Here’s How to Survive in the Desert

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 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.

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.

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 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 Water 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. When you bug out, 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 a water source so keep your eyes open for:

  1. Groups of flocked animals.
  2. Don’t run from them, but carefully follow them. Bees will fly in a straight line from the hive to a water source.
  3. Look up for birds circling the air and watch for sudden dives.
  4. Gnats, flies and mosquitoes tend to swarm near water.

Look for Green Life – Green plant life means there is a water source near

  1. Greener is better. Look for the plants that have the deepest color. That’s a giveaway that water is near.

Dried River Beds & Canyons

  1. Dried up river beds is a source for water because not all water has dried up. If you dig deep enough you’ll be able to find some.
  2. 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

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

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 bug out bag to make this happen.  A 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.

What’s in Your Desert Bug Out Bag?

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 multiuse knife
  • Tweezers
  • First aid kit
  • Safety Pins
  • Water purification tablets
  • Extra shoelaces or clothesline rope
  • Large garbage bags x3
  • Straws

Here’s How to Keep Your Foods Fresh 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.

Do’s and Don’ts of Desert Survival

  1. Do plan your route and know which direction you’ll go.
  2. Do learn how to make a solar still. This skill will help you when you find yourself in a situation of low water supply.
  3. Do find shelter that is snake proof, scorpion proof and spider proof.
  4. Do make sure you find shelter frequently.
  5. Do cover your skin at all times, preferably with light colored cotton clothing.
  6. Don’t overexert yourself during the day.
  7. Don’t keep your mouth open, because it could easily dry out and induce thirst
  8. 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.
  9. 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
  10. Don’t push yourself to the limit. Know your limitations.

Common Desert Survival Myths That Could Actually Kill You!

  1. 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 face 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.
  2. Drink 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.
  3. The Two Stick Friction Fire Method – 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!
  4. Suck 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.

Bugging out can 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.

About Mira J. Ross

Mira has been prepping for 10 years. Living in the outskirts of metropolitan Atlanta with her 3 children, she's preparing not just for SHTF events but also for everyday emergencies.

One comment

  1. Avatar
    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!


    Snake Plisken

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