What to do if Lost in the Desert

It is in the papers yet again. Someone has died in the Mohave. This time, a mother and child took a weekend trip to the desert. They got lost and their car got stuck, and one of them died. In a horrifying reversal, the child died, while the mother is expected to survive.

If you suddenly find yourself lost in the wilds, remember to think, not feel, and plan, not panic. However, almost no one suddenly finds himself or herself lost in the desert. Generally, people decide to visit, and then don’t properly plan and prepare. Some who are lost in the wilderness are unlucky, but most are unprepared.


Make sure your fitness level is high enough for the outing you anticipate. The desert is a tough environment. Toughen up before you go. While you’re at it, why not learn how to make a fire, follow a compass, and read a contour map. Shorten your planned route. This leaves time for leisured enjoyment, and margin for error. Check the weather report.

Dress properly. A tank top, tight capris, and mules will not serve you in the desert. On the other hand, you don’t need the latest from REI, either (though their gear is excellent). Wear loose-fitting light clothing, with long sleeves and long pant legs. You can roll them up. Take fleece, a top layer, and a sleeping bag. Wear protective shoes, not sandals, not heels. Take extra socks.

A hat is essential. So are a phone, maps, a whistle, and two or more sturdy lighters. A knife may feel silly, but it is appropriate. GPS is good, but maps are better, more trustworthy and easier to pore over. The woman who lost her son in the desert was counting on her GPS. Incidentally, cell phones don’t work in some parts of the desert. Satellite phones work anywhere, if you can afford one. Keep any phone turned off, to spare its battery.

Make sure your car is in good shape. Have it maintained, and top off the fluids. If you’re car camping, you can easily take plenty of extra supplies, like water, a box of garbage bags, extra food, and extra clothing. You could even bring tarps, and a water purification kit if you’re driving. Why not?

Before you leave on your adventure, tell people. Tell your family, tell friends, tell a trusted coworker your precise destination. When you arrive at a desert park, tell a ranger, or, if you will not see one, leave an email or note. If help is needed, it is important that rescuers look in the right place. The skilled searchers looking for the lost mother and child were scouring the wrong end of Death Valley.


Ordinary people can survive three weeks without food. They are likely to die after three days without water. Water is the essential for desert survival. You should have a half gallon per day per person. If your time in the desert might stretch though, you should ration. You can probably survive on four ounces of water a day or so. Delirium indicates a need for more water.

Even if you have sufficient food, eat very lightly if you have little water. Water is required for digestion, and you can go three weeks or so without food. If you catch insect food, remember not to eat anything colorful or pungent. Insects like these are advertising that they are poison.

To conserve water, avoid sweating as much as possible. Stay in the shade, if there is any. Use the shade of your car, or beside your car, or even beneath it. Throw fabric or garbage bags over a bush if there is one, leaving the open side to the north, or towards any breeze. Or use a rock to support your shelter. Also insulate yourself from the hot ground, with anything you have, before you lie down in the shade.

Scan the territory immediately around you for water. Then decide whether the exertion is worth the unlikely chance of water. Low places can mean water. Animal tracks are clues to water. Vegetation in any quantity is nurtured by water. Dig in low places on the outside of curves in dry riverbeds for water, but remember why they are called washes. People die of dehydration in the desert, but they also drown.


Washes are dangerous places to seek shelter, because of the danger of flash floods. Water can rise in an arroyo because of a thunderstorm miles away. It can roar down a dry watercourse faster than anyone can run. Yes, there are summer storms.

The base of a cliff might seem like a good place to shelter, but cliffs crumble and shed rocks. Do not add an injury to your other troubles. If people have been told your destination, and you are near it, or on a logical route to it, your best shelter is nearby, and your best plan is to stay put and wait for help.


Signals can help searchers find you. It’s a big wilderness. Signals should be sent in threes, if possible. A single noise can be misheard. Random noises can be hunters, ranchers, miners, or happy campers. Three signals show intention.

If you even suspect someone might hear you, blow your whistle three times. Or clang on metal, or toot your car horn, if you can, in bursts of three. Mirrors work as signaling devices too.

Burning car tires are an excellent signal, making a thick dark column of smoke. Do not burn them in threes however, save your fuel. Fire in the desert draws interest.


If you have good reason to believe that no one knows where to look for you, if you are not safe where you are, or if someone in your party is injured, you may want to try to find you way out.

If you are on or near a road, follow the road. Train tracks, if they are in use, and high-line pylons are good guides as well. Do not cut across country unless you must. If you believe you know where you are, there are ways to navigate by the sun and moon.

If you don’t have a compass, or don’t know how to use one, wait for noon. When the sun is highest in the sky, if you walk towards it you are walking south (in the Northern Hemisphere). If you turn your back to the sun, you are walking north.

If you mark north and south on the ground, you can see where east and west are. However, you do not want to walk in the desert at noon. Instead, at noon, fix your eyes on a landmark in the direction that you want to travel. Then, in late afternoon or at first light, walk toward it.

Seek the easiest path. Five miles of sand is harder than ten miles of decent going. Luckily, there is not much sand in many deserts. Do try to pick out a route that is level and on good ground.

When the moon rises before sunset, the bright side of the moon is toward the west, but if it rises after midnight, the eastern side is lit. Again, after determining a direction, walk towards a distant landmark. This keeps you from being led astray by contour changes.

In most circumstances, do not travel in full darkness. You cannot afford an injury. The best times of day for travel are early morning and late afternoon.


Many intelligent and thoughtful people have been lost in the desert, often because they were not prepared. Anyone who runs into trouble should think carefully about the situation, and decide as calmly as possible what to do. Almost always, it is better for lost hikers to stay where they are. They should usually seek shade, send signals, and conserve their water, while they wait for rescue.