Finding Water in the Desert

Finding Water in the Desert

This page contains information on how to survive by finding drinking water in the desert in an emergency situation, also you will find useful tips on how to recognize signs of water presence.
Finding water is more important than finding food, because without food you can live for weeks, but without water you can't live more than three day. Your survival in the desert depends upon your ability to use the available survival equipment, and your special skills to apply them to cope with the hazards you face as well as your will to survive. But most importantly your ability to improvise, because every survival situation is different, so think and improvise by taking advantage of what you have available to you.

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Water in the Desert

The most important element in desert survival is knowledge. Once you have that, your chances of survival are very high, and that's what we will try to provide in this article. A key factor in desert survival is understanding the relationship between physical activity, air temperature, and water consumption. The human body requires a certain amount of water for a certain level of activity at a certain temperature. For example, a person performing hard work for 8 hours in the sun at 110 degrees f (43 C) requires 19 liters of water daily. Lack of the required amount of water causes a rapid decline in an individual’s ability to make decisions and to perform tasks efficiently.

Your body’s normal temperature is 36.9 degrees C (98.6 degrees F). Your body gets rid of excess heat (cools off) by sweating. The warmer your body becomes—whether caused by work, exercise, or air temperature. The more you sweat, the more moisture you lose. Sweating is the principal cause of water loss. If a person stops sweating during periods of high air temperature and heavy work or exercise, he will quickly develop heat stroke. This is an emergency that requires immediate medical attention.

But before talking about what to do when you're stranded looking for water in the desert, it's important to think about preventing a situation like that from happening the first place. Here are 3 tips:

  • Always inform someone of where you are going, your route, and when you expect to return. Stick to your plan.
  • DO NOT start a trip to the desert on impulse with few supplies, little or no water and no real idea of when you will return. Always be well organized and plan the entire trip.
  • Give your water supply extra thought. Carry water in gallon or half gallon plastic containers.

Now that you're already stranded in the desert, here is what you should know: Rationing water at high temperatures is actually inviting disaster because small amounts will not prevent dehydration. Loss of efficiency and collapse always follows dehydration. It is the water in your body that maintains your life, not the water in your bottle.

Conserving Water in the Desert

Understanding how the air temperature and your physical activity affect your water requirements allows you to take measures to get the most from your water supply. The following measures will help you Ration Sweat - Not Water. You can think of yourself as a water container, by conserving sweat you will conserve water as a result.

  1. Find shade! Get out of the sun!
  2. Place something between you and the hot ground.
  3. Limit your movements!
  4. Wear your complete uniform, cover your head, and protect your neck. Clothing helps by slowing the evaporation rate and prolonging the cooling effect.
  5. Food requires water for digestion; therefore, eating food will use water that you need for cooling. Alcohol is to be avoided as it will accelerate dehydration.
  6. If travel is necessary, travel slowly and steadily.
  7. DO NOT SMOKE: Smoking will hasten dehydration and reduce endurance.

By staying in the shade quietly, fully clothed, not talking, keeping your mouth closed, and breathing through your nose, your water requirement for survival drops dramatically.

Thirst is not a reliable guide for your need for water. A person who uses thirst as a guide will drink only two-thirds of his daily water requirement. To prevent this “voluntary” dehydration, use the following guide:

  • At temperatures below 38 degrees C, drink 0.5 liter of water every hour.
  • At temperatures above 38 degrees C, drink 1 liter of water every hour.
Finding Water in the Desert

Elements Causing Evaporation of Water in the Body


Water Signs in the Desert

If you are near water, it is best to remain there and prepare signals for rescuers. If no water is immediately available, look for it, following these leads:

  1. The first obvious option is using a local map, but if that's not available then:
  2. Watch for desert trails, following them may lead to water or civilization.
  3. Flocks of birds will circle over waterholes. Listen for their chirping in the morning and evening, and you may be able to locate their watering spot.
  4. Look for plants which grow only where there is water: cottonwoods, sycamores, willows, hackberry, salt cedar, cattails and arrow weed. You may have to dig to find this water.
  5. Cacti can contain a good source of water, once a barrel cactus is found cut off the top and mash or squeeze the pulp. Caution: do not eat pulp, place pulp in mouth, suck out juice and discard pulp. Without a machete cutting into a cactus is difficult and takes time since you must get past the long strong spines and cut through the tough rind.
  6. Keep on the lookout for windmills and water tanks built by ranchers.
  7. Morning dew accumulates on plants, though this method will not provide much water, it is better than none.
  8. Have containers ready for sudden rainstorms and flash floods.
  9. Water accumulates in valleys and low areas, and on the foot of concave banks of dry river beads
  10. Water also accumulates on foot of cliffs or rock outcrops.
  11. First depression behind first sand dune of dry desert lakes might contain water.
  12. Wherever you find damp surface sand or green vegetation, you might find water.
  13. In a sand dune belt, any available water will be found beneath the original valley floor at the edge of dunes.

After you spot one of the options above and no water is on the surface, if the ground is still damp, it means water is just underneath the surface, dig holes deep enough to allow water to seep in.

For tips on how to purify water, check our next page: Water to Survive

Dehydration in the Desert

Body temperature in a healthy person can be raised to the danger point by absorbing heat or by generating it. Heat can be absorbed from the ground by reflection or direct contact. Any kind of work or exercise increases body heat. An increase in body temperature of 6 to 8 degrees above normal (98.6) for any extended period causes death. The body gets rid of excess heat and attempts to keep the temperature normal by sweating, but by sweating the body loses water and dehydration results. This water must be replaced.

Drinking water at regular intervals helps your body remain cool and decreases sweating. Even when your water supply is low, sipping water constantly will keep your body cooler and reduce water loss through sweating. Conserve your fluids by reducing activity during the heat of day. Do not ration your water! Conserve sweat not water. If you try to ration water, you stand a good chance of becoming a heat casualty.

More information: We hope this page was helpful and provided you with some survival techniques on how to find drinking water 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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