How to Survive in the Desert
John ‘Lofty’ Wiseman served in the SAS for 26 years, setting a record for the youngest person ever to pass selection when he was aged 18. In addition to extensive service worldwide in which John saw action in every theatre of operations and special operations required of the British Army, he ran the Survival Training School for 22 SAS Hereford, specializing in all aspects of survival training. We asked John to give us his top techniques for survival in a harsh desert environment.
Firstly, if your vehicle breaks down it is important to stay with it. A vehicle provides many things, including cover, a lengthy shadow for shade, a structure to attach an awning, a larger target for a rescue team to spot, as well as being a valuable source of fuel from its tanks (for fires) and water from its radiator (useful for soaking clothes and drinking if distilled).
Staying with your vehicle you should then prioritize constructing shelter, preferably an awning. Shelter is often discarded over water acquisition, as it’s wrongly believed to be more important for survival.
While maintaining hydration is crucial, without shelter a person will get heat stroke and die within hours. The best and easiest form of shelter to attain is to construct an awning, attaching it to the top of the vehicle. If the construction of an awning is not possible then utilize close rocky outcrops or the banks of awadi.
Once shelter is acquired it is essential to cool down. To maintain hydration it is important to drink two and a half pints for every three and a half lost, or a minimum of half a pint per 24 hours, drunk at midday and lights down. On this point, when travelling or stranded with water supplies, always split it up over numerous containers or jerry cans instead of just storing it in one big tank. This way if you have an accident in the vehicle or on foot and the tank is punctured, broken or contaminated then you do not lose your entire water supply. Regardless if water supplies are high or low, it is important if possible to complement it with other sources. These can be attained through solar stills constructed by covering green plants under a plastic film or bag in a half metre deep and metre round hole. The condensation formed from the respiring plants at night – due to the drop in temperature – can be harvested.
In terms of food, snakes, spiders and scorpions may be eaten; however, with each it is important to discern whether poisonous. Snakes offer the best source of meat and can be ridden of stored poisons by cutting off their head. It is important to remember, however, that the digestion the body undertakes as a result of eating requires water to do so and therefore will contribute to dehydration. Remember, it takes three weeks for a human to die from lack of food, but only three days from lack of water.
In order to attract attention of search and rescue parties, signals should be made by launching flares, drawing SOS on the ground in stones, honking the vehicle’s horn in six spaced blasts every five seconds and at night flashing its lights in the same way. Smoky fires should be constructed out of surrounding bush and scrub plants as well as any spare tyres the vehicle is carrying. A heliograph should also be used as much as possible, or if one is not available, a piece of foil, glass or mirror in order to reflect the Sun’s light, causing a glint for searchers.
Other general advice would be to sleep as much as you can, eat only when necessary, keep your skin free of dirt and sand as this helps it sweat, treat all cuts and wounds immediately to prevent sores, when not on your feet put boots upside down on poles to prevent venomous creatures from crawling inside and keep the head covered when in direct sunlight.