The Ultimate Desert Survival Guide

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This guide is meant to help those who end up stuck in a desert due to an emergency. Preparations can be made before you even venture into the desert, as outlined in this article. Being ready with the right gear and skills can mean life or death.

The Ultimate Desert Survival Guide

How long can a human survive in a desert?

At the most, an adult can only survive for 3 days without drinking a drop of water. In a boiling hot and dry environment, the body loses water even faster.

A person can lose at least 6 quarts of water through respiration, sweating and urination within 24 hours just by sitting in a shade of 90°F. If you are moving, say trekking on the sand, you will lose more water at a faster rate and become dehydrated if you are not careful.

Dehydration affects your ability to digest food, absorb oxygen, thereby reducing your ability to think clearly and quickly. In other words, you become sluggish.

What do you need to survive in the desert?

These are the items you need in a desert survival kit

  • Water canteen of at least 1 litre
  • Nylon cords for building a shelter
  • A survival knife and/or multi-tool
  • Firestarters or something to start a fire
  • Signal mirror and whistle for attracting help
  • Compass (you can’t rely on GPS in the desert)
  • Some form of lighting, such as a head torch or lantern
  • Goggles, or some kind of scarf or bandana in case of sandstorms
  • Pocket-sized first aid kit to reduce the carrying weight of your backpack
  • Emergency blanket as temperatures will drop drastically at night in the desert
  • Water purification tablets in case you need to drink non-potable water in the wilderness
What do you need to survive in the desert?

Desert survival skills

Before you venture into the desert, try to pick up these skills first. They will save your life:

  • How to find water
  • How to build a fire
  • How to build a shelter
  • How to navigate with or without a compass

How to find water in the desert?

Look out for clues that can point out areas with a possible source of water – vegetation, flocks of birds settling, converging animal trails and signs of digging in the outer bend of a dry creek bed. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a puddle. Otherwise, you might have to dig 1 to 2 feet to get to the water.

Do not immediately drink or put the water into your canteen. If the water is contaminated, you’ll end up losing more water from vomiting or purging. Use the water purification tablet as per its instructions.

Don’t waste time dowsing or making solar stills. Also, do not assume that a spring or waterhole exists year round just because it is marked on a map.

Other potential sources of water include tree cavities and hollows. Watch out for snakes and other poisonous creepy crawlies which might be living in them. You can also keep an eye out for willows, cottonwoods and sycamores which can host water at their base.

Some rock depressions can also contain water. Clues to look out for are bright green foliage and shiny spots seen from above through binoculars. If nothing else, you can lick dew off plants and rocks at dawn.

After the rain, if you’re that lucky, head for rocky areas where water might collect. However, don’t be tempted to drink cactus juice. Certain cacti can cause vomiting and diarrhea. One safe option is drinking the prickly pear cactus fruit but please make sure to remove the skin entirely.

How to build a shelter in the desert?

Make your shelter visible using a bright object, smoke signal or signal mirror. Your shelter should have a buffer from the ground as the desert may get too hot or cold. Use a waterproof sheet such as your emergency blanket as a tarp for the roof to create shade.

If you really don’t have any equipment, find a cave. Another option is to dig a body-sized trench lined with a rim of rocks and a tarp of sorts as the roof. Then, insulate its bottom with a sleeping bag or any extra linen.

Steps for desert survival

Steps for desert survival

1. Stay with your vehicle

If you have a vehicle with you, stay with it. Although it may not run anymore, it can be useful as a beacon for rescuers. It can also offer shelter from the rain, cold, snow and wild animals. Besides, you can climb on top to get a better vantage point instead of wasting energy hiking to a higher point.

If you really must leave it behind, place a note secured inside the vehicle to indicate the direction which you’ll be going. Clearly state the date and time that you leave from the vehicle.

2. Prevent panic from taking control

Panicking is the first mistake when you’re lost or stranded in a desert for some reason. It blinds your judgement, spreads panic to other members, causes you to make costly mistakes and wastes a lot of time.

Panic is the biggest killer in any kind of emergency situation. If you ever find yourself starting to panic, use this list to help you focus your mind and operate in an organised manner. Keep this list in your First Aid Kit.

  1. Don’t waste time blaming anyone including yourself.
  2. Remind yourself of the people who need you in their lives.
  3. Don’t look down on your ability or gender when it comes to surviving during times of crisis.
  4. Do something constructive and familiar to force yourself to chill, such as making a campfire and brewing a beverage.
  5. Take stock of what you have in hand: water reserves, survival kit, etc. 
  6. Decide on and agree on a plan which has the best chances of retaining safety and health.
  7.  Stick to the plan unless something forces you to change it.

3. Ration then find water

Reduce your water loss by keeping your movements to a minimum. In other words, ration your sweat first. If you need to dig for water, move only when you need to, preferably at night when it is cooler.

Ration your water by planning ahead using what you have, including for drinking and cooking. Make your water reserves last as long as possible by sipping instead of glugging it down.

Assess your level of dehydration. If your urine is the colour of tea, you can start with large gulps. When your urine colour is very light, you can do with feeling thirsty and taking small sips.

Desert air is very dry. When moving about, keep your mouth closed. Breathe through the mouth to slow water loss. Walk at a slow, steady pace so that you sweat as little as possible.

4. Build shelter

A shelter is needed from the sun, rain, cold, hail and even snow, depending on which desert you are stuck in. Choose a spot that is safe to create shelter. If you have your vehicle with you, use it.

Otherwise, build a shelter away from a creek bed, which can suddenly flood if it rains. Pick a high spot that won’t get flooded. At the same time, the shelter shouldn’t be hidden from rescuers’ sight.

4. Ration your food

Eating will make you thirstier, so keep this to a minimum. You can last 3 weeks without eating if you conserve your energy. If you really must nibble a little at a time.

5. Build a fire

Aside from cooking or boiling water, a fire can deter any wild animals from approaching and it keeps you warm during the night. The light from the fire might also attract rescuers, especially at night.

6. Signal for help

During the day, use your signal mirror. The reflection can be seen from miles away. Flash at a passing aircraft or vehicle in sets of 3 times. This is a universal distress signal. You can also hang the mirror on a high point to turn in the breeze so that rescuers can spot its reflection.

If you have a spare tire, burn it to create a huge column of black smoke. Make sure you puncture the inner tube first. Otherwise, it will explode.

If you’re with your vehicle, attach a bright object to a pole and stick it one the top of the roof. This can increase your visibility to other passing vehicles.

If you really don’t have any of these tools, use rocks and sticks to create a giant S.O.S. on the ground.

During the night, use a flare if you hear a passing vehicle or see the flashing lights of an aeroplane in the sky. Alternatively, make 3 long blasts using the whistle so that it isn’t confused with a bird’s call. This applies to car horns or gunshots. Don’t bother yelling. That is the least effective.

7. Leave a trail

You might need to retrace steps back to your vehicle or shelter. Use whatever you can find and make sure these are obviously human-made.

Steps to take before going to a desert

Steps to take before going to a desert

1. Dress appropriately

The idea is to cover your skin with airy clothing and a wide-brimmed hat. These offer better protection than sunblock. Bring along sunglasses as the glare of the sun can be quite terrible for eyesight. Use lightweight boots so that they don’t drain your energy if you have to move about.

For the daytime, choose clothes made from cotton. For the night, choose woollen clothing to buffer against the cold. Whatever you do, don’t go naked or expose your skin during the daytime.

2. Plan for everything

Nobody likes to think of disasters, but it is wise to plan for it; in great detail.

3. Tell people where you’re going

Give them your GPS location, date and time of arrival at that location and when you’re expected to be back. In case you don’t show up, they’ll know where to search. Don’t depend on your cell phone.

4. Bring plenty of water

Bring more than necessary so that you have reserves in case of an emergency.

5. Pack the right foods

For your emergency rations, bring only foods that are full of nutrients but don’t take up much space. For example, energy bars and lightly salted trail mix.

6. Use an all-terrain vehicle

This type won’t get stuck in the sand easily. Make sure your vehicle has a spare tire and the necessary equipment so that you can deal with breakdowns. 


Survival in the desert is a delicate balance between staying out of the heat and staying warm at night, between conserving water and drinking enough to stay alive, as well as controlling your hunger pangs.