Preparing for and survival in desert if stranded or lost including basic survival tactics and authoritative sources

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Preparation and Survival in the Desert
Link check: 23 May 2006

Basic Survival Tactics
Authoritative Sources

Survival expert Marjorie Woodruff source
Survival expert and desert survival trainer David Alloway source

If you can not contact the above, see below for a condensed version:

Basic Survival Tactics return to top

If you are lost in the desert:
First, before you read this, if you are in the sun or in a car which is not air conditioned find some shade, a rock, anywhere outside the car - anything to keep the heat from building up. Also do not sit on the hot ground. Elevate yourself somehow above it.

If able to establish communications:
Give where you started from and where you were going, how you are traveling, where you think you are, how long you have been gone. Also, who is with you. How much water do you have. Condition of transport. Who expects you. How to contact. Your contact data where you think you are now.

Until someone comes, there are four chapters of one of the above survival guides on-line which you should read -
The Car as Survival Kit, How to Signal Searchers, Making the Decision to Stay or Walk out, Conservation of Water by Survival expert Marjorie Woodruff THe ABCs of Desert Survival

If you cannot contact it, the following may help.

Stay calm and for the time being do not move and do not let anyone else with you take off in some direction even if they think they know where they are going.

Summarizing from the two sources above: Basically, unless you have to, do not move from where you are. Your best chances of being found are using the right signaling, keeping as cool as possible, drinking water. Food is not important because you can last many days without it.

However, drink when thirsty. Saving it does not help According to one source, "...water should be consumed and not hoarded. A person without water can survive for two days at a temperature of 120 degrees." [Woodruff] This is without moving. That doesn't mean that you should wait 2+ days to drink. Drink to satisfy your thirst and do not ration it. Then your body will be in better shape to continue when you run out. On the other hand, walking in the sun without water limits your survival to hours. Therefore, limit your activity during the day and if you must walk, walk at night.

The one thing your body does need, if you have it, is water. Eating, drinking alcohol, smoking, and salt consume water in your body so these should be avoided.

Also, if you have a car, do not think that it alone is enough to alert searching planes unless you have put out some signal, like a large X on the ground made out of some material, or a smoke fire. They may think you are not the ones they are looking for - just someone who has stopped to enjoy the view, or a rest stop - especially if you are not where you or they think you should be.

Some condensations of what the experts say:

Do not go into or across a desert area without taking a few items with you just in case
small magnifying glass
small lighter (leak proof)
waterproofed matches
fishing line
needle ∓ thread
rope or cord
instant soup
sugar tablets
water purification tablets
flashlight and spare batteries
compass and map
mosquito repellent
tea bags
first aid kit or at least Band-Aids, antiseptic cream, adhesive tape, elastic bandage
plastic bags
medications needed
extra water - (if car) at least 1 quart a day per person for 3 days
hat and long sleeved shirt and pants
large piece of white sheeting
plastic sheeting

but be sure to also read what the experts take with them.

Moving from where you are
If you are lost or broken down and you are on a major road or track - do not move.
If you know that someone expects you to arrive and will sound the alarm when you don't, don't move. Move only if the above are not true and then only if you are backtracking a road or human track, or have a map and compass and know how to use them and know where you are going, and where you are starting from. Otherwise, don't move. Your chances of someone coming across you are probably higher than your chances out in the desert on foot without water and without a clear direction even if you think you know where you are going.

Attract attention

Rescue planes or any passing aircraft,
make a very large X on the ground with torn clothing, or the sheet which you should have brought with you if you had read the above before you set off. Remember that whatever you use must be able to be seen from fairly high in the air. For land based search parties, a fire at night or a smoke signal by day must be seen up to 5 miles away. So if you are in a depression or valley, you should get to higher ground or at least have the signal on higher ground for land or sea based search but you yourself should stay in shade.
During day, burn a tire with the tube taken out, if you are with your car
During the night, light a fire or have sticks of wood or flammable material ready to be lit if you hear a plane.
Use a mirror to flash any possible rescuer.
Use 3 blasts on the horn, or from a whistle if someone comes near. Three may be considered a signal and not random.

Conserve on loss of fluids from your body
Stay out of the sun.
Do not sit inside your vehicle or plane (heats up and causes you to loose more water).
Any shade, rocks, sand dune, etc. will help you conserve on internal water loss.
Do not sit on the hot ground, elevate yourself by putting something under you.

If there is no shade, you can remain cooler if you dig a long burrow in the sand or ground and place a tarp over it anchored down by sand or rocks and slide in under it.


Do not save on the water.
When you are thirsty, drink. When you are not thirsty but have not drunk for a period of time, drink anyway. Drinking little bits to save on water, does not help you. Due to the heat, you are losing water at an increased rate and must replace it.

All the tricks on how to get water in the desert are for the experts.
but here they are anyway.
1 water can be found if you dig down at the outside bend of a dried up river bed.
2 small amounts of water can be captured by putting plastic bags over the ends of a branch with leaves on a tree or plant.
3 small amounts of water can be captured by digging a hole about half the length of a man's body and placing a cup in the middle at the bottom of the hole and a tarp or plastic sheeting over the hole weighted down on the sides so it slopes down to the cup
Of course, if you happen to find an oasis, you are in luck unless there are some dead animals lying about.

Eating is not so important. The normal individual can actually last for an extended period without it. Its hard at first, but becomes easier over time. The average person can survive up to 15 to 20 days without food under most conditions.

Don't go barefoot or cut holes in your shoes to keep them from rubbing. The sand will get in and finish your feet off very quickly. Wearing the long clothing insulates you and keeps the body from perspiring as much so there is not the direct water loss you have when you skin is exposed.


Now the True Experts Top of page

Marjorie Woodruff source
Has a great chapter on survival kits (person on foot or car), and first aid and car repair kits
On line guide includes chapters on -
Avoid Trouble
Survival Kits
The Car as Survival Kit
How to Signal Searchers
Making the Decision to Stay or Walk out
Conservation of Water
Finding Water in the Desert
Special Problems with Heat and Cold
Desert Plants
Desert Animals
Think Survival

Top expert and desert survival trainer David Alloway
May 24, 1957 - Mar 11, 2003 In Memorium

See his Desert Survival Primer at source Really worth the read
and his book - Alloway, David, Desert Survival Skills, 2000 University of Texas Press

"It is unfortunate that many people equate deserts with a hostile environment that conspires against human life. In the popular media, desert areas seem to be considered to be 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, and not view it as an antagonist is the first step of desert survival. I teach desert survival classes for Texas Parks ∓ Wildlife Department, and our class philosophy is not to fight the desert, but to become part of its ecosystem. Being prepared is an obvious benefit...

The basics of desert survival? Prepare for the worst. Control panic. Use your brain. Use energy and water wisely. Be ready to signal. Don't listen to your stomach. Most of all, do not fear the desert. For many of us, it is home." David Alloway

Page approved by Dr. Marjorie Woodruff

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