We don't text you like a crazy ex-girlfriend. Sign up and receive our newsletter for updates of our latest articles.
Two insanely cheap items that will save your life in the
desert and other tips.
Growing up I had a slight addiction to Gold and Uranium
Prospecting. I would find myself either
in the Deserts around California and Nevada or on a spring break Claim Jumping
in Alaska. That’s right, I was a teenage Claim Jumper.
While Alaska isn’t a desert, parts of California and
basically all of Nevada are.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind as a teenage
Claim Jumper. Don’t get caught and know how to survive by yourself or,
possibly, with a drunken friend.
There are two pieces of equipment that I feel are essential
to desert survival. They are insanely inexpensive, nearly free, but immensely
useful in acquiring a source of water almost everywhere, depending on the typeof desert that you are in.
They are a clear garbage bag and a rag.
A clear garbage bag
allows you to do so many things that it just doesn’t make sense not to take one
or several. The amount of weight compared to the utility of one ridiculous. Not
only can you put things into it if you need to, like kindling and any trash you
have hiked into a wilderness area but there are also several crucial survival
aspects to it as well.
Wrap it around a bush. Allow it to sit throughout the day as
you rest. That night water will have condensed inside of the bag which you can
soak up with your rag.
Create a solar still if you have found a source of water in
a hole. More on how to find a hole with water in it later.
A few trash bags will help, even more, you can gather some
greenery and place it underneath or inside, and this will allow you to collect
even more water.
You can even use a cup of your own urine inside of a solar
still. You don’t have to be like Bear Grylls and drink straight from the tap,
you can purify it a little with the solar still first. Just set the urine cup
off to the side of your central collection cup.
A rag helps you to collect the water from the trash bags. It
also helps you to collect water from rocks in the early morning before the sun
has come out completely. During the night, if there is any moisture present, it
will collect on stones. Using the rags to “sponge” up that moisture and then
squeeze it into a cup. You can also use it to wipe the dirt off of your face
Keep a separate rag for wiping away sweat. Nothing more
irritating than drinking sweat water in the desert.
I like to use an old fashioned Army canteen that came with a
metal cup that fit at the bottom. This works very well.
The easiest way to get water in the desert besides what you
carry in is to get it from vegetation.
Beyond vegetation, there are a few things to look for. Birds
and especially insects will usually be reasonably close to a water source. Bees
fly in straight paths from hive to water. A swarm of flies will be very close
to a water source or something dead. Any kind of animal tracks that you see
heading in a downhill direction is a good indication that there is water
Look for valleys, canyons or ravines that are shaded from
the sun. A dry riverbed will be an excellent spot to look as well. Your best
place will be a bend in that dry river bed or at the edge of the rock wall of a
Water flows to the lowest point. Look at the bottom of a
ravine and try to find the lowest points there. Dig about a foot, and
hopefully, the ground will be moist. If it is, make the hole bigger. Cover it
with a plastic bag and or make a solar still to give it a little help. At the
end of the day, there hopefully will be some water that has collected at the
bottom. This is where your handy rag come into play to soak up all that water
at the bottom.
Lick the bottom of rocks at dawn. During the night water
will have condensed on the under part of rocks, which is the coolest part. Be
mindful of watching out for scorpions and snakes, because that is where they
love to hide out at. But it will give you a surprising amount of water
especially if it is in a shaded ravine or valley.
When to make camp
Make camp during the day. Don’t go out wandering in the
desert in the heat of the day. Even if we did our prospecting when high noon
rolled around, we would be under whatever pleasant shade we had brought with
Have some way to stay off the ground. The ground gets
incredibly hot, like leather car seat in the middle of summer or worse. Sit on
your pack or something else.
Travel at night when it is cool. It may be shocking to some,
but the desert actually gets pretty chilly to actually cold at night. You might
seriously consider bringing at least a windbreaker but maybe even a Fleece
jacket. Traveling during this time is a little more hazardous in terms of where
you step, but it prevents you from losing precious moisture.
Another reason to travel at night is not only is it much
cooler, but it is far easier to navigate using the stars in the desert. Out
there, the light pollution of local cities is either minuscule or non-existent.
It is one of the things that I personally miss about the desert. Knowing how to
find at least one constellation to get your bearing will be a tremendous value.
One crucial thing to do when you make camp is to take off
your boots/shoes and socks and let them dry/air out. This will help prevent
blisters and make the journey a little more comfortable.
Where to make camp You want to make camp at the highest
point that you can. The main reason is that you can catch the occasional breeze
passing through which helps very dramatically in keeping you cool. You want
you’re covering to be open to allow the air to pass through, so a tent from
really isn’t that good for the desert, but a tarp or a couple of ponchos on a
set of poles works very well.
This elevated position also keeps you safe from the very
rare but deadly flash flood. While I have never personally seen one, I have heard
that they come on so quickly that it is nearly impossible to predict and
difficult to escape from.
Flash floods are also one of the biggest killers in the
desert. More so than venomous animal bites or predation by larger animals.
Check your gear often
Forgetting something at a stopping point in the desert is
the same thing as losing it forever. You probably won’t backtrack to find it,
especially in a life and death survival situation. Unless maybe it is
absolutely essential. It is gone. So check your gear to make sure that you have
everything before moving out.
This has the added benefit of making sure that a scorpion
hasn’t crawled into something that you will be carrying. Consider it a lucky
sign if you find a scorpion in your gear, it means that you have managed to
stay as cool as possible. It also means that you have a little snack.
Finding food is more accessible than most people think. It
is still a bit of a chore, you probably aren’t going to get fat living off of
the land. Although, it is easier than most people think if you are brave. I
wouldn’t go out looking for it, but animals that you can eat are usually near
water. So if you can find water, you can find some animals, usually.
All of those creatures that people seem to be afraid of are
our food. We are the top of the food chain in this world.
So when I hear a rattlesnake, I don’t pale, I think I’m
going to have a nice meal. But you may have a little bit of a battle on your
hands so don’t do it if you are a total wimp.
A stick with a Y at the end will allow you to hold down the
head of the snake while you cut it off. If you don’t have a stick or a knife
you can always just get a little ways away and throw rocks at it very, very
hard and hope it doesn’t escape.
An ordinary stick allows you to pin down a scorpion, but you
have to be careful not to crush it. Then just cut off the tail.
Some ant species in the desert are pretty big. They are
usually around and incredibly mean. I recommend if you try to eat them to cut
off the heads first because some have pretty nasty venom.
Cook your food. Raw scorpion – gross, cooked Scorpion-
delicious. Except if you are running out of water, then snake blood will help
to quench your thirst. Just be sure to cut off the head and don’t handle it at
all because it still is poisonous and moves for quite a long time after it is
Know your plants
You don’t need to be a full-on Horticulturalist, but some
plants are definitely worth knowing about in the desert.
Plants can be a vital source of water in the desert and
knowing which to eat and which not to eat is good bonus moisture and food
source. The big problem is that a lot of them are slightly toxic and will cause
diarrhea and general ill feelings, which won’t help you in retaining hydration
Prickly pear cactus – This is a big plant and easy to
identify. Be sure that you take off the skin either by burning or by rolling
around in the sand. There are other cacti that you can eat that look like they
don’t have spines but do have small hairs that will irritate your mouth and
throat. The prickly pear also has fruit which is actually best right before it
turns red. You can even eat the pads.
Lamb’s quarter – This
is a critical survival plant so become an expert at identifying it. This little
weed grows all over the world, nearly everywhere in the U.S. and Mexico. It
grows all over Europe, parts of Australia, the Middle East, and China.
It isn’t something that people typically think about when
talking about desert plants. But I put it here because seeing this plant tells
you many different things in the desert. This leafy weed requires a lot of
water, so if it is growing, then there is water to be found somewhere around
it. It usually grows near civilization, so it’s appearance means that there is
a farm, homestead or city close by. It means you have some moisture and
something to eat.
It grows tall if you
rub the leaves and stem they will become greener and leave a little white film
on your fingers. It has a square looking stem, and each leaf seems just a
little bit different from the other. The leaves themselves look kind of like a
flint-knapped arrowhead. Look for big ones because it has a deadly look-a-like,
Nightshade. I don’t know if Nightshade grows in the desert or not, but better
safe than sorry. I would explain the
differences because I would feel bad if you ate nightshade in Podunk, Nebraska
thinking it was Lamb’s Quarter. Nightshade will not leave a white film on your
finger, the leaves will not get greener if you rub them. Lamb’s Quarter has a
“squarish” stem. Nightshade also doesn’t grow as to the height of Lamb’s
Quarter. Nightshade usually has a more “neater” leaf, the leaf of the lamb’s
quarter will be more ragged.
Be able to identify them with 100% certainty. This will be
true of any plant that you wish to eat in the desert. This is true anywhere
Plants can also be valuable in terms of materials for
building. So having good baseline knowledge will help you immensely should a
need ever arise.
If for some reason you don’t have a compass. You can easily
use the stars to navigate by. Away from the light pollution of nearby cities
and the cloudless nature of the desert sky, there seem to be almost too many
At the very least, know how to find the north star and a few
constellations around it. This will allow you to understand what your bearing
is. From there it is just a matter of choosing a direction and using another
star and a landmark that you have chosen to navigate by.
For example, you say I’m going to walk towards that cactus
over there with the north star on the left of it and that other star just above
it. Then once you get to that point, you choose something else with another
star above it and head towards it. If you look up and the star has moved, then
you know you are veering off course. The
more familiar you are with the constellations, the easier it is to stay on
You might be heading in the wrong direction but at least
this way you know you are not walking in a circle.
Some other considerations to take into account:
Pick out stars near the southern or northern horizon. Pick a
new star every 10 to 20 minutes. Because of the earth’s rotation, the position
of the stars will move, and you will wind up moving off course if you don’t.
Let people know where you are going
Whenever you go into the wilderness, it is best to let
someone responsible know where you are going. This way if you don’t show up or
give them a call or text after a certain amount of time, they can call rescue
services to find you hopefully.
That guy who cut off his own arm after it was pinned under a
boulder might still have been called just “Jimmy” instead of “One-Handed Jimmy”
if he had let someone know where he was heading to.
This gives rescuers some idea of where to look. It’s not
easy to go looking for someone in “The Desert in Nevada,” but it is a little
easier to locate someone that was heading “Two days travel South West into
Sherman Mountain from 4 miles South of Shanty Town.”
You know when you see someone that has moved to the West
wearing a long sleeve shirt dress that they wore back on the Arabian Peninsula
and think “Is he mentally retarded?” The same applies in reverse when you go to
the desert wearing inappropriate clothing.
Leave the light
pastel t-shirt and short shorts in the 1980s. That mad max leather jacket needs
to stay on the Big Screen. However, you
do want to wear dark clothes in the desert. The dark fabric helps to solar heat
from penetrating to your skin. You can read about it here, but it tells you
pretty much the same thing. https://www.nature.com/articles/283373a0
Take a note from Mahmood if possible and wear a
loose-fitting long sleeve shirt and pants. It sounds like it doesn’t work, but
a long sleeve shirt prevents sweat from evaporating too quickly, keeps the sun
from giving you a damaging sunburn and helps to cool by insulating your skin
against the sun. Just make sure that your shirt and pants are very loose
One thing that you will definitely thank me for is the
suggestion of using moisture wicking underwear. I won’t get into it but suffice
it to say that it is a necessity.
Don’t wear sandals, you’ll end up with a painful if not
outright debilitating sunburn on your feet. If it is bad enough, your feet will
swell up like potatoes of pain. You won’t be able to walk on your feet at all
and die like a moron crawling through the desert.
It’s relatively easy to hide in the desert, but it’s even
easier to be found if someone is around. Signal fire is not the best idea
because it will be hard to find enough material to burn to make a fire that
doesn’t look like a regular campfire. A signal mirror works far better and will
travel a significant distance to anyone who is looking. If you move it with
regularity, they will know that
We don't text you like a crazy ex-girlfriend. Sign up and receive our newsletter for updates of our latest articles.