26 Tips for Surviving in the Desert

The Desert Can Be An Unforgiving Place.

By Felice Prager

To the casual observer, the Arizona desert is a strange yet beautiful place. It has some of the most unusual and enticing landscapes, wildlife and plants in the world. The sun shines relentlessly. Shadows mystify. Hills beckon. Exotic things grow. What is over the next ridge? What might I miss if I don’t look?

Yet, for the unwary, unsuspecting or uninformed visitor, the Sonoran Desert can be an unforgiving place. A small blunder can turn an afternoon drive off road or an overnight camping trip into an emergency. People sometimes die in the desert.

With so many moving to desert areas or vacationing in the desert region, it is important to be aware of the desert's dangers so that safety precautions can be taken. Even being caught on the side of a road without enough water can be dangerous.

Yearly, residents of the southerwestern desert hear helicopters flying overhead, searching the desert arroyos for a winter visitor or an unlucky resident who has not returned from an outing. Regularly, the news carries stories about someone who climbed a cliff and could not negotiate his way back down. Stories abound about people caught in flooded washes during monsoon season. People simply underestimate the severity of a desert environment.


Even the experienced hiker can get into a dire situation. Fortunately, they usually travel prepared for emergencies, so they survive. They have learned from past errors. With a bit of knowledge and a lot of common sense, tragedies can be avoided. There is no such thing as being too prepared when you are in an environment that can pose danger. After all, surviving in the desert is nothing more than plain old common sense with a few added bells and whistles.

Here are a few tips:
  1. Share your plans. Tell someone where you are going and when you plan to be back. Let them know your route, the type of vehicle you will drive, and communication methods you will use. Leave a map, and do not change your plans without letting someone know. Leave the following information, in writing, with someone whom you will notify upon your return:
    • your route and destination,
    • vehicle description,
    • traveling companions,
    • any potential health issues, and
    • what type of emergency supplies you already have with you, including medications.
  2. Do not depend exclusively on a cellular/mobile phone. They don’t always work in remote areas. If you are in doubt, check with your service provider or the link below to confirm coverage areas. It is wise to be skeptical of promises made about battery life and coverage area. Load apps that will help you in an emergency.
  3. Instead of relying unduly on a cell phone, especially for your more ambitious wilderness excursions, consider the rental or purchase of a satellite phone. A satellite phone, or “satphone,” is a mobile phone that communicates directly with orbiting communications satellites. The handsets can be the size and weight of the original mobile phones of the 1990s. They also have a large retractable antenna. (Visit the site http://www.allroadsat.com/rentals/globalstar-rentals.aspx for more information.) Two large satellite networks cover the U. S.: Globestar and Iridium. Satellite phones work better than cell phones although they do require a wide “view” of the sky to get a reliable connection.
  4. A CB or ham radio is another option. Ham radios have the potential to work from very remote locations; however, they are a do-it-yourself proposition, and they require a government license. They also require training and informed gear selection to be of full use.
  5. Consider carrying one of the handheld GPS devices now available. These can provide very helpful topographical maps, aerial photography and satellite imagery for the desert traveler. An example is the Earthmate GPS PN-20 with Topo USA 6.0 National & 1GB SD Card/Reader. This device is low-cost, has high-sensitivity, and delivers capabilities previously unavailable at any price. Most smartphones have GPS chips, but remember GPS also has a downside.
  6. You can also purchase a personal locator beacon (PLB) - emergency life-saving devices that can be used when all else fails. A PLB is a small transmitter that sends out a personalized emergency distress signal to the nearest rescue service. They are becoming a highly effective and internationally recognized way of summoning help, though they should be used only in life-threatening situations.

    Use a vehicle meant for desert terrain.


  8. Make sure you are using a vehicle meant for desert terrain. If your vehicle does not have offroad capability, it is unwise to make the trip. Make sure you are skilled at maneuvering an offroad vehicle in difficult terrain. Many people buy vehicles with four-wheel drive and assume owning the vehicle makes them an expert. Offroad driving requires having the proper vehicle and the skill to handle it in rough areas. Classes are available for those wanting to learn the “how to’s” of offroad driving. Since many problems in the desert start with a car that breaks down due to ill repair, be prepared for everything. Make sure your car is in good condition with good hoses, a spare tire, spare fan belts, necessary tools, extra gas, water and oil. A tune-up is wise prior to offroad adventures. Using a mechanic who is informed about the proper maintenance of an offroad vehicle is a wise choice. Make sure your gasoline tank is full, and bring extra fuel.

    The desert can be a dangerous environment.


  10. Listen to your body. Bring sufficient water for each person traveling with you. A good measure is one gallon per person per day. With water, the rule is, “More is better.” You can always drink it when you get home if it is not used, but if you don’t have it when you need it, it can be a matter of life and death. With water, make sure you drink it as needed. Rationing water can become very dangerous. Often when a person is dehydrated, the thinking processes malfunction. Drink what you need. Don’t tell yourself you’ll save it for when you really get thirsty. That just doesn’t work in the desert. Soda is not a substitute for water because it tends to dehydrate the person drinking it.
  11. Respect the heat. If water is limited, keep your mouth closed. Do not talk, eat, smoke, drink alcohol or eat anything salty. Limit activity.
  12. Be prepared for emergencies. Have adequate first aid supplies, including proper medication for anyone who requires it. If someone is diabetic or asthmatic, for example, it is vital to have enough of their proper medication with you. Bring more, rather than less, than you need.

    Stay with your vehicle.

  14. STAY WITH YOUR VEHICLE. It will be the first thing found by searchers because it’s much easier to detect from the air than a human being. In addition, your car has many things to help with your survival such as mirrors, hubcaps, a horn, a battery, lights, a lighter, gas, oil and floor mats. Raise the hood and trunk of your vehicle to show distress. Pilots and rescue workers look for this as a sign of emergency.
  15. Make sure you have a flashlight with new and extra batteries. An investment in a better quality flashlight might be worth your while in the end. Remember, a cheap flashlight is...a cheap flashlight.
  16. If you feel absolutely certain about your location and route and feel you must leave your vehicle, make sure you leave a note for rescuers telling them who you are, when you left, and the exact route you plan to take. If you don’t know exactly where you’re going, stay put.
  17. Do not sit or lie directly on the ground, which may be 30 degrees hotter than the air temperature. Improvise a sunshade and elevate your body. Think creatively with the supplies you have. Use a car seat or something to raise yourself at least a foot and a half off the surface. There is also a greater possibility of having a problem with a poisonous insect or a snake when you are directly on the ground. In addition, stay outside of your vehicle, especially in the mid-day heat, until things cool down.
  18. Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes. Even though desert glare might not seem to make a difference, it will impair your distance vision and hamper your adaptation to night vision. It can cause severe headaches. If you have no sunglasses available, improvise with a sun shield made from cardboard or cloth, a hat or bandana. Applying charcoal, soot, or oil around your eyes may help.
  19. If you have lip-gloss, use it. Do not lick your lips, as it will hasten chapping and splitting.
  20. Dress properly. Wear the proper foot protection and keep your body covered. The sun can be a killer. Change your socks regularly, even if you are changing to used socks. Sunning and aeration of socks and undergarments have a marked freshening value, physically and psychologically.
  21. Do not remove clothing in an attempt to stay cool. This hastens dehydration. Wearing clothes helps you avoid sunburn. Cover up your arms, legs and face as best you can. If you have sunblock, use it.
  22. Be watchful. If you see a dust storm approaching, cover your face as best you can to keep the dusy out of your lungs.
  23. If the weather is cool, start a fire in a cleared out pit without overhanging branches. Always bring waterproof matches.
  24. A roadway, even a remote dirt roadway, may signal passing traffic. Stay on it. It can bring help.
  25. Watch the sky for thunderheads that may signal flash floods.


  26. Watch the sky. Flash floods may occur any time thunderheads are in sight. Weather can change in the desert quite rapidly. Do not remain in dry washes (arroyos) which can flood suddenly, becoming dangerous.
  27. Try to keep control of your emotions. There is nothing more dangerous than blind panic.
  28. In any survival situation, everything you do must be preceded by the thought: Am I safe in doing this? If there’s any question, don’t do it.
  29. Use common sense! Hire a guide if you must, but never undertake something for which you are not fully prepared. Finally...
  30. THINK!
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