EMERGENCY SITUATION: A day hike in western Texas was a great — though hot — idea. Until, that is, you notice your canteen has been leaking the entire trek. As temperatures climb and the sun bakes the sand, you lose track of the trail when retreating several miles back toward your vehicle. The wind kicks up, and you realize your water reserves will soon run dry. What should you do?
SOLUTION: Fortunately, in this instance, you are not too far from your car — and a Gatorade you packed as a post-hike treat. But what if you were stranded in the desert without water? It’s a good idea to know how you might handle a dire dehydration situation.
A healthy person can go weeks without food. But without liquids, the prognosis is grim. In very hot temperatures, the body produces perspiration to cool the skin. As liquids are lost and not replenished, dehydration can set in, and death may result rather quickly. The time frame depends on the temperature and humidity, as well as the individual’s exertion level, health and age.
One of the first rules when faced with the prospect of dehydration is to drink. If you have water, don’t save it; drink it. There have been numerous instances of lost hikers being found dead with plenty of water by their sides. They tried to ration it, became dehydrated without realizing it and eventually died.
So, if you still have some water, drink it as needed. Don’t gulp it; make sure to stay hydrated as you look for additional water sources (and your way back home). A rule of thumb is to roughly divide whatever you have left into four to six portions and drink one every few hours.
The (ahem) sunny news is that few desert environments are truly fully parched: There is water. You just need to know where to look. As you search for water, remember that many deserts can become quite cool at night, so, if possible, try to limit your movement to early or late in the day to conserve energy and reduce perspiration. During the hottest part of the day, try to sit at least a foot above the desert floor, where the air might be (slightly) cooler.
Next, survey your surroundings. Green vegetation means there’s water … somewhere. Dig down to the base of desert plants to find water. If possible, filter it through cloth before drinking. If you see cactus plants, cut sections from its base — not the tips or ears — remove the sharp spines, and chew on the pith inside (don’t swallow it). Other desert plants should be avoided.
Now take a broader look at the terrain. While appearing arid, desert washes and dry streambeds might hold some liquid below the surface from previous rains. Check the outside edge in a sharp turn, digging down through any gravel. If the ground is sandy, you’ll need to dig deep — probably at least 3 feet — to find any remnant water.
Another place to check is cracks or fissures in rock formations and at the bases of these outcroppings, particularly if they are in shade or partial shade, which might delay evaporation. The presence of bird droppings on rock surfaces might be a signal that water is nearby, since even desert birds need water. Examine these areas for water that may be hidden but accessible. If you spot any, force a piece of clothing into the space, allow it to absorb the water and then wring into your mouth.
There are various methods for building so-called “solar stills” that gather condensation, and most involve plastic wrap, tarps, coffee cans, green vegetation and lots of waiting. However, these strategies are likely to take a while and produce barely a teaspoon of drinkable liquid. If all else fails, they are better than simply giving up. But your energies are probably better spent using the water divining methods above.
Finally, try to limit your food intake. Proper digestion requires liquid. And if water is in short supply, it’s best to have small snacks.