Deserts are some of the most unforgiving habitats on the planet, they are barren wastelands where only the hardiest of creatures can have a hope of surviving. They are harsh and cruel, exceptionally hot during the day, and very cold during the night. During colder periods of the year, temperatures can plummet below freezing come night-time. Distances are another dilemma in the desert, they are dangerously deceptive; objects in the distance seem very close that you can touch them, while in reality they are far enough you could probably perish before reaching them.

As humans love a good challenge, for some of us, the more extreme the challenge the better. We have rallies (more like endurance off-road races) across deserts, like the famous Rallye des Pharaons and the more established Dakar Rally, we also have the 4 Deserts Race Series, an annual series of four 250 km (155 miles) races across desert conditions in various parts of the world over a period of 7 days, each contestant completely self supported. And for the less adventurous there are desert safaris, dune bashing, and sand boarding! There’s something to be said about a night under the stars in the vastness of the desert, with a proper cup of tea steeped slow over a small fire.

Merzouga Large Dune 2011.jpg

Magnitude… Two people on top of the tallest dune above Merzouga on Erg Chebbi in Morocco during windy/sand-hazy conditions. “Merzouga Large Dune 2011” by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen – Own work by uploader, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

 Whatever the case may be, before heading off on your next desert adventure you should ask yourself this question: am I physically and mentally prepared to survive in the desert in case of an accident or an emergency? The survival mindset is the same in any environment around the world, but it is especially more delicate in the desert as puts it in his Discovery News article Desert Survival: 8 Simple Tips That Could Save Your Life, it is the balance “between staying out of the heat of the day and staying warm during the cold nights, between conserving the water you have and drinking enough of it to stay alive, and between stifling your feelings of hunger and seeking out any source of food which will you keep you alive.”

1. Be Prepared

Know you’re terrain before you head out, it will help you better plan what kit to take with you. Make sure you are fit enough for the activity you’re about to undertake. Always let someone know where you’re heading, when you expect to be back, and when they should be worried! Have a contingency plan.

2. The essentials

If you are travelling with a group on a desert safari or are involved in an organized event that will cross the desert then your guides will probably be equipped with the necessary tools for an emergency. If you are travelling alone then here are some things that you (depending on how long you’re trip will be):

  1. Water (one gallon/day/person)
  2. A map and compass
  3. Waterproof matches or a flint and steel
  4. Pocket survival guide
  5. Sunscreen, hat and sunglasses
  6. Pocket knife
  7. Signalling mirror
  8. Water purification tablets
  9. Pencil and notepad
  10. Whistle
  11. First aid kit

3. Keep your shirt on

Clothing helps reduce fluid loss, protect against sunburns, and keeps you warm at night. In the desert, the looser the garments the better. A hat with an extra piece of cloth to cover the back of your neck will also go a long way in protecting against sun strokes. Never wear sandals that expose the top of your feet, and don’t walk barefoot; a boot will do nicely.

4. Don’t panic

Panic should not be confused with fear, Panic immobilizes and robs you of your ability to think rationally and make the right decisions. Fear, on the other hand, is a natural response to danger and can be a valuable survival resource.

5. Know your priorities

You can survive for 3 hours without shelter in a harsh environment (unless in icy water), you can survive for 3 days without water (if sheltered from a harsh environment), you can survive for 3 Weeks without food (if you have water and shelter). Water is of the utmost importance, and finding it is vital. Ration the water that you already have and resist the temptation to guzzle, the rule of thumb is that you can survive for 3 days without water. Next should be shelter and fire, you need shade from the sun to minimize the risk of heat exhaustion, and the fire will come in handy for warmth at night and for making food. Food comes next, with heat comes loss of appetite, so don’t force yourself to eat. Steer away from protein foods as they require precious liquids for their digestion.

6. Be nocturnal

If you make the decision to leave your location and shelter in an attempt to reach civilisation, then your best option is to rest during the day and walk at night. Walking at night, even with rationing meagre water supplies, you can cover between 40 to 50 some kilometres. Compared to attempting the same during the day, your chances are very slim.

Sandstorm in Iraq

Sand storm… A wall of sand hitting a camp site in Iraq. By Tobin on Flikr.

7. Sand storms

There’s only one thing yo can do in a sand storm and that is to stop and sit it out. Bear Grylls put it best: “A sandstorm is the most dreaded situation a desert traveller can face, and the last thing you want to do is fight against it. Sandstorms can last for hours, even days, and you’ll only end up lost, exhausted and broken if you try to walk through it. Stop. Don’t panic. Take shelter if you can — a nearby tuft of grass, for example. And be sure to shield your eyes, nose and mouth from the stinging sand particles. [Bear Grylls: Escape From Hell]

These are just some tips that can hopefully help you plan better, but there are many resources online and offline that can really help keep you safe on your next adventure. Most of the tips here have been collected from these sources. Here are some recommendations:


The Survival Book a 1980’s illustrated handbook of survival techniques and first aid for natural and man-made disasters and emergencies, while some techniques might greatly advanced since then, it still offers some very valuable tips and information.

SAS Survival Handbook, Revised Edition: For Any Climate, in Any Situation by John ‘Lofty’ Wiseman, considered to be one of the best survival guides around, also available as an app.

The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook an illustrated survival how-to guide for some crazy situations, from wrestling an alligator to landing a plane!

Online Resources:

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