How to Survive in the Desert

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It’s unfortunate that many people equate deserts with a hostile environment that conspires against human life. In the popular media, desert areas seem to beconsidered at the top of the wilderness list for danger. The historical fact is, however, that the human race was cradled in arid lands and people are well adapted to survive in deserts. Learning to be part of the desert’s ecosystem is the first step of desert survival. My philosophy is not to fight the desert, but to become part of its ecosystem. Being prepared is an obvious benefit.

Preparation starts with how you dress. People stand upright and receive only 60% of the solar radiation that animals on all fours do. By adding a proper hat, with a wide brim and closed crown, the head and body are further protected. A common mistake made by new desert visitors is wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts. Loose fitting long sleeves and pants provide good air circulation and much better protection than sunblock.

Sunglasses that exclude ultra-violet light are a good idea, and some studies claim they can help prevent cataracts later. Other areas of preparation include proper vehicle maintenance, carrying sufficient water, first aid and survival kits for desert environments, a sturdy, sharp knife and some useful knowledge.

The Panic Factor

The biggest killer in any emergency situation is panic. Panic blinds a person to reason and can cause them to compound the emergency with fatal results. Controlling panic is a matter of focusing the mind and operating in an organized manner. My Australian counterpart, Bob Cooper, teaches the ABC’s of survival to ward off panic and start the person on a constructive course of action.

A: Accept the situation. Do not blame yourself or others. Do not waste time contemplating “What if I had…”

B: Brew up a cup of tea. This is a typical Aussie approach to the solution of everything. What you are actually doing is starting a fire, which is needed, and completing a familiar, calming chore. You can brew coffee or just build a fire.

C: Consider your options. Take stock of items at hand, such as water reserves, survival kits, etc.

D: Decide on a plan. Taking into account of your options, decide on a plan that best ensures your health and safety. Thoughts such as “I have to be at work tomorrow,” are not considered.

E. Execute the plan and stick with it unless new conditions warrant.

The brain is by far the best survival tool we have. Survival is much more a mental than a physical exercise, and keeping control of the brain is necessary. The large size of the human brain requires a high metabolic sacrifice in water and temperature control. Keeping the brain hydrated and in the shade will be more beneficial than all the gee-whiz survival gizmos in the sporting goods store.

An additional psychological factor is the will to survive. It may sound odd, but some people have just given up due to what they felt was hopelessness, impending pain, hunger, etc. In the lid of my survival kit I keep a photo of my two sons, ages 7 years and 22 months, as a reminder of who needs me.

Women should not be discouraged in these situations on the basis of their gender. Women have several physical advantages over men in high stress situations. I participated in a 200-kilometer survival trek in Western Australia in 1996 with two women in our group, and they did as well as the 7 men.

Survival Kits

I am a believer in a well-planned survival kit. In the Australian trek, each of us had a pocket-sized survival kit that fit in a soap dish. That, along with a knife, two one-liter canteens, a medical blanket and a compass each, we all crossed the finish line at the Indian Ocean. A survival kit must be small enough to carry at all times in the wilds. By cramming them full of unnecessary items they get too bulky and tend to get left in the car, backpack or elsewhere, which is the same as not having one at all. See the sidebar for the contents of such a kit. You’ll be surprised at what can fit in a 4x3x1-inch” box.

Desert Survival Priorities

While there are some exceptions to this rule, desert survival priorities usually fall in this order of importance.

Water

Deserts are defined by their lack of water. Learn to ration sweat, not water. By staying in the shade, limiting activity to cooler times such as night and using your available water, your chances for survival increase greatly. Sipping water does not get it to the brain and vital organs. Take a good drink when you need it. People have been found dead from dehydration with water in their canteens. Also, do not rely on “parlor tricks” such as solar stills as a primary source. These will often produce more sweat digging the hole than is obtained from water gained. Learn to locate water through areas of green vegetation, flights of birds, converging animal trails and digging in the outside bends of dry creek beds. Javelinas and burros are excellent at finding water and digging it up in creek beds. Best of all, plan ahead, and allow one gallon per person a day. This does not include your needs for cooking, pets or auto maintenance.

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