How to Find Water in the Desert

How to Find Water in the DesertWhile providing an absolutely beautiful natural environment for hiking, camping, mountain biking and other outdoor activities, the desert is one of the most unforgiving atmospheres that you can get caught in. The hot, arid climate sucks moisture from the land and causes rapid evaporation, severely limiting the sources of water available. You want at least 1 gallon of water per day in the desert and several times that, depending upon how hot it is and how much energy you're exerting. Running low on water in the middle of the desert is an automatic survival situation; you have about 3 days to live without water. While finding water in the desert is challenging and depends entirely upon where you are, there are certain strategies that can help.


Difficulty: Challenging

Step 1
Study the map. Look for nearby water sources such as rivers, streams, lakes and springs on the map and navigate in the direction that they are located. Pay particular attention to water sources that are less likely to be dried up, such as large rivers.
Step 2
Scan the terrain and look for life. Concentrations of plants and greenery, birds flying overhead and swarming insects like flies and mosquitoes are indications of a nearby water source. Certain trees, such as the cottonwood, are a particularly good indication of a water source, either on the surface or underground.
Step 3
Search low terrain. As you know, water flows downward and also cuts deep into terrain. You are more likely to find a water source in a basin or canyon or at the base of a cliff or mountain. Search these areas for water.
Step 4
Check rocks. While a rock would be the last place that you'd expect to find water, craters and crevices in desert rock formations can hold rain water long after it's evaporated from more open terrain. Porous rock is another good source to check for water. Pay particular attention to rocks that are well-shaded. Bird and animal scat around a crevice is an indication that there is water inside. Siphon water out with a straw or reed when the formation is too small to get water with your container. However, be very careful and look for rattlesnakes, spiders, scorpions and other dangerous wildlife when poking around in rocks.
Step 5
Collect dew. Much like plant life elsewhere, dew can be found on desert plant life in the early hours of the morning. Rub a cloth or shirt on the plant to collect the dew and then wring it out in a container or directly in your mouth. Be sure to get a very early start before the sun rises because dew will evaporate very quickly in the desert.
Step 6
prickly pear cactus
Cut open a barrel cactus. The trunk of a barrel cactus is a well-known water source. Cut into it with a machete or knife and chew the pulp to extract the water. Don't eat the pulp, however. Other desert plants like the prickly pear (pictured above) and baobab tree can also provide water.
Step 7
Dig up wet sand. If you find a wet spot in the ground, dig down a foot or two to search for the source of the water. Allow your hole to fill. Also try digging on the outside bends of dried river and lake beds as this will be the last place that water would evaporate from. Don't expend too much time, energy and perspiration digging in one spot if it doesn't appear to hold water. Dry stream beds should eventually lead to a larger river that will have water.
Step 8
Craft a still. When you are having problems finding a source of water, you can create your own by making a plant or underground still. To make a still, secure a plastic bag around vegetation on a hill. Put a rock in the lowest corner of the bag and tie it tight (the tie-off should be on top). The plants will release moisture that will fall to the bottom of the bag where your rock is. This moisture can then be used as drinking water.
Step 9
Collect rain. If you're lucky enough to experience a rain storm, be sure to set up several catchments to collect rain water for drinking. If you see clouds in the distance, make an effort to head in the direction the clouds are going.

Tips & Warnings

When taking a particularly long day or multi-day trek through the desert, consider stashing water at strategic locales such as road crossings and parks before you begin your trek. This way you'll have a known, reliable source of water without having to carry the extra load. Alternately, consider vehicular or caravan support.
Be sure to study the desert terrain ahead of time and consider possible water sources. Finding water is essential for regular hiking as well as a full-on survival situation. Discuss options with knowledgeable locals whenever possible, as water sources indicated on a map may be dried up.
Always purify and filter your water before drinking unless drinking from a known clean source like rain. Use a homemade filter and boil water if you don't have appropriate supplies.
Never drink salt water without desalinating it first.
If you are low on water, avoid eating as much as possible, as digestion will use valuable water.
Avoid activity in the heat of the day and limit movement and search for water to the early morning and evening hours when it is cooler. This way you'll expend less moisture.

Article Written By Joe Fletcher

Joe Fletcher has been a writer since 2002, starting his career in politics and legislation. He has written travel and outdoor recreation articles for a variety of print and online publications, including "Rocky Mountain Magazine" and "Bomb Snow." He received a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Rutgers College.

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