15 Practical Desert Survival Tips

If you’ve ever been to the Arizona desert, you’ve witnessed beauty. But just because the desert is a beautiful place, doesn’t mean that it can’t be dangerous. Each year, hundreds of people are put in life-or-death situations in desert terrain. Unfortunately, some of them never make it home. Had these individuals been a little more prepared, they may have survived. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: preparation is the key to any survival situation. Let’s take a look at 15 practical desert survival tips that you need to know (especially if you live near a desert, of if you’re traveling to one).

Tip #1: Keep Your Clothes On

Desert Survival TipsWhile it may “feel” like a good idea to remove clothing to stay cool, in actuality, it’s very bad. For one, removing your clothes can hasten dehydration. Secondly, it can cause you to develop a severe sunburn. Both of these can be detrimental when you’re trying to survive. Desert survival tips like this one are super-important, so try to remember it.

Tip #2: Watch for Dust Storms
Desert Survival TipsAlthough it may not happen, it’s possible to get caught in a dust storm. If you see one approaching, immediately cover your face. You don’t want any dust getting into your lungs. If this happens, it can cause an infection, and you could die. Even better is if you’re able to find a shelter (like a large rock for example). Don’t ever try to outrun a dust storm, because they’re too fast.
Tip #3: Watch for Roadways
Desert Survival TipsWhile larger roadways may be out of site, it’s possible to stumble upon smaller, remote dirt roadways. If you find one of these, stay on it. It can only help your situation. I’m often surprised when people find one of these smaller roadways, and then ditch it because they think it leads nowhere. Desert survival tips suggest that you should never walk away from any type of roadway.
Tip #4: Watch for Floods
Desert Survival TipsKeep an eye on the sky. It can give you a good indication as to whether or not a storm is headed your way. If it is, the area you’re in can suddenly flood. Specifically, avoid areas known as arroyos. Also known as “Dry Creeks”, these can quickly fill up with water during a storm. Sometimes, they can be tricky to detect, so always stay alert. It’s one of those desert survival tips that can save your life.
Tip #5: Stay Calm
It’s easier said than done, but always keep tab on your emotional state. People who panic make poorer choices than people who are collected. There’s nothing more dangerous than panicking in a survival situation. This tip is especially important in the desert, where your body is forced to consume extra resources to stay alive. This mindset should be applied to all survival situations.
Tip #6: Share Your Plans
5555This one little tip can easily be the one that saves your life. Always tell a family member or friend about where you’re going, how long you’ll be there, and when you’ll be back. Give them exact coordinates, show them your planned route, and give them a way to communicate with you. Trust me: no other desert survival tips will work as effectively at saving your life as this one.
Tip #7: Bring Enough Water
Desert Survival TipsAs a general rule, you should bring a minimum of one gallon of water per person/day. Don’t be stingy about this. It’s better to have the water and not need it, than need it and not have it. If you bring too little water, you’ll be tempted to ration it, which can be deadly (you’ll need at least 2-4 liters per day in the desert). Dehydration is something you want to avoid at all costs. Desert survival tips like this one are highly recommended
Tip #8: Stay with Your Vehicle
Desert Survival TipsIf your vehicle breaks down in the middle of the desert, your first instinct might be to leave it behind while you search for help. This is a bad idea. Not only is it easier for a rescue team to spot a car than you, but the car will also provide you with essential tools for survival (batteries, gas, floor mats, mirrors, etc.). Remember to open the hood of your car (it’s a universal sign of distress).
Tip #9: Leave a Note
Desert Survival TipsYou might be very familiar with the route you’re on. If that’s the case, then it may be a good idea to abandon your vehicle. However, don’t do this without leaving a note telling rescuers which way you’re going. Desert survival tips like this one are super-important, because you never know what can happen. If you aren’t familiar with the route you’re on, then stay put! 
Tip #10: Wear Sunglasses
Desert Survival TipsI shouldn’t have to stress the importance of wearing sunglasses. Not only do they protect your eyes, but they also allow you to see further into the distance. Even a cheap pair of sunglasses is better than not having one at all. On a similar token, you can protect your eyes even more by wearing a hat and/or bandanna. Also, applying soot or oil around your eyes might help.
Tip #11: Don’t Sit Directly on the Ground
Desert Survival TipsDesert survival tips like this one aren’t always obvious. Most people think, “I’m tired. I’m going to sit down and take a break”. But this is a bad. The ground can be 30 degrees hotter (or more) than the surrounding air. If you sit on the ground, you expose yourself to much more heat. And let’s not forget that on the ground, there’s a chance that you’ll be bitten by a snake or poisonous insect.
Tip #12: Don’t Drink Alcohol
Desert Survival TipsAlthough it sounds obvious, desert survival tips like this one are ignored all the time. When you drink alcohol, you cause your body to become dehydrated much more quickly (and there won’t be a medical team on standby to help you). Combine that with the hot desert sun, and you’re asking for a death sentence. Under no circumstance should you drink alcohol in the desert. Period.
Tip #13: Dress Properly
Desert Survival TipsCover your skin, but don’t insulate yourself too much. Wear proper foot protection, and make sure you bring an extra pair of socks and underwear (believe it or not, changing your socks and/or underwear during a survival situation can provide you with a big psychological boost). Make sure that you’re covering your head and face as well.
Tip #14: Buy a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon)
Desert Survival TipsAs far as desert survival tips are concerned, this one is arguably the most practical. PLBs (like this one) are life-saving devices that can transmit signals during an emergency. It will signal the nearest rescue service, who can then hone in on your location. Today, they’re becoming the “go-to” method for signaling for help in life-threatening situations. They may be expensive (several hundred dollars on average), but they’re definitely worth the investment.
Tip #15: Buy a Satellite Phone
Desert Survival TipsDon’t rely exclusively on your cell phone for communication. One of the better desert survival tips is buying a satellite phone instead. Satellite phones, which can be rented or purchased, will dramatically expand your area of coverage. It’s something I highly recommend bringing with you into the desert.

If you follow the tips above, you should increase your chances of survival in an emergency situation. But before ending this article, I want to circle back to hydration (since it’s very important). Specifically, I want to talk about what to do when you’ve run out of water.

Desert Survival Tips – Finding Water

Desert Survival Tips

Pay attention, because the desert survival tips that follow can save your life. Remember, humans can go weeks without food, but they can only go days without water. If you don’t stay properly hydrated, it will diminish any hope of getting out alive. Believe it or not, there are sources of water in the desert. Let’s take a look at five of them:

  • Method #1: Morning Dew: In the early morning before the sun rises, it’s possible to dew to collect on desert plants. Take advantage of this. Every drop counts when you’re trying to survive. Act quickly, because if you wait, all the dew will evaporate as the sun comes up.
  • Method #2: Dried Riverbeds: If you find yourself on a dried riverbed, check the ground. Does it feel damp? If so, then you may be able to dig a hole in the surface and find water. It’s not guaranteed, but it is definitely something to try. Here’s a video showing you exactly how it’s done.
  • Method #3: Rain Water: If you’re lucky enough to see rain when trying to survive in the desert, then collect as much water as you can. Use anything you have available (water bottles, waterproof jackets, etc.). Water that falls from the sky, for the most part, is clean and safe to drink.
  • Method #4: Cactus Pulp: One of thelesser known desert survival tips for getting water is to drink cactus pulp. Simply cut open the cactus, and extract what’s inside. Keep in mind that this should only be done in an emergency (cactus water is known to be very acidic). This is where having a pocket knife can come in handy!
  • Method #5: Solar Water Still: This is basically a sheet of plastic that you can build to collect water. They are relatively simple to build (the following section will walk you through the steps). With solar water stills, you can generate distilled water without fancy equipment.

Now that I’ve shown you the five main ways to find water in the desert, I want to go a step further and show you how to build a water still.

SAS Survival Handbook

How to Build a Solar Water Still

If you forget any of the desert survival tips in this article, don’t let it be this one. Knowing how to build a solar water still can save your life. The best part is that it doesn’t require any specialized skills or fancy equipment. This is a technique that’s been used by people for more than 500 years. And now, you’re about to learn what it is. Here are 7 simple steps that you can use to create one:

  • Step 1: Dig a hole in the ground. Make it wide enough so that you can fit a container inside.
  • Step 2: Place your container into hole.
  • Step 3: In the areas surrounding the container, place anything wet (urine, plants, cacti, etc.).
  • Step 4: Place a plastic sheet over the hole.
  • Step 5: Place rocks at each corner of the sheet to anchor it down.
  • Step 6: Place a small rock in the center of the plastic sheet directly over your container.
  • Step 7: Condensation will naturally drip clean drinking water into your container.

While simple in design, a solar water still can be an effective way to create distilled drinking water. Condensation is a beautiful thing, and it’s even more beautiful when it’s saving your life. That’s why this is one of my more highly recommended desert survival tips you should know. For visual purposes, here’s an illustration showing you how a solar water still works.

Desert Survival Tips

Bottom Line

I hope that you remember these desert survival tips. They’re extremely powerful, and can sometimes mean the difference between living and dying. I want to remind you to never go into the desert without telling a friend or family member first. By telling them all the details of your itinerary, you’ll be that much more likely to survive in a life-threatening emergency. If you notice that we missed any important desert survival tips in this article, let us know by leaving a comment below.


  1. 26 Tips for Surviving in the Desert (Desert USA)
  2. Desert Survival Skills (Desert USA)
  3. Desert Survival: 8 Simple Tips That Could Save Your Life (Discovery)
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