Last Updated on January 16, 2024

Survival in the desert is no easy feat. This is true both among the dunes of the Sahara desert in North Africa and in the rocky fields of the Sonoran desert in North America.

Staying alive in such a hostile enviroment requires a lot of preparation. The hostile environment demands resilience and adaptability, presenting challenges not found elsewhere.

Temperatures in the desert can reach values that reach up to 130-140F (40-60°C) degrees in the shade, while at ground level the sand can reach up to 80 degrees.

The heat that you feel when walking in a hot desert is indescribable and overwhelming.

On a normal day in the desert the temperatures are suffocating, with these temperatures death occurs mainly due to heat stroke and dehydration.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the opposite problem occurs at night: temperatures drop sharply and quickly and will leave you dying of cold if you are not properly dressed.

And the desert is also subject to all sorts of extreme weather, from flash floods to thunderstorms to tornados.

As far as wildlife goes, depending on your location, you may find yourself face to face with dangerous snakes, scorpions, or wild dogs (such as the coyote).

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Desert survival: wild cat eats prey
Desert cat eating prey.

How to Survive in the Desert

  1. Conserve energy. Try to move only during the cooler hours of the day, such as at dawn and dusk. Avoid peak sun hours in the afternoon when the heat is at its strongest. This will help to prevent heat stroke and dehydration.
  2. Cover up. Protect every inch of skin from the sun by wearing long sleeves and trousers, closed-toe shoes, and a hat or headscarf. Your eyes are also sensitive to UV rays, so sunglasses can help to protect them as well. This will help to prevent sunburn, which can be very painful and can make it difficult to move around.
  3. Find shelter. Setup a camp where you can spend the night. Start a campfire for heat and cooking. Avoid camping in depressions that could quickly flood in the case of a storm. This will provide you with a safe place to sleep and a source of warmth and light.
  4. Find water. Look for any sign of vegetation, such as cacti or other plants, and follow it until you find a source of water. Always boil it or use a purifier before you drink to avoid potentially getting sick. This is essential for survival as the human body can only last for a few days without water.
  5. Find food. Many types of desert plants, including cacti, are edible. Fruits, seeds, and flowers can also be eaten. Hunting animals for food is possible, but it may be best to conserve energy for something else if you are in a survival situation. It’s important to know that in the desert you may have to survive with very little, so it’s important to know how to find food, water and shelter with nothing.

Desert Survival Guide

During the day, preventing heatstroke and dehydration should be your main concern.

Both phenomena occur very quickly that’s why in case you find yourself having to survive in the desert the ideal solution is to move as little as possible and not to make efforts, you must find a shady place to shelter from the hot sun and wait for help.

If you are stranded in the desert on board of a broken-down vehicle, it is advisable to wait inside the passenger compartment, so that there is a better chance of being glimpsed and rescued.

But if you are not sure that help will arrive, you will have to get out exploring and it’s best to only move outside in the desert in the early morning (from 4 to 10 am) and late afternoon or evening (from 5 to 10 pm), when the temperatures are less extreme.

Covering up

Always cover your head and neck to keep your brain clear and avoid sunstroke. If you do not have a head covering, use any cloth or piece of fabric (even torn from your own clothes), preferably light or white (dark colors, especially black, capture more sunlight and heat up sooner).

To escape sunburn you must cover the whole body without leaving areas of skin exposed to sunlight.

If you have enough, re-apply sunscreen every two hours or so, and try to keep your forehead chill by making your hat or headscarf wet.

If the situation becomes desperate and you are feeling like you may be suffering from a heat stroke, consider using your own urine to wet your forehead.

Don’t forget to take care of your feet, as you will need them for movement.

Take regular breaks to rest and remove sand and other debris from your shoes.

Do not ever walk barefoot in a desert, to avoid both scorching your feet and getting stung by animals.

Desert Orienteering

The lack of any point of reference such as trees, buildings, light poles, etc. makes any measure of distance illusory.

In fact, as when you are at sea, you have to multiply distances at least 3 times.

In a sandy desert with dunes, the dunes are constantly changing due to the wind, so you should never take them as a totally reliable reference point.

When you find green areas in the desert you can certainly find water and food, and many times human settlements.

There are cacti in America that you can rely on for orientation. The so-called “compass cacti” always tend to grow oriented/bent to the southwest.

Hardly any watercourses can be found in the desert, but if you spot a dry river following it you might reach a real river, and eventually civilization.

If you are in a rocky desert, you can take advantage of the shadow cast by a rock formation.

For example, you can find some shade and relief at the bottom of a canyon, and if you are lucky you can also find water, in fact at the foot of a canyon you can sometimes see some streams that bring water to some small rivers.

Remember that bees and mosquitoes always live near water sources, if you encounter any follow their direction.

Surviving in the desert
Desert survival & bushcrafting

Finding water

During peak sun hours in the desert, the human body can easily lose about 1 liter of water per hour through sweating. Needless to say, staying hydrated is of vital importance.

Plants need water to survive, which is why even the slightest signs of vegetation can let you know that water may be near.

If in an Asian desert you see a tamarisk plant (tamerix) it could be useful to know that this plant needs a lot of water to survive, therefore in the vicinity you could find an aquifer or water. Same goes for cypress.

Be careful if you find large pools of water at the base of canyons and rock formations, as they may be contaminated, as they are stagnant (perhaps they accumulated during the last rains and have been stagnating there for months).

You can check with a stick and see if there are any dead animals in the waterhole, if you find any it will confirm the theory that the water is decomposed and not safe to drink.

Drinking contaminated water could cause you dysentery, if not worse, and such a gastrointestinal problem in the desert would kill you for sure, as it would lead to immediate dehydration.

If you have the option to do so, always boil any water you find in the desert before drinking it.

When you are dehydrated you must drink slowly and in small sips because ingesting too much water very quickly could cause vomiting, dehydrating you further.

Desert Survival: finding food in the desert - edibel prickly pear cactus
Edible Prickly Pear Cactus.

Hunting and foraging for food

Food in the desert is very scarce, from time to time you can see animals such as rabbits, lizards, prairie dogs rats, snakes and it is easier to find them near water sources even small or hidden in the rare bushes.

Ideally, you should have brought some desert-friendly snacks with you.

Some plants are edible and you can consume fruits, seeds, flowers, shoots and bark.

In the American deserts, you can find edible prickly pear cacti, which are commonly consumed in some cuisines like Mexican.

You can eat both the pads (after removing thorns) and fruits, and it’s safe to eat them raw.

In a rocky desert, bird nests and therefore eggs can be found in the cracks of the highest rocks.

Finding egg shells, bird defecation and feathers indicate the presence and also the location of a nest.

If you find an egg check it is not pierced and then eat it, you can also ingest the egg shell which is very rich in calcium.

It is however advisable to cook it and never eat it raw because you could catch salmonella.

Cooking an egg in the desert is very simple, as the temperature of the ground can reach 180°F (80°C) degrees, if you find a rock or a large stone, it will certainly be hot, so crack open the egg on it and it will cook in no time as if you were using a skillet.

Dusk is the ideal time to go hunting. Snakes are nocturnal predators and at dusk they leave their cool shelters to go look for some prey.

To capture a snake you can hit it on the head with rocks to stun it, when it appears disoriented you approach it lightning fast and with a stick hold it down just below the head, then with a large stone crush its skull.

Venomous snakes are also edible, as long as you discard the head where their venomous glands are located.

Cook the meat of any animal you may hunt using the power of the sun. The largest native lizard in the US, the Gila monster, is also extremely venomous and has a powerful bite, and you should leave it alone as it is a vulnerable species.

Surviving in the desert at night
Surviving in the desert at night

Surviving in the Desert at Night

The nights in the desert are very cold and can leave you unprepared. Nighttime temperatures can reach close to freezing point, so it is necessary to try to light a fire, in order to warm up and keep any predators away, before it gets dark.

The temperature difference between day and night can be as high as 40 degrees.

If the internal temperature of your body drops below 35 degrees in a short time you risk hypothermia, therefore at night in the desert it is necessary to wear additional clothing and cover up as much as possible to stay warm.

Desert travel at night

Some people wonder whether it’s better to travel at night in the desert so to avoid becoming fatigued due to the heat of the day.

Truth is, the best time to move in the desert is at dawn or at dusk, where temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold.

At night orienteering becomes especially difficult and there is an increased risk of being attacked by wild animals, so it is best to stay put and conserve energy.

Low visibility also increases your chance of injury, and you may find yourself in the midst of flash foods or sudden storms.

In a desert survival situation, it is better to setup a camp and rest at night, and to resume travelling at dawn.

Starting up a campfire

In any survival situation lighting a fire always gives a great psychological help, and it can help keeping you warm in the cold desert nights.

To create a campfire you can use brushwood, twigs and dry plants.

If you don’t have a lighter, a match, a flint or a tinder box, you can use the lens of your glasses or the face of your watch or the bottom of a bottle or a piece of glass, or anything that can concentrate the sun’s rays on the pile.

If you have a heatproof container, you can use the fire to cook any food or water you may have found as to reduce the risks of getting sick from them.

Desert Survival Gear Packing List
Desert Survival Packing List

Desert Survival Kit and Bushcraft Gear

First Aid Kit

A desert first aid kit must include wound care items and treatments for burns and scalds, as well as all the essential travel medication you would find in a traditional kit.

In addition to that, a Snake Bite kit with a venom extractor sunction pump may come in handy.

Surviveware Survival First Aid Kit
Surviveware Survival First Aid Kit
First aid kit for desert hiking and backpacking

Rapid Care First Aid Unitized First Aid Kit
First aid kit for those who live in a desert area

Ven-Ex Snake Bite Kit
Venom extractor against snakes, scorpions, spiders, bees and wasps.
Read more: Best first aid kits for desert

Bushcraft Knife or Multitool

In any survival situation, holding a sturdy two-bladed knife or multitool can be extremely practical.

It has a multitude of potential uses including hunting, foraging, cutting, cooking, and so on.

LifeStraw Water Purifier

When you are stranded in the desert without water, you are gonna have to rely on whatever source of water you may encounter in order to stay hydrated.

This can be risky because a stream of water may be contaminated and make you sick, which in turn will make you more dehydrated.

LifeStraw technology allows you to remove 99.99+% of all bacteria, viruses and protozoa in water found in nature, e.g. streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, etc.

Tinder-quik Fire Tabs and a bunch of Lighters

Finding wood and other dry material to burn for setting up a campfire can be challenging in a desert where vegetation is scarce.

Tinder-quik fire tabs make for a great addition to your desert survival kit, as nights in the desert can get very chill.

Desert Survival Tips

  • When the internal temperature of the human body rises above 100.9°F (40°C), you are at risk of a heat stroke. Your brain may be affected and your body may shake with convulsions, putting you at risk of entering a coma. To prevent this, it is important to stay hydrated and look for shade during the hottest hours of the day.
  • If your urine is of a very dark orange color, it means that your body is dehydrating. To avoid this, it is important to drink water frequently, even if you don’t feel thirsty.
  • When you find shady areas to shelter from the sun, you should always check for snakes or other venomous animals. They also seek relief in the shade during the hottest hours. In order to check if there are any animals present, it will be enough to throw some stones in the area and see if there are any movements. For example, snakes hate strong vibrations and very little is needed to put them on the run.
  • Dawn is the ideal time to move in the desert, since the cold of the night will have cooled the ground.
  • When you wake up it is always advisable to check your footwear, clothing and equipment for scorpions as they love to hole up in cool, shady places. If a scorpion walks on you, there is only one way to catch it, and that is from the tail, keeping the stinger under control, but you must be very quick; the end of the scorpion’s tail is composed of tiny hairs that detect even the slightest movement in the surrounding air. However the stinger is its only weapon, once neutralized the arthropod becomes harmless.
  • If you find yourself in the desert with nothing, it is important to try and find a source of water. Look for signs of life, such as birds or plants, as they may indicate the presence of water nearby. If possible, try to signal for rescue by making a fire or using a mirror to reflect sunlight. Stay calm and conserve your energy, as survival in the desert is often a waiting game.

Desert Camping Essentials Checklist

Read Also: Desert Travel Guide logo icon

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