How to Survive in the Desert – The Lifesaving Guide

A few years back, I’ve stumbled upon the movie “Gerry” by Gus Van Sant, featuring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. The movie tells the story of two men who go on a hike in the desert, but forget to bring with them water or food. I remember that I could actually feel their struggle and fight for survival while watching the movie, so I decided it’s time to write about how to survive in the desert.

Driving or walking in the desert is a real challenge. Nothing for miles and miles ahead, but sand, hills, desert plants and maybe some rocks, not to mention the heat of the day and the cold of the night. That is why you have to be fully prepared when embarking on a drive or a hike in the desert.

In case you happen to find yourself stuck in the desert, here is how to survive in the desert:

  • Plan ahead and prepare (study the terrain, bring water, food, survival gear)
  • Stay calm
  • Know survival strategies (moving at night, finding shelter, signaling for help)
  • Finding sources of water (rain water, water near vegetation, digging for water)
  • Know what to avoid and signs of danger (recognize dangers ahead and near you)

After mentioning the main bullet points, it’s time to elaborate each and every one of them. I will also mention how to survive in the desert if you get stuck with the car. Let’s begin.

A part of this article is also summarized in the following video:

Step 1: Plan Ahead and Prepare

If you’re planning to camp or hike in the desert, it’s important to study the terrain and place. Find out how big it is, where are the nearest roads, is there any satellite or cellphone signal around or nearby, and basically, try to know everything that is possible about the place. The desert does not forgive mistakes, nor does it give you a second chance. If you get stuck in the desert without planning to be there in the first place, not to worry. This is precisely why I am writing this article for, ensuring your survival even in the most surprising of situations. One thumb rule you must obey is to always tell someone (family member or friend) where you’re headed and when you’re planning to be back.

When it comes to preparation, here is what you should do:

  • Clothes that minimize loss of sweat: Your body loses water mostly due to perspiration. That is why it is advised that you choose clothing that is lightweight and loose to cover your skin. This way, your sweat will get caught against the skin and thus slow evaporation and loss of water.
    Here is what you should wear: an undershirt that is made of cotton and cover all of it with a light windbreaker. Also, wear a hat, gloves, sunglasses. Pack clothes that are made of fleece or wool. If you get stuck in the desert during the night, this will keep you warm. The best clothing to wear is white clothing that has a label of 30+ UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor). The reason is because clothes that are light-colored tend to reflect more heat, yet clothes that are dark provide better protection from Ultraviolet light.
  • Lots of water: Any time you find yourself in the desert or entering a desert area, it is best to bring a lot of water. A person loses 900 ml of sweat each and every hour when walking in an environment of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
    It is advised to divide the water among several bottles or containers. If a container or bottle gets damaged and there is a leak, you won’t lose all of your water this way.
    If you’re driving to the desert with a car, store the extra water in a cool place in the car.
  • Food: The best type of food to bring is food that has a lot of nutrition, yet it is light and small in size. This can be jerky, energy bars, pemmican, trail mix, and more. You should also pack with you some foods that contain potassium and salt. They get lost in the sweat and thus help retain more water in the body and avoid exhaustion of heat.
  • Survival gear and equipment: You should also pack some essential survival gear and equipment. The variety is big and great, so in order not to get overwhelmed, here is what I recommend: rope or cords, emergency blanket, compass, knife, fire aid kit, fire starter, LED flashlight or headlamp, water purification tablets, signal mirror, googles or dust mask against dust storms. For more information, study what should be in a survival backpack.

Step 2: Stay Calm

I’ve mentioned this in many articles on the site. When it comes to an emergency, or even life or death situation, the first and most important thing is to stay calm and not panic. When you get lost in the desert (or encounter any other emergency situation), panicking actually gets you killed, no joking around.

When you panic, you tend to lose your cool, you don’t think straight or rational, and are bound to make mistakes and waste a lot of energy that will get you weak, injured or even dead. So, how do you stay cool and calm even when you get lost in the desert? Memorize the following ABC of survival:

  • A – Accepting the situation: Accept the situation you’re in and don’t blame yourself or others. It is what it is and now it’s time to make the most of it to survive.
  • B – Brewing a cup of tea: You’re actually starting fire in this situation, which serves as a calming act during these circumstances. You can also brew coffee or simply start a fire, just engage in this calming act to clear your mind and become free of the stress. There are several ways to start a fire, even if you don’t have matches or a lighter.
  • C – Considering your options: Assess what items and resources you have. This can include containers with water, food, emergency survival kits, tools, and so on.
  • D – Deciding on a plan: After you’ve reviewed the situation and all of your options, it’s time to decide on a plan that will keep you safe and healthy.
  • E – Executing the plan: The last thing to do is following your plan and staying with it until the situation changes and new conditions arise.

Step 3: Know Survival Strategies

In order to survive in the desert, it’s important to follow some survival strategies that suit the situation and environment at hand. Here is what you should know and do in order to increase your chances of survival:

  • Engage during nighttime: It’s neither smart nor recommended to move around a lot in the desert during day time. It’s way too hot and you risk injuries and, of course, dehydration. The nights are much cooler, thus allowing you to move farther distances while spending less energy and facing less danger from heat exhaustion. When it is hot, your body will save 3 liters of water a day if you follow this strategy.
  • Stay inside a shelter: You should find and stay inside a shelter during the day when it’s hot to move around. If you don’t have a car that is in a shade or not in direct sunlight to stay inside, then you need to find a place to serve as a shelter during the day. Here is what you can do:
    1. String cords between two objects that have shade during most of the day.
    2. Drape an emergency blanket over those cords.
    3. Put some pieces of brush over and on top of the blanket.
    4. Cover everything with a second emergency blanket.
    5. The gap between the two emergency blankets actually insulates your made shelter and thus keep it a lot cooler.
  • Signaling for help: One good way to signal for help is by starting a fire, which will create visible smoke during daytime, and will also provide light during nighttime. When you’re on the move, you should always have a signal mirror with you. With the mirror, you can reflect the sunlight at a plane or maybe even cars in the horizon.
    If you prefer to stay at a single spot until rescue arrives, you should write the words SOS or HELP on the ground using rocks or other objects at hand. It is vital that the word you make is visible and readable from above if a plane flies by. This is a highly important survival technique that helps you to survive even with nothing else at your disposal.
  • Staying in one place or not: It’s important to decide whether you prefer to stay in one place until rescue arrives or change spots and places in the desert. If you have enough water and you told a friend or a family member of your location, it’s best to stay in one place and wait for rescue. If you start walking in the desert looking for help, you will get tired much faster than just staying in one place. Also, you will start losing body water and if you won’t find a source of water, you’ll decrease your chances of survival.
    On the other hand, if you don’t have enough water, then it’s time to start looking for a source of water, as you can’t survive without water more than a few days.

Here are a few more useful tips from the Epic How To series:

Step 4: Finding Sources of Water

There is no life without water, and the best you can do without is to survive for a few days only. Even in the desert when it looks and feels completely dry, there are still ways to search and maybe find possible water sources. Here are some ways to find water sources in the desert:

  • Finding a source of water: If there has been rain in the desert recently (more like rainstorms), then there is a chance to find pockets of water on flat surfaces of stones or in rock outcrops. Here are some additional ways to find water in the desert:
    1. Look for tracks of animals that lead downhill, as well as for birds that circle in the sky around something, or flying insects.
    2. Look for river beds and canyons and follow them upstream. Then, you should look for a depression and maybe find some water.
    3. If you see green vegetation around and especially big plants with wide leaves, there may be water around or nearby.
    4. If you’re in an area that is being developed, see if there are any building or troughs around. If the sun sets down or is close to the horizon, you can see its glare reflecting back from distant metal structures and collected water bodies. Use this method to find your destination and a water source.
    5. A good idea would be finding a rock slope, preferably the type of rock that does not absorb water. Any rainwater would simply slide off it, and into the ground. Some water can be found if you dig at the base of this rocky slope, looking for damp sand or soil.
  • Digging for water: If you happened to find any of the places, environments or situations above, you should then dig approximately 30 cm/1 ft down the ground. If there is moisture, then enlarge that hole in diameter by 30 cm. After a few hours, that hole should be filled with water.
    It’s important to always purify the water you find to get the cleanest possible water, without any parasites, bacteria or chemicals. If you don’t have a device or purification tablets to purify the water, you can achieve this by boiling the water. I’ve written a separate article that lists all quick methods of water purification. If this is too not possible, then drink the water as is. Don’t worry about getting sick, as it will probably take a few days for sickness symptoms to show. Your priority now is to survive and without water, dehydration could lead to your death.
  • Looking for other sources of water: There may be other ways and places to find water other than groundwater. Before dawn, you can find some dew gathering on the plants. Also, hollow tree trunks may contain some water in them. Look for an item that will help you absorb the water or dew (like clothing), and then squeeze everything that was absorbed to a bottle or container.
    Early in the morning, there’s a chance to find water around or near rocks that are half-buried. You should turn these rocks over just before dawn in order for some condensation to form.

Step 5: Know What to Avoid and Signs of Danger

There are things to watch out from when trying to survive in the desert. I will cover now some signs to watch for and what to do if you notice them.

  • Dehydration: Always watch out for signs that could hint you’re on the way to dehydration. These sings can be in the form of: dry skin, fainting, dizziness, and dark colored urine that can also have a noticeable smell. If you notice any of these, you must drink more water to avoid dehydration.
  • Resting: If you’re exhausted, feel nausea or lightheaded, your skin is clammy and feels cool, then look for a place with shade and get some rest. You should also loosen or even remove your clothes, take a small sip of salty water or a sports drink (5 ml of salt per one liter of water) and cool yourself by putting some wet clothing on your skin.
    If you don’t treat yourself and follow these instructions, you risk suffering from a heatstroke, which will lead to muscle cramps, red skin that can no longer sweat, and then even to damage to organs and possible death.
  • Animals that may be dangerous: Basically, mammals as well as reptiles try to avoid from human beings, especially if they are on their own and alone. You also should stay away from animals, not to scare it or make it feel it is in danger which can cause it to react and even attack in defense. That is why the first step to do (as I’ve mentioned in the beginning of this article) is to study the terrain. This includes possible animals and wildlife that may live or be in the area or its surroundings.
    Don’t try and reach into small spots and places or under rocks. First, you should try poking it with some kind of stick to reveal hiding snakes, scorpions or spiders. Also, stay away from hives in areas that have killer bees.
  • Plants: Stay away from spiny plants. This sounds pretty obvious, but try to stay away from areas with spiny plants, where you might accidentally fall on them, and then get injured, cut and suffer from an infection.

Getting Stuck in the Desert with the Car

If you get stuck in the desert with the car, the best thing you can do is to say with the car. It is important that you are visible, so if rescue arrives or flies by, they can notice you right away. The car can serve as a place of shelter, just make sure it’s not too hot inside it.

If for any reason you decide to leave the car, try to leave a note that states your direction, the destination and the time and date that you left.

Recommended Reading

The Ultimate Desert Handbook : A Manual for Desert Hikers, Campers and Travelers by Mark Johnson is a highly comprehensive and recommended guide on desert hiking and survival. Beautifully illustrated and full to brim with important knowledge, this manual is a must-have if you plan to travel in a desert. It teaches you how to find water and edible plants, how to choose the best spot to camp on, how take to care of your car in desert conditions, what to wear, what equipment to pack, and much more! It’s a highly rated book on Amazon, you can click here to read additional positive reviews.


Mick Ohman: Surviving the Desert

In 2017, Mick Ohman was taking a road trip with his vehicle to Crown King, which is a mining ghost town located high in the Bradshaw Mountains. On his way back home to Phoenix, he decided to take a back route, and then his car broke down. He found himself on a rugged road in the desert with a broken car at 3 p.m. on July, not the best time to get stuck or stranded in the desert.

Mick decided to leave the car and wander the desert, looking for a cell signal, but to no avail. Thinking that he may not make it out alive, he recorded a video with his cell phone, telling to anyone who finds this phone that if he didn’t make it, to tell his sisters he loved them very much.

Prior to leaving his car, Mick did leave handwritten notes on his car (an SUV) with his home address, the number of his cell phone and the direction his took in the desert, just in case someone finds his car.

All Mick had with him was two beers, a water bottle half-full, and a few crackers and a spoiled sandwich inside a lunchbox in the car. Eventually, Mick finished it all, so he drank water from creeks nearby and even had to drink his own urine in order to survive.

More than 48 hours after Mick became stranded in the desert, he saw a man riding a dirt bike on the horizon and signaled him to come down. Troy Haverland (the biker) reached Mick and drove him to Lake Pleasant, which took an hour ride. There, Mick received medical attention, and was later driven back to his home.

Final Words

Mick Ohman survived the desert by behaving correctly and sticking to the rules mentioned in this article. Should you even face a similar situation, I sincerely hope that the information provided by me was sufficiently helpful.

Surviving in a desert is just one of many survival skills that you should be. I encourage you to browse other helpful posts on this blog, such as what are the basic survival skills and how to survive extreme weather conditions.

Alex Rejba

Alex is a seasoned survivalist, with a passion to all things related to prepping, hiking and living off the grid.

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