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!
Yes, 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
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
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
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:
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.
In tinajas in shaded overhangs, I have found
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.
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
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.