The striking beauty of the desert draws hikers, bikers and recreational enthusiasts galore. While many enter this beautiful landscape prepared, many also go unprepared and sadly suffer the consequences.
Spending the night in a treeless desert landscape with unlimited view in every direction, with just the star-studded sky above you as the sole witness, can be an unforgettable experience, especially if you’re well-prepared.
As for survival in the high desert, what you have to mostly contend with is the bitter cold and the still colder wind. Most parts of the high desert stand at 3,000-plus feet above sea level. This high elevation and scarce precipitation makes this area a cold desert. The night temperature dipping below zero degrees Fahrenheit is common.
Here are just a few preparation tips that may make the difference between an unbearable night and an amazing experience in the great out-of-doors.
1. Pack warm clothes
The very word “desert” brings to our mind the picture of hot sun and hot sands. Most desert areas, including the high desert that comes under the cold desert category, are unbearably hot during the day. But as night falls, the temperature dips so suddenly you wouldn’t know what hit you until your teeth start chattering. The chilling winds, too, add to the cold, making hypothermia one of the most frequent causes of death in the desert.
Make sure your pack contains thermals and heavy clothing. That should include a warm headdress and gloves, too. Gloves can come handy in case you need to gather firewood from the thorny bushes.
2. Take more water than necessary
Whether the desert is cold or hot, the arid atmosphere can rapidly dehydrate you even at night. You should factor in a minimum of one gallon of water per person, but if you can make it two gallons, it is still better. Carry the water in several small containers which makes it easy to transport.
If you’re running short of water, the natural tendency would be to limit water intake to tiny sips of water. While it may feel good to wet your parched throat in this way, it is the wrong way to use the water you have. Drink only when absolutely necessary, but drink deeply to provide water for the metabolic activities of the body.
3. Carry energy-rich food
The image of a hot desert may make you pack watery stuff like fruits and melons on your trip. While these foods may be refreshing, they offer very little by way of calories and nutrition. What you need is dense, energy-rich and compact foods. Examples are beef jerky, trail mix and energy bars. If you’re short on water, you should restrain from eating, as digestion takes up a lot of water.
4. Have tough footwear
The desert can be a treacherous place. Tough shoes can be the first level of protection against injury. Sturdy hiking shoes or boots are best.
5. Pack a thick blanket
A thick blanket, preferably with a Mylar lining on one side, can be a life saver in many ways. You can use it not only to cover your body, but to make a tent over your head or as a wind shield. Sudden precipitation can occur in the desert during the monsoon season, and a cold and wet body is a sure path to hypothermia. The reflective surface of the Mylar can be used for signaling, too. (Recommended: 12 Survival Uses For Mylar Blankets.)
6. Take the right fire-making equipment
Unlike the unending sand dunes of the Saharan desert, the cold high deserts often have some vegetation that can be gathered to make a fire. You may get plenty of dry material, but they may not be enough to make a substantial fire to keep away the cold. At least the fire will light up the area, and help protect your from unwanted visitors such as bears, mountain lions, wolves and coyotes.
To be able to make tea or just warm water can be very reassuring when you’re spending the night in the cold desert. Adding some green plant materials to your fire will result in a black smoke that can be seen from away in case someone is searching for you.
Lighters, matches, magnesium blocks, flint and steel, candles etc., should be part of the fire-making kit along with tinder. Practice some fire-making skills; they may come in handy.
7. Don’t forget location tracking devices
When you’re traveling in remote areas, you should let at least a few people know about your destination, expected time of arrival and some way of contacting you. Extra power banks for the cell phone, GPS device, compass and maps are all necessary items. Make sure you have a topographic map. Knowing the lay of the land is very important in rugged terrains. There could be high ridges and deep ravines on the way to your destination which are impossible to cross.
8. Pack signaling equipment
Flares are the best signaling equipment at night. Take quite a few of them. In fact, you should always carry this extremely useful item in your car at all times. Flashlights and signaling mirrors can be used together to send light signals at night. Fires, too, can be used for signaling. Three fires in a “V” shape is a recognized distress signal.
9. Bring a Swiss army knife
A knife can be a handy tool as well as a weapon in some emergency situations. You will use it for cutting branches of shrubs for making a temporary shelter or a fire. In case of food scarcity, it can help kill and skin animals, too.
10. Take a good first-aid kit
Even minor injuries can become serious problems when you have no access to medical attention. Disinfectants, sterile dressing, over-the-counter drugs to control vomiting, diarrhea and fever, and any prescription drugs you are taking should be included in the first-aid kit. In addition to all of these, if you can pack some antihistamines or similar anti-allergy medication, it can be life-saving in some situations. The stings of some insects and even the thorns of certain plants can trigger severe allergic reactions in some people.
Staying awake throughout the night is the best way to survive the night. You have to be constantly alert about nocturnal life around you, and protect yourself from hypothermia that can creep on you unawares.
Even when you happen to land in a high-desert area without a chance to prepare, knowing about the ways and means to survive may help you make the best of what you have.
Have you spent time in the high desert? What advice would you add? Share your tips in the section below: