How To Survive In the Desert: Mastering the Art of Staying Alive

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By Chris

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Knowing how to survive in the desert is a must if you’re at risk of being in one. A desert climate is one of the most challenging environments on the planet with its hot climates.

With extreme temperatures from the hot sun, lack of water and food, and harsh terrain, surviving in the desert can be a daunting at best.

However, with the right prepping, knowledge, and skills, anyone can learn to survive in the desert. Knowing how to find water, build shelter, start a fire, and navigate can mean the difference between life and death in a desert survival situation.

how to survive in the desert

Whether you are planning a trip to the desert, you live in an arid region, or you get deployed to one like I was with the Army it is essential to know how to survive in this harsh environment.

From understanding the challenges of the climate to learning how to find water and food, we will cover everything you need to know to survive in this unforgiving environment.

What are the challenges of surviving in the desert?

Before you set out on a desert survival mission, it’s essential to understand the environment and its challenges. The desert is characterized by extreme temperatures, lack of water, and harsh terrain.

Temperatures can soar to over 125°F during the heat of the day and drop below freezing the cooler hours of the night, leading to the risk of hypothermia or heat exhaustion. The lack of water in the region can quickly lead to dehydration, which can be fatal if left untreated.

Harsh terrain, including rocky and sandy landscapes, can make movement and navigation challenging.

Other challenges of surviving in the desert include the lack of food sources, exposure to the sun and wind, and the risk of encountering dangerous wild animals. To survive in these climates, you need to have the skills and knowledge to overcome the challenges.

In the following sections, we will explore how to find water, food, and shelter, as well as techniques for navigation, fire-making, and self-defense.

How to recognize the early signs of dehydration?

Dehydration is one of the most significant risks when surviving in the desert.

You have to drink enough water, or you’ll be feeling all dried up and thirsty with a headache, tiredness, and dizziness. And if you don’t take care of it, dehydration can seriously mess you up with heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and even death.

So make sure to drink water regularly, even if you’re not feeling thirsty. When you’re dehydrated, your body’s ability to keep cool goes down the drain, and that’s just inviting heat exhaustion and heat stroke to mess with you.

It’s also important to recognize the early signs of dehydration so that you can take action before it becomes a more severe problem.

If you experience any of the symptoms of dehydration, stop what you’re doing and rest in a shaded area. Drink water slowly to avoid overhydrating, which can lead to other health problems.

Remember, prevention is the best cure, so make sure to carry enough water with you and drink it regularly to avoid dehydration.

How to find, purify, and store water in the desert?

Finding water-

Water is essential for you to survive in the desert and finding it can be a challenging task. One of the best ways to find water is to look for signs of it, such as vegetation or animal tracks.

signs of water in the desert

Drinking cactus water is another possibility depending on the location. When I was in Sinai, which has been the most inhospitable environment I’ve been in, this wasn’t an option. Vegetation was extremely rare.

You can also dig a hole in dry river beds or a sandy area to see if water seeps in. Another option is to collect dew or condensation from plants in the early morning.

Purifying water-

Once you have found water, it’s important to purify it before drinking to avoid getting sick. You can purify water by boiling it for at least 10 minutes, using a water filter, or using water purification tablets.

I’ve never used water purification tablets in the desert but had to use them when we were at the Jungle Operations Training Center in Panama. The iodine tablets we were issued worked. I can’t honestly say that the water I drank from the canteens tasted good by any means, however I stayed hydrated.

Water storage-

It’s also essential to store water properly to avoid contamination and evaporation. You can store water in a container, or a pit dug in the ground and cover it with a cloth or a lid to keep out dry sand and debris.

Remember that water is scarce in the desert, and it’s crucial to conserve it. Avoid activities that waste water, such as washing dishes or clothes, and prioritize drinking and cooking needs.

Always carry enough water with you and have a plan in case you run out of water, such as finding a water source or signaling for help.

What are the edible plants and animals in the desert, and how to hunt or gather them?

The desert isn’t stocked with food like a grocery store, but there are edible plants and animals that can provide you with the nutrients you need to survive. It’s important to learn how to identify edible plants and animals and how to prepare them properly to avoid getting sick.

Desert plants-

For nutrition, plants are key. Cacti offer nutrient-rich food like prickly pear cactus pads or tuna fruit from saguaro cacti. Other edible vegetation like shrubs and grasses may have edible parts that could provide sustenance if no other options are available.

desert vegetation

Some common edible plants include cactus, agave, mesquite beans, and sage.


If you’re looking for animal protein, the desert offers some options such as lizards, snakes, rabbits, rodents and coyotes. You can catch them using traps, snares, or hunting with a bow and arrow.

desert animals for food

You can also find edible insects such as ants, termites, and grasshoppers.

Hunting and gathering in the desert can be time-consuming and exhausting, so it’s important to consider the risk versus reward motto. You should carry some high-energy snacks like trail mix, nuts, dried fruits, or energy bars to keep your energy levels up.

It’s also essential to understand the local laws and regulations regarding hunting and gathering and to respect the environment and wildlife.

What are the best clothes to wear in the desert?

Dressing appropriately for the desert can make a significant difference in your survival chances. The key is to protect yourself from direct sunlight, wind, and cold while staying comfortable and mobile. Here are some essential tips on how to dress:

  • Cover as much skin as possible for protection from direct sunlight.
  • Wear loose-fitting, lightweight, and light-colored clothing to reflect the sun’s heat and keep you cool.
  • Cover your head and neck with a hat or a scarf to protect yourself from the sun and prevent dehydration.
  • Wear sunglasses to reflect sunlight and protect your eyes from the sun’s UV rays. Make sure that the sunglasses you wear have the ultraviolet protection factor.
  • Wear sturdy, comfortable boots with ankle support to protect your feet from rocks and other hazards.
  • Avoid cotton clothing, which absorbs moisture and can lead to hypothermia at night.
  • Dress in layers to adjust to temperature changes and protect yourself from the cold nights.
  • Use an extra cloth, shirt or other fabric for a dust mask during wind and dust storms.

By dressing appropriately, you can avoid heat stroke and dehydration during the day and hypothermia at night, ensuring your survival in the desert.

How to navigate in the desert without a compass or a map?

Heading into areas without a compass or map can be deadly. It’s a situation where mistakes can cost you your life. It is possible to survive if you know how to navigate without tools.

Desert travel can be challenging, especially if you don’t have a compass or a map. However, there are several methods you can use to find your way:

  • Follow natural features: Look for natural features such as mountains, canyons, or rivers that can help you orient yourself and find your way.
  • Use the sun and stars: During the day, the sun can help you determine direction by casting shadows. At night, you can use the stars to find north or south by locating the North Star or the Southern Cross.
  • Create landmarks: If you’re in an area without natural features, create landmarks by stacking rocks, or using other creative ways to mark your path.
  • Use your sense of direction: Try to stay aware of your surroundings and your sense of direction. For example, you can use the position of the sun to stay oriented.

It’s also essential to prepare for navigation before you head out into the desert environment. Always carry a compass and a map and know how to read the map. Study the area beforehand and plan your route carefully.

How to build a shelter to protect yourself from the sun, wind, and cold?

Building a shelter is crucial to protect yourself from the sun, wind, and cold, and to conserve your energy.

desert shelter

Here are some tips on how to build a desert shelter:

  • Look for natural shelters: Look for natural features such as caves, overhangs, or rock formations that can provide some shelter from the elements.
  • Use materials available in the area: Use materials such as branches, leaves, grass, or rocks to create a shelter. If you have a tarp or a blanket, use it as a roof or a wall.
  • Build a low-profile shelter: Build a shelter that is low-profile to avoid attracting attention from predators or other dangers. A low-profile shelter also conserves your energy by reducing heat loss.
    • Create a windbreak: Build a windbreak using rocks or branches to protect yourself from the wind and to create a microclimate inside the shelter.
    • Build a fire nearby: Building a fire nearby can provide warmth, light, and protection from predators.

    Remember to build your shelter in a safe and secure location, away from hazards such as flash floods, rockfalls, or animal dens. By building a shelter, you can protect yourself from the elements and increase your chances.

    How to start a fire in the desert, and why it is essential?

    Fire-making is essential, as it provides warmth intense heat, light, and a way to cook food and purify water.

    friction fire starting

    Here are some tips on how to start a fire in the desert:

    • Gather dry materials: Look for dry materials such as dead branches, grass, or leaves that can be used as tinder, kindling, and fuel.
    • Use a fire starter: Use a fire starter such as matches, a lighter, or a ferrocerium rod to ignite the tinder. If you don’t have fire starters, use the friction methods or glass if you have it to start a fire.
    • Build a fire ring: Build a fire ring using rocks or sand to contain the fire and prevent it from spreading.
    • Keep the fire small: Keep the fire small to conserve fuel and avoid attracting unwanted attention if you’re in a hot zone.
    • Put out the fire completely: Put out the fire completely using sand and stir the ashes to ensure that there are no hot embers left. Do Not use your water supplies to extinguish the fire. Conserve water for drinking.

    By knowing how to start a fire in the desert, you can stay warm, cook food, boil water and signal for help if needed.

    What are the most common injuries in the desert, and how to treat them?

    Injuries are common in the desert, and it’s important to know basic first aid to treat them. Here are some of the most common injuries in the desert and how to treat them:

    • Dehydration: Dehydration can be treated by resting in a shaded area and drinking water slowly. If the condition worsens, seek medical help immediately.
    • Sunburn: Sunburn can be treated by covering the affected area and applying aloe vera or a sunburn relief cream.
    • Heat exhaustion: Heat exhaustion can be treated by resting in a shaded area, drinking water slowly, and applying cool compresses to the neck, armpits, and groin.
    • Snakebite: If you are bitten by a snake, stay calm and still, and seek medical help immediately. Do not try to suck out the venom or apply a tourniquet.
    • Cuts and wounds: Clean the wound with water and disinfectant and cover it with a sterile bandage or cloth.
    • Hypothermia: You have to maintain normal body temperature by capturing body heat by spooning or building a fire.

    It’s important to carry a basic first aid kit with you when in the desert and to know how to use it. Also, always seek medical help if you’re unsure about how to treat an injury or if the condition worsens. By knowing basic first aid, you can increase your chances of survival in the desert.

    How to protect yourself from predators and other dangers in the desert?

    Dangerous animals such as snakes, scorpions, spiders, wild dogs and coyotes are common in the desert, and it’s important to know how to protect yourself from them.

    dangerous desert animals

    Here are some tips on how to stay safe in the desert:

    • Wear protective clothing: Wear boots and long pants to protect yourself from bites and stings. Shake out your shoes and clothing before putting them on.
    • Watch your step: Watch where you step, especially at night, and avoid walking on rocks or in tall grass where predators may be hiding.
    • Keep a safe distance: Keep a safe distance from predators and avoid approaching or handling them.
    • Use a walking stick: Use a walking stick to probe the ground in front of you and to defend yourself in case of an attack.
    • Stay alert: Stay alert and aware of your surroundings. Listen for sounds and look for signs of predators.

    It’s also important to be prepared for other dangers in the desert, such as flash floods, rockfalls, or other hazards. Always carry a whistle, a signaling mirror, or other signaling devices to attract attention if needed. By being prepared and vigilant, you can protect yourself from predators and other dangers in the desert.

    How to stay positive, motivated, and focused in the desert?

    Surviving in the desert requires not only physical skills but also mental preparedness. Being mentally prepared means staying calm, focused, and positive in a survival situation. Here are some tips on how to stay mentally prepared:

    • Stay positive: Maintain a positive attitude and believe in your ability to survive. Focus on your strengths and your resources.
    • Stay calm: Stay calm and composed, and avoid panic. Panic can lead to poor decision-making and can waste valuable resources.
    • Stay focused: Stay focused on your priorities, such as finding water, shelter, and food. Avoid distractions and stay on task.
    • Stay connected: Stay connected to your family, friends, or other support networks. Knowing that you have people who care about you can give you the strength to keep going.
    • Stay prepared: Stay prepared by learning new skills, practicing survival techniques, and carrying the necessary equipment.

    By being mentally prepared, you can increase your chances of survival in the desert. Remember that desert survival tips is not only about physical strength but also mental resilience

    What are the essential tools and equipment for survival in the desert?

    Having the right tools and equipment can make a significant difference in your survival chances in the desert. Here are some essential tools and equipment you should have:

    • Water containers: Carry enough water containers to hold at least two liters (or half a gallon) of water per person per day.
    • Water filtration system: Carry a water filtration system to purify water from natural sources such as streams, rivers, or springs.
    • Knife: Carry a sturdy, sharp knife that can be used for various tasks such as cutting wood, preparing food, and self-defense.
    • Fire starter: Carry a fire starter such as matches, a lighter, or a ferrocerium rod to start a fire.
    • Shelter materials: Carry materials such as a tarp, a blanket, or branches that can be used to build a shelter.
    • First aid kit: Carry a medical kit with essential items such as bandages, disinfectant, painkillers, and antihistamines.
    • Compass and map: Carry a compass and a map of the area to navigate and orient yourself.
    • Signaling device: Carry a signaling device such as a whistle, a signaling mirror, or a flare gun to attract attention.
    • Multi-tool: Carry a multi-tool that includes various tools such as pliers, screwdrivers, and scissors.
    • Sun protection: Carry items such as sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen to protect yourself from the sun.

    By having the right tools and equipment, you can increase your chances of survival. It’s important to choose high-quality, reliable tools and to practice using them before heading out into the desert.

    How to plan and prepare for a desert emergency situation?

    Planning and preparation are essential for surviving anything. Here are some tips on how to plan and prepare for an arid climate:

    • Research the area: Research the area you plan to visit, including the terrain, climate, and wildlife. Know the local laws and regulations regarding camping, hunting, and other activities.
    • Make a survival kit: Make a survival kit that includes essential items such as water, food, a first aid kit, a compass, a map, a knife, a fire starter, and a signaling device.
    • Tell someone your plans: Inform someone of your plans, including your itinerary and expected return time. This way, someone can alert authorities if you don’t return on time.
    • Practice survival skills: Practice desert survival skills such as fire-making, shelter-building, and water purification before heading out.
    • Dress appropriately: Dress appropriately for the arid climate, with loose-fitting, lightweight, and light-colored clothing, a hat, sunglasses, and sturdy boots.
    • Carry enough water: Carry enough water with you, and have a plan in case you run out, such as finding a water source or signaling for help.
    • Avoid traveling alone: Avoid traveling alone. Traveling in a group increases your chances of survival and can provide support and resources.

    By planning and preparing, you can increase your chances of surviving and thriving in the harsh arid land.

    Final Thoughts on How To Survive In The Desert

    Knowing how to survive in the desert is critical knowledge before you find yourself in desert environments. By being prepared and knowing the essential skills and tools, you can increase your chances of survival and thrive in the harsh desolate region.

    Remember to plan and prepare, stay hydrated, stay mentally prepared, and know how to protect yourself from predators and other dangers.

    Whether you’re a survival enthusiast or an adventurer, exploring the desert can be a memorable and life-changing experience if done with proper care and preparation.

    If we missed something or want to share your thoughts on being in the desert and surviving, comment below.


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