by Tony Nester, Survival Instructor
The desert can be an unforgiving place for a stranded hiker. Here are a few tips to help beat the heat and handle an unexpected emergency in the wilds. This article originally appeared in Backpacker Magazine.
Desert Garb – Tips for beating the heat
Think like a cowboy here- ever seen one on horseback wearing a tank-top, shorts, and sandals? A brimmed Tilley hat, sunglasses , and a bandanna around the neck soaked in water will take care of your head region. For the upper body, a Patagonia poly/cotton long-sleeved shirt will suffice with Columbia lightweight pants for the lower body. For footwear, try Smartwool socks and Danner Desert boots or Merrells. A stranded desert hiker can increase their survival time in the heat by 25% by remaining clothed which cuts down on evaporative sweat-loss.
Hyponatremia or Water Poisoning
Water and electrolyte replacement powders are both critical to your body’s ability to stay cool. Hyponatremia, which happens when too much water is consumed and electrolytes are diluted in the bloodstream, can be life-threatening. GU20 and Vitalyte are just a few of the electrolyte replacement items available. These replace lost sodium and potassium and are essential during the hotter months of the year when your water consumption rates increase dramatically.
Stay hydrated or become jerky!
Carry 2-6 quarts in the pack and 10-30 gallons in your vehicle depending on the time of year and number of people. Even it is was a wet year, even if it rained that day, even if your friend told you he came upon water in the same canyon that week, still bring plenty as there’s a reason it’s called a DESERT.
When Water Runs Out
If, for some reason, you run out of water, then stay put from 10 am to 5 pm and hike during the cooler hours of the evening or morning, if you must. People have lasted up to two days without water in the triple-digit heat of the Grand Canyon and Death Valley while others, trying to find water in the middle of the day, have perished within 3 hours from heat-stroke. Hole up in the shade like a coyote, conserve your precious sweat and await rescue.
Finding Water – Think Like a Tree
Forget solar stills and the romantic notion of obtaining water from a cactus. Instead look for water-loving trees that stand out in the desert. Willows, cottonwoods, and sycamores, with their bright green leaves, can be seen from miles away and are often signs that water is present. It may be on the surface or you may have to dig down a few feet at the tree’s base. Also, pay attention to bird and insect life when hiking as these creatures are never found far from a water source.
The Myth of Procuring Water From 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 there is no water inside and, due to the alkaloids present in the cactus, most people experience severe cramping and vomiting, which only increases their dehydration. By the way, the only barrel cactus that isn’t toxic is the fishhook barrel (Ferocactus wislizeni). There’s a reason you don’t see cactus juice sold at the grocery store. What is the most reliable water source in the desert- your water bottles that were filled at home prior to leaving!
Desert hazards – things that sting
The golden rule of desert living is that you don’t put your hands or feet where you can’t see. This will help to avoid encounters with rattlesnakes, scorpions, and spiders. By the way, 90% of scorpion stings happen in the home at night and not in the wilds. Your greatest danger in the desert comes from Africanized bees which require little provocation to attack. Carry Children’s Fastmelt Benadryl (or an Epi-pen if you have a history of anaphylaxsis) in your first-aid kit in case you have a run-in with these aggressive bees.
Based on research from the Grand Canyon, 80% of flash floods happen between Noon and 8 pm and during the monsoon season from July-September. Check the weather before heading out and avoid narrow slot-canyons altogether during the rainy season. Ironically, the majority of flash flood fatalities happen in desert cities like Vegas and Phoenix when motorists attempt to cross a flooded street. It only takes 2 feet of swift water to sweep a vehicle away so consider staying put until the flood subsides.
For additional information, check out Tony’s book or DVD on Desert Survival.