Monday, June 13, 2016

Surviving the Sonoran Desert

June 6, 2016 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Summer is here and the temperatures are climbing. A review of some summer survival techniques is most appropriate. Each summer we read or hear about a tragic death resulting from dehydration, exhaustion or sunstroke occurring during the hot summer months in the Sonoran Desert. These summer deaths could be easily prevented with the proper preparation and training.

Living in the Sonoran Desert for more than sixty years doesn’t make me an expert on the topic of desert survival. However, I would like to pass on a few things I have learned. Veterans of many summer sojourns have died tragically because they took the desert for granted. The older we get, sometimes the more careless we become. The most basic rule of desert survival is to tell somebody where you are going and when you expect to return. This simple rule can save your life.

Now, if you insist on going into the desert during the summer months when temperatures exceed 120°F on the ground, you need to consider some other basic rules for survival. For each adult in your group you will need a minimum of one gallon of water per day to prevent dehydration. Yes, you can survive on a quart of water per day under ideal conditions. This means you are in the shade, off of the hot ground and not exerting yourself. Even under these ideal conditions a quart of water per twenty-four hour period will not prevent the onset of dehydration. A rule of thumb is always one gallon of water per day per person on any desert outing in the summertime.

When a family or group go trekking into the desert with their four-wheeler, sand buggy, ATV’s or family car they need to carry sufficient water for any emergency. Remember, if you are planning a three day trip into the desert and there are three adults in the group you need a minimum of nine gallons of drinking water. If you have a sufficient quantity of water your survival has been increased three-fold. Large quantities of water can be carried in a vehicle, but what about horsemen and hikers?

A hiker or horseman must know the sources of permanent water along the route chosen. I would like to believe a reasonable hiker or horsemen wouldn’t find themselves in a remote desert setting during the summer months, however, that is not the case. Each summer Search and Rescue pulls dehydrated hikers out of the Superstition Wilderness Area. Some succumb to the elements of the summer heat.

The next thing one should consider is the method of travel under extreme desert conditions, whether it be by vehicle, horse back or foot. Surface temperatures can reach 180°F on a hot summer day. Temperatures three or four foot above the ground may be only 110°F depending on the color and texture of the surface.  Dark colored material will increase your body temperature by thirty to forty per cent on a hot day. White material makes the best clothing because it reflects the suns rays and heat.

If you are hiking you also must protect your feet from extreme temperatures. Few people will attempt hiking in the desert during the heat of the day (1 p.m. until 4 p.m.). If one must hike in the desert during the summer months it is best to hike in the early morning, late evening or at night. Hiking or walking at night does have its disadvantages. The desert is a host to a variety of poisonous reptiles and insects.

Vehicle operators often go into the desert during the hot summer months not giving a second thought to the operating conditions for their vehicles. Something as simple as a flat tire, broken fuel line, dead battery,  or a punctured oil pan could lead to tragedy. A simple flat board might serve as a platform to jack up a stuck vehicle in the sand or to change a flat. Brush placed under a wheel to gain traction when stuck can save your life. A vehicle will do better in sand if you lower the air pressure in the tires.

Before the many deaths of illegal immigrants trying to cross the border between the United States and Mexico, more than 60% of the desert deaths resulted from vehicle becoming stuck in the sand or high centered on a rock. The remaining 40% of victims perished from the over extension of their physical capabilities.

Remember, survival begins immediately, not ten hours after you have become stranded and realize the consequences of your decisions. People have worked all day in the hot sun trying to free their vehicles then suddenly realize they are in a hopeless situation. Once panic controls a person’s actions, survival is dramatically reduced.

No situation is hopeless if proper preplanning has been undertaken. As soon as you know that you are in a dangerous situation there are three basic rules for survival. One, don’t let yourself panic, Two, stay where you are, and Three, try to signal for help.

You can build a signal fire from desert brush for immediate signaling with smoke. Automotive tires make the best smoke signal. The tires will give off a dense black cloud of smoke that can be seen for miles. You can use your car mirrors to signal aircraft. One important rule is always keep a signal fire ready to ignite if you see an aircraft in your vicinity. The international signal for distress is three shots, three fires, or three of anything that can be recognized as distress signals.

Many times an individual will not panic until the second or third day. The only control for panic is self-confidence in the fact that you know how to survive this situation. Staying with your vehicle is very important. From the air, it is much easier to spot a car in the desert then a human being, and most searches are conducted from the air.

If you decide to leave your vehicle it is important that you leave some kind of signal letting rescuers know which direction you are traveling away from your vehicle. Sticks and rocks can serve as excellent markers if properly arranged to indicate direction.

The above suggestions are not guaranteed to save your life, but they will increase your chances of survival. If you choose to walk out, try to walk during the cooler hours of the morning or late evening. Walking after dark would be the best, but there are many hazards on the desert if you don’t have proper lighting. Cactus spines, venomous animals, mine shafts, and pits are just a few of the hazards you could come in contact with in the dark.

The Superstition Wilderness Area, and other desert regions of Arizona, have claimed hundreds of lives over the decades from dehydration, exhaustion, and sunstroke. Many illegal aliens die each summer trying to cross the border between the United States and Mexico. Often summer deaths on the desert exceed one hundred human beings. Yes, the desert can be extremely dangerous in the summer months. Please use care and preplanning before going off into the desert for a summer adventure.

Finally, I would like to leave you with a comment about leaving children or pets in a car in the summer. If the windows are rolled up they will suffer from heat stroke or die. Most people will break out your window to rescue a child or pet left in a hot car. Think about that when you are shopping in the summer, even in late evening. Don’t leave children or pets in a car.

Also don’t walk you pets across a hot parking lot. The temperature of asphalt in the summer can fry an egg— what do you suppose it will do to your pet?