Surviving the Sonoran Desert in the summer

By Tom Kollenborn

Summer is almost here, and temperatures will soon be soaring above 100*F, and a review of some summer survival techniques might be appropriate at this time. Each summer we read or hear about a tragic death or deaths resulting from dehydration, exhaustion or sunstroke occurring during the hot summer months on the Sonoran Desert. These summer deaths could easily be prevented with the proper preparation and training.

Living in the Sonoran Desert for more than sixty years doesn’t make me an expert on the topic of desert survival; however, I would like to pass on a few things I have learned over the past decades. Veterans of many desert sojourns in the summer months have died tragically, because they took the desert for granted. The older we get, sometimes the more careless we become. The most important basic rule of desert survival is tell somebody where you are going and when you expect to return. This simple rule can save you or your family’s lives.

Now, if you insist on going into the desert during the summer months when temperatures exceed 160 degrees F. on the ground, and the air temperature is around 110 degrees F., you need to consider some other basic rules of survival. For each adult in your group you will need a minimum of one gallon of water per day to prevent dehydration. Yes, you can survive on a quart of water per day under ideal conditions. This means you are in the shade, off of the hot ground and not exerting yourself. Even under these ideal conditions, a quart of water per twenty-four hour period will not prevent the onset of dehydration. A rule of thumb is always one gallon of water per day per person on any desert outing in the summer time. Also don’t forget your pets.

When a family or group of four go trekking into the desert with their four-wheeler, sand buggy, ATV’s or family car, they need to carry sufficient water for any emergency. Remember, if you are planning a three-day trip into the desert and there are three adults in the group you need a minimum of nine gallons of water. If you have a sufficient quantity of water, your survival has been increased three-fold.

Large quantities of water can be carried in a vehicle, but what about horsemen and hikers? A hiker or horseman must know the sources of permanent water along the route he or she has chosen. I would like to believe a reasonable hiker or horsemen wouldn’t find themselves in a remote desert setting during the summer months; however, that is not the case anymore. Each summer, Search and Rescue teams pull dehydrated hikers out of the Superstition Wilderness Area. Some succumb to the elements of the summer heat.

The next thing one should consider is their method of travel under extreme desert conditions, whether it is by vehicle, horseback or foot. Surface temperatures can reach 180 degrees F. on dark rock on a hot summer day. Temperatures three or four feet above the ground may be only 110 degrees F., depending on the color and texture of the surface. Dark colored material can increase your body temperature by thirty to forty percent on a hot day. The best clothing to wear is clothing that is loose and reflects the sun’s rays and heat. The best material is always white. If you are hiking, you also must protect your feet from extreme ground temperatures. Few people will attempt hiking in the desert during the heat of the day (1:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m.). If one must hike in the desert during the summer months, it is best to hike in the early morning, late evening or at night. Hiking or walking at night does have its disadvantages. The desert is a host to a variety of poisonous reptiles, insects and even an occasional mine shaft or prospect hole.

Vehicle operators often go into the desert during the hot summer months not giving a second thought to the operating conditions for their vehicles.

Tragedies can be caused by a flat tire, broken fuel line, dead battery or a punctured oil pan in the summer time, or just simply running out of fuel. A simple flat board might serve as a platform to jack up a stuck vehicle in the sand or to change a flat. Brush placed under a wheel to gain traction when stuck in sand can save your life. A vehicle will do better in sand if you lower the air pressure in the tires. Prior to the many deaths of illegal immigrants trying to cross the border between the United States and Mexico, more than sixty percent of the desert deaths resulted from a vehicle becoming stuck in the sand or high centered on a rock. A large percentage of victims perished from the overextension of their physical capabilities.

Remember, survival begins immediately, not ten hours after you have become stranded and you realize the consequences of your decisions. People who have worked all day in the hot sun trying to free their vehicles suddenly realize they are in a hopeless situation. Once panic controls a person’s actions, survival is dramatically reduced.

No situation is hopeless if preplanning has been undertaken. As soon as you know that you are in a dangerous situation, there are three basic rules for survival. One, don’t let yourself panic, Two, stay where you are, and Three, try to signal for help.

You can build a signal fire from desert brush for immediate signaling with smoke. Automotive tires make the best smoke signal. The tires will give off a dense black cloud of smoke that can be seen for miles. You can use your car mirrors to signal aircraft. One important rule is always to keep a signal fire ready to ignite if you see an aircraft in your vicinity. The international signal for distress is three shots, three fires, or three of anything that can be recognized as distress signals from the air or from a distance.

Many times, an individual will not panic until the second or third day. The only control for panic is self-confidence in the fact that you know how to survive the situation. Staying with your vehicle is very important. It is much easier to spot a car than a human being on the desert from the air. Most searches are conducted from the air. If you decide to leave your vehicle, it is important that you leave some kind of signal letting rescuers know what direction you are traveling away from your vehicle. Sticks and rocks can serve as excellent markers if properly arranged to indicate direction.

The above suggestions are not guaranteed to save your life, but they will increase your chances of survival. If you choose to walk out, try to walk during the cooler hours of the morning or late evening. Walking after dark would be the best, but there are many hazards on the desert if you don’t have proper lighting. Cactus spines, venomous animals, mineshafts, and pits are just a few of the hazards you could encounter while walking in the dark.

The Superstition Wilderness Area and other desert regions of Arizona have claimed hundreds of lives over the decades from dehydration, exhaustion, and sunstroke. Many illegal aliens die each summer trying to cross the border between the United States and Mexico. Often, summer deaths on the desert exceed one hundred human beings. Yes, the desert can be extremely dangerous in the summer months. Please use care and preplanning before going off into the desert for a summer adventure.

Also, I would like to comment about leaving children or pets in a car in the summer time. If the windows are rolled up, they will suffer from heat stroke or die. Most people would break out your windows to rescue a child or pet left in a hot car. Think about that when you are shopping once temperatures warm up even in late evening. Don’t leave children or pets in a car. Also don’t walk your pets across a hot parking lot. The temperature of asphalt in the summer can fry an egg sometimes, what do you think it will do to your pet’s feet?

Think about the heat at all times when you are going shopping during the summer months and you may save a child or pet’s life.

I’ve taught desert survival during the summer months on the desert. The many students that have gone through my classes never forgot what the learned. They found immediately how difficult it could be to make good decisions under extreme conditions. I taught these classes for fifteen years.

2 Comments

  1. Im a desert rat Its a place if you FEAR it and you should in summer months and take all measures like not hiking after 9 ,10 am and out by those times carry water and know the area you will be fine Disregaurd all these and you can end up dead fast here

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