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August 2011

Rip & Live: Survive Desert Extremes

Triple-digit temps by noon. Freezing at night. Scarce water. The desert is as dangerous for unprepared hikers. Give yourself an edge and learn to survive this hostile territory while backpacking.

Essential Gear

Cover up to keep cool. Think like a cowboy. Stay clothed to cut down on evaporative sweat loss, and you’ll increase survival time by 25 percent. You’ll need a brimmed hat, sunglasses, a soaked bandanna around the neck, sunscreen, and breathable clothing (poly/cotton long-sleeve shirt, lightweight nylon pants, wicking wool socks), and lightweight, durable boots. See boot reviews on page 42. Pack binoculars for scouting for water and consider a lightweight umbrella to shield you from UV rays.


When Water Runs Out


In a survival situation, stay out of the sun from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and hike only during the cooler hours of the evening or morning. Lost hikers have lasted up to two days without water in the triple-digit heat of the Grand Canyon and Death Valley, while others, trying to find water in the middle of the day, have perished within three hours. Hole up in the shade like a coyote, conserve your precious sweat, and await rescue.


Forget solar stills or dowsing, and don’t assume that the creek, spring, or waterhole marked on the map is going to exist this year. Talk to locals like rangers or ranchers in the area and find out what the water conditions are really like. Then make sure you know how to find it by reading the subtle clues written across the terrain.
>> Tree cavities and hollows Look for water-loving trees that stand out in the desert. Willows, cottonwoods, and sycamores, with their bright green leaves, can be seen from miles away and are often signs that water is close to the surface. It may be visible or you may have to dig down a few feet at the tree’s base. Use a bandana to absorb puddles.
>> Tinajas Spanish for “earthen jars”—ranchers just call them tanks, as in water tanks—these are rock depressions where water can be found by the gallons, if the rains have been good. Scope out the landscape from above with binoculars, and look for distant shiny spots and the presence of bright green foliage. Often, you can find tinajas near petroglyphs left by the Native Americans whose lives depended on them. If you camp near a tinaja, don’t contaminate it. For many animals, it may be the only source of water for miles around.

Cacti: Eat Me, Drink Me?


Think slicing open a juicy barrel cactus will yield a quenching cup of water? Nope. There’s no water inside, and due to the alkaloids, most people will experience cramping and vomiting, which aggravates dehydration. The fishhook barrel cactus (pictured) isn’t completely toxic, but it can still cause diarrhea. In an emergency, suck on its inner flesh.

Prickly pear cactus fruits won’t replace the water your body needs, but they’ll help quench your thirst. They’re sweet but heavy with seeds and can be collected in late summer. Remove the stickers or glochids and peel the skin or char it in fire coals.

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