The desert may be one of the most challenging terrestrial environments to survive in for any period of time. Temperatures in the desert can fluctuate from midday to night by more than forty degrees Fahrenheit.
Water is extremely scarce, as are natural sources of shelter and food sources. The single best way to ensure your survival in a desert environment is to be properly prepared before you find yourself in one. This includes learning the ins and outs of desert survival as well as making sure you have a fully outfitted pack of survival gear.
With or without this kind of gear, however, there are a number of things you will have to do to increase your chances of survival in the desert.
As in any survival situation, remaining calm and collected, observing and learning from your surroundings, and developing a survival plan is key.
Protecting yourself from the sun is extremely important during the day. Direct sunlight is going to be as dangerous in terms of exposure as freezing temperatures at night will be.
You will want to have a lightweight, broad-brimmed hat to protect your head and face from the sun. And if you don’t have one with you, you will need to make one.
Cover your head and shoulders with a shirt or other article of clothing. Even a small amount of shade on your head can protect you from water loss resulting in your body keeping itself cool.
Find a source of water. More than in any other terrestrial environment, in the high temperatures of the desert you will be losing water rapidly as your body tries to cool itself. Staying alive means replacing that water.
Cacti and other desert plants are evolved to store reserves of water, and these are excellent sources for it. But some cacti are also poisonous to deter thirsty animals. When you cut open a cactus, if the liquid is milky, it is probably poisonous.
The prickly pear cactus is a great example of a nonpoisonous cactus that is also a good source of water.
Water can also be found in other places, too. Watch birds and other wildlife: where they are, water will be nearby. Look for vegetation growing near dry stream or riverbeds. If you find soil that is damp just below the surface, dig further until the hole starts to collect water.
Certain vegetation like cottonwoods or cattails are likely to be growing near groundwater. Rocks help to slow evaporation, so look around and under them for water – but be very careful turning rocks over, as scorpions like to hide under them.
Turn over half-buried stones just before dawn; the coolness of their undersides will collect dew. Provided you have a plastic sheet or tarp in your gear, you can also build a solar still to collect water. In extremely dire circumstances, you can consume your own urine: it’s sterile and will help keep your dehydration level from reaching dangerous levels.
Ration your food supplies. Your body can survive much longer without food than it can without water, and eating your rations will increase your thirst. Ration your food supplies, and eat just enough to maintain your energy levels and stave off hunger pangs for now.
Find or make shelter. You’re going to need shelter that keeps you out of the most intense heat of midday, and almost any kind of shade will make a huge difference for this.
At night, you’ll need shelter that can help you conserve your core temperature and stay warm. During the day, your shelter needs to provide enough shade to keep you out of the sun.
It can be very difficult to find shelter in the desert, and there are few natural formations you can use to construct shelter. Because of this, it is highly recommended that you include a tent and/or tarps in your survival gear.
With two tarps, you can construct a temporary shelter by digging a trench, covering it with the tarp, and anchoring the tarp with sand and rocks around all four sides. Place the second tarp over the first, about ten inches higher, and anchor it as well. This insulating layer of air will keep the trench below it cooler during the day and warmer at night than just a single tarp would.
Ultimately, your chances of survival in any environment, including the desert, depend on your skill level, knowledge of the environment and terrain, and the quality of your survival gear.
If you are outfitted with a complete first aid kit, bottled water and water purification tablets, tools, food rations and portable shelter, you can survive much longer in the desert. For additional information on learning how to survive in an emergency, check out these survival guides.