How to stay safe during an unexpected dust storm


Emergency Situation: You’re hiking in the desert when you see what looks like a low, rolling cloud in the distance. Suddenly, you feel grit pelting your cheek just as the wind picks up and the cloud of debris quickly begins to overtake your troop.What should you do?

Unlike, say, a camel, you can’t close your nostrils and shut two rows of eyelashes. Nevertheless, there are some ways to protect yourself during a dust storm.

Intense sand/dust storms, often called “haboobs” (derived from the Arabic word haab, or “wind”) occur all across the globe in dry, dusty environments. Haboobs are typically caused by downdrafts from thunderstorms in the upper atmosphere. In the most severe cases, winds of 60 miles per hour or more can create a virtual wall of blowing sand or dust particles, which could be thousands of feet tall.

The good news is that most of these storms blow through in less than 30 minutes. The bad news is that they can cause a number of injuries to the unprotected, including abrasions in areas of exposed skin, damage to eyes and vision, and difficulty breathing. Though it’s unlikely you’ll be buried in sand a la Lawrence of Arabia, haboobs are a real danger, and knowing what to do during a dust storm will mean you have, well … true grit.

Your first step should be to immediately find shelter. Any sturdy structure will do, including a car or, as a last resort, a tent, though in very high winds tents can be unreliable and might end up in shreds. A rocky outcropping might also provide some protection, but keep in mind that sand grains tend to bounce when they hit objects, so they might not follow the exact direction of the wind when they slam against rocks.

If you cannot find shelter, pull a wide-brimmed hat low over your face to protect your eyes. Next, wet a bandana or handkerchief, fold it in half to form a triangle and then wear it bandit-style on your face, covering your nostrils and mouth. This will prevent sand from entering your airway. If available, use petroleum jelly to coat the insides of your nostrils. This might help trap any sand grains before you inhale them. Clear your nostrils frequently and then reapply.

Because haboobs are created by thunderstorm downdrafts, it’s important to keep in mind that such storms might be accompanied by lightning and hail. While rain in the desert is rare, it does occur. Stay away from dry riverbeds, gullies and washes, as these are prone to flash flooding during desert downpours. Finally: Don’t be a nomad. Desert hiking is challenging in the best of circumstances. If you can’t find shelter in a dust storm, shelter in place until the storm passes.

JOSH PIVEN is the co-author of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series. Visit


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