Desert Survival Guide


When we think of extreme survival situations it’s hard not to come to the topic of desert survival. The desolate landscape and wild temperature swings from blistering daytime heat to below freezing nights make desert survival a uniquely difficult challenge. The plants and animals that call this harsh climate home have evolved unique physiological adaptations so that they not only survive, but thrive in this unforgiving landscape.

However, human physiology isn’t built to withstand this climate naturally so it’s more a matter of what you know and how you prepared than how you’re built when surviving the desert. In this desert survival guide we’ll be looking at the potential dangers, lifesaving tools and need to know tips for desert survival.

Dangers in the Desert

The Climate

The most obvious challenge to desert survival is the desert climate itself. Dry heat and blistering sun coupled with stiff winds can make survival in this climate a miserable experience.

Add to that the fact that the temperature plummets at night, going from highs above 90 degrees Fahrenheit to lows below 32 degrees and you get a climate that wreaks havoc on the human body. It’s for this reason that we find that heat and cold related illness are some of the biggest obstacles to desert survival.

Desert Illnesses


With the intense daytime temperatures sunburn, dehydration and heat stroke are the big three that come to mind when thinking of temperature related illness in the desert. However, there is one even more dangerous condition these temperatures can trigger. This condition is called hyponatremia.

Hyponatremia is when sodium levels in the body drop below normal. Symptoms include headache, confusion or altered mental states, seizures, muscle spasms, weakness and decrease in consciousness that is swiftly proceed by coma and finally death. This condition can be brought about by excessive, prolonged sweating, something that is rather difficult to avoid in a desert survival sender, or the excessive consumption of water diluting the normal amount of sodium in the bloodstream.

The best way to combat this condition is electrolyte replacement supplements, usually in the form of a powder. These supplements ensure that your consumption of water combined with excessive perspiration doesn’t result in your untimely demise.

Heat Stroke

Heat Stroke is a serious condition that can lead to death. It happens when the human body is exposed for a long period to high temperatures combined with dehydration. A heat stroke prevent the body from regulating its temperature normally, leading to body failure (brain, internal organs).

Symptoms of a heat stroke include headaches, nausea, vomiting, confusion, high body temperature, red skin, hallucinations and fainting. If you start to feel any of these symptoms, your life is at risk.

To save your life, find a spot in the shade, drink water and use any mean you have to cool down your body. That includes pouring water on yourself and fanning yourself with anything you have.


Another condition we don’t think about when discussing desert survival is hypothermia. In sharp contrast to the blistering daytime heat the nights are often very cold, sometimes freezing. Having sweat all day in the heat the possibility for hypothermia becomes very real. One way to combat hypothermia is to limit your amount of activity during the day or drying your cloths at night by a fire. This way you stay warm and dry when the temperature drops.

Wild Life

In addition to the heat and cold related dangers, wildlife poses a unique challenge in the desert climate. The desert landscape is home to all manner of poisonous creatures, including scorpions, snakes centipedes and spiders. There are also predators to consider in the more temperate desert climates such as Gila Monsters, bobcats and coyotes. The majority of these creatures are nocturnal or emerge as the temperature drops closer to night fall. It’s for this reason that you need to be particularly vigilant as night approaches and light a fire to keep warm and deter animals during the night.

Plant Life

When it comes to plant life in the desert the single most dangerous plant is the cactus. This is not because of the spines, which most desert plants have adapted to deter foraging animals, but the Hollywood myth that has persisted that cactus are filled with potable water. The truth, however, is quite to the contrary. The majority of cactus in the desert actually contain a gelatin-like pulp in there center rich in alkaloids that make it toxic for humans. These alkaloids cause nausea and diarrhea which further exacerbate the issue of dehydration in a desert survival scenario.

However, it is true that some species do contain drinkable liquid, namely the prickly pear, but should only be utilized in emergency situations. Be advised that consumption of these liquids on an empty stomach increases the likelihood of experiencing ill effects. You can however obtain water from the fruit of the cactus.


Seeking shelter from the volatile desert climate is an important part of desert survival.  When it comes to desert shelters, they fall in two categories natural and manmade structures.


If you have a choice it’s preferable to convert a natural structure like a cave or rocky outcropping. This is because construction materials in the desert can often be difficult to find. Be aware that when converting a natural formation into your shelter that you may come in contact with some creatures, especially rodents, snakes and spiders.

Man Made

If constructing your own, your best bet is often to dig a trench with mounds on either side to buffer the elements and line the inside with a tarp or shrubbery. Cover the top with your poncho or shrubbery.

Whatever your choice, you want the shelter to be just large enough for you to ensure that the structure retains heat as the temperature drops. The larger the shelter, the more area that needs to be heated and the more likely you are to freeze during the night.

Finding water

More so than food or fire, water is essential to survival in any survival scenario; especially in a desert survival scenario where the amount of water needed increases.

We can survive 3 weeks without food, but only 3 days without water. Drop that into a desert survival scenario and the time drops exponentially. In order to survive the intense desert heat a bare minimum of roughly 3 quarts a day is required to maintain proper cognitive and physical functions. The body runs on water, being approximately 60% water, and when water isn’t being introduced the system breaks down.


There are a few simple ways to obtain water in the desert. One is the aforementioned cactus fruit. Depending on your location in the type of cactus fruit will vary, some closely resembling the rest of the cactus that isn’t edible. In the case of cactus fruit if you can tell the difference it’s a very viable source of water in a desert survival situation and will make up a large portion of your emergency water supply.

Plant Transpiration

Another useful method of obtaining water is through transpiration. Transpiration is the process by which plants draw water up through the roots and allow it to evaporate on its leaves. You can collect this water by sealing the leafy portion of a plant in a plastic bag. This process can take quite some time, especially in the desert where plants are adapted to retain their water. Before you seal your plant shake it vigorously to dislodge any insects or particulates that could find their way into your water collection bag.


When it comes to finding food in the desert, your options are severely limited. Even in the more temperate desert climates where roadrunners, meerkats and other small game can be found actively hunting these creatures is out of the question in a desert survival scenario.

The fact of the matter is it just burns too much water and calories with no guarantee of success.

So how do you find food?

Well the best way to obtain food is the consumption of wild edibles. Cactus fruit is your best bet when it comes to wild edibles if you don’t know the wild edible species in your area. All cactus fruits are edible.

Trapping is another way to obtain food. You can make a simple trap by weaving twigs into a basket shape with a closed off bottom. Create an opening big enough to let them in with sharp sticks and cactus thorns facing inward to keep them inside. You can bait the inside of your trap with cactus fruit or a bit of meat. Always cook whatever you catch thoroughly before eating it.

Survival Kit

When constructing a desert survival pack the idea is to remain lightweight while ensure we have everything needed to survive. Here I’m going to list a few must haves in your survival kit, regardless of the region you find yourself in. Depending on where you intend to be trekking you will definitely want to make some additions, but in terms of bare bones these are the essentials.

  • Fixed blade knife
  • Waterproof matches and lighter
  • Flint
  • Map of area and compass
  • Aid kit
  • Silcloth Poncho
  • Water source( camelback, canteen, water bladder)
  • Food rations( power bars, raisins, non-perishables)
  • Duct Tape
  • Penlight/flashlight
  • Shovel/E-tool


Desert survival is not to be taken lightly. While using these tips may save your life there is no substitute for proper planning. Avoiding a survival scenario is the greatest defense against the desert climate. Know your area and don’t push the exploration beyond the limits of your understanding of the area. The surest way to become lost and stuck in a survival scenario is overconfidence in your ability to get back to civilization. The desert is a harsh and unforgiving climate that is not to be played with.

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