Survival Situations - Desert

Not all terrain is created equal when it comes to survival situations. While few to none will be a walk in the park, some require far more knowledge, tools, and effort than others. Deserts are particularly tricky since, depending on the desert, the environment can kill you within hours. There are a multitude of dangers they pose, ranging from dehydration, exposure, lack of water, and the critters. If you want to survive (and you probably do), all the info you need is below!

What You Need in a Desert Survival Kit

Whether you live near a desert, are visiting one, or just flying over it, you'd be wise to carry a desert survival kit. The big question is, what basic supplies do you need for desert survival? Below are the bare bone basics of what you absolutely need to survive.


While this may seem obvious, people often overlook precisely how much water you need in environments that feel like the surface of the sun. A good rule of thumb is to have at least one gallon of water per person for every day in the desert. So if you're in the desert with some buddies for a week, you'll need the equivalent of a bathtub's worth of water, at the very least, to keep everyone safely hydrated. Unfortunately, you rarely wander into the desert intending to get lost, run out of fuel, or be stranded in general, which makes it hard to anticipate how much water you'll need in said situation. To help keep yourself from shriveling up like a raisin, throw a few water pouches and purification tablets inside your survival kit and keep several gallons of water in your vehicle. 

Aquatabs, Lifestraws, Rope, & Plastic Bags

Once you've drunk all the water you've brought, you need to generate more water from sources around the environment. If you find a natural water source, no matter how muddy and murky it may be, you can make due by drinking through a Lifestraw or straining it through a cloth into your bottle and dropping an Aquatab into it. 

Did you know you can draw water from plants? Pretty much any green plant can have water extracted from it. All you've got to do is throw a bag over the top of the plant, place a rock inside so the water has a place to gather, cinch down the rope, and wait a couple hours. The sun's heat will cause the water to evaporate from the plant, which may or may not kill it. However, you'll have several tablespoons of water to make sure you keep living, so score!

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If you run low on electrolytes, you’ll begin noticing adverse side effects such as headaches, muscle weakness, and fatigue. To keep your electrolytes up, throw in powdered drink mix or carry the little restaurant-sized packages of salt and mix one pack per liter of water. Salt helps your body retain moisture and is necessary for your cells to function. Not only that, it helps energize you as well. But on the other hand, an insufficient amount of salt has consequences in the form of low energy, muscle cramps, headaches, and weakness. 


Food is a bit of a balancing act in the desert. Digestion requires water to properly break down the food you’ve eaten and uses your precious water supply. However, you still need food to provide the energy required to traverse the rugged terrain. 

To use less water but still receive enough energy, eat carbs and protein in equal amounts. It requires a lot of water to digest protein and even more for carbs, but this will help give you the maximum amount of energy while using the least amount of water. This means you can’t be slamming protein bars all day. Beyond carbs and protein, sugar is the largest dehydrator, so the lower the sugar content, the better. And remember from the electrolyte section, salt is safe here! Eat foods that contain lots of it.

A few examples of easy-to-pack and store foods include:

  • Nuts & Seeds
  • Pretzels
  • Canned soup (careful, these can get heavy)
  • Protein Bars (in moderation)
  • Dried Fruit
  • Jerky
  • Peanut Butter


If you are purposely strutting into the desert, you need to know where the nearest roads, civilizations, and water sources are and how to get there. If you hate sand as much as a certain Skywalker and didn't expect to be dropped inside this sandy hell, you need at least some way to navigate. Maps and compasses are a must to help keep you on the right track!

survival kit for desert

First Aid Kit

While I could give you a comprehensive list of everything you'd ever need in a first aid kit, there are a few basic supplies you should have on hand for trekking the desert. The absolute minimum you should have is an everyday carry, or edc, first aid kit so you'll have life-saving supplies on hand. Beyond that, you should include blister tape, gauze, sun block, aloe vera, saline wash, a bite and sting kit, Benadryl, ibuprofen, and topical first aid items such as triple antibiotic ointment and calamine.

Tools - Multi-tools, Knives & Combs

Multi-tools are a rather obvious necessity for any survival kit and knives will protect you from savage animals, but why in the world would you need a comb? It's not like you'll even want to look presentable for potential saviors. I recommend packing a comb because you'll be in the desert, the ideal climate for the oh-so-particular cactus. These plants are characterized by being extremely easy to kill (I should know, I've killed 3) and, the arguably more important fact, covered in spikes that can and will stab you. Having a comb handy allows you to remove spines, thorns, and spikes from your skin, clothes, and gear without harming yourself.   

Light & Fire

In the desert, it's best to travel either entirely at night or in the early morning hours while it's cool and you can avoid the sun and horrendous heat that can literally melt your shoes! However, there are three main problems with this method. It's dark (in case you didn’t know), cold, and the wildlife is most active at this time. Sand does not retain heat well, so once it's all released, the temperature can hit hypothermic levels. For example, NASA has reported that the Sahara desert has an average temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day but plummets to a low of 25 at night. Not only will a fire provide light and keep you warm, it will help deter at least some of the local wildlife. Because of these reasons, it's best to carry at least one means of lighting a fire and a light source such as a headlamp.

surviving in the desert



If you don't have at least one signaling device in your survival kit, do you even want to be rescued? Signaling devices are usually small, compact, and easily included in your kit. Signal mirrors, whistles, and flares are all valuable pieces of equipment you could include. If you somehow find yourself stranded and don't have a signaling device, you can arrange rocks to spell SOS or "help," use a space blanket to reflect light, burning tires, or arrange wrecked vehicles to make them more noticeable.


While cotton clothes cause complications in wet regions, they are life-saving in dry climates. Cotton is a champion material when it comes to retaining moisture. Even though it's tempting to remove your clothes, you absolutely should not. Taking off your clothes will allow your sweat to evaporate faster. Leaving your clothes on will not only protect you from the sun's rays but from dehydration as well.

On the topic of clothing, keep your feet in your shoes and the sand out of them! Walking on sand barefoot for long distances can inflame tissue, random things can cut your feet, and the sun is hot! You can and will get burnt on the top and bottom of your feet. While possible, I strongly urge you to avoid crawling back to civilization. However, the sand can still cause horrific pain even if you keep your shoes on. The trapped sand will chafe and cause ugly blisters. If these blisters are rubbed further, they can become a bloody, infected mess. How devastating would it be if you died in the desert because you couldn't walk the last mile?

Insulation goes beyond just clothing. Night in the desert can get quite cold, so consider packing a space blanket to keep yourself cozy or construct a makeshift shelter.

Sun Protection

As Bill Wurtz so aptly phrased it, "the sun is a deadly laser." And unfortunately for all survivalists, redheads, and poor pale kids out there, it's impossible to go toe to toe with it. What you can do is take measures to avoid those dastardly cancer-causing rays! 

Hats, scarves, long sleeves, and sun-block can be the difference between surviving in the desert and turning into a piece of extra crispy bacon, especially since severe sunburns can lead to dehydration, and you'll already be struggling to avoid that. Let's not add another problem to that list. While you’re at it, throw on a pair of sick shades to protect your eyes from corneal sunburn.

When Nature Hates You

Sadly, Mother Nature is rarely on your side and tends to be even more against you when you struggle to survive. Below are three natural occurrences that may have a vendetta against you.


how to survive in the desert

Sand Storms

If the wind is picking up or you see a wall of dust in the distance, you may have a sandstorm on your hands. Before the storm reaches you, try to find shelter against a rock or shrubs and use a cloth to cover your mouth so you can breathe. If you don't have time to find shelter, shield your face and wait out the storm where you are. Sand storms generally only last a couple of hours, so hold tight.

Flash Floods

Even if it isn't raining in your location, a flash flood can sweep you away at any moment. Sand doesn't absorb moisture very well, so the water from heavy rainfall will flood the surrounding areas. What may be even scarier is that a flash flood can pick up all kinds of sediments and debris on its way to you and turn into a mudslide. 

While a flood may sound good because that'll mean an abundance of water, flash floods have more red flags than your ex. If you hear distant thunder, something that sounds like a train or rumble, or the ground begins shaking, a flash flood may be approaching. Quickly get to higher ground as the water can rise several feet in a few minutes, and do not step in the water! Even water that seems shallow can sweep you off your feet in the most unromantic of ways.

survival tips


While less destructive than the other two, these optical illusions can cause you to lose your way or waste valuable time by tricking you into thinking you found an oasis. For example, if you see what appears to be a large body of water in the distance, but there isn't any vegetation around it, you're most likely seeing a mirage.

Bites & Stings

In the desert, everything’s out to hurt you. The first piece of advice is if a snake bites you, don’t suck out the venom! It won’t do anything, and you’ll only get poison in your mouth. Applying a tourniquet, cutting open the wound, or snake bite kits are also bogus treatment methods that may only make things worse. Venomous snake bites require professional medical attention, so your best bet is to get professional medical attention asap. If you’re bitten by a nonvenomous snake, clean and wrap the wound. 

While it’s recommended to avoid snakes altogether, there are a few ways you can tell the difference between venomous and nonvenomous snakes. 

Venomous Snakes

  • Triangular, distinct heads
  • Thin, black, vertical pupils like a cat’s
  • Can be brightly colored (red and yellow bands)

Nonvenomous Snakes

  • Rounded heads
  • Rounded pupils
  • Usually not brightly colored

Insect bites and scorpion stings are painful and annoying but are rarely lethal. You can treat these by cleaning the area, applying a topical ointment like antibiotic cream or calamine, covering the area with a bandage, and taking some Benadryl.

Most desert wildlife hide under or in rocks and shrubs in order to avoid the heat of the day. When rooting around these areas, be cautious where you touch and try to only place your hand where you can see it. If you sleep out in the desert, take extra care to check your shoes and the areas around you when you get up as scorpions may have snuggled in with you.

What to Do


In most survival situations, you can't laze around and wait for rescue. You or someone else could be injured, a storm could be rolling in, or you've been dropped in the middle of nowhere. If you are currently in a safe space, tend to any injuries and make a plan. Below are a couple of questions you can ask yourself to start creating your game plan.

  • Do you know where you are?
  • Is it possible you’re near civilization?
  • Do you have provisions and shelter?
  • What supplies do you have, and what do you need?
  • Can you easily procure the necessary materials?

What if you broke down on the side of the road in the Gobi desert? In this instance, you shouldn't leave your car. A surprising amount of people break down in the desert and perish while trying to hike back to civilization. And if someone reports you missing, EMS and search teams won't be able to find you at your car. Your game plan in this setting would be signal, shade, and wait. For the signal, you can do anything from burning a tire in the middle of the road to sending up black smoke to waving down passerbys. If there is no nearby shade, you'll need to get under your car. Another tip is that digging into the sand can be much cooler than sitting on the sun-scorched ground. Creating a simple, cohesive plan like this will help keep your heads squarely on your shoulders and avoid unnecessary panic. Take stock of your circumstances, make a plan, and get going.

Drink Your Dang Water

While you shouldn't guzzle it all in one go, rationing it too strictly can be a lethal decision. If heatstroke sets in and you're reducing your daily water intake to a sip, you'll die before you can drink what's left. Be smart about using the water you have and drink it conservatively. 

Avoid Heatstroke & Know the Signs of Dehydration

Heat exposure can lead to heatstroke and death. To avoid heatstroke, drink your water, avoid direct sunlight, keep yourself cool, and know the signs of dehydration. Both dehydration and heatstroke can cause headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and dark urine or urinating less. If you exhibit these symptoms, drink more water and do your best to keep yourself cool.

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What Not to Do

Drink Cactus Water

While you can find cactus water at the grocery store, you should not attempt to consume it in the wild. Most cacti protect themselves by producing acids and alkaloids too strong for your kidneys to digest. As a result, you won't be hydrating yourself. Instead, you'll be setting yourself up for misery in the form of stomach aches and hurling. Dig in dry river beds and under vegetation, collect morning dew, and follow animal tracks to find water. 

Drink Your Pee

Not only is it downright disgusting, but it should only be used as a last-ditch effort. And it will only work if it is lighter in color. If it is dark in color or strong smelling, you're already dehydrated, and drinking that will worsen it.


Panic can do different things to different people, but panic is, unlike general anxiousness, always bad. It can make you irrational, lead you to dangerous situations, cause you to run around without a plan, and Murphy's Law (anything that can go wrong will) is more likely to take effect. 

Rather than panicking, stop, take a deep breath, assess your situation, and check your survival kit for what supplies you currently have. From here, make a plan and think optimistically. It may be an appalling experience now, but hey, it may make you famous if you make it out! 

Hold My Beer Moments

While you could 'totally' make that ten-foot jump across a hundred-foot deep chasm (and it would look absolutely badass), is that really the most intelligent course of action? When your very survival is at stake, it would be wise to avoid adding additional problems to your situation. Save your daredevil stunts for when EMS is readily available and someone is around to (hopefully) talk you out of it. Your safety takes priority. 

What to Do BEFORE You Go Anywhere Sketchy

Tell Someone

If you can only remember one thing from this entire article, remember this one above all else! Before hiking or road tripping through areas with little reception or possible hazards, let someone know where you're going and for how long. Even better if you give them a comprehensive itinerary. After letting them know the location and times, tell them to send help if you don't contact them by a specific time. This will create a nice safety net for many situations, not just survival ones. Just remember to contact them afterward, or it'll be a rather embarrassing predicament. 


survival first aid kit

Keep Basic Supplies in Your Car

Keep some necessities in your car for emergencies, whether it's some loose items or a fully fleshed-out survival kit. If you don't want a bunch of stuff rattling around in your trunk, you could build a fancy rig for it all. Have a little fun with it!

Research the Area

No matter where your adventure leads, doing some prior research will never hurt you. You could discover safer paths, useful information, such as how much water you need, or you could stumble across a local secret you need to stop and see! 

Deserts can be a scary place to find yourself stranded, but with the right knowledge, a good survival kit, and a sprinkling of luck, you'll be back home in no time with an incredible story to tell your buddies! Need survival tips for other environments?

Author | Allison Lee

I'm Allison, a content writer at My Medic. My passion is empowering others with first aid knowledge and skills through my writing.

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