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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.

Navigate

>> Find north Use the stick-and-shadow method: When the sun is casting shadows, place a three-foot stick vertically into the flat ground. Clear the area around it of debris. Mark the tip of the stick’s shadow with a stone. Wait for at least 15 minutes and mark the end of the shadow again. The line connecting the marks roughly coincides with the east-west line. A line perpendicular to this line through the central stick indicates the north-south line.
>> Stay on track Navigating featureless desert terrain without a GPS? Good luck keeping a perfect bearing. Instead, “aim off” your destination by 10 degrees with your compass. Instead of heading directly toward your target, alter your bearing by 10 degrees for distances up to a mile and five degrees for greater distances. For example, let’s say you’re trying to reach your car. If you aim to the left of it by five degrees, when you reach a line parallel to your desired location—like the road—simply turn 90 degrees to find it.

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Build a Shelter

In the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, the temperature once plummeted from 120°F during the day to 34°F at night. Lesson? Find insulated shelter. First, look for caves or natural features in which to hunker down. No luck? Construct a makeshift cocoon. Dig a body-size trench and line the rim with large rocks; cover it with a folded tarp or emergency blanket. The rocks will help secure the blanket and prevent the sides from eroding. Insulate the bottom with extra clothes.

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Signaling For Help

Choose a quality mirror like Coghlan’s 2” x 3” Signal Mirror ($10, coghlans.com). The glass has greater candle power and sheen than a polycarbonate mirror, and its flash can be seen from 50 to 100 miles away, depending on weather conditions. Take your hat off to prevent the brim (or its shadow) from obscuring the front surface area of the mirror, place the sighting hole in the middle of the mirror up to your eye, and tilt up (so you are not looking directly at the sun). You will see a small bead of white light. Next, direct this bead of light over to the search plane or distant rescuer and “flash” them three times. Patterns of three are the recognizable universal distress signal. When not actively signaling, hang the mirror from a tree near your shelter—searchers could spot the reflection as the mirror turns in the breeze.

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