Ancient Pathways, LLC - School of Primitive Technology and Wilderness Skills Survival Courses [Flagstaff Arizona]

When Life is Reduced to Hours or How To FIND WATER IN THE DESERT

by Tony Nester, Survival Instructor

Life in arid regions like the Southwest revolves around one key element- that inescapable requirement that no person can avoid or overcome: the need for Water. Even the hardiest of desert peoples like the Apache, the Bushman, and the Aborigine depend on it. If there’s one rule to remember about the desert it’s that you can’t live long without water. Cut your water intake and your body’s ability to handle heat stress is going to suffer, thus reducing the sand in your hourglass mighty fast.

I have read different statistics over the years saying that a person can survive anywhere from 4 hours to 4 days without water in a desert environment. I’d have to say that the answer to that statement is Yes!

Old Ponds are a Source for WaterYes, because it depends on what time of year it is, your exertion level, how physically fit you are, whether you remain clothed, if you are injured, and if you are in the shade or the sun. As you can see, a lot of variables are involved.

In my desert survival field courses, the minimum water consumption rate is 2 gallons a day per person in the 110-120 degree summer temps of the Sonoran Desert. In such extreme heat, I’d say that survival time without water would be limited to around two days, maybe less, depending on the variables mentioned above.

Water is not only paramount for dayhikers and backpackers but for those taking to the road. A few years back while filming a segment on desert survival with the Discovery Channel in Death Valley, I had the good fortune to pick the brain of a veteran park ranger. He said that on the main highway traversing the park, where the ground can reach 200 degrees, he has seen tires literally unravel while visitors were driving during the summer months! Being stranded in the heat is a true survival situation.

Closer to home, a stranded motorist on I-17 north of Phoenix, who has to change a tire, can burn off a gallon of water in an hour while kneeling on the 160+ degree pavement. Be prepared when driving and carry several gallons of water per person, an umbrella for instant shade, and check your vehicle’s tires and radiator before hitting the road. A few minutes of preparation in your driveway can save hours of suffering on the highway.

Reading the Landscape

When it comes to water sources in the backcountry, don’t assume that the creek, spring, or waterhole you noticed on the map are going to even exist this year because it might not, especially during a season of drought. Talk to the folks who are out on the land all the time- the locals, the Forest Service, or cowboys in the area and find out what the water conditions are really like in the backcountry.

On an extended backpacking trip, and certainly in a survival situation, it is important to know how to locate water for resupplying so let’s look at some skills for procuring this precious substance.

Being able to read the nuances of the land is a skill of visual acuity.You are searching for subtle clues written across the terrain that may indicate water. This is a skill that comes with experience hiking in the desert.

Places to Look for Water:

  • Shady areas at the base of cliffs
  • Rock pockets and depressions
  • Tree cavities and hollows
  • Undercut banks in dry riverbeds
  • Where insect life abounds
  • Where vegetation abounds: willow & cottonwood trees can sometimes have water at their bases.

Remember, a hike to a suspected water source is going to cost you physiologically, in terms of your own precious sweat, so make certain that you are headed towards water.


Tinaja is a Spanish word meaning Earthen Jar. Many people just call them tanks, as in water tanks. Essentially, tinajas are depressions in rock where water can be found by the gallons, if the rains have been good that year.Water Gathering Pit

In tinajas in shaded overhangs, I have found water holes large enough to swim across. So important were these water sources that many times you can look around and find petroglyphs from the ancient peoples whose lives depended on these precious pockets of life. Water is considered sacred by native peoples where I live and understandably so since without it life would not be possible in so arid a land.

If you camp out near a tinaja or tank do so from a distance and be mindful not to wash your dishes, use soap, bathe, or otherwise contaminate these delicate, micro-worlds of life. For many animals, it may be the sole source of water for miles around.

What about filtering that pond scum?

If you have the means of treating the water then do so. Using a good water filter, iodine tablets, or boiling for 1 minute is always recommended but remember that there is a cure for giardia and waterborne illnesses. There is no cure for death from dehydration! If you can’t properly purify the water then drink up and go see your doctor after your rescue. The saying in the survival field is: just grit your teeth to strain out the big stuff. Stay hydrated (which means peeing clear fluid) and stay cool by soaking your clothes.

Desert Survival Misconceptions About Water Sources

Water From a Barrel Cactus

The notion of slicing open a juicy barrel cactus and scooping out a cup of water to quench your thirst sounds appealing. The problem is that, due to the alkaloids present in the cactus, most people experience severe cramping and vomiting, which only increases their dehydration. Furthermore, the amount of moisture found in a barrel cactus depends on seasonal rainfall. Assuming that you have the tools (i.e., machete, tire-iron, etc…) to cut into the spiny cactus without injuring yourself, you have just killed a succulent that may be over one hundred years old not to mention protected by law. Save the romantic notions for the Hollywood westerns and rely on this method only if there is no other alternative. By the way, the only barrel cactus that isn’t toxic is the fishhook barrel (Ferocactus wislizeni).

A Pebble Under the Tongue

My father, who was in WWII, said he always kept a pebble under his tongue to help with the cottonmouth associated with long, hot marches. Psychologically, he said it helped. Remember, though, that this method only alleviates your dry throat and does nothing to fight dehydration since water is not being added to your system.

Collecting Water With a Solar Still

The solar still involves digging a two foot deep pit with a three foot diameter, placing a container in the bottom, and covering the whole pit with a six foot by six foot piece of clear plastic. The plastic condenses ground moisture on the interior covering where it funnels down to the center and drops into the container.

Constructing a still involves expending considerable amounts of your precious sweat to dig the pit. It also presupposes that you have a sheet of clear plastic and a shovel. If you had the foresight to bring this gear then you probably had the good sense to pack plenty of water. The solar still just isn’t that useful in the desert and yet it still shows up in survival books as a reliable water-collecting device.

I have constructed many over the years in each of the four North American deserts. Each time I arrive at the same conclusion after seeing the results: Plan ahead and carry plenty of water! If you hadn’t already guessed, this is the mantra that a desert explorer has to live by.

Contact Information

Ancient Pathways, LLC
Colorado Springs, CO


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