In the desert, the most pressing need is water, once you have that, you can live for about 3 weeks without food. When looking for food, it's important to note that you should be careful before starting on your quest, because there are poisonous plants and venomous reptiles and insect. But that doesn't mean you should starve to death. If you must eat, here are some tips you should consider. The food sources you can exploit are determined by the habitat you are in. Vary your diet to make sure you get the appropriate proportions of fat, protein, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins.
Most experts agree that the main edibles are in the fruits of the cacti and legumes. All cactus fruits are safe to eat. The legumes are the bean bearing plants. The identification of all poisonous plants is beyond the scope of this article. The reader is encouraged to study the matter further based upon the degree of interest. There is no pattern of geography, habitat, relationship, seasonal appearance or plant part that can be used successfully to separate poisonous plants from harmless ones. But if you must eat and doubt whether a plant is poisonous or not, you can use the "Universal Edibility Test" (See chart at the bottom of this page).
If water is not available, do not eat, as food will only increase your need for water. However, in a survival situation where use of strange plants for food is necessary, follow these rules: AVOID plants with milky sap. AVOID all red beans. If possible, boil plants which are questionable. Test a cooked plant by holding a small quantity in the mouth for a few moments. If the taste is disagreeable (very bitter, nauseating, burning), do not eat it.
Tips for Finding Food in the Desert
- If water is not available, do not eat.
- Unless you have plenty of water. Don't exhaust yourself looking for food, conserve your sweat.
- AVOID plants with milky sap.
- AVOID all red beans.
- AVOID bitter or soapy taste.
- AVOID spines, fine hairs, or thorns.
- AVOID dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsleylike foliage.
- AVOID "almond" scent in woody parts and leaves.
- AVOID grain heads with pink, purplish, or black spurs.
- AVOID three-leaved growth pattern.
- If possible, boil plants which are questionable.
- Use the "Universal Edibility Test" if you doubt a plant is poisonous (See section at the bottom of this page).
- Unless you're an expert hunter, don't hunt, use trapping instead (less effort involved).
Some common desert edible plants are:
- Abal (Calligonum comosum): its fresh flowers can be eaten in spring.
- Acacia (Acacia farnesiana): Its young leaves, flowers, and pods are edible raw or cooked.
- Agave (Agave species): Its flowers and flower buds are edible. Boil them before eating.
- Cactus (various species).
- Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera): Its fruit is edible fresh but is very bitter if eaten before it is ripe.
- Desert amaranth (Amaranths palmeri): All parts are edible, but some may have sharp spines you should remove
- Desert raisin: (eaten raw when green-white to yellow-brown).
Reptiles are a good protein source and relatively easy to catch. Thorough cooking and hand washing is imperative with reptiles. All reptiles are considered to be carriers of salmonella, which exists naturally on their skin. Turtles and snakes are especially known to infect man. If you are in an undernourished state and your immune system is weak, salmonella can be deadly. Cook food thoroughly and be especially fastidious washing your hands after handling any reptile. Lizards are plentiful in most parts of the world. They may be recognized by their dry, scaly skin. They have five toes on each foot. The only poisonous ones are the Gila monster and the Mexican beaded lizard. Care must be taken when handling and preparing the iguana and the monitor lizard, as they commonly harbor the salmonellal virus in their mouth and teeth. The tail meat is the best tasting and easiest to prepare.
Your most vital nutritional needs in a survival situation are protein and fat. Most insects are rich in both. Turn off your cultural bias against eating insects. Edible bugs are good "survival food".
Trapping: Unless you are an experienced hunter, hunting animals for meat is inadvisable in a survival situation. Hunting is difficult and you will expend a lot of energy to get your food. Instead of hunting consider trapping. Trapping requires less skill and leaves you free to spend time searching for other food sources. The wilderness survivor needs simple traps that are easy to remember and easy to construct. Check our page about Traps and Snares.
Reminder: You must have water to survive, but you can go without food for many days without harmful effect. Protein needs water to be digested, and therefore eating it will make you more thirsty and dehydrated. For more tips about getting water check our page Getting Food to Survive
Universal Edibility Test
There are many plants throughout the world. Tasting or swallowing even a small portion of some can cause severe discomfort, extreme internal disorders, and even death. Therefore, if you have the slightest doubt about a plant's edibility, apply the Universal Edibility Test before eating any portion of it.
- Test only one part of a potential food plant at a time.
- Separate the plant into its basic components—leaves, stems, roots, buds, and flowers.
- Smell the food for strong or acid odors. Remember, smell alone does not indicate a plant is edible or
- Do not eat for 8 hours before starting the test.
- During the 8 hours you abstain from eating, test for contact poisoning by placing a piece of the plant
part you are testing on the inside of your elbow or wrist. Usually 15 minutes is enough time to allow for a
- During the test period, take nothing by mouth except purified water and the plant part you are
- Select a small portion of a single part and prepare it the way you plan to eat it.
- Before placing the prepared plant part in your mouth, touch a small portion (a pinch) to the outer
surface of your lip to test for burning or itching.
- If after 3 minutes there is no reaction on your lip, place the plant part on your tongue, holding it
there for 15 minutes.
- If there is no reaction, thoroughly chew a pinch and hold it in your mouth for 15 minutes. Do not
- If no burning, itching, numbing, stinging, or other irritation occurs during the 15 minutes, swallow
- Wait 8 hours. If any ill effects occur during this period, induce vomiting and drink a lot of water.
- If no ill effects occur, eat 0.25 cup of the same plant part prepared the same way. Wait another 8
hours. If no ill effects occur, the plant part as prepared is safe for eating.
CAUTION: Test all parts of the plant for edibility, as some plants have both edible and inedible parts. Do not assume that a part that proved edible when cooked is also edible when raw. Test the part raw to ensure edibility before eating raw. The same part or plant may produce varying reactions in different individuals.
Before testing a plant for edibility, make sure there are enough plants to make the testing worth your time and effort. Each part of a plant (roots, leaves, flowers, and so on) requires more than 24 hours to test. Do not waste time testing a plant that is not relatively abundant in the area.
More information: We hope this page was helpful and provided you with some survival techniques on how to find food in the desert. Check out our main page for more survival scenarios here Survival Guide, knowledge is light, and knowledge can save your life. Make sure you do your best to know what to do in a survival situation and then hope for the best.
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