Desert survival – an introduction

A lot of what is touted as desert survival is actually survival in very dry places which have hard to get water. There is vegetation and perhaps surface water in such places. But what do you do when you are in REAL desert- a super arid region like the Western desert of Egypt where there is virtually no vegetation and using a plastic sheet to condense water from a pit can sometimes produce no more than a teaspoon of water in a 24 hour period?


The short answer is: you manage yourself, your own ability to travel through and tolerate such an environment.


My experience, based on the last six years of taking various kinds of people into the desert from the obese and the unfit to super fit and adapted Bedouin is that developing the ability to monitor and balance your own activity as against activity is the key to survival. My own ‘bad experiences’ in the desert all stem from neglecting this balance, this need to harmonise your body with the environment.


Things that spring to mind: deciding to climb a steep hill in midday 90 degree temperatures then walk faster than normal all afternoon: result huge headache and real exhaustion at the end of the day as opposed to feeling great after the same distance but no midday sprint.


Next: getting a 4x4 stuck at 4pm on a June day. It was cooler than midday but at 98 degrees not cool. By 5pm we had to stop to avert serious heat exhaustion from all the digging. We waited till 6am the next morning when it really was cool and got free easily.


Having walked 30km a day for a week with no blisters and feeling fit- then walking 40km in a hurry, getting bad heel blisters that made the next day agony.


They all have a theme: hurrying too much at the wrong time.

It is possible to walk long distances in the desert- as long as you do not hurry. It is possible to survive extreme heat- as long as you do not hurry. And for those faced with two stuck 4x4s, two bent sandplates and a tiny jack - it is possible to get free - as long as you do not hurry.


It is interesting to observe the Bedouin: if there is any shade they are in it. If there is any tea - they have some. If they can ride a camel rather than walk, they’ll probably ride at least some of the way. If there is wood to burn they won’t chop or saw it- they’ll just split small pieces off to make as small a fire as they can that works. Quite a shock for me when I found ‘sitting round the campfire’ on a hardcore Bedouin trip involved staring at one or two red glowing embers - max - the fire damped right down to save fuel.


It’s a minimalistic approach. How it works with the number one concern in the desert, hydration, is like this. Bedouin never ever hydrate throughout the day especially through the hot part of the day. They don’t drink much coffee- and never in the day. Maybe one in the evening but I’ve been on many trips where no coffee was drunk. The tea is always strong and very sweet. And it’s the rocket fuel of the desert.

It has long been known that by drinking hot drinks, preferably tea with some sugar, both reduces the need to sip water and also ‘resets’ the body’s metabolic running temperature. That is the ‘comfort point’ at which your body operates. If you suck cool liquid through a pipe all day long you are telling your body one thing: there is no shortage of water here to waste. Unless you are running a desert marathon when water is needed to cool you down - ie. NOT a survival situation- then the first and best thing you can do is leave your camelback back home.


Drink early in the morning when it is cool, a bit at lunchtime and in the cool of the evening a few hours before sleep. Drink a 1.5 litre bottle throughout the day with, from time to time, rehydration salts or a spoon of salt and a spoon of sugar in it. Drink tea the rest of the time, any time. You should manage in non-summer conditions, to go on 4-4.5 litres a day for all your water needs- even if walking up to 30km a day. That is by not hurrying and not carrying anything more than a very light pack. Naturally you’ll have to experiment. I once dragged a trolley over sand dunes and ended up drinking 9 litres in twelve hours- which resulted in vomiting and headaches. Subsequent days I got it down to the 4 litre level per day whilst still pulling the trolley.

Then you can begin to push yourself- for short bursts. Can you - if well hydrated - go a day with only a litre? - probably- though you may be pretty dry at the end. Sucking rocks does work by the way.


It is by such acts of self-discovery that you begin to build a basis for real desert survival. Once you know you can walk 30km in a straight line on a few litres of water through a featureless desert- then you’re getting somewhere.