Let’s all hope that the information contained within this article is never used. To put it simply, for most suburban type folks, we would be in a world of hurt if we actually had to use this information during a SHTF situation. Mitigating a basic need such as water should be at the forefront of our preparations. Since preventing ourselves from being in a situation that would require the skills I will describe is ten times better than using them. With that in mind I have also described techniques to minimize the need to utilize these skills.
If you live in or near a desert environment then preparedness is the best course of action with regards to water. Are there springs, pools, water holes, canals, or any other sources of water nearby? In this discussion nearby is a relative term. Do you plan on driving 100 miles through the desert on the interstate in a bug out situation? If so, 100 miles should be considered nearby. Plan and prepare accordingly. Be prepared to find water, when it’s over 100 degrees, with minimal disruption to your travels and your well being. Ask yourself how far you could travel, on foot, in order to obtain enough water to carry on with your task at hand. To put this in perspective, here’s a little story that goes along these lines. A close friend of mine moved to the desert. He and his wife went out for a night on the town shortly after arriving. When they decided to travel home the wife decided to drive while the husband slept in the passenger seat. The wife ended up traveling toward a distant town, which was actually in the opposite direction they needed to travel. She was driving towards the lights and ran out of gas. My friend hitchhiked towards the nearest settlement and after a few hours reached a gas station. He was able to procure a full three gallon gas can. He then hitchhiked back to his vehicle, put the three gallons into the tank and proceeded to run out of gas ten miles short of the gas station. A funny story but it transitions easily into a survival situation. Always know your limitations and prepare accordingly. Do not put yourself in a situation where you are ten miles short of the next source of water.
What does being prepared mean? The most obvious is having enough water with you to begin with. To me prepared means having in hand, or direct access to, enough water to provide one’s needs for a determined amount of time. We hear of a guideline of one gallon per day. But as with everything else in life a guideline is rarely the optimum. It will simply allow an average person to survive. If you’ve not spent time traveling across country, in the desert, when it’s hot, you may want to rethink the gallon per day idea. I know folks that could easily get by with a quarter of that amount while I actually need more. I was hiking with a friend and we both had a large quantity of water with us. We were fully hydrated but my friend started to develop heat stroke. It was quite hot and to maintain his temperature at a manageable level we had to use the water to wet him down. In that situation the amount of water we had was barely enough. I always carry as much water as is practical at the expense of other useful items. But there are a few other ways in which to prepare for desert travel. Here are some of those I have learned.
First and foremost find water prior to the emergency you are preparing for. Travel the route you are planning to use and determine where water is along your route. You may find that by doing this your route will need to be altered accordingly. Native Americans traveled based on access to water. Just as today we travel based on access to fuel for our vehicles the natives traveled based on access to fuel for their bodies which is water. Their trails were rarely in a straight line to their destination. One important resource on the road to discovery, which is often overlooked, is talking to people familiar with the area. As an example, I hiked a trail for years and did not realize that less than 100 yards off that trail was a grotto of at least a thousand gallons of water, until I hiked it with someone who knew of the grotto’s existence! No maps, contemporary or old, showed this liquid treasure trove. Is there a water distribution canal along your route? Would it be viable in an emergency? Are there livestock watering holes nearby? Would the owner allow access? A spring? Free standing pools? A seep? All of these could save your life when it’s 115 degrees out side and you find yourself without water. I would suggest looking for these areas in the fall. To illustrate, a water seep found in the spring may be dry in the late fall season. If you find water in late summer or in the fall chances are it will probably be there year round. Be aware of droughts since even those areas of water may dry up during a drought.
But there is an even better way to prepare, and people have been doing it for thousands of years. It is simply to cache a supply along your route. My friends and me sometimes hike in the desert nearby during the heat of summer. During the cooler months of the year we cache water all along the routes we travel. What better way to prepare for an emergency than to preposition water along your route? Be sure to cache more than you will need and in a usable sized container. I prefer a five gallon sized container for long term storage but know of thirty and even fifty-five gallon containers positioned throughout the desert nearby. Be sure to use a container that will survive the desert heat and no matter what the ecology folks say the common one-gallon “milk” jugs water is sold in will turn to dust quickly when exposed to the [harsh light and ] intense heat of the desert. Don’t forget about animals when hiding your water. The most dangerous of which is man. I have cached water in the most secure of places only to find that it was found by someone (or something) else. Another reason to hide much more than needed. But probably the most important thing about caching water is being able to find it when you need it. There is nothing worse than, being within fifty feet of your cache, not knowing exactly where it is. Use your GPS to mark your locations as well as a topo map. Take a picture from your cache spot of a prominent feature nearby, mark your topo with an arrow pointing in the direction of the photo then number the photo and the spot on your map. Be sure to print the photos directly and store them with your treasure map.
But let’s say Murphy’s Law has reared it’s ugly head. You have to find water to survive.
Look for signs of man in the area. A windmill, waterhole, or cistern could be nearby. Watch for smoke, fresh tracks, a well worn trail or even a trail cabin.
You can also follow washes since they eventually gather together in low areas where water would be more likely to be found. Two particular things to look for are, pools in a wash, or a canyon with steep sides (a narrow canyon is best) that is shaded from the south and west sun for much of or all of the day. Small pools of water will stay in these places the longest and water might be found just underground in a dry pool at these spots. Before drinking such water look for signs of poisoning by checking for signs of animals using the water. If you see lizard, rodent or other animal tracks leading to and from the pool, but don’t see any remains of small animals nearby, chances are the water is okay to drink. Small pockets of water may also be found in these areas between rocks. A small flexible drinking tube can be fished into these crevices and the water sucked out. Water is often located just below the surface trapped within the underlying rock layers. The key, in this regard, is to know where to dig. Water often collects beneath the surface in areas of the streambed where there are sharp bends. Dig near the outside of such bends. If you do find water it may not be in large quantities. When you dig down and find wet sand or gravel, keep scooping out this material until water gradually seeps into the hole. You can line the hole with grass or cloth to act as a filter. If there is not enough to dip out and drink you can sponge it up with a shirt or other article of clothing and squeeze it out into your mouth.
Another particular thing to always look for is vegetation. Cottonwood and sycamore trees will tap into underground water and grow quite large. These trees can be seen from quite a distance due to their size but their roots can go down 100 feet to get to that water. Two plants that have shallow root systems are a tree called desert willow (mulefat) and the desert cane. If you see them green in dry weather there is always water within a foot or so of the surface. These plants grow in washes or canyons with cottonwood and sycamore sometimes nearby. Mountain Laurel is also a good tree to look for if it is in a grove and is of a very unnatural green color and especially growing in a ravine or coming down off the side of a mountain or hill leading to a canyon bottom. Another technique near the large trees is to find rock outcroppings in the washes and to dig before after or in the bedrock outcropping. Many times the bedrock in these locations have depressions or bowls carved over time that will hold water.
Of course the best way to find water in the desert when there are few clues to vegetation is to find a good trail with lots of tracks of animals like javelina, coyote and deer. Usually these animals know where the water is and if the trail and tracks are numerous and the trail is used constantly, follow it and eventually it will lead you to the only water source in the area. Sometimes these trails go for miles but these animals need water on a daily basis so following these trails could save your life.
Also, doves and quail always go to water just before sunset and roosting for the night. Watch for flights of these birds and which direction they are flying about sundown and go in that direction. They always travel in groups to water but will return from drinking one or two at a time. So always look for groups of birds and note which direction the large groups are all traveling.
Watch for insects such as bees or flies. They do not venture far from water. Sometimes you can actually see lines of these insects flying to surface water. Bees and wasps will protect their water supply so be very careful. Approaching these locations at night, when they are dormant, would be wise.
Obviously, some desert vegetation such as certain species of cactus contains water. The barrel cactus is one example. If you can cut open the cacti to get to the pulpy inside, you can obtain some water out of them. But the structure of this cactus makes this a difficult task and the small amount of fluid you obtain almost prohibitive. Besides the spines you will also have to cut through the wooden skeleton which surrounds the pulp. Unless you have an ax the work involved would far exceed the amount of water you obtain. A cousin of the barrel cactus is far more suited to fluid recovery. It is the hedgehog cactus. With a knife you can easily cut off the top of these small cacti. Holding the top stable with your finger or a stick cut the spines and skin off like peeling a cucumber. You can then slice off a chuck. Eat the soft pulp or squeeze out the water in a bandanna. You won’t get much moisture from a cactus, it’s more like slime than water, and the taste is pretty bad. But it’s something, none the less. An even more productive part of the cactus to harvest is the fruit. Barrel, saguaro and prickly pear all produce edible fruit, which will provide juices. In fact, all cactus fruit is edible but some are not palatable. The barrel is somewhat unique since the fruit will survive for up to a year on the cacti. Another nice feature of the barrel fruit is the lack of spines. With all of the others you will have to remove the small, almost invisible prickers, by rolling them in the dirt for a bit. Cactus produce fruit in the spring and it matures into the summer so they are a viable source to look for. The taste is usually tart and the texture is rather slimy. Another technique is to place many small pieces of edible cactus into a plastic bag, place it in the sun, and let moisture collect inside. Obviously, the bags of cactus pulp are also transportable.
Animals, reptiles, and insects are another source of water. Of course the water is a part of the creature so is not easily obtained. Sucking the blood of a rabbit or chewing the abdomen of a tarantula may not sound appealing but could allow you to survive if you could handle the experience. Many folks could not and it possibly could cost them their lives. Having never done this I doubt I could get far with a large spider but I could chew on a raw rabbit.
Another possibility for very short term survival is your own urine. If you absolutely have to you could drink your urine to survive. But there is a trick to it. You have to drink it immediately, you cannot carry it in a canteen for later use. The natural bacteria will overcome the ammonia very quickly and become toxic in an hour or so. Urine as it is passed from the body is 100% sterile and if drank within a few minutes contains no bacteria and other than a bad ammonia taste and a mild upsetting of the stomach, will keep you going for another day.
The most important thing to remember if you are in a desert without water is to not give up. Don’t die of thirst when water may be just a few meters beneath your feet or nearby in a hidden rock outcrop. If there are animals and plants living in the desert in which you are located, then there is water as well, if you know how to find it.