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Basic Desert Survival Tips

The sun setting over the Big Bend desert turning the mountain a yellowy/brown colour

Desert Survival Facts and Tips

Big Bend National Park and the Chihuahuan Desert entice visitors from across the US and beyond. The Chihuahuan Desert stretches from northern Mexico and into the southwestern United States. With an area of 501,896 km2 (193,783 sq mi), it is North America’s largest desert. There are various mountain ranges throughout the Chihuahuan including the Chisos Mountain which runs through the park. Big Bend is located at the northern end of the Chihuahuan and according to the NPS, Big Bend represents the largest protected portion of the Chihuahuan Desert in the United States.

Big Bend has vast, open plains coupled with a unique, diverse landscape and boasts a wonderful variety of plants and wildlife. However, in the summer months, Big Bend records high temperatures and the landscape can be unforgiving. Declared a desert biosphere reserve, this vast wilderness is perfect for those adventurers out there. Finding solitude here isn’t difficult, but we want everyone to stay safe. A small blunder can turn your offroading journey or backcountry trek into an emergency. For the many thousands of yearly visitors that Big Bend welcomes, the desert shouldn’t be treated lightly. It’s very important to be aware of the desert’s dangers and take the safety precautions that keep yourself and others safe.

We’d like to share these safety tips for those going beyond the boundaries because it’s better to be safe than sorry.


  • Share Your Itinerary: Tell others where you’re planning to go and when you expect to return. Important information to share includes your exact route and endpoint, vehicle description if you have one, who you’re traveling with, what equipment you have/will take with you, and any potential health issues. Once you do return from your journey safely, notify that person!


  • Communication: A resounding note throughout the desert safety world is don’t rely solely on your cell phone. Depending on where you are going, you may not have service and it may run out of battery. Double-check with your service provider before setting out and if you won’t be in reach, consider buying or renting a satellite phone or handheld GPS device. Look into PLBs (personal locator beacons), as they too could save you in life-threatening situations. And for extra help, read our 6 best apps for mobiles!


  • Preserve Sweat, Not Water: In contrary to popular belief, your sweat should be first priority over saving the final drop of water in the canteen. Focus on maintaining a 98.6-degree body temperature by building a shelter in the shade (hopefully with a breeze flowing through) and do not wander around aimlessly in the sun. In terms of water, a good rule of thumb is to bring one gallon of water per person per day. More is always better. And do not drink the liquid from cacti.


  • Prepare For Emergencies: In your kit for the adventure ahead, ensure you have adequate first aid supplies. This includes all medications, and as with water, more is always better.


  • In The Heat: If water’s limited, don’t open your mouth and avoid any unnecessary activity. Keep your clothes on. By removing layers, you’ll expose your skin to the sun’s heat and you’ll quicken dehydration. And do not sit or lie directly on the ground. Desert soil can be up to 30 degrees hotter than the air temperature. Use what you have to elevate yourself at least a foot and a half from the ground (which may also protect you from any potentially dangerous animals slithering by).


These are some of our basic desert survival tips, we hope you’ve learned something. If you wish to learn more about wilderness medicine and first aid, we offer two courses: an open recertification course that welcomes graduates of any wilderness-based first aid training course that was at least 36 hours long and completed within 3 years of the proposed recertification option. The second course is our advanced wilderness first aid, an entry-level course designed for professionals working in significantly remote settings for days or weeks at a time. Contact us for more information!

– Greg