Desert survival skills: Would you make it out alive?

desert landscale
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There is little food or water in the desert, not to mention the extremes in temperature. In this environment your body and mind would be pushed to the limit. Could you survive? Test your knowledge with this quiz.

Question 1 of 15

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desert hiker
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When you discover you are lost or stuck in the desert, the first thing you should do is S.T.O.P. This stands for:

After you realize you're lost or stuck, but before you make any decisions, STOP where you are, stay calm and sit down. Take a few deep breaths to settle your panic. THINK about what resources you have available to you, what landmarks you recognize, if you should travel or stay put. OBSERVE where you are, including orienting yourself with your compass, and studying maps (if available) to determine your current location. Notice how many hours of daylight are left, and take stock of much food and water you have. PLAN: is it possible to find a trail based on your observations and walk, or is it better to build a shelter, conserve energy and water, and hunker down for the night?

Question 2 of 15

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desert water
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More people drown in the desert than die of thirst.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), more people drown in the desert than die of thirst, proving that flash floods are a real danger. A rainstorm happening even miles away can send torrents of water down dry river beds or through slot canyons, creating a sudden wall of water that can be upwards of 20 feet high. So never seek shelter in a creek bed or ditch in the desert.

Question 3 of 15

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desert flash flood
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If there is a flash flood heading toward you, your best option is to:

Getting to higher ground is the number one priority when there is a threat of flash floods, so head up somewhere that is at least 30 feet above the lowest point around you. Flash floods are so powerful they can uproot trees and move huge rocks as if they were pebbles. Avoid being near trees or rocks since they can quickly become a serious danger.

Question 4 of 15

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desert clothes
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It’s hot! The best thing to do with your clothes is:

You’re already sweating, which is the body’s way of cooling down. Don’t waste your water by pouring it over your head or clothes. It won’t do much to help what your body is already doing anyway. The best thing to do is roll down your sleeves and pant legs to keep as much of your skin covered as possible. This keeps your skin protected from the sunlight and helps keep more moisture in your body since your sweat won’t evaporate as quickly.

Question 5 of 15

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emergency kit
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What emergency kit item also makes a perfect signal for rescuers?

A mirror or something reflective like a mirror is an excellent tool from your emergency kit to use as a signaling device to rescuers. The flash of light it creates in the sun can be easily seen over great distances and stands out from the rest of the desert. It can be hard to find enough fuel in the desert for signal fires, especially fires smoky enough to get someone's attention, flares only burn for so long, and flashlights are only bright enough to capture attention at night. So don't underestimate the importance of a reflective object as an attention-grabbing signal. A series of three flashes in a row is the universal signal for distress.

Question 6 of 15

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hiker in boots on trail
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The smartest time of day to travel in the desert is:

If you’re in an area that gets a decent amount of people passing through, then it would be wise to stay in one place near your vehicle. But because humans can only survive for three days without water, you might have to do some walking. If you’re going to have to hike out of the desert, it is best to travel during early morning and early evening. While temperatures can skyrocket during the day, they can plummet at night and hypothermia is a real danger. It is best to seek shelter during these two extremes. Travel when temperatures are at their most mild. This way you’ll make the most progress while losing the least amount of water or energy.

Question 7 of 15

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desert landscape
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If you’ve run out of water, what should you look for to find some?

According to Tony Nester, Ancient Pathways outdoor survival school teacher, in an article with Active Times, all three of these are clues to finding water. North-facing canyons are great because they fill with snowmelt or rain water and "because they don’t have southern exposure and they’re protected much of the day from sunlight, they tend to retain water in large quantities, sometimes for months at a time." Meanwhile, broad-leafed trees are thirsty plants and a sign that there's a good source of water nearby, even if it means digging near the roots. As for birds and insects, Nester says, "After you’ve seen nothing for a couple of hours [and] suddenly there’s life, it's important to take note of that ... Those critters are in that area for a reason." And that reason is often because there is a water source nearby.

Question 8 of 15

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water source in desert
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It is a myth that you can get water from:

As we just learned, following birds or digging at the roots of broad-leafed plants are good ways to find water. And while solar stills don't work terribly efficiently, it's possible to get drinkable water through using one. However, the popular belief that cacti can come to your rescue is false. Nester, the survival expert writing for Active Times, says, “You don't get 'water' from cactus; you get a stomachache and vomiting. In movies, you see a cowboy lop off the top of a barrel cactus — a big, beach ball-shaped cactus — dip his ladle in and get a drink of water. That’s not water, though. It’s a noxious fluid that’s very high in alkalis. That’s a problem, because when you’re heat-stressed ... you’re going to further tax your kidneys and plunge yourself deeper into trouble, possibly even into heat stroke. .. You can drink from a barrel cactus, but only one of five varieties — the fishhook barrel — isn’t toxic." So don't waste your time or energy trying to cut into a cactus that could potentially poison you.

Question 9 of 15

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drinking water in desert
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When you do come across water, you should:

When you find water, drink it! But, if you drink too much water too quickly when already dehydrated and overheated, you will likely vomit. And in the desert when water is scarce and vital, you don't want to waste it. So when you do find water, sip it a little at a time until you feel satiated. And if you're lucky, you'll find enough that you can carry more with you to keep sipping as you feel thirsty.

Question 10 of 15

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desert hiking
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Once you’ve chosen a direction to travel, you want to hike:

When hiking in the heat, especially the intense heat of the desert, the key is to go slowly. Walk slowly enough that you don't overtax your body through muscle strain or excessive sweating. Take breaks every hour in whatever shade is available, while elevating your feet to avoid swelling. In the desert, overexertion is the quickest way toward triggering your body to shut down, so while it might feel weird to walk at a meandering pace when you're trying to escape the desert, it could be the key to surviving.

Question 11 of 15

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thermometer and sun
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Heat cramps are a sign that:

Heat cramps come on when your body is excessively sweating and losing salt. Muscles need sodium as well as other electrolytes for proper function, and when your body runs low, muscles can cramp. When you feel heat cramps coming on, rest and rehydrate, and try to get more salt if you can.

Question 12 of 15

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Where is the most likely place you'll find dangerous animals like snakes, scorpions or centipedes?

Anywhere shady and hidden is a good spot for a potentially dangerous creepy crawly like a snake, scorpion, centipede or spider to take cover. So don't go reaching into holes or cracks, don't put your boots or clothes back on without shaking them out first, and don't lie down in the shade without checking carefully first.

Question 13 of 15

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desert sandwich
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You want to avoid eating much in the desert. Why?

Digesting food requires water, which is already in short supply. If you have enough water, then eat small amounts with sips of water. But if you only have food and no water, avoid eating unless you absolutely must. Just remember, you can go a lot longer without food than you can without water, so don't use up what precious little you have in your body to digest something.

Question 14 of 15

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heat exhaustion
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The symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

Heat exhaustion is caused by losing too much water and salt from your body. The symptoms are everything listed here as well as excessive sweating, clammy skin, fainting, confusion or being particularly irritable, and an increased heart rate. Basically, if you're really not feeling well, it is likely heat exhaustion coming on. Get into the shade, sit down to rest, elevate your feet, and sip water. If you don't reduce the symptoms of heat exhaustion when they come on, you could be headed for heat stroke.

Question 15 of 15

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car supplies
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3 important things to have in your vehicle to avoid being stuck in the desert are:

All are important — and all should be included along with quite a few other necessary supplies for driving in the desert — but the three things that are most likely to keep your vehicle and you from being stuck at all in the first place are a shovel to dig your tires out of the sand, extra water in case your engine overheats, and extra fuel to keep you going in case you underestimated how much you'd need.

You scored out of 15
desert landscale
Photo: Josef F. Stuefer/Shutterstock