Art of Staying Alive: 

The Desert Edition

By David Daly

Around the globe, deserts offer some of Earth's most breathtaking scenery and natural wonders. From the shifting sands of the Sahara to the peaceful alien-like beauty of the Mojave's Joshua Trees, deserts draw in travelers from all corners of the world.


While the thrill of barreling down a mountain of sand in a dune buggy may get your blood rushing, the desert is not without its perils. Limited water supplies, wild animals, and plants with ominous names, like Spanish Bayonet, can place you in a survival situation before you realize what is happening.


Should you find yourself off the beaten path, without a drop of water, surrounded by rattlesnakes, and feeling the 100-degree sun's relentless burn, you might wish you had a few tips. 

Here are eight ways to die in the desert and tips on how to avoid them:

Photo Courtesy of Vigilante Drones


Perhaps the deadliest of all threats the desert traveler will encounter is dehydration. Getting lost in the natural beauty of deserts and running out of water is not uncommon. A pleasant afternoon out can quickly turn into a life-or-death situation. Symptoms of dehydration include being thirsty, dizzy, having headaches, confusion, and difficulty speaking. You may also have trouble urinating or have very dark colored urine. 


Our bodies work hard to regulate our internal temperatures. In the blazing heat, we sweat and, in doing so, lose water. If we lose enough water, our bodies throw in the towel, and we can die. The solution to dehydration is, of course, to stay hydrated. 

While many schools of thought exist on how much water you should drink, a good rule is to drink enough to avoid ever feeling thirsty. Three liters of water is a fair amount for most people to drink each day. Remember, in extreme environments like deserts, you will need to drink more water than usual. 

If you are out of drinking water and far away from help, be cautious of drinking from the first water source you find. Standing pools of water are often contaminated. If you find a water pool, look to see if there are any obvious signs of contamination on the surface. You may notice an oil slick shimmer or some film over the water. Avoid these sources, no matter how thirsty you are.


Look for animals drinking the water or recent animal tracks near the water's edge. This may be your best indicator that water is safe to drink. Some plants, such as certain types of cactus, can provide some hydration. But unless you know the landscape, don't just guess. A presumption can sometimes be deadly. 


Remember that the human body relies on water to digest food. If you are low on water, consider eating less. Our bodies can last only a few days without water but can survive weeks without food.


If you find yourself admiring the Saguaro cactus of the Sonoran Desert and suddenly hear a slight rattling sound, you may be just seconds away from the vicious strike of a rattlesnake. 


The good news is that rattlesnakes generally stay away from people. There are no secret meetings by the snake guild to plan their attack against humans. Rattlesnakes will go out of their way to avoid us. In the United States, the odds of dying due to a rattlesnake bite are relatively low. One in every 37,500 people bitten will die. The best defense is to wear proper clothing and stay alert. Always stay aware of your surroundings.


If you are bitten, move safely away from the snake. It is not uncommon for a snake to strike several times when threatened. It is vital to remain calm. If you get your blood pumping, the venom will spread quicker. Don't waste time 'sucking the poison out.'


Research has shown there is little to no benefit to doing this. If possible, wash the wound with soap and water and keep it dry and clean. Seek medical attention as quickly as possible and keep the bite below your heart to help slow the poison's spread. 


To most, it may appear no one could survive the vast emptiness of the desert's rugged and foreboding terrain. But, in actuality, people have lived successfully in sand-covered deserts for most of humanity's time on the planet.


The deserts of the American southwest have been host to many groups of people. From American Indians to the old West's desperados and prospectors, these deserts have been occupied by people for thousands of years. The evidence of human activity can be detected in abandoned structures like old mining shafts.


While mining shafts may look like a safe place to stay out of the sun, they are anything but. Mines offer a better chance of death than anything else. Mines are often homes for wild animals and full of sharp objects and even possible explosives. Some are filled with toxic gases, and others, prone to collapse. Avoid a hiking date with the Grim Reaper, and don't enter a mine unless you have extensive training and the proper safety equipment.


If ever you're lost in the desert, dry riverbeds and wadis may appear to offer comfort with their flat ground and ledges to rest up against. However, before deciding to bed down for the night in these alluring channels, think again. 


Deserts may not get a lot of rain, but water can be an incredibly destructive force on the off chance they do. Rushing water floods into wadis, valleys, and ravines taking with it everything in its path. Avoid drowning by staying out of canyons, especially when rain looks like a possibility.

Photo Courtesy of Vigilante Drones


To survive in the desert, plants and animals have readjusted in numerous ways. Often these adaptations can be hazardous to humans. It's pretty clear to most people that the snarl of a coyote is not a welcoming sight. Plants, however, are a little less evident in letting us know to stay away.


Many desert plants are poisonous to both eat and touch. The Desert Thorn-Apple, for example, can kill if ingested. Ocotillos, Spanish Bayonets, Chollas & Cacti all have potentially deadly and undoubtedly painful razor-sharp spines and thorns. The Poodle Dog Bush leaves are covered in a substance that causes painful blisters on the skin.


The best way to avoid these plants is to stay clear of unknown vegetation. Bright colors and flowers that look extraordinarily out of place or unfamiliar are good indicators of danger. Simply put, stay away from plants you don't know.

Photo Courtesy of Vigilante Drones

Photo Courtesy of Vigilante Drones


The sun can speed up dehydration, burn the skin, and cause heat exhaustion. Avoid becoming a victim of the sun by wearing enough clothes to protect your skin and keeping clothing dry. If you have sunscreen, be sure to use it on exposed areas and find a place with shade. If you need to move, do so only at night, which will also help conserve water.


Along with the sun, the desert is notorious for extreme heat, bitter cold, sandstoms, high winds, and high mineral content, all of which can make survival difficult. Keeping yourself safe from exposure is best accomplished by finding or building shelters. Shelters can be as simple as taking advantage of vegetation, like resting under the shade of a Mesquite tree or under a stable rock ledge. 


If a shelter has to be built, there are a lot of options. Sand is an insulating material and can cover the body, which slows dehydration and helps avoid sunburn. Sand dunes can also guard against extreme winds. Foliage and brush can be collected and used to create a lean-to or similar structure. You can even dig a trench and cover it with gathered brush or a tarp, if available.


At some point, without rescue, you will need food. While many people feel deserts are barren and void of life, nothing could be farther from the truth. Deserts are home to a wide range of edible plants and animals. They're plentiful if you know where to look. 


Desert cactus often produce fruit know as prickly pears. After the barbs on the fruit are removed, the fruit can be consumed without other preparation. Some grasses in dry riverbeds can be edible as well. Rodents, rabbits, snakes, coyotes, and insects can be consumed, if necessary. Although you must be mindful of how you catch and kill them, you can survive on them. 


Learn how to track, trap, clean, and cook these animals if your survival depends on it. Don't forget to protect your food from small scavengers, such as rodents. These crafty characters will gladly take advantage of any easy to access provisions.

It's not hard to find a way to die in the desert. But it's just as feasible to survive on your own without rescue if you keep a positive attitude and stay prepared for the worst possible situation. 

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