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Desert Survival

(Adapted from the U.S. Army Survival Manual)

To survive in arid or desert areas, you must understand and prepare for the environment you will face. Your survival will depend upon your knowledge of the terrain, basic climatic elements, your ability to cope with these elements, and your will to survive.

TERRAIN

Most arid areas have several types of terrain. The five basic desert terrain types are -

Mountainous (High Altitude).
Rocky plateau.
Sand dunes.
Salt marshes.
Broken, dissected terrain ( "gebel" or "wadi" ).
Desert terrain makes movement difficult and demanding. Land navigation will be extremely difficult as there may be very few landmarks. Cover and concealment may be very limited; therefore, the threat of exposure to the enemy remains constant.

Mountain Deserts

Scattered ranges or areas of barren hills or mountains separated by dry, flat basins characterize mountain deserts. High ground may rise gradually or abruptly from flat areas to several thousand meters above sea level. Most of the infrequent rainfall occurs on high ground and runs off rapidly in the form of flash floods. These floodwaters erode deep gullies and ravines and deposit sand and gravel around the edges of the basins. Water rapidly evaporates, leaving the land as barren as before, although there may be short-lived vegetation. If enough water enters the basin to compensate for the rate of evaporation, shallow lakes may develop, such as the Great Salt Lake in Utah, or the Dead Sea. Most of these lakes have a high salt content.

Rocky Plateau Deserts

Rocky plateau deserts have relatively slight relief interspersed with extensive flat areas with quantities of solid or broken rock at or near the surface. There may be steep-walled, eroded valleys, known as wadis in the Middle East and arroyos or canyons in the United States and Mexico. Although their flat bottoms may be superficially attractive as assembly areas, the narrower valleys can be extremely dangerous to men and material due to flash flooding after rains. The Golan Heights is an example of a rocky plateau desert.

Sandy or Dune Deserts

Sandy or dune deserts are extensive flat areas covered with sand or gravel.

"Flat" is a relative term, as some areas may contain sand dunes that are over 300 meters high and 16 to 24 kilometers long. Traffic ability in such terrain will depend on the windward or leeward slope of the dunes and the texture of the sand. Other areas, however, may be flat for 3,000 meters and more. Plant life may vary from none to scrub over 2 meters high. Examples of this type of desert include the edges of the Sahara, the empty quarter of the Arabian Desert, areas of California and New Mexico, and the Kalahari in South Africa.

ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS

In a desert area there are seven environmental factors that you must consider -

Low rainfall.
Intense sunlight and heat.
Wide temperature range.
Sparse vegetation.
High mineral content near ground surface.
Sandstorms.
Mirages.

Low Rainfall

Low rainfall is the most obvious environmental factor in an arid area. Some desert areas receive less than 10 centimeters of rain annually, and this rain comes in brief torrents that quickly run off the ground surface. You cannot survive long without water in high desert temperatures. In a desert survival situation, you must first consider "How much water do I have?" and "Where are other water sources?"

Intense Sunlight and Heat

Intense sunlight and heat are present in all arid areas. Air temperature can rise as high as 60 degrees C (140 degrees F) during the day. Heat gain results from direct sunlight, hot blowing winds, reflective heat (the sun’s rays bouncing off the sand), and conductive heat from direct contact with the desert sand and rock.

The temperature of desert sand and rock averages 16 to 22 degrees C (30 to 40 degrees F) more than that of the air. For instance, when the air temperature is 43 degrees C (110 degrees F), the sand temperature may be 60 degrees C (140 degrees F).

Intense sunlight and heat increase the body’s need for water. To conserve your body fluids and energy, you will need a shelter to reduce your exposure to the heat of the day. Travel at night to lessen your use of water.

Radios and sensitive items of equipment exposed to direct intense sunlight will malfunction.

Wide Temperature Range

Temperatures in arid areas may get as high as 55 degrees C during the day and as low as 10 degrees C during the night. The drop in temperature at night occurs rapidly and will chill a person who lacks warm clothing and is unable to move about. The cool evenings and nights are the best times to work or travel. If your plan is to rest at night, you will find a wool sweater, long underwear, and a wool stocking cap extremely helpful.

Mirages

Mirages are optical phenomena caused by the refraction of light through heated air rising from a sandy or stony surface. They occur in the interior of the desert about 10 kilometers from the coast. They make objects that are 1.5 kilometers or more away appear to move.

This mirage effect makes it difficult for you to identify an object from a distance. It also blurs distant range contours so much that you feel surrounded by a sheet of water from which elevations stand out as "islands."

Light levels in desert areas are more intense than in other geographic areas. Moonlit nights are usually crystal clear, winds die down, haze and glare disappear, and visibility is excellent. You can see lights, red flash-lights, and blackout lights at great distances. Sound carries very far.

Conversely, during nights with little moonlight, visibility is extremely poor. Traveling is extremely hazardous. You must avoid getting lost, falling into ravines, or stumbling into enemy positions. Movement during such a night is practical only if you have a compass and have spent the day in a shelter, resting, observing and memorizing the terrain, and selecting your route.

 Steve's Notes: In the dry air of the desert, you may not feel like you are sweating, because your perspiration can evaporate as fast as it comes. This can be very comfortable compared to the "sticky" heat of more humid areas. It also means it is easy to become dehydrated very quickly without realizing it is happening.

Go to Desert Survival - Part Two.

Back to the Wilderness Survival Guide.



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The Ultralight Backpacking Site | Desert Survival