How to Survive in the Desert

The desert is a hash place - but one that I absolutely love to explore. There's a sense of raw brutality walking through the sand as the sun bakes everything around you and temperatures can reach more than 115 degrees. I love it - but I also have to prepare for the expected ... and unexpected occurrences that can happen out here while we explore trails in search for adventure. Here are a few of the important tips that I've picked up over the years!

 While we had the luxury of being able to head back to a resort at the end of the day, even just taking a quick hike in the desert requires proper planning. For example, the days I spent last month in Borrego Springs averaged 115-degree highs, and the minute you stepped out of the Jeep it immediately felt like an oven. While this is certainly extreme, there's no reason why you can't still have a fantastic experience spending a day exploring this amazing landscape.

Have a Plan!

Never go out into the desert without a plan. You do not want to be stuck in conditions where it gets dark or you run out of gas. This means looking at the trail route on an app such as All Trails as well as potentially scouting it out on a paper map at the ranger station. Sometimes if I'm not sure what the terrain looks like, I'll also look at YouTube videos and photos on message boards as well to ensure that I have the proper gear that I need and that my vehicle is outfitted correctly for the adventure. 

After all, surviving in the desert is more than just returning to civilization ... it's also making sure your adventure goes smoothly and you can avoid as much trouble as possible along the way.

Tell Someone Your Plans and When You'll Get Back!

Shit happens and if we had even a mechanical breakdown, that could quickly turn into a life-threatening situation. Before heading out, make sure to tell someone where you are going and when you'll be back. Let them know where you are going and who to contact in case you don't check in. This way, if something does happen, they can send a rescue team to help find you. When you get back to the road, make sure to call them and let your friend know you are safe.

Dress Appropriately!

Surviving a day in the desert requires careful preparation, especially when it comes to what to wear. Dressing appropriately can make you feel more comfortable, but it can also help you survive longer in an emergency and last longer when it comes to hiking or having to do emergency repairs on the side of the trail. The right clothing can protect you from the sun, help manage your body temperature, and prevent dehydration. Here's a table that outlines key items of clothing you should consider:

Lightweight, Long-Sleeved Shirt Breathable fabric (e.g., cotton, linen) Protects skin from the sun while allowing air circulation to keep the body cool
Long Pants Lightweight, breathable fabric Protects legs from the sun and potential scrapes against rough desert terrain
Wide-Brimmed Hat Material that offers UV protection Shields face, neck, and ears from direct sunlight; reduces risk of sunburn and heatstroke
Sunglasses UV-protection lenses Protects eyes from harmful UV rays and reduces glare
Bandana or Neck Gaiter Lightweight, breathable fabric Can be wetted and worn around the neck for cooling; offers additional sun protection
Light-Colored Clothing Preferably UV-reflective material Reflects sunlight away from the body, reducing heat absorption
Closed-Toe, Breathable Shoes Hiking shoes or boots with a sturdy sole Protects feet from hot ground and rough terrain; ensures ventilation
Lightweight Socks Moisture-wicking material Keeps feet dry, preventing blisters and discomfort
Fanny pack or light rucksack A small portable back can hold miscellaneous items such as sunscreen, keys, eye drops, and phone, as well as clip your water bottle on to keep both arms free. Keeps all your misc survival items together so you can easily grab it and take it with you when exiting the vehicle.

These clothing items are designed to provide a balance between sun protection and heat management. The desert environment can be extremely harsh, with temperatures fluctuating significantly between day and night. Adequate clothing not only shields you from the sun's rays during the day but also helps retain body heat during cooler nights. Always carry extra water to stay hydrated and consider the length of your stay in the desert when packing clothing and supplies.

You might laugh, especially about the inclusion of a fanny pack, but I'm a huge fan of this item since it is so perfectly utilitarian. I get a lot of jokes about wearing a fanny pack, but I don't care ... it was a lot more comfortable than having a full backpack when doing quick walks away from the vehicle. Even without the summer heat, being able to put my lens filters, phone and other items in there makes it so much easier than wearing a backpack.

Equally important to having a good belt were great socks. Socks serve an important role in keeping your feet comfortable. Not only do they help with adding an extra layer of padding but they can also help wick moisture away from the feet. You actually have more than 125,000 sweat glands in your feet and everyone knows the discomfort of having swampy shoes. Having good socks helps keep them dry and that act of bringing the moisture away will actually help keep them cool too.

james selfie

While it might sound counterintuitive, you'll also want to wear long pants since you never know what you are going to brush up against. I also brought a face mask and gloves to keep out the dust since the steering wheel was extremely hot when we got back. I really should have also worn a long-sleeved shirt since it's always good to protect your exposed skin from the sun and blowing sand. A long-sleeved shirt can provide much better sun protection than even the best sunscreen.

Finally, make sure you have good UV-protecting polarized sunglasses. This is extremely critical since even though you might think your normal tinted shades are okay, the sun is extremely bright in the desert and can bounce off the sand to make it even more damaging to your eyes. By investing in a good pair of polarized lenses, you can see better and keep your eyes happier.

growler of water

Bring Lots of Water!

Sometimes, bringing plastic bottles is unavoidable, but where possible, I like to bring my Stanley vacuum growler.  Yes, it's designed for storing beer and keeping it cold - but it works GREAT for water as well. I have two of these 64-oz growlers and as a test, I kept one of them in the Jeep unopened. even the next morning, it still had plenty of ice and was extremely cold. 

Bring Snacks!

When exploring the desert, choosing the right snacks can significantly affect your energy levels and hydration status. I usually try to leave some in my "go bag" just in case I forget to pack enough for that specific trick. Plus, sometimes it is fun to reach in there and say, " Sweet! I love this jerky. Great find!"

With that being said, only pack stuff away like that when it has a LONG expiration date. The last thing in the world you want to have happen when stuck in the desert on a hot day is to discover that your snacks are spoiled. Here are five snacks that are ideal for a hot day in the desert, along with reasons why they are beneficial:

SnackReason to Take It
Trail Mix (nuts, seeds, dried fruits) Provides a balanced mix of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates for sustained energy. Nuts and seeds are high in calories, offering energy density without too much bulk. Dried fruits give a quick sugar energy boost and can provide some potassium, which helps balance electrolytes. 
Jerky (beef, turkey, or plant-based) A lightweight, high-protein snack that doesn’t require refrigeration. Protein is essential for muscle repair and recovery, especially important during physically demanding activities like hiking.
Energy Bars Convenient and compact, energy bars can offer a mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fats, along with added vitamins and minerals designed to boost your energy levels. Look for bars with low sugar content to avoid energy crashes.
Fresh Fruits (apples, oranges) Contain natural sugars for an energy boost, fiber for sustained energy release, and vital electrolytes like potassium and sodium that are lost through sweat. They also have a high water content to help with hydration.
Electrolyte Replenishment Snacks (electrolyte chews, gels) Specifically designed to replace salts and minerals lost through sweating. They can prevent dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, helping you maintain energy and avoid cramps or fatigue.

A special note about trail mix and energy bars: Go for a mixture that avoids chocolate or meltable items. While these can be safe if properly stored inside your vehicle in the cool air, if you put a couple of bars in your fanny pack and go for a short hike in 100+ degree heat, you may have a mess on your hands when trying to open the wrapper!

Carrying snacks that are nutrient-dense, lightweight, and non-perishable is crucial when exploring the desert. It's important to choose foods that provide both immediate energy and sustained nourishment, as well as those that support hydration and electrolyte balance. Combining these snacks with plenty of water intake will help ensure a safer and more enjoyable desert adventure.

Pack Your "Go Bag" For Desert Survival

A "go bag" for emergency preparedness tailored for desert survival should include items that address hydration, shelter, navigation, and emergency signaling, among others. Here are 15 essential items to pack:

  1. First Aid Kit: Including bandages, antiseptic wipes, blister protection, pain relievers, and any necessary personal medications.
  2. Multi-Tool or Swiss Army Knife: For repairs, first aid, and various survival needs.
  3. Paper Map and Compass to help support your handheld GPS Device: For navigation, especially if electronic devices fail.
  4. Flashlight or Headlamp with Extra Batteries: Essential for night-time visibility.
  5. Fire Starting Tools: Waterproof matches, lighter, or a fire starter, to signal for help or keep warm during cold desert nights.
  6. Whistle: To signal for help without using much energy.
  7. Mirror or Reflective Object: For signaling to search and rescue teams during daylight.
  8. Battery Backup (Power Bank): For keeping electronic devices like mobile phones and GPS units charged, which is crucial for navigation and emergency communication.
  9. Handgun (with appropriate licenses and safety training): For personal protection against wildlife threats and for emergency hunting, if legally permitted and deemed necessary.
  10. Nylon Rope: Versatile for building shelters, repairing gear, or even towing items. A lightweight yet strong rope can be invaluable in a variety of survival situations.
  11. Plastic Gloves: Useful for hygiene purposes, handling potentially hazardous materials, or medical situations to prevent contamination and infection. These can also be used when doing minor repairs that involve engine fluids so you can avoid getting your hands messy.
  12. Soap in Seconds (or similar no-rinse hand wash): For maintaining hygiene when water is scarce, reducing the risk of illness. Proper hand hygiene is crucial in survival situations to prevent diseases. You can find Soap In Seconds on Amazon and it is a fantastic product that I take on all of my road trips.
  13. Wet naps: Sometimes you just need to clean up a minor mess and you need to conserve water so these moist towelettes will be your friend.

Including these items in your "go bag" can significantly enhance your preparedness for facing emergency situations in the desert. Remember, the choice of items should be guided by the principle of preparedness for a wide range of scenarios while keeping the weight and size of the bag manageable. Always ensure that you are trained and legally compliant in the use of any self-defense items, and prioritize safety and ethical considerations in all survival situations.

If you do, you are sure to have a great time on your adventure exploring the desert.