person walking in the desert

Finding Water In The Desert

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West texas desert
This is a photo of an arid desert


Since I reside in Texas and almost half of the state is desert I thought this would be a good topic, so this page contains information on how to survive in the desert by finding drinking water in an emergency situation, also we’ll go over some useful tips on how to recognize the signs of water presence.

Finding water is far more important than finding food, you see you can live without food for about 3 weeks, but without water you will expire in about three days. Your survival in the desert depends upon your ability to use the available survival equipment and the resources around you, and your ability 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.

Water In The Desert

The most important element in desert survival is knowledge. Once you have learned that, your chances of survival increase highly, and that’s what I will try to provide in this article. One key factor in desert survival is understanding the relationships between physical activity, air temperature, and water consumption. The human body requires a certain amount of water for various activities at certain temperatures. For example, a person performing hard work for 8 hours in the sun at 110 degrees fahrenheit (43 C) requires 19 liters of water per day. 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 98.6 degrees F (36.9 degrees C).Your body gets rid of excess heat (cools down) by sweating or as the girls like to put it perspire both mean the same thing. The warmer your body becomes – whether caused by work, exercise, or high 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, they can quickly develop heat stroke. This is an emergency that requires immediate medical attention.

As with any outdoor adventure it’s important to think about preventing a situation like this in the first place, so before we start talking about what to do should you find yourself stranded in the desert looking for water, here are 3 basic tips I recommend everyone to follow regardless of where your adventure takes you.

  • 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 anywhere 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 gallons or half gallon plastic containers.

So now you find yourself stranded in the desert, here is what you should know: Rationing water at high temperatures is actually asking for disaster because small amounts of good ol H2O (water) will not prevent dehydration. Loss of efficiency and collapse always follows dehydration. “It’s the water in your body that maintains your health, not the water within your bottle”.

Water Signs in the Desert

If you are near water, it’s always best to remain there and setup signals for rescuers. If no water is immediately available, look for it, following these leads will help.

Water In the Desert
This is a picture of a desert water hole

The first option is using a local map, but if that’s not available, then I recommend the following.

  • Watch for desert trails, following them may lead to water or even better civilization.
  • Flocks of birds will circle over waterholes. Always be listening for them to be chirping in the morning and evening, and you may be able to locate their watering spot.
  • 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.
  • Cactus can be a good source of water but caution should be taken. Without a sharp knife cutting into a cactus is difficult and takes time since you must get past the long strong spines and cut through the tough rind. Once you locate a barrel cactus and cut off the top, mash or squeeze the pulp into your mouth. Caution: do not eat pulp, place pulp in mouth, suck out juice and discard pulp. There maybe tiny hair like spines.
  • Morning dew accumulates on plants, though this method will not provide much water, it is better than none. But if you can carry a couple unscented trash bags in your pack like I do, they will come in handy in a survival situation. Dig a hole, place the open bag inside the hole and collect the overnight dew or rain water. Containers will work as well for the purpose of collecting dew and rain water.
  • Water accumulates in valleys and low areas, and on the foot of concave banks of dry river beads, Water also accumulates on the foot of cliffs or rock outcrops.
  • In a sand dune belt, any available water will usually be found beneath the original valley floor at the edge of dunes.
  • Wherever you find damp surface sand or green vegetation, you might find water. It maybe worth a look.

Once 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. This may take a little time.

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 to ration sweat and not water. You should think of yourself as a container of water, by conserving sweat you will conserve water as a result.

  • Find shade! Get out of the sun! Tree, cave, even a large cactus will suffice.
  • Place something between you and the hot ground.
  • Limit your movements – rest.
  • Wear your complete uniform, cover your head, and protect your neck. Clothing helps by slowing the evaporation rate and prolonging the cooling effect.
  • 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.
  • DO NOT SMOKE/DIP: Smoking or dipping will hasten dehydration and reduce endurance.
  • If travel is necessary, travel slowly and steadily.

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

arid barren dawn tree
This is a picture of a barren desert tree

Thirst is not a reliable guide for your need for water. A person who uses thirst as a guide will drink only 2/3’s (two-thirds) of their daily water requirement. To prevent this “voluntary” dehydration, use the following guide.

At temperatures below 100 degrees F (38 degrees C), drink 0.5 liter of water every hour.
At temperatures above 100 degrees F (38 degrees C), drink 1 liter of water every hour.

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 can cause 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.

It is my hope this page was helpful and provided you with some survival techniques on how to find drinking water in the desert.

Every effort was made to ensure that all the information in this article is correct. This article is not intended to replace the manufacturer’s suggested instructions in the use of their products. Always follow their safety guidelines. The author, publisher, and the copyright holder assume no responsibility for any damage, loss or injury caused or sustained as a consequence of the use and or application of any of the contents of this article.

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