How Long Can You Last in the Desert Without Water: Dry Facts

Like the surface of Mars, the desert is a dry and unforgiving environment, but you’re much more likely to be stuck in a desert. Whatever the reason you don’t have supplies, being in the desert without water is a severe and almost immediate danger to your life. You won’t last long without a drink. The average person can survive for about three days without water. However, in the desert, your time could be even shorter. Worse still, the daytime temperatures can be hot even as nighttime temps plunge twenty degrees. Luckily I grew up in the desert. I will share some survival tips and vital information to help you survive. The good news is that even in the driest places, there is some water to find when you know how to look.

How long can you last in the desert without water? You can survive up to three or four days in the desert without water. Unfortunately, this also depends on your circumstances. If you’re in Death Valley in summer, and you didn’t drink at least a liter or two of water before you arrived, you might have only a day.

Finding Water Sources in the Desert

Lasting through a desert day means you must have water. Whether you are cutting into a cactus and boiling up the thick liquid within or looking for an oasis in the sand, water is the most vital thing you can find in a desert. Without it, you will die.

Depending on where you’re stuck, seeking water isn’t always as simple as you might think. For example, boiling cactus water is essential. You can eat a prickly pear and the fishhook barrel cactus raw for the water, but most other types will make you very ill if you try that trick. Natural acids and alkaloids in cactus flesh can make you vomit or have severe stomach issues.

Types of Deserts

There are five main types of deserts. The challenges in each are different, and so are the water sources. I will give you a brief overview and suggest a water source for each one.

  • Coastal- A coastal desert has plenty of saltwater. While you cannot drink ocean water directly, it’s easy to use evaporation or boiling to create potable water. It will take some patience and time, but you can get a drink.
  • Subtropical-  Subtropical deserts like the Sahara are barren sandy places. You will need to find an oasis to get water here. Look for birds or signs of green along the horizon. Don’t fall for the heat haze that can look like water shimmering in the distance.
  • Rain Shadow- This type of desert is found near the leeward (facing away from prevailing winds) side of mountains. Death Valley is an excellent example of this type of desert. There are no oases and little to no vegetation. You should try to get out of this type of desert. You might be able to use a spread out cloth to collect a minimal amount of moisture around dawn from the air. However, I suggest heading for the mountains where you will find a more hospitable environment.
  • Interior- Interior deserts are on the inside of a continent, hundreds of miles from an ocean. Both the Gobi and the Sonoran desert are this variety. Hopefully, you will find yourself in the Sonoran desert where you can boil liquid from a cactus.
  • Arctic- Arctic deserts are dry and extremely cold, like the Siberian tundra in Russia. You can find and melt ice and snow in these deserts. Place the frozen water in a plastic or metal container and place it between layers of your clothing.

Signs of Your Body is Dehydrated in the Desert

Surviving in a desert depends on getting enough water. I’m not particularly eager to use a cliche, but it is true that when you become thirsty, it’s usually a sign that your body is already missing more water than it should. Unfortunately, your body also underestimates its own need for water. Always drink more than you think you need.

Additionally, it would be best if you watched out for signs of dehydration. By monitoring your health, you can help preserve your life. The desert is vast and beautiful, but it is also unforgiving to those who don’t know the secrets of survival there.

Dehydration Signs

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to tell if your lack of water is getting dangerous. The list below contains many of the signs of dehydration. If you are feeling any of these, please drink some water and, if necessary, seek medical assistance.

  1. If you are thirsty, then your body needs more water.
  2. Surprisingly, a sudden sugar craving can mean you’re getting dehydrated.
  3. Pinch the skin on the back of your hand and pull it up. If you release it and it snaps back immediately, you have enough water in your skin. If it takes a second or two to re-form to the hand, then you need water.
  4. A swollen tongue or dry mouth can warn you that there’s not enough liquid in your body.
  5. Dark yellow urine has too little water in it.
  6. Nasty breath (in those who don’t have it usually) can indicate low liquid in the body. Your mouth isn’t replenishing it’s moisture fast enough to prevent the smell.
  7. Dizziness can indicate that you don’t have enough water in your body.
  8. Sluggishness and fatigue are signs that your ‘tank’ is running low.
  9. Decreased urine or when you stop sweating in the heat are both signs of severe dehydration.
  10. Confusion or the inability to focus are both indicators of dehydration as well.
  11. Heart Palpitations are serious. When you don’t have enough liquid in your system, your blood becomes thicker. Thick blood makes it harder for your heart to do its job.
  12. Fainting is always a bad sign, but in the desert, it can mean you need water very badly.

How Much Water do You Need to Survive in a Desert

While most people only need to drink a couple of liters of water per day, in the desert, you need more. Adult men need a minimum of 3.7 liters (124 ounces), and adult women require around 2.7 liters (92 ounces) per day to survive. Naturally, children and smaller people can survive on less, but not by much. Moreover, your activity level will affect this.

People sitting in the shade and not doing much for the day will be fine with the amounts listed above. Unfortunately, if you’re making a survival shelter, foraging, or hunting food and looking for more water, you need more water. Sweat is both your friend because it cools you, and the enemy as it leaches out your water and salt.

When I was growing up in the Sonoran desert, we were taught in school that you should drink around a gallon of water per day in summer. This quantity was in addition to whatever else you had to drink. Though that might be more than you need, it’s still a wise rule of thumb.

Non-Water Liquids in Extreme Heat

Especially if you’re consuming caffeine or doing any strenuous or outdoor activities, your water will disappear faster. Keep in mind that only about sixty percent of caffeinated liquids go into your body as water. Plus, the chemicals speed up your metabolic rate, so you process that water out faster.

Too often, I have seen people make the mistake of thinking an energy drink or rehydration drink is the solution to all their desert woes. As any firefighter can tell you, you need more water than a sports drink if you don’t want to end up dehydrated and sick. This is a case of a little is good, but too much can kill you.

Even wildland firefighters, who sweat more than professional athletes, drink a one-to-one or two-to-one ratio of water to rehydration drinks. This helps preserve the kidneys and maintain body function. Since these people are sometimes literally inside a fire, this is an excellent example of extreme hydration needs beyond what you should experience in the desert. While you need the salt in these drinks to survive harsh conditions, overdoing it is not a good survival strategy.

If you only have coffee or soda, by all means, drink it. Some water is still better than none. If you only have sports drinks, I suggest filtering any of these through a Lifestraw or similar solution, so you get mostly water. It will not taste good, but taking out some of the additives will give you a purer drink that will hydrate you.

Regrettably, you will still need to find a water source quickly if you are forced to stay within the desert. I recommend walking toward the nearest civilization or mountain. You can collect water as you go, and you’ll be on the path to safety.

Final Thoughts

Surviving in a desert is hard enough when you have plenty of water. Sunburn, toxic animals and plants, and other issues arise quickly. Take a page from the animal’s books and sleep during the hottest parts of the day. At night it will be cooler, and you’ll be able to work or move with less sweat.

Depending on the type of desert you’re stranded in, water can be tough to find. So long as your desert has cactus, you’ll probably be alright. In a sandy desert, a small amount of animal blood can give you protein and some water, but too much will make you sick. You can also drink your urine twice, but after that, it could cause toxicity issues.

Even in the deepest deserts, life can thrive, but most of that life is better adapted than you are for the task. Always carry water with you no matter where you plan to go.

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