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Survival / April 30, 2017

Don’t die alone in the desert

Written by: Brad Shannon

Every year, hundreds of people are found dead in the deserts of the American Southwest.

We don’t want you to be one of them. So we asked three wilderness survival experts for tips on not dying in our nation’s big dry places.

1. Tell someone before you go

If no one knows you’re lost in the desert, no one will come looking for you.

“Lost civilians are typically found within 72 hours,” says Steve Dessinger, who runs the renowned Boulder Outdoor Survival School. “[That’s] well within the bounds of when the need for water becomes critical.” But most of those lost hikers are reported missing by a friend, family member, or group member.

Email or text your route to a friend or relative before you leave on a solo adventure, even if it’s a simple day hike or remote drive. Failing all else, put a note on the dashboard of your car with an estimated return date.


2. Go prepared

Obviously, you’ll never plan to get lost in the desert. But you should still prepare to.

Pack extra water. “Carry as much as possible,” says Mel Otten, MD, former president of the Wilderness Medical Society. Otten personally carries a full two gallons of water of each of his desert hikes. Even if you’re hesitant to carry that weight, be sure to stock your car with a few gallons.

Otten also recommends that desert hikers pack an emergency whistle and signal mirror. A mirror’s flash can be seen for miles in the desert, and a whistle will allow you to signal faraway hikers even if your throat is parched. (We sell a clip-on emergency whistle for $10.95).

It only takes a few seconds to share your plans with a friend or family member. Just text someone your location and estimated return time before you leave.

We sell this survival whistle in our shop. Just sayin'.

3. Conserve sweat, not water

Don’t die with a canteen full of water, and don’t do things that cause you to sweat if you don’t need to. Stay covered and inactive during the hottest part of the day (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and don’t exert yourself if you don’t need to.

Wear a hat, preferably with a large, floppy brim, sunglasses, long sleeves, long pants, and sturdy shoes. A bandana can help when wind kicks up dust and sand. Choose well-ventilated clothing that allows air circulation but keeps the sun off.


4. Avoid ground level

The hottest part of the desert is the surface of the ground. To insulate yourself, Otten suggests digging a hole, making a shade shelter, or using a cot, air mattress, or sleeping pad to get above or below ground level.

“Heat flows from hot to colder objects. Insulate yourself against that.”

5. Drink water, not pee

Despite what you may have seen Bear Grylls do, don’t drink your urine—or anyone else’s.

“It’s medically unsound,” says Otten. “Your kidneys are very good at filtering, and it would be like drinking sea water. It has concentrated levels of sodium, potassium. You can’t drink sea water—it’s 3% saline, and the human body is 0.9% saline.”

Otten also advises against using cacti as a water source. The effort and sweat it takes to get into a cactus is likely not worth any water you might get out of it. And many types of cactus contain chemicals that can give you diarrhea, which will only dehydrate you further.

We don't care what Bear Grylls told you. Don't drink pee.

6. Keep your priorities straight

In any wilderness survival situation, experts apply the so-called “rule of three”: just three minutes without air will kill you, as will three hours in extreme heat or cold, three days without water, and three weeks without food. Most people deteriorate mentally after about three months without social contact.

This rule provides a cold but effective system of priorities: air > shelter > water > food > social. When making decisions in a survival situation, be hesitant to risk something on the high end of this hierarchy for something on the low end.

Don’t abandon your water source to find food, for example—and don’t leave a sheltered area out of fear that you’ll worry your friends or family (social).

Did we miss something? Email your survival tips to [email protected]

about the author

Brad Shannon

Brad Shannon is a cyclist, runner, triathlete; soccer coach, player and referee; gear / gadget lover; and storyteller. He’s a fan of dogs and the weather and craft beer scene in northern Colorado. His current favorite item is his 3D-printed Inconel bottle opener.

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