You are here


How to Survive: In the Desert

Increase your chances of enduring until help arrives with these basic tips

Both beautiful and deadly, the desert presents unique challenges for a Soldier—whether on a mission or visiting recreationally. Prepare yourself for this harsh environment by understanding these techniques and dangers.


You’ll be tempted to shed clothing if you’re moving during the day, but remember you’ll need to cover up at night. Exposed skin will cost you huge amounts of water through sweat. Loose long sleeves and pant legs are ideal, providing air circulation and sun protection. And wear (or make) a hat whenever you’re in the sun.

Avoid breaking a sweat when moving, as you’ll have to replenish each drop of perspiration you shed.


When seeking shelter, prioritize shade over just about everything else. If you’ve moved all night, make sure your shelter will shield you from the sun when it rises.

Sergeant First Class Dionicio Zarrabal of the Iron Training Detachment, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 1st Armored Division, at Fort Bliss, TX, is the NCOIC of the new Desert Warrior Course, designed to teach Soldiers small-unit tactics in a desert environment. He warns against using the first shelter you come to. “Old buildings and caves provide protection from the elements, but they also attract spiders, scorpions, mites and other wildlife,” he says. “Look for natural formations—rocky crevices, bushes, small depressions and large rocks. Avoid low ground like ravines, narrow valleys or creek beds since they collect heavy, cold air at night and tend to harbor more insects.”


Animal tracks or flocks of birds can point the way to water sources. Also, while there are some ways to procure water (like collecting dew from plants or creating a solar still), consider the risk versus the reward; you’ll often expend more water sweating while building them than you’ll collect.

Before eating plants, test their edibility. Rub them on sensitive skin, like the back of your knee, then hold them in your mouth  without chewing, then chew them for 15 minutes without swallowing. Allow time between steps to check for adverse effects.

If you’re low on water, avoid eating, no matter how hungry you get. You’ll die from dehydration long before starvation, and eating will make you dehydrate faster.

Don’t be afraid to join the 80 percent of the world that eats insects, good protein sources you’ll find under rocks and downed trees. “Almost anything that crawls, swims, walks or flies can be eaten,” Zarrabal says. “Avoid insects that sting or bite, are hairy or brightly colored, and [have] a pungent odor.” Pull off wings (and any poisonous bits) before chowing down.


Seek shade whenever possible. And even then, it’s critical to protect your skin from the relentless sun. Mud is nature’s sunblock, forming a physical barrier between your skin and harmful UV rays. Even when it dries and cracks off, it leaves behind a protective residue.


In most desert environments, blowing sand will likely obscure all but large signs of your presence. Smoke is one of the best ways to be seen, so start as many fires as you can if you’re trying to attract attention.

Mark your direction of travel using some means viewable by aircraft (like arranging large downed branches) each time you start to move.




The average person can last only three to four days without water, even in the best conditions. Finding water in the desert is all about reading your environment—go to high ground and look for bright greenery, which is likely near water. Don’t assume water’s not there just because you can’t see it; find a dry creek bed and dig down several inches. If there’s not enough standing water to drink but the sand is wet, use a piece  of clothing to soak up moisture and squeeze it into your mouth.


Extreme heat combined with dehydration can cause your body to shut down. Fend off heatstroke by avoiding sun exposure, limiting exertion and not eating. Think of the amount of work you’re doing like you’re rationing your sweat output. Expend it only on something worthwhile.

Cold-weather injuries.

The desert climate is a double-edged sword: daytime heat will dry you out, but dropping nighttime temperatures can hurt you too, if you’re unprepared. Move during temperate times—likely just after sunrise and around sunset.



Despite what you’ve seen in Westerns, most cacti are poisonous, or at least noxious. Prickly pear, however, is a source of food and at least a small amount of liquid through its juicy fruit. Find out how to spot it at



For more survival skills, refer to your U.S. Army Survival Manual, and read 20 more wilderness survival tips from GX magazine.


Illustration by Kyle Hilton