Bill and I have walked around 9,000 miles across some of the major deserts of the world. They include the Sahara, Gobi, Death Valley, Mojave, and Sonora deserts. Hot desert environments are harsh, sometimes dangerous and always challenging! The temperatures are extreme and as the saying goes, everything in the desert either "bites, sticks, or stings."
Drought and dropping water tables are an ever-increasing concern in many of the world's deserts. Deserts can be hostile places of little rain with horizons that at times seem impossibly far. We have walked crossed vast plains that stretched before us in naked folds and across places where the baked earth appeared nearly sterilized by extreme drought that had long ago chased all living creatures to more friendly environments. Deserts can consume the careless traveler.
But the unforgiving and unrelenting deserts are also places where indigenous cultures have survived for centuries. In places where at first the surroundings appear lifeless, a closer look reveals small creatures and tiny plants that have adapted to the harsh conditions. Many areas of the American Deserts are a vast garden of flora and fauna.
Essential Gear for the Desert
- Map and compass
- Sunglasses and ski goggles
- Headlamp/flashlight/extra batteries
- Basic First-aid supplies
- Snake bite kit
- Water purification tablets
- Waterproof Matches
- Emergency shelter - plastic tube tarp
- Rain gear
- Extra food
- Extra water
- Extra clothing
- Duct tape
- Leather palm gloves
- Bandana and scarf
A desert expedition requires planning for all eventualities right down to the tiniest detail. First comes months of training, figuring logistics and gathering the right equipment. Training consists of long endurance mountain hikes with heavy packs, aerobic exercise, weight training and mental preparation. Extreme isolation is an accepted feature of many desert regions. As a desert hiker you should plan for total self-sufficiency with the ability to get yourself out of tough situations. Preventive medicine is an important aspect of expedition planning. Up to date immunizations are required according to prevalent regional diseases. One often overlooked health consideration is attention to dental problems that could prove painful in remote areas.
Water - Take Enough
Deserts are known for their lack of water. Never ration water. In the dry, hot desert air, the human body loses water through sweating and with every breath. Drink regularly and abundantly even if you are not thirsty. Sipping water does not supply the brain and vital organs with enough quantity. People have been found dead from dehydration with water still in their canteens because they rationed their water in the belief that sipping a little now and then would be sufficient. A good rule of thumb is one and a half gallons of drinking water per day. This does not include water for cooking or washing.
Always plan to take more water than you think you will need. Never travel away from camp for more a quarter of a mile without at least a quart of water. A good rule of thumb is a minimum of one and a half gallons of drinking water per person per day. Filter all water or use water purification tablets.
By staying in the shade, limiting activity to cooler times - early mornings and evenings - and drinking sufficient water, your chances for survival increase greatly, even in times of high temperatures and despite walking long distances each day. In case of a water emergency, learn to watch for patches of green vegetation. Watch for converging animal trails to follow or abnormal numbers of birds congregating in one area. Learn the signs that might reveal a water source. Contrary to logic, springs are sometimes found where the land is uplifted, such as higher mountains adjacent to a rocky lowlands.
Sometimes you can find a water seep at the outside bend of a dry river or creek bed at its lowest point. If you find water and it is brown from the sand it will not be harmful. However treat the water with purification tablets to kill bacteria. If there is not enough water to run into a water bottle, use anything that will soak up the water, even a sock. If you find fruits that contain significant moisture you first of all have to determine if the fruit is poisonous. Cut the fruit open and spread a little across the skin. If the liquid causes a skin rash, or causes a burning sensation when touched to the lips, it could be poisonous.
Essential First Aid Items
Always take salt tablets to counteract the loss of body salts through sweating. Also included in our first aid kit are other standard medical supplies to counteract pain, diarrhea, headaches, allergies, nausea, cuts and bruises. In case of heat injury we include cool compresses in our kit. Additional useful items for specific circumstances are:
- Cactus spines – American deserts contain many varieties of cactus. While the flowers are beautiful and deserving of a photographer's attention, even the very careful traveler sometimes encounters the spines of the cacti. A fine comb often works to remove the offending spines. Failing this, imbedded spines can be removed with tweezers.
- Smaller, finer spines can be removed by spreading duct tape on your skin then peeling it off.
- Duct Tape – We always take an ample supply of duct tape wrapped around cardboard. In addition to removing cactus spines, it's great for repairing equipment, and even repairing leaks to water containers.
- Leather palmed Gloves – Invaluable in heavy cactus country, or when traversing rocky desert slopes, or digging for water. They can prevent cuts that might become infected.
Heat injury is the most common danger you'll face in the desert. The body's normal temperature is 98.6 degrees F. The evaporation of sweat cools our bodies. The warmer we become the more we sweat, therefore the more moisture we lose. Sweating is the principal cause of water loss. If a person stops sweating during periods of high temperature and exercise, such as walking, they will develop heat stroke which is a life-threatening emergency that requires immediate attention. A wet bandana around the neck can work amazingly well to help keep you cool. A golf umbrella works well as traveling shade but of course it is useless in windy conditions.
Heat cramps in muscles are caused by a lack of salt due to excessive sweating. The sodium and chlorine in salt are electrolytes, which your muscles need them to function properly. Find shade, drink water and take a salt tablet. After rest and hydration, the cramps should leave.
Heat exhaustion is caused by loss of water and salt. Signs that can indicate heat exhaustion are: headaches, weakness, cold - clammy skin, pale skin tone, vomiting - nausea, fainting.
Find shade, or if none is available make shade by erecting the tent and opening both doors to get a cross breeze or by spreading a sleeping bag or sleeping mat across bushes or rocky projections. Lie down, elevate your feet and drink water. Apply a wet towel or bandana to forehead and back of the neck. Loosen your clothing. If you are traveling with a companion have them fan you, but if your are alone, fan yourself. Try to conserve energy. Never continue travel until completely recovered.
Heat stroke is more severe than exhaustion; it is a serious life-threatening emergency. It is caused by a complete failure of the body's heat-regulating system. Your body temperature rises rapidly and you're unable to sweat and cool down. The symptoms are: severe headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, muscle twitches or spasms, mental confusion, elevated body temperature and hot or red skin, increased heart rate, hallucinations followed by unconsciousness.
Treat the stroke symptoms the same as heat exhaustion. Find or create shade, lie down, elevate feet, and loosen clothing. Don't attempt to give water to an unconscious person.
Apply cool compresses to arm pits and groin to help lower body temperature. A companion should pour water on the skin and fan vigorously. If at all possible victim should be transported to a emergency medical facility.
The deserts are hot during the day but can be bitterly cold at night. Within a 24-hour period there may be as much as a 60-degree F. difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures. Take a warm sleeping bag with a sleeping pad thick enough to provide insulation. A warm jacket, warm hat, and warm socks should be added to the clothing list.
Sand storms often appear as a dark, fast moving wall of sand and dust. They are among nature's most violent and unpredictable phenomena. Turbulent high winds lift sand and dust into the air, unleashing a suffocating cloud of fine particulates that can quickly reduce visibility to zero. Although mostly associated with the world's major deserts such as the Sahara and Gobi, they can occur in any arid desert climate. Sand storms can cause injury and death. Before venturing into a desert region it's important that you are prepared and know what to do when you see a wall of sand racing toward you. If a sand storm is accompanied by lightening remain at low elevations to avoid being struck by lightening. Keep your entire body covered as protection against the blast of wind driven sand. We use tight-fitting swim goggles to protect our eyes in the desert. Ordinary sunglasses and ski goggles allow sand to blow around the lenses and quickly damage the eyes.
We carry a three-foot long scarf that we wind around our entire face and neck when the wind starts blowing. It filters out sand and dust particles as we breath and it keeps the sand and dust out of our mouths and noses. A wet bandana can work, but it's best to cover the entire face and neck with a scarf. In severe wind, Use a backpack or something similar to protect yourself from wind driven flying objects.
If you are traveling with camels, immediately sit them down on the ground with tails pointed into the wind. In a sitting position press your body against their leeward sides and hold onto the lead ropes to maintain stability in strong winds and to maintain control of the camel. Camels are well adapted and are used to surviving even severe sand storms. Since visibility can cut down to zero in a sandstorm always stay together if you're in a group. To avoid becoming separated link arms or use a safety rope to maintain constant contact with each other. If you are traveling through sand dunes, do not seek shelter on the leeward side of the dune as high winds pick up huge quantities of sand very quickly and could easily bury you.
We use foods that are lightweight and quick and easy to prepare. Dried or freeze dried foods work well in the heat and need no refrigeration. Leave any food at home that might become a melted blob in the daytime desert heat. Always remember to store food in containers and in places where animals can't reach them. At night the desert comes alive with creatures looking for food; we take everything edible inside the tent with us.
Fire & Cooking
We always use a compact, easy-to-use camp stove. It reduces our impact on the desert wood supply. We take two camp stoves and keep one as a spare in case one fails. I In addition you will need waterproof matches, a cigarette lighter, flint and steel fire starter. However in case of emergency, always use down or dead wood for fires. Standing dead trees, general vegetation and cactus provide scarce habitat for desert wildlife. Fire can be very destructive if not respected.
Unless you are in a wilderness area with no restrictions always use an existing campfire site when available. To protect the environment never build fires in any area where campfires are forbidden. Rocks don't make good fire rings. They occasionally explode when exposed to heat because of pockets of moisture or volcanic gases trapped within the rock. Also the black and charred rocks become an ugly blemish on the landscape. A better plan is to use a fire pit. Dig a hole about 10 inches deep for the fire to sit in. If a brisk wind comes up, or when you leave, you can quickly fill in the pit to prevent the accidental spread of fire. Even if you are traveling in the most remote, isolated desert in the world, always make sure your fire is completely dead before leaving. Throw water and dirt on the hot coals and fill in the fire pit.
The sun's rays, either direct or bounced off the ground, sand or rocks can burn skin, damage eyes and impair vision. The sun is as dangerous on cloudy days as sunny days. Sunscreen will not give complete protection against excessive sun exposure. Total body covering provides the best protection. A common mistake made by inexperienced desert travelers is wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts. Loose fitting long sleeved shirts with a back ventilation panel and loose fitting pants provide needed air circulation and provide better protection than even the best sun block. It's also possible to purchase shirts and pants that are UV treated. A hat with a wide brim and ventilated crown protects the head from solar radiation. Pick one with a chinstrap for when the wind blows, as it so often does. White gloves that reflect radiation help prevent sunburn to the backs of hands. Top quality sunglasses with side shields that exclude 100% ultra-violet light are essential, but also pack ski goggles for eye protection in windy conditions.
After experimenting with various types of footwear, I elected to use simple sandals during our last Sahara 900 mile crossing. The sand flowed in and out without the usual buildup of sand inside a shoe or boot with the resulting chaffed and blistered skin that I had experienced on previous desert journeys. However when the terrain is rough and rocky, lightweight shoes with good traction soles are best. The main thing is to keep sand out of your footwear - it something like walking on coarse sandpaper. Always take several changes of socks. Sometimes when traveling days through sand dunes we change frequently to prevent any build up of sand against sweaty feet that can cause chaffing.
Signals in an Emergency
A signal mirror is excellent in sunny desert conditions and its flash can be seen for miles - especially from the air. Even in light cloudy conditions a mirror produces a reasonable flash of light. We have sometimes carried flares if we are walking across an extremely remote area with little vegetation. Flares must be used with caution as they can cause fires that sweep across areas of dry vegetation. A high-pitched backpacking whistle is a permanent part of our emergency equipment and would be heard by a ground search party.
We use a bright colored tent and sleeping bags that can be spread out to make us visible from the air if we have to be found. We also wear bright shirts. Although we have never had to be found, it is a comfort to know that we have thought of the details just in case.
There are GPS tracking devices that can be carried that automatically transmits your position every few hours to a base camp. It is also possible to carry a satellite phone from which you can phone or text messages to a base camp. Newer technologies allows iPhone connectivity to satellite email service. Do not rely on a cell phone. In remote areas cell phone service is spotty or non existent.
The ability to start a fire without matches is a necessary skill for desert travel. In an emergency a fire can be used as a signal. The African Bushmen taught us the valuable 'friction method' of using only two sticks and our hands to start a fire.
Needed materials: A solid strong stick about 18 inches long; a second piece of wood to place on the ground and hold steady with your foot; knife
Make a hole in the second piece of wood just big enough to hold the end of the first stick. With the end of the first stick inserted into the hole, spin the stick back and forth as fast as possible between the palms of your hands to create friction between the two pieces of wood. At the first sign of a flame quickly place dry grass or other dry material on the flame to start a fire. The technique takes patience and practice, but is an important survival skill. If your journey takes you through desert country that has minimal vegetation it's a good idea to pack the two sticks in your survival gear bag.
We use a topographical map, satellite map, compass and GPS. These days it is certainly advisable to take along a personal satellite-based tracking device. These small units work almost anywhere on the globe in areas where cell phone service is not available. They can send emergency signals to call for assistance if needed, giving your precise location so someone can find you.
At one stage when Bill and I walked across the Gobi Desert we lost most of our water due to an accident. Out of desperation we constructed a Solar Still. The Solar Still functions under the general principle of the "greenhouse effect." It requires a hole 3 feet across and about 2 feet deep to be dug in the ground and local leaves and vegetation to be scattered in the bottom of the hole. A clear plastic sheet is then placed over the hole and anchored around the perimeter. A small rock is placed in the center of the plastic sheet to make it slope down toward the center. When the sun passes through the clear plastic it heats the ground and the vegetation placed in the hole. Moisture from the soil and vegetation evaporates, rises, and then condenses on the underside of the plastic and drips into a cup placed at the center of the hole and surrounded with the leaves and small vegetation. We collected a little water this way, but it was far from enough to keep us alive. Later as we analyzed our journey and its challenges we reached the conclusion that the energy expended in digging a large hole in the sun-baked desert earth to accomodate the Solar Still only added to our problems. I emphasize that when severely short of water and deep into dehydration a Solar Still is not, in our opinion, worth valuable energy. It is a stop-gap method at best. It also adds to the survival gear you need to carry as it requires the 6x10 foot sheet of clear plastic. The method also requires local vegetation - another reason that it is impractical because in many desert regions there is no vegetation.
Before You Go
A person can survive many days without food but not more than twenty-four hours without water in the desert's dry air and high daytime temperatures. A good rule of thumb is one and a half gallons of drinking water per day. When short of water cut down on eating as eating requires water to digest food.
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A diet high in complete carbohydrates with adequate protein is important. Include salt in the diet as the lack of salt in hot desert conditions produces lack of energy, muscle cramps and even convulsions. Breakfast: We eat cereal mixed with water and milk powder and dried fruit with a high carbohydrate drink, water Daytime: nuts, dried fruit, crackers, peanut butter mix, food bars, water Dinner: instant rice, freeze dried vegetables, hot chocolate, water
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We use a lightweight mesh tent. We take a nylon tent fly in case of the rare rain shower and as protection from the sometimes very strong, cold nighttime winds. A tent is also protection against any evening visitors such as scorpions and snakes. It can provide daytime shade - especially if the tent is designed with a wide door on each end so that a breeze can flow through. It should be quick and easy to erect, even in the very common, high velocity, desert winds.
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If there is any chance of a rainstorm, even if it appears to be many miles away, avoid camping in these locations: Dry river or creek beds; Low riverbanks; close to high canyon walls - the run-off from above can create a waterfall. Tons of water can come fast and furious in the desert and sweep away all it its path.
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For eye protection, don't forget sunglasses for bright sunlight and ski goggles for the wind and sand.
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Camera Equipment and Sand
Sand is the mortal enemy of cameras and lenses. We keep our equipment in zip lock plastic bags inside a camera bag. Even then the ever-creeping sand finds its way in. We change the plastic bags every few days - especially if we have been through a sand storm.
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In deserts it is not uncommon to find an abandoned mine, particularly in the American Deserts. The best stay-safe advice is to never go into any of these mines. People have been killed due to deadly gasses, sudden drop-offs and cave-ins.
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Before leaving home always leave a travel plan and date of return with a reliable person. If you are taking medicine include a note concerning dosage and timing with your supply in case of emergency when someone else has to administer medication.
Preparedness is the brother of survival.
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