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Backpacker Magazine – 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.

by: Gordy Megroz

Expect extremes in the desert. (Shane Thais Hillyard)
Expect extremes in the desert. (Shane Thais Hillyard)
An insulating, life-saving desert shelter. (Supercorn)
An insulating, life-saving desert shelter. (Supercorn)

 

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.

----

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.

----

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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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Feb 01, 2014

Thanks Backpacker, for showing us how to stay found and improve our chances of survival. Learn how to stay found by paying attention to your surroundings and using a compass. Read "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart" (Amazon). Remember to calibrate your compass to the declination at your camp site or hiking trail (http://magnetic-declination.com). A compass doesn't need satellites, a signal, or batteries and works in all types of weather, day or night, but you need to know how to use it and this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Learn how to orient yourself using a compass, a compass and a map, no compass and a map, no compass and no map. The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking and camping. Learn what to pack for a day-hike, trail ethics, what to do if you get lost, how to get rescued, and survival packing (for the car and for the trail) just in case your camping trip extends into more nights than you planned on. Buy it on Amazon, "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart".

Star Star Star Star Star
Jerry W Doyle
Jan 31, 2014

I went hiking in Joshua Tree National Park, California. Joshua Tree is one of my favorite places to hike during winter months, but this time I ended up going later, in fact, a little too later as the temperatures were “hot.“

I wanted badly to hike to the summit of Pinto Mountain. I didn’t make it. I have pictures, though, of the summit as I made it to the base of the peak.

The hike was brutal for me. My feet were swollen, blistered with my toenails discolored from all the trauma they sustained from the hike.

I wrapped my feet in moleskin to do get around afterwards, and later to do a hike of Ryan Mountain.

Following the Ryan Mountain hike I took off my shoes to see that my feet were swollen backed to the bloated look they were after the Pinto Mountain Peak hike.

The Pinto Mountain Summit hike was supposed to be an 11 mile loop hike up and over the peak. Due to a mistake in my orienteering, the hike turned out to be 18.5 miles according to my GPS tracking system of ground covered. It was 18.5 mountainous and canyon backcountry rugged wilderness miles over sand, rocks, then bigger rocks and finally boulders.

The reason for the extra 7.5 miles is because I took the wrong canyon wash ending up a distance from the point I needed to be to scale the summit.

When I arrived below the summit it was around noon. Although the summit was only .3 tenths miles further up, it was about at a 35 degree angle over rocks and mountain scree. I figured that time no longer was on my side for me to reach the summit in a day hike, and even if I did do so I then would be too exhausted to make it back down safely. My concern was the primitiveness of the trail and that on descending I may once again make a mistake and choose the wrong canyon for the shortest distance out. I made the right decision not to go for the summit.

There hardly is any shade to be found in Joshua Tree National Park where the Mojave Desert meets the Colorado desert. Although it was in the low 80s, it felt in the low hundreds by noon with the omnipresent sun burning down on me. I am so thankful I had my sunshade for my hands periodically would burn from the sun rays.

I made a very good decision to stop whenever I came across shade (even though I desired to keep going) to crawl up under the bush or rock to get out of the sun.

At one point I lay under the shade of a boulder for about the 15 minutes. This was the period I became accustomed to resting in the shade for my breathing to subside from panting to normal. Then I slowly would drink my sports drink. I am so thankful that I carried my 136 ounces of fluid as I used it all up as I saw the trailhead in a distance. Oh, after lying there in the dirt under that boulder until my breathing subsided, I look over across from me and about 6 feet away in the shade of a rock that had and opening underneath was this huge rattlesnake that filled the entire space. I was so exhausted physically that I didn't even move with haste, but just perfunctorily gathered my pack and moved on.

I started at 6:00 am and return to the trailhead at 6:45 pm. Indeed, it WAS a primitive trail. I never felt loss as all I had to do was follow one of the canyons out to Pinto Basin and then head due east for the highway. The problem was the heat and the perpetual need for shade which there were hardly none.

I also became aware that after having consumed over a gallon of fluids I still never felt the need to urinate.

I didn't make the summit of Pinto mountain, but that is ok. I'm happy. Sometimes accomplishing the goal we set for ourselves in life is not as important as what we learn in the process of our failures to do so.

I learned a lot about me on this hiking trip, especially the attempt to reach the summit of Pinto mountain.

Star Star Star Star Star
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meanolddog
Apr 02, 2012

1st of all DO YOUR HOMEWORK, by the sounds of this piece it was put together by someone who hasn't been out there but read a book. Doing your homework means researching your hike not only using maps but Satelite photos as well. Most Ranchers only know of water places on their Ranch and they do not want you there or around their Cattle which can become grumpy and protective of "their" water source.. Hike only during the months of November thru April. If there are roads near your hike, make a cache of a few gallons of water along the way as did Colin Fletcher during his Hike, the Thousand Mile Summer. Also carry that Plastic 6x6 piece of ground cloth and make a solar still by creating a well by stacking rocks in a circle if you have nothing to dig with and placing as much chopped or stomped on vegetation you can in the hole. I always carry one of those small metal foldup shovels, not for the digging latrines but one just a bit bigger that folds down and is a miniture Entrenching tool with a pick on one end. A Space Blanket which can be used to make shade placing the shiny side towards the sun. Bee's need water, so if there are Bee's in the area watch them for awhile and observe where they are going, are they going to the Hive or ground nest or to water..If you do find a Tinajas be very observant as to what is around it like Packrat or ground Squirrel droppings which could give you a number of diseases including the Plague. I carry one of those small sippy straw filters just for this reason. Also make sure you have at least 50 feet of nylon cord with you for sometimes the Tinajas is located under a jumble pile of rocks which you can see but can't climb down too. I carry My USMC issued Canteen cup from the 1970's which has the fold down handles which makes it perfect for tying some cord too and lowering it down to the tank to dip out some water.This cup unlike modern "Latte Cups" has a number of uses fromb boiling water, to frying, to digging holes with..But no matter what anyone tells you, planning your trip smartly is what is going to make it a pleaseant experience and or save you. Black and dark colors also absorb heat so becareful of what colors your wear. In thirty years of desert hiking I never once found a petroglaph by a Tinaja, only by a Spring and if you find a Spring, do not camp by it but move away about 200 yards to avoid unwanted night time visitors such as Snakes who need water too. One of my biggest thrills in years of Desert cross country hiking was locating a Spring and camping away from it to be rewarded with watching a herd of Desert Big Horn Sheep come down to drink at sunset. I was so thrilled I forgot to take pictures of them..And if you do find Native America Artifacts,Generally under some house size Boulders where it is nice and cool, take pictures and leave them alone, do not pick them up because some are so fragile they could just turn to dust in your hand, and though some would, I wouldn't tell the Museum about them either they'll just come out and muck it up...or worse, take them and store them in a drawer for nobody to see ever again. Had that happened twice, so I don't tell anymore. My Secret! SO the key to Desert survival is to use your head ahead of time and do the proper planning and remember those Salty food bars and the likes only make you thirsty so remove the sugar and chocolate which help dehydrate being diretics, as well as the beef jerky and salty nuts..I do carry two packs of oral Hydration salts which are about the size of a matchbook which I buy from an on line source but only had to use twice over the years..Oh, the one tool I bring on EVERY Desert Hike is the Victorinox "Work Champ" which has fewer tools than the Big Champ but most importantly it has Tweezers and Pliers..and a non-slip grip with a locking main blade..Those Pliers have pulled out hundreds of Cacti Thorns over the years from my body and my boots. It also has a Saw, Scissors and screw drivers for fixting Stoves and most importantly a Lanyard ring to tie it to my belt loops so I do not lose it while scampering or boulder hopping..And finely bring a good pair of well fitting Leather work Gloves, and not the prissy garden variety but good leather fingertipped work gloves. for the granite will just eat your hands up from climbing on it and you can use them for potholders and pushing aside bushes etc. etc...

Bristol Steve
Apr 02, 2012

When in the sands keep your mouth closed and breath through your nose, this will stop you mouth drying up, when in open desert use your turban, sit down bring your knee's up to you chest unrarell your turban (half way) hold the end use a long stick to create a shade, all so a long walking stick is good to fend off wild dogs, and a long turban is good when you arrive at a well, when only a bucket is near, it work's for me in north Africa,

oldocg
Mar 31, 2012

Worst thing about the desert is no shade, or shade that moves quickly into the adjacent cactus bed and then what do you do? The ground gets awefully hot if not shaded too. A parasol stays with you and you can aim it at the sun without moving around and therefore maintain your shade. Others will laugh at first but by the end they'll be won over. You dont need your tent so take one.

Ronnie
Mar 30, 2012

The same emergency blanket that enhances your bag at night will reflect the Sun 100% during the day and is really bright and can be seen well by the air and far away. You can use this to enhance your daytime hideyhole in conjunction with a tarp/ sheet. It can also be used to makeshift a solar oven that will boil rancid water in minutes making it eventually drinkable. put the solar blanket in a box or in your pack and fill with water. test this out first because the water will boil evaporate faster than you think. poor the hot water in doing extra water bottle and save for later at night when it's freezing cold out.

barlow
Mar 30, 2012

be careful out there people

Pathfinder1
Mar 30, 2012

Hi...


It looks like you let some spam in.

Desert Native
Dec 10, 2011

While digging a trench might help you survive, it'll take you three days to dig it because the ground is so hard.

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