When driving or walking through the desert, the road seems endless. There is nothing around for miles and miles. Nothing but desert plants, dry sand, and heat. If your car should break down, and you find yourself stuck in the desert, learn how to conserve water and survive until rescue.

  1. Become mobile only after the sun goes down to minimize heat exhaustion.
    2. Stay in a shaded shelter during the day.
    3. Build a fire and use the smoke to signal help.
    4. Find ground water sources near or underneath green vegetation, canyons, dry river beds or rocks.
    5. Rest if you experience heat exhaustion.
    6. Stay away from dangerous animals.

Wear clothing that minimizes sweat loss. Most of your body’s water loss happens through perspiration. Cover as much skin as possible with loose, light-weight clothing. This will trap the sweat against your skin, slowing evaporation and therefore water loss. For this reason, it’s probably best to go with a cotton undershirt rather than a wicking fabric. Cover it all with a light windbreaker.

  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and gloves.
  • Pack wool or fleece clothing. If an emergency occurs, you may be traveling at night, when it can get quite cold.
  • Light-colored clothing reflects more heat, but dark clothing usually provides better protection from UV light, which causes sunburn. If possible, find white clothing that’s labeled with a UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor)

Bring lots of extra water. Whenever you enter a desert, bring more water than you expect. While walking in sunshine and 40ºC (104ºF) heat, the average person loses 900 mL (30 oz) of sweat every hour. In an emergency situation, you’ll be thankful for any water you carried.

  • Divide the water you’re carrying among several containers. This minimizes the amount of water you can lose to one leak.
  • Store the excess in a cool spot in your vehicle, away from direct sunlight.
  • Bring food that packs the most nutrition in the least size and weight. Energy bars, pemmican, jerky, and trail mix are popular choices. Do your research, experiment beforehand, and be prepared. When wheeled vehicles break down, it’s just your two legs and the path to the next town, and you don’t want to be carrying anything nonessential.
    • Include some foods with salt and potassium, which are lost in sweat. These will help you avoid heat exhaustion and retain more water. However, if you are dehydrated, excess salt can make you feel worse.
    • Food is not a priority in a desert emergency. If you are out of water, only eat the minimum required to function.
  • Pack survival equipment. Here are the bare essentials for a survival kit:
    • Sturdy emergency blankets
    • Cords or rope
    • Water purification tablets
    • First aid kit
    • Fire starters
    • Powerful flashlight or headlamp. LEDs last longest.
    • Knife
    • Compass
    • Signal mirror
    • Goggles and a dust mask or bandana (for dust storms)
  • Become nocturnal. In a desert survival situation, you do not want to be moving around during the day. The cooler night air enables you to travel farther and faster with minimum danger of heat exhaustion. In hot climates, this single decision will save your body about three liters (three quarts) of water per day.

Stay in a shelter during the day. If you don’t have a shaded car to stay in, string cords between a pair of objects in a place that gets shade most of the day. Drape a sturdy emergency blanket over the cords. Place a few pieces of brush on top of the blanket, then cover it with another emergency blanket (this one can be a thin Mylar sheet). The gap of air between the two blankets insulates the shelter, keeping it cooler.

  • Build this in the evening or at night. If you build it during the day, you’ll trap heat in.
  • You can use an existing rock overhang or cave instead, but approach carefully as an animal may be using it.