Dangers in the Desert

A Short Survival Guide

Deserts are some of the most enchanting and beautiful places to travel to in the world. There is no desert quite like the other. But such an inhospitable place, where not a lot grows, gives huge challenges to those who want to undertake a trip in this terrain.

Rain or Shine
The seasonal changes in the desert can be frightening. The sun of the desert can bring temperatures up to 50 degrees Celsius; causing heat stroke which if not treated is deadly. The storms in the desert are absolutely breathtaking and awe-inspiring but they also bring flash floods which can sweep away trucks easily. Both can occur so it is always good to check the weather before to know what to expect.

Fires can start easily in the grasslands on the edge of the desert from the intense heat of the sun or a cigarette.

Heat stroke is when your body temperature goes above 40 degrees Celsius, which can lead to permanent brain damage or death. Symptoms for this occurrence are headaches, dizziness, hot and dry skin, lack of sweat, nausea, violent or apathetic behaviour and mental confusion which can lead to unconsciousness. If possible, don’t travel during midday when it’s hottest but during early morning or late afternoon. If heat stroke does occur, the best thing you can do is put the person in a shaded place or create shade for them (open up a blanket or tent and hold it above them), have them lying slightly above the ground, pour water on them, loosen their clothing, fan them and massage their limbs. If they are able, have them drink small sips of water every few minutes. In addition, even if they seem like they are back to their normal selves, it is best to go to a doctor for a check up.

In flash floods the best thing you can do is get to high ground, lie down, take off anything metallic to minimise the risk of getting hit by lightning, and just wait it out.

The Sand is Rising
Sandstorms are fiercely strong winds (can be up to 80mph) which carry sand, sometimes for miles. They burn your skin, eyes, choke and can change the whole landscape around you.

In general, try to travel when there are no sandstorms. However, in some deserts big sandstorms can happen at least once a week. Wear goggles, if you have, and cover your mouth with cloth. Lie down near some rocky outcropping. Cover your body with a blanket or a big piece of cloth and create a tent-like space with your body and the cloth. That is so that if you do get buried in the sand, you will have breathing space.

Sandstorm on the base in the desert.

Cities of Sand
A common problem people encounter in the desert is mirages. Mirages are optical illusions caused by light bending in the hot air emitted by the hot ground. Many times they show you water sources which are not there, make landmarks seem much closer than they are, cause the ground and the horizon to move or even at times show you cities of sand.

Climb up to higher ground where the mirage will not obstruct your view so you can gauge distances, find landmarks and be on your way.

“The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors”…
The desert is so damn hot during the day most people can’t believe how cold it can get during the night. And it can get very very cold. I was once in the desert and woke up to find frost on the ground and a few people got hypothermia.

If staying overnight in the desert make sure you have warm clothes for the night, maybe even some instant heating pads, and if possible make something hot to drink before you go to sleep. You can make a fire but be aware that you may unconsciously move towards the fire when you sleep and might catch fire!

No Shade
There is little to no vegetation in the desert, which equals to no resting under the shade of trees when it gets hot.

If shade is needed you can use the shadows from outcroppings, large rocks or brush.

Where am I?
To some people the desert just looks the same. It’s all the same colour, same landscape, nothing distinguishable from one hour to the next. Even for experienced desert dwellers, it’s easy to get lost.

When heading into the desert, it’s best to have a detailed plan, a detailed map of the area you will be travelling and be with someone who is knowledgeable of the area. It is also a good idea to leave your plan with someone you trust and with an estimation of when they will be hearing from you again.

Water, water, water
There is almost no water in the desert. Nothing, nada, zip, zilch. They are the driest places in the world with less than 25 centimetres of rain per year. So to find water in the desert you have to know where or you have to be just very very very lucky.

The amount of water you sweat out means you’ll need to be hydrating yourself very frequently, at least once an hour. If not you will get dehydrated. Big signs of this are a lack of or dark urine, dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting and even fainting. Carry as much water as possible, travel to watering holes or if possible take a car and bury water along the trail you’ll be taking. However, if someone does become dehydrated, place them in the shade or create shade for them, fan them and have them drink water every few minutes, even if they feel sick.

Creepy Crawlies
Snakes, spiders and scorpions. Kings, rulers of the desert. They are sneaky buggers, masters of camouflage and can be hiding everywhere. Some are deadly (they tend to be the smaller, colourful version) so it’s best to keep away from them if sighted.

They mostly come out at night so when you got to sleep, put your sock on the opening of your shoe (like you’re putting a sock on your foot) so no unwelcome critters can take shelter in them and keep yourself well wrapped up when you sleep. Avoid sleeping next to areas with vegetation, rocks and dark crevices. When moving on, shake everything out to dislodge any of them. If you have to move rocks away, move with a stick or if wearing walking shoes, move with your foot. However, if someone does get bitten by a snake, spider or scorpion and it’s poisonous or don’t know, calm the person down (lower heart rate slows down the rate the poison travels through the body), keep them as still as possible, put ice on the wound and call a doctor.

Although the desert is a beautiful and exciting environment, it can be a hostile one. The dangers I have listed above are the main ones so take care, always be aware of where you are and keep a cool head. And never stop travelling and hiking around deserts!