Surviving out in the Desert Southwest

Desert Safety Guidelines and Tips

Scouts are meant to go the extra distance and venture into areas most people fear to tread. That was one of the original purposes of scouting. Scouts do this because they are prepared by their training for the different surroundings they will encounter. The desert southwest is a spectacular place to visit, full of plateaus, mesas, and beautiful vistas. It is also deadly. When you leave well-traveled roads you quickly enter very dangerous areas. It is very important that Scouters familiarize themselves with desert safety. The information written in desert safety guidebooks may save your life. The information here is meant to start you thinking and to get you interested in doing your own research and being trained in desert survival. Remember a scout should always be prepared for their surroundings!

The driest months in the southwest deserts are May, June, October and November. The best hiking months are October through May. The months of June through September are too hot for hiking except in the higher mountains. With temperatures that reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the sun and dry parched air inducing continual thirst, the summer deserts are best left to the reptiles.

There are three enemies to people in the desert: hyperthermia, dehydration and hypothermia. The following guidelines will help you to avoid these enemies:

  • Each scout should understand and be tested on the signs, causes, and first aid for hyperthermia, dehydration and hypothermia before venturing into the desert. (see: the Boy Scout Handbook)
  • Always get a tour permit when hiking away from home. See your local council and the Guide to Safe Scouting for more information on tour permits. Always inform someone of where you are going, your route, and when you expect to return. Then stick to your plan! It is also a good idea to let the local forest ranger station know where and when you are planning on going. That way they will know where to contact you if they have to.
  • Carry at least 1-2 gallons of water per person, per day; a first aid kit, and personal survival kit. If you can't carry the water, don't go. It is always a good idea to contact the ranger at the site you are going to and ask for their recommendations.
  • Try never to violate the buddy system. The buddy system was setup for safety in extreme locations. (See the Guide to Safe Scouting and the Boy Scout Handbook.)
  • Be sure your vehicle has a sound and full battery, good hoses, a spare tire, necessary tools, and sufficient gasoline and oil. Carry five gallons of extra water for each vehicle.
  • Keep an eye on the sky. Flash floods may occur at any time "thunderheads" are in sight, even though it may not be raining where you are.
  • Test the footing before driving through washes and sandy areas. A simple check may save a punctured oil pan or many hours of hard work.
  • If you think you are lost, Do Not Panic. Sit down, survey the area and take stock of the situation. Decide on a course of action. Many people die in the desert because they get their priorities confused. Normally, your major priority will be protecting your body, keeping cool and staying out of the heat. It may be best to stay put, especially if there is water and fuel nearby, or it is winter, or if there is shelter.
    Once you decide to remain, do not move. If you decide to move, move with a purpose, never start out and wander aimlessly. Try to hike late in the day (at dusk), when it is cooler.
  • Stay near your vehicle if it breaks down. Raise the hood and trunk lid to show that you need help. Only leave your vehicle if you are positive of the route to get help. A vehicle is very easy to spot from the air and you can crawl under it for shade (the inside is an oven). Leave a note on the vehicle for rescuers with the time you left and the direction you took. In the desert it is best to travel during the cooler parts of the day, thus preserving some of your body moisture.
  • Distances in the desert are very deceptive. What looks like a hill 5 miles away, can very well be 20 miles away. A good rule of thumb is to multiply every distance you estimate by site by the number four.
  • When not moving, use available shade or erect some shade from tarps blankets, or seat covers to reduce the direct rays of the sun. Use sunblock.
  • Do not sit or lie directly on the ground. If possible, sit on something 12 or more inches off the ground. In sunlight, the ground usually is 30 degrees hotter than the air.
  • Keep your pace slow, and try to carry light loads. In life threatening situations, use common sense, you may have to leave some gear behind. You can always buy more gear. Rest at least ten minutes each hour if walking. A normally inactive person should rest 30 minutes each hour. Find shade, sit down, prop up feet.
  • If you have water, drink it. Ration sweat, not water. Don't rely on thirst to signal that you need to drink water. You may quench your thirst with just a sip of water, when you really need much more. Instead of rationing water outside your body, conserve the liquids inside your body.
  • If water is limited, avoid stressful activities. Breath through your nose and keep your mouth shut to reduce water loss and drying of mucous membranes. The following will hasten dehydration. DO NOT talk, eat, smoke, take salt or drink alcohol. Also avoid coffee, pop (especially caffeinated pop) and tea.
  • Cover your head. Wide-brimmed hats protect your head and neck. Many scouts prefer straw hats which keep your head cool during the day and worm at night. Improvise a head covering if a hat is not handy. Loosen your clothing, but keep it on, as it keeps body temperature down and reduces the dehydration rate. Shorts and cutoffs are generally unadvisable for prolonged periods in the desert. In hot weather the proper clothing is lightweight (e.g., cotton), light color, loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long pants. They reflect much of the sun's heat and protect your skin. Wear your scout neckerchief for it's original purpose, to keep the sun off your neck. You can also wear it, or a bandanna, under our hat and down the back of your neck to keep the sun off your neck. To avoid blisters, wear good hiking boots and carry extra socks, so you can change them frequently when they become wet.
  • A roadway is a sign of civilization. IF YOU FIND A ROAD, STAY ON IT.
  • To avoid poisonous creatures, put your hands and feet only where your eyes can see. Nasty critters love the cool, moist insides of your shoes. Shake out your shoes in the morning before putting them on.
  • Never start a desert trip on the spur of the moment without adequate provisions and planning.


  • Fires make the best signals -- a smoky fire for daytime and a bright fire for night. Make sure you bring emergency matches and know how to start a fire if you don't have matches.
  • A signal mirror is an excellent device to signal a plane or people on the ground. On a clear day it can be seen as far as to 10 miles away. Even on cloudy days it can be seen at great distance. Practice with another scout before you leave to make sure you are using it properly. Face the mirror towards the sun and flash the reflected spot on a nearby object. Raise the mirror to your eye and reach out as far as you can with your free hand and put the spot of light in the "V" formed by your extended hand's thumb and fingers. Now turn your whole body and the mirror together, keeping the spotlight on the "V" until the target is also in the "V". The reflected light will be right on target. Wobble the mirror very slightly to cause the spot to flash off and on. The combination of brilliant light and movement is hard to miss. Remember: your car has many mirrors on it. Don't have a mirror? Create one with a belt buckle or any other shiny object.
  • If you decide to stay in one place, mark the ground with a very large "X", "SOS", or the word "HELP". Use rocks, branches, clothing, magazine pages, or newspaper.
  • Signals made with sound are the least effective, but make a good second signal. Always carry a whistle to use in case of emergencies since it's sound carries much farther than your voice. Car, boat and compressed air horns are even better than whistles. Three of whatever sounds you make denotes "distress".
  • Many scout troops never leave on a hike without a cellular phone. You may be surprised how many areas are now covered by cell sites. CB radios can also be worth their weight in gold, if you need help. In many areas channel 9 is monitored by volunteers 24 hours a day.
  • When you're in trouble, and need help, make a commotion and let people know.

Survival Kit Equipment


  • Metal signal mirror
  • Police Whistle
  • Pocket Knife
  • Flint and steel
  • Small candle
  • Pocket notebook (for leaving notes)
  • Small pencil
  • Small magnet compass
  • Dental floss (100 yd)
  • 1 qt canteen with water
  • Proper clothing
  • Personal First Aid Kit (see Boy Scout Handbook)
  • Bright colored garbage or leaf bags (can be used for many things including as poncho)
  • Tube tent (folds to handkerchief size)
  • Iodine tablets
  • Canteen cup
  • Waterproof match case (with matches)
  • Map of the area and a compass (and know how to use both)
  • Bandanna

Per Patrol

  • Roll of electrical tape
  • Patrol First Aid Kit (see Boy Scout Handbook)
  • Flashlight
  • Duct tape
  • Shovel
  • Extra matches
  • Water!!!!! - at least 1 gal per person per day

Per Vehicle

  • Jack (preferably one that may be rigged)
  • Took Kit
  • Emergency fuel
  • Flares - at least 6
  • Strips of carpet
  • Extra fan belt
  • 12' Jumper cables
  • Tire chains
  • Tire pump (aid in pumping up tires)
  • Tube type tires
  • Map
  • Extra water for each person and 5 gallons per vehicle.

How to find water in the Desert Finding water in the desert is as much an art as a science. Here are some guidelines:

  • Use your common sense. Look around. If you see water in the distance, wait until it is cooler and walk towards it (as long as it is not too far away).
  • If you are near water, it is best to remain there and signal rescuers.
  • Your vehicle has water or radiator fluid in the radiator. Don't drink it! But you can fill a hub cap with it and then soak your shirt and pants in it to cool off.
  • Don't use up a lot of your own water, in the form of sweat, to gather a little water from nature.
  • Water in the desert has Giardia, bacteria and viruses. Take iodine tablets or some other purifier with you and use it before drinking any water you find.
  • Water can be found where there are water thirsty plants. For example, cottonwoods, sycamores, willows, hackberry, salt cedar, cattails, and arrow weed love water, if you find yourself by them, dig down, you may get water.
  • Look for windmills and water tanks built for cattle.
  • If cactus fruits are ripe, eat a lot of them.
  • Flocks of birds will circle over water holes. Watch and listen for them, especially in the morning and evening (remember the animals have enough sense to stay out of the afternoon sun).
  • Look for desert trails -- they often lead to water or civilization.
  • Many desert plants are protected by law, and many are poisonous. The barrel cactus contains a wet meaty interior, like an apple. If you cut it open, you can squeeze out the juice (don't eat the pulp). This should only be done in a life or death situation, and only if you know what a barrel cactus looks like (it has pink or red thorns that are curved like fish hooks). Barrel cacti look a lot like young saguaro (which has straight white thorns), never cut open and try to get water out of a saguaro. To get by the thorns of the cactus, bang them away with a rock. Cut the top of the cactus off and use a stick to mash the inner pulp. If the juice is milky, find another cactus. Even if the juice is clear, there may be toxins in the plant. Get a book like the Desert Survival Handbook (see References, below) and follow the edibility test guidelines to make sure you are O.K. There are too many varieties of plants to make a general statement here.

Be Prepared! Practice with your unit before going out into the desert. Ask the scouts what should we do if we are half way along the trail and the Scoutmaster breaks his ankle (it's usually the Scoutmaster, not some lightweight scout) ? Make up other what-if scenarios and get the scouts use to thinking through situations, instead of reacting to them.

Attached to this page is an example of one such scenario you might wish to use.


  • The Guide to Safe Scouting (#34416) available from the local BSA Council Office.
  • The Boy Scout Handbook
  • Fieldbook, Boy Scouts of America
  • Desert Survival, Maricopa County Department of Emergency Management, (602) 273-1411
  • First Aid merit badge pamphlet
  • Wilderness Survival merit badge pamphlet
  • Emergency Preparedness merit badge pamphlet
  • Desert Survival Handbook by Charles A. Lehman, Primer Publishers, 1990
  • Willy Whtefeather's Outdoor Survival Handbook for Kids, Harbinger House, 1990

Page updated on: August 10, 2007

Scouts Using the Internet Cartoon - Courtesy of Richard Diesslin - Click to See More Cartoons
© 1994-2024 - U.S. Scouting Service Project | Site Map | Disclaimer | Project Team | Contact Us | Privacy Policy

Materials found at U. S. Scouting Service Project, Inc. Websites may be reproduced and used locally by Scouting volunteers for training purposes consistent with the programs of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), the World Organization of the Scout Movement (WOSM) or other Scouting and Guiding Organizations. No material found here may be used or reproduced for electronic redistribution or for commercial or other non-Scouting purposes without the express permission of the U. S. Scouting Service Project, Inc. (USSSP) or other copyright holders. USSSP is not affiliated with BSA or WOSM and does not speak on behalf of BSA or WOSM. Opinions expressed on these web pages are those of the web authors. You can support this website with in two ways: Visit Our Trading Post at or make a donation by clicking the button below.
(U.S. Scouting Service Project Donation)

(Ruth Lyons Memorial Donations)