How to Survive in the Desert with Nothing

Exploring the desert is an exciting adventure and many people are taking up the challenge these days. From its expansive skies, breathtaking sandy landscapes, and wavy dunes, the desert is an explorer’s dream adventure. It is, however, not rare for people to get lost in the desert with little or no resources at all.

Anyone can get lost in the desert whether you’re on holiday or you live near a desert and decide to go for a walk. People can get lost in the desert for hours, days, and even weeks. During such times, the exciting desert adventure can quickly turn into a life-threatening experience.

The desert can be unforgiving and with little knowledge reduces your chances of surviving the experience. Here is a list of survival tactics that can help you survive in the desert with limited resources.

Cover your Skin

The desert experiences both extremes in temperature during the day and night. During the day temperatures in the desert can range between 20°C-40°C (68°F-104°F). You may think the sun shines more in the desert but this can’t be further from the truth.

The primary reason deserts experience extreme heat is due to the lack of water.

The lack of water in the desert results in low humidity. The low humidity does not allow enough water vapor to rise and form clouds. Additionally, the low humidity causes the desert sand to overheat and further raises the temperature.

If you are lost or stuck in the desert, one of your priorities should be protecting yourself from the heat. One way to achieve this is by ensuring you keep your clothes on. Do not think of undressing pieces of clothing to cool yourself.

This only exposes your skin to direct sunlight and might result in severe sunburns. Exposure to the heat also increases your body’s rate of dehydration. It is also a good idea to keep your hat on while in the desert, but only if you have one.

Find Shade and Rest

Other than covering your skin, you should also prioritize finding a shade. You can find shade under large rocks and cliffs. Desert trees such as the Desert Willow can also provide cool shade while in the desert.

You must find shade as it helps to regulate your body temperature and the rate your body loses water. Finding a shade is also important as it helps sustain your water supply.

Simply put, the less you sweat the less thirsty you feel.

In addition to these, finding a shade means you can rest and avoid having a heatstroke. Signs that you’re exhausted and in need of rest include;

  1. Dizziness.
  2. Headaches
  3. Nausea.
  4. Lack of coordination in strides.

Avoid Resting on the Ground

Although resting while in the desert is important, you should not do so directly on the ground. The desert ground can be up to 30 degrees hotter than the air. Sitting directly on the ground would, therefore, leave you with a terrible burn. Instead, you should try to create cushioning that lifts you from the ground by about a foot and a half.

Sitting directly on the ground also increases your chances of being bitten by poisonous desert snakes and bugs.

Hydrate but Ration Your Water Supply

Water is an essential resource while in the desert. Due to the high desert temperatures, one is bound to lose heat fast. It is, therefore, important to stay hydrated. However, this doesn’t mean you keep sipping from your water bottle. Doing so will deplete your water supply fast.

Sources of water don’t come by easily in the desert. As such, you want to sustain your water supply for as long as you can. To do this, you will have to ration your water intake.

This doesn’t mean you become dehydrated in an attempt to sustain your water supply. Instead, monitor the following to signal your next sip of water;

  1. Feeling dizzy
  2. Dry lips and skin.
  3. Urine color. Light-colored urine means you are not dehydrated while dark-colored and smelly urine means you’re dehydrated.
  4. Headaches and hallucinations.

Be Smart when Navigating the Desert

The expansive desert sky and endless sands can make navigating the desert a daunting task. You can easily get lost or end up moving in circles. It is, therefore important to have a few tips on how to navigate the desert.

To begin with, try and leave a mark on your trail. You can achieve this by piling up sticks or rocks or arranging them in a particular way. You can also leave a mark on the trees you come across. This way, it will be easy for you to know if you pass somewhere twice. It can also help others follow your trail, locate and save you.

Having a compass can make it easier to navigate the desert. However, not everyone who’s lost in the desert has a compass. In such a case, you can use the sun to give you a sense of direction. You can decide to move East, where the sun rises from, or move West, where the sun sets.

 You can also use the sun to keep track of time.

Another important tip to remember when navigating the desert is moving in a straight direction. Criss-crossing the desert will only get you more lost. It will also deplete your energy and waste time. You should also prioritize to only navigate the desert early in the morning, during sunset, or at night. This will help prevent dehydration from walking under the sun.

Note, however, that navigating the desert at night only works best if you have a flashlight.

Don’t Drink Cactus Water

Contrary to common beliefs, you should not try drinking cactus water unless you know about cacti. Cacti are common plants in the desert. These plants are succulents, meaning they have thick stems that store water. This fact often gives people the assumption that they can drink water from all cacti.

This, however, is not true. There are several species of cacti some of which are edible while others are toxic. We, therefore, recommend you avoid drinking water from cacti unless you can identify the harmless species.

Nibble on Food Rather than Eat

You are bound to feel hungry while in the desert. You should, however, refrain from eating as much as possible. This is because the digestive process uses up water from your body. Thus, the more you eat, the thirstier you will get.

Your body can go longer without food than it can without water. You can, therefore, manage to keep off food for long periods.

However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t nourish your body at all. Instead, you can nibble on whatever food rations you have for energy.

Find Water in the Desert

If you’re stuck in the desert for a long period, you might likely run out of your water supply. This increases your chances of dehydration. Human beings can survive up to three days without water. After this time frame, your body cannot maintain its blood pressure. It will, therefore, slow down blood flow to vital organs. This slowly leads to organ failure and death.

One way to find water in the desert is to look for plants and trees. The presence of vegetation means the groundwater in that area is near the surface. As such, you can easily dig a water pit using sticks. You will notice the soil start to get moist and soon water will fill up your pit.

Locating vegetation can also lead you to an oasis.

You can also follow animals or animal trails to locate water in the desert. Following insects and particularly bees can be quite helpful in finding water. This is because bees fly in a straight line to and from water sources. As such, they might lead you right to a source of water.

Following animal tracks that lead down a hill can also help you find a water source.

You can also get water by collecting rainwater or early morning dew. Always be careful before drinking water you come across in the desert. It might be contaminated and unfit for human consumption.

Do Not Panic

Being lost in the desert can be scary but you should try as much as you can not to panic. Panicking only holds you back from thinking clearly. You also end up using a lot of energy and waste precious time when you panic. Instead, try to control yourself, focus, and work systematically.

One way to manage panic is by following the ABCs of survival. These are;

  1. Acceptance. Acknowledge the situation you’re in.
  2. Build a fire. Lighting a fire is a familiar task that will calm you. You also need the fire to ward off animals, keep you warm or even cook.
  3. Contemplate your options. Check the resources you have.
  4. Draw up a plan. Once you note the resources at hand, draw up a plan that will ensure your survival.
  5. Enforce the plan. Follow through with them unless there is a change or events that warrant otherwise.


Fire is an important resource to have in the desert during the night. Other than providing heat, you can use fire for light, cooking, and to scare away desert animals. You can also use the fire to purify water or signal for help.

People tend to find comfort in a fire. It offers psychological comfort and as such, they tend not to feel so lonely.

Starting a fire with little resources can be difficult. You can, however, use what is readily available which in most cases are rocks and sticks. These can be quite resourceful when starting a fire. Using friction methods such as the hand drill method can help you start the fire.

Other friction methods that you can use to start a fire include the bow and drill method and the fire plough.

Always Stay on High Ground

Do you know that most people who die in the desert do so from drowning? You might think this is strange given the fact that most deserts are arid or semi-arid. Regardless of this fact, most people drown in deserts due to flash flooding.

Flash flooding is a rapid flood that occurs within 6 hours of heavy rainfall. This type of rain often falls so rapidly that the underlying ground fails to absorb it efficiently. As a result, the rainwater rapidly floods low-lying areas such as arroyos, canyons, and ditches in the desert.

Flash floods often happen by surprise and no one can anticipate them. As such, we recommend you avoid low-lying places in the desert to avoid drowning in case of a flash flood.

Find Food in the Desert

it is possible to run out of food if you are lost in the desert for a long period. The human body can survive for up to 21 days without food. Staying for such a long period without food would, however, result in your body wasting away and starvation.

To avoid this, it is necessary to know how you can find food in the desert.

The desert is arid land that barely supports life. Even so, it is possible to come across edible plants and animals. Examples of edible animals in deserts include birds, reptiles, mammals like rabbits, and insects.

Birds are hard to catch but they can provide a rich source of protein. Reptiles such as snakes are more abundant than birds. They are also easier to catch than birds. You should, however, make sure you cook such reptiles thoroughly. This helps kill bacteria such as Salmonella which are often present in reptiles.

Insects are perhaps the most abundant animal and easiest to catch in the desert. You can cook insects such as grasshopper and ants or eat them raw.

Although there are plenty of edible plants in the desert, it can be a bit of a gamble compared to edible animals. Various plant species contain different toxins that can poison and kill you within hours.

We, therefore, recommend you avoid eating plants in the desert. You can, however, eat edible desert plants if you are knowledgeable about them.

Share Your Plans with People

This works as a precaution that increases your chances of survival in the event you get lost. You should share your plans with friends and family before embarking on an adventure into the desert. You should share which desert you’re going to and how long you intend to stay.

This way, people will know you are lost in case you exceed the period and fail to reach out.

You should also share what you are wearing to the desert, who your travel companion is (if any), and the route you intend to use.

Signal for Help

Signaling for help may seem like an act of desperation. It, however, increases your chances of survival if you get lost in the desert. Every time you signal for help, you increase the chances of people finding and rescuing you.

If lost in the desert, you can successfully signal people through visible and audible tactics. Visible means of signaling for help include fire and SOS signs on the sand. Brightly colored clothing can also act as a visible signal.

The primary audible signal is giving out a loud cry. You should do this in three whistles or three packs.


The desert doesn’t offer many resources that can help with survival. Its expansive nature and extreme weather conditions also make it hard to navigate and survive. This should, however, not scare you from exploring the beauty that lies in deserts.

With tactics like the ones in this article, we’re sure you would survive in the desert.