How to Survive in the Desert
Travel Channel survival expert Mykel Hawke offers tips for safe desert traveling
What started out as a scenic hike through the baking hot,
wave-like white dunes of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument turned into
tragedy this summer for a French couple and their 9 year-old son.
The couple succumbed to the heat less than two miles into their 4.6 mile loop. Disoriented and dehydrated, the couple died on the trail but their son survived, according to a CNN report.
Surviving in the desert poses a unique survival situation due to the heat and dehydration risk, which can overcome even a health hiker in a very short time. Captain Mykel Hawke, a former U.S. Army Green Beret and star of The Travel Channel's series “ Lost Survivors,” says it’s not just hikers but also outdoor enthusiasts in off road vehicles traveling lonely stretches of desert trails who can get into trouble in these arid environments.
Hawke and other experts agree that the key to survival is preparation and knowledge. They offer the following tips when traveling in desert environments.
Tell people your plans. If you’re going on a hike, let friends and relatives know your route, as well as your estimated start and end times. If they don’t hear from you and can’t reach you, they should alert authorities.
Wear protective clothing. If you’re hiking, consider buying clothes with 30 or higher SPF protection. Cover your exposed skin, wear a wide brimmed hat and use sunblock. Remember your lips will dry and crack quickly so use lip balm (or even lip gloss) to keep moisture in (and don’t lick your lips as this speeds up the chapping process).
Pack more than one water bottle. Many outdoor lovers trek desert trails with only a water bottle or two. Having enough water is the most critical need for the desert traveler. Experts recommend at least one gallon of water per person, per day, and avoid alcohol or soda, which can dehydrate you. You may be able to find water in low-lying areas or areas of dense vegetation, but you need to boil it before drinking (or use another treatment for cleaning water, like mechanical filters or chemical disinfectants) to kill microbes.
Watch for signs of dehydration. “Sun will sap water and strength and kill you in no time,” Hawke says. “A bit of slurred speech, a little dizzy or confused, then face plant, unconscious. Stay hydrated, listen to your body and stop if you feel bad. Make a signal and get shelter and wait.”
Related: 7 Signs You Need a Drink (of Water!)
Bring enough food for a meal. Hawke recommends always traveling with at least one meal for each person. Energy bars or granola snacks provide lots of needed calories and don’t take up much room. Experts say if your water supply is low, however, you should avoid eating, smoking and even talking as it will speed up dehydration.
Stay with your car. Hawke says 99 percent of the time, it’s best to stay with your car or vehicle if it breaks down. Rescuers can easily spot a car, and it has built-in signaling systems, like a horn, headlights and mirrors to flash passing aircraft. If you must leave your vehicle, or if you’re confident you can reach help, leave a note on the car as to your direction of travel or where you’re heading. But be careful, Hawke says: “Underestimating distance and overestimating abilities is the number one mistake. You may see the city lights in the distance and think you can walk to them — but they are a lot farther than they seem and you’ll get dehydrated faster than you think.”
Travel at night. If you are forced to travel some distance, walk at night when it’s cool, and rest during the day under shelter and shade. But travel only when there’s adequate moonlight or you risk injury — making a bad situation worse. If you decide to hunker down at night, start a fire to keep warm and to make your whereabouts known.
Have the right
gadgets and equipment. Cellular service may be unavailable, so download
apps in advance that can come in handy, such as GPS and survival apps. DesertUSA.com recommends several apps for
iPhones and Android devices. A hand-held GPS will keep you going in the right
direction. Renting a satellite phone or investing in a Personal Locator Beacon
(PLB) are more expensive options but will allow you to alert rescuers yourself.
Remember to keep these devices charged, or get a solar charging system. It
never hurts to carry a reliable compass as well.
Serious hikers and outdoorsmen especially should bring along a first aid kit, flashlight and even a poncho or tent, Hawke says.
Watch out for storms, snakes and insects. The desert contains plenty of dangers beyond the sun and heat. Sudden flash floods can turn dry creeks, called arroyos, into raging rivers that can sweep you away. Seek high ground if a flash flood occurs. Dust storms pose respiratory dangers, so cover your face with a cloth and breathe through it until the storm passes. Keep an eye out for dangerous terrain, including rocky landscapes or crevasses, which can lead to sprains or broken limbs. Also keep an eye for snakes and biting insects, which can be potentially deadly as well.