The desert is an unforgiving place. Between the heat, the scarcity of water and the fact that just about any animal that can survive in such conditions is fully capable of causing you some distinct harm, these oceans of sand prove to be a challenge for even the most experienced explorer.
In deserts, more than almost anywhere else, water is a truly precious resource. With such a lack of the stuff it’s a wonder that anything manages to survive such harsh conditions. However, survive they do, so where are they finding the necessary water?
For us humans, of course, the best approach is to take a decent supply along with us. Unfortunately, things don’t always go exactly to plan, so you have to use the resources around you to your advantage. In the desert, said resources are few and far between, but they are still present if you know how to find and take advantage of them.
The first place to look is in canyons and crevices; north facing in the northern hemisphere and south facing in the southern hemisphere. The reason for this is that when rain does fall, it is somewhat protected from rapid evaporation due to the shade given by the canyon. These pools can gather to significant levels during periods of rain or snowfall, and can sit in the shade for months, providing probably the largest supply you will encounter in the desert (short of lucking out and stumbling into some kind of oasis).
Another sure-fire source of water is in and around broad-leafed plants. Avoid evergreens, as they are not nearly as useful in terms of supplying water due to their much lower intake. Broader-leafed foliage such as palm trees, cottonwoods and willows simply will not survive without a decent water supply; if you can’t find any on the surface, dig down close to the plants and you should find small reserves below the surface.
However, plants are not the only life form that can bail you out of a tricky situation. The presence of birds and insects usually indicates the presence of nearby water. They, like us, depend upon it to survive, and will rarely stray so far beyond their reaches that they cannot make the return journey. Following their route should lead you directly to whatever water source they have found.
The final piece of advice often given as a last resort option is to head to higher ground. I’m a bit unsure on this one, as while higher ground will make it easier to spot nearby water sources of any considerable size, the exertion of climbing and the lack of shade could cause you more harm than good. You would have to be very lucky to just happen to spot water using this method, and once you’ve summited whatever high ground you’ve found, you may find that you have used up so much of your own reserves that you can’t even manage to travel to your discovery.
One final note before we finish: Do not drink from a cactus, whatever the movies may tell you. The liquid found within these plants is, in most cases, not water. Rather, it is a highly toxic compound that can cause vomiting, nausea and kidney damage. You can only safely drink from one of 5 varieties of fishhook barrel cactus, which isn’t toxic, but unless you’re confident in correctly identifying them it’s safer just not to bother. The fruit, on the other hand, is both safe and nourishing; although you may have to boil them to remove all of the hairs and spines.
Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.