Making a Solar Still For Desert Survival

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of summer. I’m ready for some cooler weather to show up once again. But then, I live where there’s an overabundance of heat and not much cool weather.

1068 rocky desertDealing with heat makes for an interesting survival situation. Most of the time, when we’re talking about hot climates, we’re either talking about deserts or at least very arid country. We’ve got to realize that not all deserts are rolling sand dunes; many of them are more rock than anything else. But one thing that they all have in common is that there isn’t much growing there.

We all tend to think of “wilderness survival” as surviving in the midst of a forest somewhere. That’s actually a rather ideal situation. But what do you do if you’re caught in a desert? What if you’re caught in arid ground that doesn’t have trees and doesn’t have much water either?

Desert (or arid climate) survival is more about water than anything else. You need to find water and you need to keep the water that your body has, inside your body. The more you sweat, the more water you lose; the more water you lose, the more you’ll need to drink. So, in a desert climate, it’s important to avoid sweating. That’s why the “classic” picture of an Arab has them in long, flowing white robes, even in the hot sun.

Keep the Water You Have

There are three things you can do to help keep the water inside your body. The first is to copy the example of those Arabs and wrap yourself in clothing. This really isn’t the time to wear a short sleeve shirt and cutoffs, even if that’s what you’re used to doing. You’re better off with long sleeves and long legged pants. In fact, if you have a jacket, put it on. The same goes for thermal underwear.

The idea here is to keep your perspiration moisture up against your skin. That way, when it evaporates, it will help to cool you off. If it wicks away from the skin, it won’t help cool you. At the same time, if the outside temperature is above 98.6oF, those extra clothes act as insulation to keep the ambient heat away from your body.

The second thing that you can do to keep the water inside your body is to stay in the shade. When you are in the shade, the sun won’t be beating directly on your body or your clothes. That means that it won’t be heating your skin. Ultimately, that helps prevent perspiration.

One other thing you can do to help prevent perspiration and keep the water inside your body is to avoid any strenuous exercise. This isn’t the time to take up aerobics or lift weights. In fact, anything more strenuous than walking across the room should be avoided until after nightfall. If you have to do anything physical, do it at night, when you don’t have to worry about the sun. In fact, you’re better off sleeping during the day, so that you can do things at night.

Get More Water

Finding water in the desert is extremely difficult. Contrary to common perceptions, it does actually rain in the desert; it just doesn’t do so very often. So it’s possible that there are places where there is water. One place to look is in rock formations. At times, these will form hidden water basins that collect rainwater and hold it like cisterns.

The other good place to look for water is low ground. Water still flows downhill, even in the desert. So, any water that forms pools or even that soaks into the ground is likely to be in a low point. Look for plant life, as that is a universal sign of water.

You may not find water on the surface, but that doesn’t mean that there is no water available. Look for dry, cracked mud. That’s almost always an indication of underground water. The dry mud is there because there had been standing water in that place. So, as the water evaporates, it leaves behind the mud. But water underneath the surface doesn’t evaporate as fast, so it may very well be trapped under the ground.

Digging into the ground will give you access to the water there. Make a hole deep enough that you are down into wet mud and then allow the water to seep in, filling the hole. Yes, the water will be muddy, but it will be water. Assuming you have a water filter, you can filter it.

You can also find water in plants. Anything green is likely to have water in it. All you have to do is get the water out of it. That means picking the leaves, cutting them open and using a solar still to extract the water.

Making a Solar Still

17 - Solar Still_USDA_Agricultural Research Service_ssA solar still is extremely easy to make, assuming you have the materials you need. Those are:

  • A sheet of clear plastic; this can be a large garbage bag cut open
  • A piece of rubber or plastic tubing
  • A pot, empty can or other clean container

To make the solar still, dig a hole in the ground as big in diameter as you can cover with your plastic sheeting and a couple of feet deep. It doesn’t need a flat bottom, except in the center, where the container is placed. If you have found some of that dried mud I was talking about a moment ago, dig the hole there, as the still will draw the water out of the ground.

Place the container in the center of the hole and anchor one end of the tubing in the bottom of the container. The other end of the tubing needs to be anchored somewhere outside the hole. Fill the hole with leaves from plants and then cover it with the plastic sheeting, anchoring the sheeting all the way around with rocks or dirt. Don’t leave any gaps where air can pass through.

You can also pour any water-based liquids you have into the hole, such as urine or anti-freeze from your car. The solar still will get the water out of those for you as well. The final step is to put a small rock in the center of the plastic sheeting, causing it to dip down lower over the container.

The sun will warm the ground inside the hole and the vegetation you put there. This will cause the water to evaporate out of them and rise, where it will hit the plastic sheeting and condensate. Since the plastic will be sloped down to the point of the rock, the water drops will flow downhill to the point and drip off into the container.

So, there you have it, how to survive in the desert. Let’s hope you never have to give it a try. I’ll talk to you later; but till then, keep your powder dry and your survival gear close to hand.

Dr. Rich

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PS: You need this essential survival tool for your cache too…

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