mirror
  • Matches, Flint Starter, and Dryer lint
  • Extra food, such as granola bars & candy
  • Pocket Knife or Swiss multi use knife
  • Tweezers
  • First aid kit
  • Safety Pins
  • Water purification tablets
  • Extra shoelaces or clothesline rope
  • Large garbage bags x3
  • Straws

Something that doesn’t receive nearly enough mention when it comes to desert survival is a hat. One of the biggest dangers is exposure (both to the sun during the day and to the extreme cold at night), along with dehydration.

Staying in the sun too long can cause you to die both from exposure and from dehydration so it’s important to prevent how much of your skin actually comes into contact with it.

Long sleeve clothing might sound counterintuitive when it’s that hot out, but it can actually help keep you cooler and limit the risk of sunburn.

Even if you must wear short sleeves, be sure to keep your head covered. When the top of your head is exposed to the sun for long periods, your body will have to work harder to keep itself cool – so cover up!

If you are out in the desert and find that you’ve forgotten a hat, use an extra bit of clothing or really anything else you can find to fashion a makeshift hat until you can get out of the sun.

It can also be helpful to keep your mouth shut. Moving slowly and trying not to break a sweat is a good way to conserve moisture in your body but sometimes, this just isn’t necessary.

Covering your mouth with a bandanna or another piece of clothing can help slow water loss.

What about a cell phone? Bring one with you, but don’t rely on it. They rarely work in remote areas. If you do happen to have service, though, a phone can save your life.

Another good alternative is a satellite phone, which will communicate directly with orbiting communications satellite,s and may actually work when and where there is no cell phone reception.

Something else you can bring with you is a CB or ham radio. These often work in very remote locations, but it’s important to note that ham radios require a license to operate along with some training. However, in an emergency, you may use a HAM to call for help.

You can carry a handheld GPS device to help you navigate, or even a personal locator beacon, which can transmit your location to the nearest rescue service if you find yourself in an emergency or state of distress.

Keeping Your Foods Fresh – and Finding Food – in the Desert

When you’re in the desert and bugging out, the key to keeping the foods you have fresh and preventing spoilage is to keep them in a cool and dark place. Here are some good ways to keep your food fresh and keep the animals out:

  1. Find a cool spot, maybe a canyon that’s in the shadow of a mountain,
  2. Dig out a deep hole to create a makeshift root cellar. This deep hole will be considerably cooler than the surface and are great places to store your foods when you live in extreme temperatures.
  3. Line the hole with the large garbage bags
  4. Place your edible foods in the bag,
  5. Seal it
  6. Place a heavy rock over the bag
  7. Cover with the desert sand.

If you bring food with you, don’t eat it all at once. The more you eat, the thirstier you will become – and of course, you’ll eat up all the food stores you saved, too. Instead, just eat enough to keep the hunger pains away and to keep your energy up.

If you have no water, try to hold off on eating as long as you can. You can survive longer without food than without water and the last thing you want to do is make yourself any thirstier!

Don’t Forget About the Fire

Building a fire to stay warm might be the last thing on your mind when it comes to surviving the desert, but there are lots of reasons why it should be near the top.

A fire will help keep you warm as night falls. It can also be used to signal for help and to help you purify water and cook food. It also provides comfort and makes the night less frightening.

There aren’t too many animals that can threaten your survival in most North American deserts, but in many deserts around the world, a fire is essential when it comes to keeping predators away.

Plan ahead to build a fire – learn friction methods like the bow and drill and practice them before you need them so that you know how to do them in a survival situation.

What If You Are Lost in the Desert?

There are some survival situations you might find that you haven’t entered into internationally – rather than choosing to try to survive in the desert, you might have instead gotten lost in the wild and aren’t sure what to do next.

First, don’t panic. Keep your cool, as panicking is a surefire way to make your situation worse. Take a moment to take a deep breath and consider your options.

Look at your reserves. How much food and water do you have? Then, decide on a plan.

Only consider options that directly ensure your health and safety – don’t worry about things like, “well, I have to be at work tomorrow, so I need to be out of the wilderness by then.”

Entertaining unproductive thoughts like this is not only going to not get you out of the wilderness so you can be at work tomorrow, but it’s also not going to save your life.

If you don’t know exactly where you are and aren’t sure how to get back home, you may want to stay put until you can be rescued or can figure out which direction to head in next.

Once you’ve figured out where you might need to go and are ready to make your move, be sure to make a mark so you can recall your original location.

You can indicate your location in any way you’d like – use a rock, use a stick, use anything you can find that you’ll be able to see later on. If you’re able to, leave a message for someone who might stumble upon it later.

As you start to move, keep an eye on a distant object in the direction in which you’d like to head.

This landmark will help you stay on track and prevent you from getting too turned around. You can leave tiny rock cairns as you travel so that you don’t find yourself walking in circles.

Do’s and Don’ts of Desert Survival

  • ✅ Do plan your route and know which direction you’ll go.
  • ✅ Do learn how to make a solar still. This skill will help you when you find yourself in a situation of low water supply.
  • ✅ Do find shelter that is snake proof, scorpion proof and spider proof.
  • ✅ Do make sure you find shelter frequently.
  • ✅ Do cover your skin at all times, preferably with light colored cotton clothing.
  • ❌ Don’t overexert yourself during the day.
  • ❌ Don’t keep your mouth open, because it could easily dry out and induce thirst
  • ❌ Don’t forget to watch where you’re stepping. A lot of accidental bites and falls could be prevented if a person looks before they step.
  • ❌ Don’t drink your own pee. By the time you feel the need to resort to drinking your own urine, it is more than likely super concentrated with waste byproducts leaving our body. Concentrated urine is toxic
  • ❌ Don’t push yourself to the limit. Know your strengths and weaknesses.

Dangerous Desert Survival Myths

  • Save and Ration Your Water Supply – It’s a noble idea to think that rationing your supply will help your survival, but in reality, drinking more than you’ve put aside for the day isn’t really going to matter, especially if you’re faced with an eventual depletion of your supply. Your main priority is to find shaded cover and exert as little energy as possible. The less you sweat, the more water you can conserve. So if you find yourself needing to drink more water after you’ve found a shady spot for shelter, that’s fine. Drink, rest, and move at night.
  • Drinking Your Own Urine to Rehydrate – Again, this seems like the most logical thing to do when you can’t find any water and you’re dehydrating to death. But unfortunately this can prove fatal if you drink your own urine when your body temperature is already high. It’ll put stress on your kidneys which will in turn cause your body to be stressed. And a stressed body leads to more overheating. It’s a deadly cycle. Plus, dehydrated urine is urine concentrated with the body’s waste products. So hold off as long as you can from drinking your urine.
  • The Two Stick Friction Fire Methods – Simply put, it takes a lot of energy to start a friction fire, and if you’re already dehydrated from trekking through the desert during the heat of the day, you’ll lose more sweat and dehydrate more by attempting to start a friction fire. It’s suggested that you carry at least 3 types of fire starters on your person (Matches, lighters, or flint starter). Lint from a dryer basket is an excellent fire starter!
  • Sucking Venom Out of a Snake Bite – You could actually damage the region of the snake bite even more by sucking on it. Regardless of what the movies show for the treatment of a snake bite, cutting and sucking the venom out of the bite is never a good idea. Some people also believe that it’s best to apply a tourniquet to stop the venom from spreading, but this also is a deadly myth. The best way to handle a snake bite is to wash, cover, and get medical attention.

Surviving in the desert will put even the most skilled survivalists to the test. It’ll put a strain on your body, your mind, and on your emotions. Be sure to know what you need to know before you venture into the desert.

The best tip? Stay calm. In any survival situation, the worst thing you can do is to panic. As long as you can calmly assess your situation and plan out your next steps, rather than jumping to rush decisions, you should be able to get yourself out of your position.

Conclusion

Going through a desert be a learning experience. With the proper preparation, it can put another notch on your experience belt. Without the right skill and resources, it’ll turn out to be a hard lesson learned. Which lesson it turns out to be depends solely on you.

The desert is one of the most difficult environments to conquer. Even though it’s difficult, it isn’t impossible. People have survived for decades in the punishing desert, and you can too if you prepare well for it.

updated 05/17/2021 by Rebekah Pierce

1 thought on “How to Survive in the Desert – The Ultimate Guide”

  1. Patrick J Flynn

    Very good tips for desert survival, especially for finding water. The water purification tablets are fine but if you have a small lightweight pot to boil water in I’d suggest that over the chemical taste of treated water.

    It helps if you reside in the desert and explore your surroundings within a 20 mile radius of home. You’d be pleasantly surprised at how much water is available in the SW deserts. I have located dozens of water sources like cattle ponds, caves, springs and creeks in Pinal County AZ where I lived for over 20 years. Most of these water sources were very well known to the Natives and ranchers.

    As for food there is an abundance of it in the desert if you know what you are looking for. Fruits from the Saguaro cactus are tasty and nutritious. You need a long stick ( like a rib from a dried out cactus ) to knock them loose. I also liked to cook up Bear Paw cactus over a fire. You needed to scrape off the spines before roasting. Seeds from the jojoba bush a great for making coffee after a short roast. If you’e in a higher desert you can harvest pinon nuts from pine trees. At most watering holes there are cattails and fish to catch.

    The one most important thing to be mindful of is DO NOT camp in wash ( dry creek bed)! You can have a huge monsoon storm 50 miles away and not be aware of it until a 5 foot tall wave of muddy water comes rolling through your camp.

    And one last item: people don’t realize how cold the desert can get particularly in winter. You might have an 60 degree daytime temp and 20 degree nightime temp. Here’s how I would handle the freezing temps. When you are done traveling for the day and have cooked you food over your campfire throw on some more wood and let it cook down to coals. Meanwhile, take a digging stick or shovel and dig a trench 5 foot long and 2 feet wide to a depth of about 12″. Rake the coals into the trench ( you could also heat rocks as well ) and cover. You’ll be warm all night

    Good luck on your desert survival my friends!

    Best,

    Snake Plisken

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