Survival Skills: Stranded in the Desert
Survival situations come in all shapes and sizes; that’s why it’s important to always be ready. But I wonder sometimes, if we are limiting our perspective on survival. The classic situation that everyone teaches in survival is to be lost in the woods. But what if you’re trapped in the desert instead?
Desert survival is one of the most challenging survival scenarios you can encounter. Unlike most other survival scenarios, the desert leaves you with little that you can use to survive. You are more dependent on what you bring in with you, than what you can find there. You also need to make the best use you can of the little that the desert provides.
The biggest problem in the desert is lack of water. Coupled with that is the fact that the heat in the desert will cause you to sweat profusely, drawing the water out of your body. So, dehydration is a serious issue, one that you need to be constantly aware of. More than anything, desert survival consists of finding ways of avoiding dehydration.
Avoid Losing Water
To start with, do everything you can to avoid losing your body’s water. That basically means protecting yourself from the heat and sun. So, stay in the shade as much as possible. If you have a tarp or tent, make use of it as a sun shade. If not, look around at what the environment offers. Rock outcroppings can offer a place to hide out from the sun.
The classic image of an Arab has them wearing a white, loose-fitting robe, that appears to be made of several layers of cloth. There’s a good reason for this. That robe is intended to insulate their body from the hot air around them. The body’s temperature is 986oF, so when it’s hotter than that outside, it helps to insulate form the heat, just as it helps to insulate from the cold in the wintertime.
In addition to the insulating value, the white color of that robe reflects sunlight, helping to keep them from getting hotter. It also traps their sweat, keeping it close to their skin, so that as it evaporates, it will help cool their body temperature.
Wearing a heavy coat in the hot sun may seem a bit strange to you and I, but in the desert, it will do the same thing that the Arab’s robes do. Ultimately, that will help you to keep cooler.
Any work that you do should be done at night, when it is cooler. Actually, it is likely to seem outright cold at night, as the desert doesn’t hold the heat well. It can easily drop 40 or 50 degrees once the sun goes down.
While the desert typically doesn’t have much water, that’s not to say that it never has water. Pretty much any desert receives rain at times. You can tell, looking at the land, by where there is vegetation. Plants will only grow where there is water.
There may be dry stream beds in the desert, with trees or plants growing by them. That’s a good sign. It means that there has been water there. It could also indicate subterranean water still exists in the stream bed. Look to find a low point and see if there is any mud. If there is, start digging.
With water being such a precious commodity in the desert, you can’t afford to waste any of it. So, everything that contains water must be distilled in a solar still, removing impurities and providing you with drinking water. This includes such things as that muddy water you get out of the dry stream bed, plant life, urine and antifreeze from your car’s engine. Don’t let any of it go to waste.
To distill the water out of those, you’ll need to make a solar still. This is probably the most important desert survival skill there is. The still requires a piece of plastic sheeting (preferably clear), a container to catch the water, a small rock and a piece of hose or tubing.
The still itself is nothing more than a hole in the ground. Dig a hole about two feet deep in the middle, and as big across as your plastic will cover; angle the sides. Then, put the container in the bottom of the hole, seated well so that it can’t spill. Anchor the end of the hose in the bottom of that container and run it out to a spot outside the area that the plastic will cover.
Now that you have the bottom part of the still, fill the hole with cuttings from the local plants, cutting cactus leaves open to expose the pulp inside. You can also pour other liquids into the hole, whether urine or anti-freeze. The still will get the water out of all of them.
Finally, cover the hole with the plastic sheeting, anchoring and sealing it all the way around. Place a small stone over the center of the sheeting, directly over the container in the bottom of the still.
The sun will warm the earth inside the still to a higher temperature than the ambient air temperature. This will cause the water in the ground, plant life and whatever else you put in the still to evaporate. Rising to the plastic sheeting, the cooler ambient air will cause it to condensate; running down the plastic, it will drip into the container, where you can drink it through the tube.
It will take more than one still to produce enough water to keep you alive, so make sure that you pack enough plastic sheeting and hose in your desert survival kit to make at least two for every person in your group. As long as you have those materials, you’ll be able to find water.