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15 Desert Survival Tricks That Will Save Your Life

The desert is one of the most deadly places to survive. Increase your chances with these tips and tricks that will give you an edge in any hot environment.

The desert leaves hundreds of people in life threatening situations every year. Sadly, it succeeds in claiming the life of some.

With burning hot days, freezing cold nights, hardly no shelter or fire materials, deadly snakes and scorpions everywhere, and no water or food for miles around there’s no wonder the desert is quite possibly the most dangerous place to get lost in.

Perhaps if these individuals were prepared for what they were against, they may have made it home. In any survival situation, being prepared is a priority that gives you a huge advantage.

To make sure you’re prepared, we’ll review 15 desert survival tips that could save your life.


Panicking is the most dangerous thing you can do in any survival situation. You can bet It will be difficult, but you should remain calm because in a panicky state you are more likely to make poor choices and decrease your chance of survival significantly.

This is important specifically in the hot and dry desert to keep from using more water by overexerting yourself or by making mistakes and wasting resources.


You would assume it’s a good idea to remove your clothes with the heat beating down on you, right? This is one of the bigger mistakes you can make in the desert.

As you remove clothes, you risk being severely sunburned after only 30 minutes, which can lead to sun poisoning or contribute to heat stroke. Keeping your clothes on also preserves your body’s sweat which slows dehydration (and you should try not to sweat as much as possible to save even more water).


This ties in with our second tip. What you wear in any survival situation can impact your chance of making it out alive.

Specifically in the desert, you want to fully cover your skin. This means a hat, gloves, a long sleeve and thin undershirt, a long sleeve loose fitting button down shirt, and pants that zip off at the knees to turn into shorts gives you many options through layering. Bring a bandanna or two and extra socks and underwear, they get soaked in sweat.

Stick with 100% cotton materials in any hot, low humidity environments.

The newest “cool temp” or “dri-cool” and other specialized moisture wicking fabrics are not as good in a desert. They are designed to quickly pull the sweat up away from your skin, to the outer layers of the fabric where the moisture will be held until it evaporates. This makes your skin feel dry, but it robs you of the cooling effect of the sweat evaporating against your hot skin.

Pro Tip: Cotton will absorb sweat and release it effectively in a dry environment like a desert, but not in a high humidity swampy area.

As you sweat, it will soak into the cotton fibers and the garment will cling to your skin (hence the reason wet t-shirt contests are possible). This way the moisture stays in contact with your skin and can cool you via evaporation.

Polyester fabric will be either moisture trapping or moisture wicking, neither of which are ideal for cooling. A moisture trapping fabric will hold your sweat against your skin, but will not let the evaporating moisture escape easily. The result is a warm clammy garment that holds in your body heat, the exact opposite of what you want in the desert. Polyester also holds on to odors much more than cotton.


Sunglasses protect your eyes, but they also enable you to see further ahead since it cuts out the glare. You also won’t be squinting the whole time, which can contribute to headaches. Even a pair from the dollar store is much better than nothing at all.


When it comes to water it’s better to bring extra and not use it than to not bring enough and die. Those are your options, bring water or die. Sorry, but your chances of finding water in the desert is essentially zero, forget the tv shows. And no, you can’t drink a cactus either, that’s a myth.

In general, at least 3L of water per day is recommended…. if you’re in the shade sitting down! You have to stay hydrated when you’re walking around with the sun tearing away at you in the desert, so the amount increases to a minimal 2 gallons per day. Someone who is already dehydrated (80% of the population) will need even more.

If the wind is blowing 12mph, 120F super-dried air at you all day this number can shoot to 4 gallons of water a day!


You aren’t likely to find an interstate or large roadway if you’re deep in the desert, but there may be remote roadways not far from you. Should you stumble upon some dirt trail or a bonafide dirt road, it is best to remain on the road. They’re like rivers in jungles, follow them to rescue.

All roads lead somewhere, and you may even be lucky to find a vehicle or even civilization down the path. Wandering away from any roadway is not something you should do, but bear in mind some desert roads are a hundred miles long with no civilization to be seen anywhere, or they may simply lead to an abandoned hut.

Many times you’ll have to make a judgement call, for example, if you know a mountain rage is 5 miles away but you find a road going the opposite direction. I would go for the mountains.


You’re not likely to get caught in a dust storm, it’s not like the movies or on Mars, but it is something to be aware of. Dust storms are extremely fast, so don’t attempt to outrun one.

If a dust storm is heading in your direction, seek shelter behind a large rock if one is nearby. If you’re in the open, cover your skin and face immediately to keep dust out of your lungs and eyes. If you get dust in your lungs, you risk getting infected and possibly dying, and blowing sand on your skin feels about like a sand blaster.


You don’t think of floods as a possibility in the desert, but they do happen in areas known as arroyos, or “dry creeks”. The fill up quickly, within minutes, during a storm so it is ideal to avoid these areas, but watch out as they can be hard to notice.

Here in this video you can see how quickly a creek bed floods, and they do get much faster and bigger than this one. This video records a flash flood from rains over 40 miles away

The best way to be ready is to keep an eye out for cloud formations in the distance, always listen for running water, and note if you’re in a valley or depression. Even a rain storm on a mountain 50 miles away can bring a rush of flood waters to a creek bed in a matter of hours.


This is the easiest prep of all. When you travel anywhere, always let a relative or friend know where you are going, the duration of your trip, and when you expect to return. Tell them that you’ll let them know as soon as you’re back.

It’s best to tell everyone you can because people get busy and forget or really really want to assume everything is always fine (it’s human nature). Many people have only been rescued after that one friend out of five or six was worried enough to call for help. If they had only told their other friends, they would have been dead.

If you mapped out your route, share all the information such as coordinates and the planned path. Also let them know how to contact you if necessary. Going on a blind trip or not letting others know can be extremely dangerous.


Your body becomes dehydrated faster when you consume alcohol, so don’t drink it in any survival situation. Period. Mixing your dehydrating body with the heat of the desert sun is almost asking for your time to end. Remember, there aren’t medics on standby in the middle of the desert.

As a preventive measure, substitute your drunken desert party drinks with water too. I know you won’t listen to that, but it may save your life. People die every year by getting drunk in the desert and wandering off to use the bathroom, so at least have a designated sober friend watching over things.

Avoid the alcohol, wait until you return from your adventure.


The most common way people end up in bad situations in the desert is car trouble. AAA doesn’t come if you’re driving through the desert and your vehicle breaks down.

Your instincts are to roam around to search for help or to head down the road you came from, but this is not the way to go. For starters, it’s easier for those searching for you to spot your car rather than you. Your vehicle is also a repository for essential survival tools such as batteries, mirrors, gas, and other items.

Also, make sure you leave your hood open; it’s the universal sign of that you need assistance.


This primarily applies for those who are familiar with the route they’re on. Maybe you’ve traveled the route before, and you’re familiar with it. If this is the case, and to contradict the previous tip, abandoning your vehicle may not be the worst idea if you are 1001% sure you know where to go and it is close enough to walk in a day.

Before you go, leave a note so passersby know which direction you went. You don’t necessarily expect people to come, but it is important to leave a trace on your whereabouts.

If you don’t have any paper or pen, make an arrow out of rocks, sticks, car parts, foam, debris….anything…that points in the direction you’re going.


This is one tip that you would probably never think of because, naturally, if you’re tired, you want to sit and take a break. This is a bad idea as the desert sand could be 30F hotter than the air around you, if not more. The rocks aren’t going to be much cooler, so avoid putting your bare hands on them.

Pro Tip: The shade is your best friend in the desert and can save your life.

Ideally you want a resting spot in the shade, no matter how minor, because it will be significantly cooler. Bring your own shade with emergency blankets or a lightweight backpacker’s tent that is airy and open to the wind.

Not only that but by sitting on the ground you’re more likely to be stung by a scorpion, bitten by a snake, or attacked by another poisonous insect. Make sure there are no insects lurking around before relaxing, and remember that many hide under the sand during the day.


Personal Locator Beacons, or PLB’s, transmit GPS and text signals when you are in an emergency situation. Any rescue services near you receive the signal, your message, and exact location and will make their way to you immediately.

These devices let you summon a whole rescue crew at the press of a button, so these are becoming a common, go-to method to seek help in life-threatening situations. The best ones not only send a GPS signal but also allow you to send text messages to any number or cell phone in the world.

On average, these cost a couple hundred dollars, but they last a lifetime and they are worth every penny and are still much cheaper than a funeral!


Your every day cell phone isn’t going to have any reception in the desert, so it is advised to purchase a satellite phone in its place. If you don’t have the funds to buy one, some places offer rental services for a few dollars a day.

Final Thoughts

Remember that true survival isn’t a fantasy or a tv show starring you. Above all it’s always about being rescued, not how well you can bushcraft a bowl out of an armadillo.

Every one of these tips will help and they will give you an edge, but ultimately a satellite phone or a PLB is the difference of life or death for many adventurers every year, so make them a priority if you plan to go into any wilderness.

The cost of these devices may be high, but they’re still cheaper than a funeral.

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Meet The Author

Sergeant Survival

Sergeant Survival

I spread the news of disaster preparedness and homesteading skills to the masses. My mission is to teach the keyboard commandos out there some real life skills.


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  1. As a bona fide Desert Rat with a few decades of experience in remote desert terrain, I would like to offer a few supplementary pointers and observations.

    I will say that this is, on the whole, a good introductory article to the topic of desert survival. I would also say, however, that there are no “tricks.” The desert is not your friend. You cannot fool it.

    Tip #1: People that panic when they think they are lost or stranded will likely end up dead. Poor judgement will probably be the reason they got themselves into a survival situation in the first place. If you began your trek ill-prepared and poorly equipped, every boneheaded decision that you make brings you one step closer to becoming a sun-blackened corpse; which only takes about 6 hours to achieve.

    Suggestion: Consider making a signal fire for rescue. Daytime smoke or night time illumination in places where there should be no fires will draw attention (eventually). Just don’t be an idiot and start a wildfire.

    Tip #2: Any member of a Search and Rescue team will tell you that if they start finding discarded clothing, the body of the search target will generally be within 50 yards. People start stripping off their clothes because their brains are fried.

    Tip #3: Excellent advice. You want your perspiration to provide a cooling effect. Polyester is the worst thing you can wear. Use a hat with the widest brim possible to extend shade over your ears, face, neck and shoulders.

    Tip #5: Unless you are already intimately familiar with your locale, the probability of finding water is nil, and striking out across unfamiliar terrain in search of it is an invitation to disaster. My rule of thumb for a weekend outing in remote areas is two 5 gallon water containers, plus the contents (ice, frozen water bottles, etc. in two ice chests that are in the bed of my truck. And, I should add, I know where I’m going, I’m generally with another vehicle (similarly equipped), and I already know the reliable and seasonal sources of water in the area.

    Tip #6: In my state (Arizona), lost/disoriented people have died from hyperthermia even though they were within 100 yards of a paved highway. Remote areas are laced with old stage coach routes, mining trails and abandoned 2-track roads. Just because you have found a “road” doesn’t mean that anyone will pass your way for days, or even weeks.

    Tip #7: Dust storms are not just possible, they are inevitable. Having said that, they generally blow through your location within a half-hour. The good news is that temperatures generally drop considerably. If you’re really fortunate, rain will be right behind the dust.

    Tip #8: Arroyos and normally dry washes do not begin with a sudden rush of water. The flow may appear minimal and slow moving initially, and there is NO sound. If you see the onset of water flow, get out of the wash quickly.

    Suggestion: It is almost always easier to hike above the arroyo/wash than in the bottom. If you think of them as mother nature’s idea of a drainage ditch, you will realize that they are full of sand and boulders. It takes considerably more energy to hike in a wash than it does to hike above it.

    Tip #9: Always provide someone with GPS coordinates for the base location where you will be. If you are exploring a route, indicate your planned entry and exit points, including when you expect to enter and leave. It is a critical matter of your survival to understand that many remote areas have no (zero) cell phone service. If you get in a jam you may very well be on your own.

    Tip #13: Whether you remain with/near your vehicle, or decide to strike out on a trail, always have some means of producing portable shade. This means that you should have a tarp (or equivalent) and the means to erect or secure it with some type or cord.

    Suggestion: Higher elevations (such as the top of a hill) will provide a better breeze. Locate your shady rest area where the air flow provides the greatest benefit. As a bonus, higher elevations improve your ability to spot vehicles or inhabited areas.

    Tip #14: I take a serious exception to the statement “Any rescue services near you receive the signal, your message, and exact location and will make their way to you immediately.” Contrary to the mobile phone commercials on TV, there are many areas in the remote desert where cell phone signals are non-existent. If you have the energy (and water) to climb to the top of a peak, you may be able to make a call or send a text message – provided that your signal is not blocked by an intervening mountain range.
    As an alternative, I would suggest that you consider the use of programmable amateur radio units with properly tuned antennas.

    Closing thought: You do not learn the desert by looking out your window while driving across I-10 from West Texas to California.

    1. Good advice. I will say that on your tip #14, they do actually reach essentially anywhere in the world as long as you have a clear view of the sky, they’re not like mobile phones and don’t use a mobile network.

      Rescue finders (PLB’s) use private satellite networks and not cell towers so as long as you can see the sky they can send a signal that will be relayed.

      1. If you can afford it, go for it. However, it is not a substitute for knowing how to survive while waiting for a mythical PLB team to show up.

  2. Great article for a heads up. I live in the high deserts of southeastern Oregon, and I will have to say that very few areas out here have mobile reception, it is to say the least non existent in probably half if not more of the “wild country”. Sometimes a repeating try on a text will get out but sometimes that doesn’t even work.

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15 Desert Survival Tricks That Will Save Your Life

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