A Writer’s Guide to…Surviving the Desert!

Writers can get people into and out of trouble with a handful of eloquent words and some convenient coincidences. It’s no wonder then that we are the first people you turn to for advice on how not to die and stuff. With this in mind, I have decided to take on the heavy burden of writing some guides for that very purpose – to save lives!

Disclaimer: Following these guidelines may result in death.

Next up on the list of things you, the Hero, may get into trouble with is the unforgiving desert wasteland.


Problem: Sand and heat
Goal: To not die
Description: Sand. Sun. No Surf. Possibly Jawas
Difficulty: Difficult

The Sahara. The Mojave. Most of Australia. As a Hero, sooner or later you are going to find yourself in a hot desert (which have subtle differences to colder deserts such as the Arctic and Antarctica). Perhaps you are drifting through in your cool drifter way and stop for the wrong hitch-hiker; perhaps you’re unlucky enough to have another plane crash; perhaps your brother’s killer has a cattle ranch in the middle of Texas. Whatever the case, it’s going to inevitably end up with you stranded in the middle of a sea of sand, uncomfortably warm. If you are going to make it back to civilization to go on a rampage against your evil twin/traitorous hiking guide, you’ll first need to survive the harsh harshness of the desert.

This naturally being the worst desert a Hero could find themselves in, it will probably be about 3.5 million square miles and 45°C (113°F) during the day. The sand itself will be somewhere around 80°C (176°F), so you’d better hope your evil nemesis didn’t swipe your sandals. First, brush up on your Hero’s Handbook of Sand, and then set to.

Note 1: What are you wearing? White clothing will reflect more heat, but black will better protect against those UV things the sun throws at you. What is your clothing made of? Wool and some synthetic materials are wicking – they draw moisture away from the skin. This is not what you want in an environment where dehydration will kill you. Wear that nice, wide-brimmed straw hat you brought, as well as gloves and sunglasses. Cover as much skin as you can – particularly your head and neck.

Note 2: Your eyes are going to be subjected to a lot of bright light and you don’t want them to get damaged. If you don’t have sunglasses, cut – or tear in a manly or womanly, but above all Hero-y, fashion – a strip of material from inside your crashed plane or wrecked Jeep. Cut two very small slits in this for your eyes and wrap it around your head like a Ninja Turtle. Failing this, simply wrapping material thin enough to see through over your eyes will be better than nothing.

Note 3: In the unlikely event that you want people to find where you went (not very Hero-ish of you) or to backtrack, arrange stones into arrows now and then as you go, or carve into the ground. Build a smoky fire, maybe by dropping a grenade through your wrecked car’s window.

Note 4: Move at a steady speed. You don’t want to dally and you don’t want to dilly, but you also don’t want to walk too fast, overheat, and work up a sweat. If you sweat, you dehydrate; if you dehydrate, you die. Don’t sweat it! …Literally. Also breathe through your nose and only eat small amounts of food to avoid becoming more thirsty. Don’t bother rationing water – drink as much as you can, whenever you can. Don’t drink urine, but do use it to wet whatever you wrapped around your head to avail of evaporation’s cooling effect.

During the day, create shade with the pop-up Bedouine tent you have in your bag of holding or mini-Tardis. Otherwise, try to find other ways to create shade, or shelter in a cave. If you are in the kind of desert that has caves, be careful entering, lest it already be home to something. If possible, sleep on a platform raised off the ground – remember how hot the sand gets?

Note 5: Unless absolutely necessary, do not travel during the day. It is more cinematic, but a lot hotter. Nights in the desert can be very cold. The temperature could even fall below 0°C. Travelling will keep your body temperature up, but now is also the time to wear the warmer clothes you packed in your unexpectedly-stranded-in-the-desert kit. Wicking fabric is preferable in low temperatures when sweating, as the sweat will lower your temperature, but any sweating will, again, dehydrate you. So continue to not sweat.

Note 6: To find water, your options are limited. If you see any kind of vegetation, head towards it. If there is water around it, like an oasis, do not immediately drink it. Build a fire and boil it if possible, as it will most likely be highly contaminated. At the absolute minimum, filter it through sand. Don’t bother trying to cut open a cactus – they are not packed full of water.

Desert Oasis

Rainfall is unlikely, but if you get lucky and there has been recent rainfall, you may still find pools and puddles that are uncontaminated and have yet to evaporate. In low areas where rainfall may have absorbed into the ground, you can try digging. Don’t exert yourself, as you might not even find water. If after a couple of feet, you still don’t feel damp ground, give up. If you do, you can wait for the hole to start filling with water, or dig some more. Place material in the bottom to absorb it and wring it into a container (or your mouth).

Bar running into people, the only other ways to find water are fauna. Look for animal tracks or birds circling. Just hope these aren’t signs of a giant desert tigerlion.

Note 7: The sun is far from the only danger. You may find that this desert is completely devoid of life, but don’t count on it. Spiders, snakes, and scorpions could hunt you for miles, looking to make a name for themselves by taking down a fully-grown human Hero. Though the majority of stings and bites aren’t lethal, even ones that make you a little unwell in the middle of the desert might as well be.

If looking for lizards or insects to catch and eat (always cook meat first), turn rocks over with a stick, never your hands. If you take your shoes off to sleep, shake them out after and check that nothing took refuge inside them. If you place anything on the ground, turn it over with a stick and inspect it carefully before picking it back up. If you placed your stick on the ground, you are going to die.

Note 8: As well as animals, the unliving can prove fatal. Not zombies, in this case, as they don’t like the heat. More notably sandstorms and flash flooding. Sandstorms are something everyone associates with the desert: gigantic tidal waves of sand and dust surging through the desert with the speed and power of a sandblaster. They can carry larger debris, like rocks, and can cause you all sorts of damage. Shield yourself behind boulders or a convenient camel. Use a backpack to cover your head. Moisten cloth and wrap it over your face. Do not try to take cover on the sheltered side of a sand dune, as it will bury you. Do not take cover in a ditch as there is the potential for flash flooding to accompany the storm. The best ways to die in a sandstorm are choking or being hit by flying debris. Try not to do either of these.

Flash flooding is not something people normally associate with the desert, but it is a possibility. If you have found a band of vegetation, then you have probably found a riverbed. In the case of flash flooding, the good news is you have found water. The bad new is you may drown. Do not sleep or take cover in a particularly low-lying area. Desert ground is hard and doesn’t allow water to soak in. This means that you may see no signs of rainfall, yet be suddenly hit by flooding that started a long way off. Surprisingly, more people are killed in the desert by flash floods than by dehydration or heat. This is not a fitting end for a Hero.

Another potential danger is quicksand. You find this most commonly at the bottom of sand dunes. Don’t try to climb dunes anyway, as you could cause a small avalanche and be buried. If you find yourself in quicksand, lie backwards and ‘swim’ out of it.

Note 9: There are less natural ways to die in the desert, too. Not just the giant tigerlion or aliens. Depending on where you are, you may encounter nomadic or settled tribespeople. There is no reason to think that because they are not like you they’ll attack. But they will. They will probably be cannibals and slavers of some kind,  the likes of which no one has ever encountered, because how else are you supposed to be heroic?

Possibly, these won’t be the main villains of your story, and therefore will be normal people. Still approach with caution, as you don’t know what their customs are, their beliefs, the value they put on life (particularly that of outsiders), etc. Particularly if you find water or fruit-bearing trees nearby, do not help yourself, as they will own these.

Be prepared to go on some kind of heroic journey to free these people’s best hunters or something, who have probably been captured by evil white gold-miners or treasure hunters (possibly Nazis), and subsequently win the hand of their leader’s daughter or son and live in the desert forever.

Note 10: You might have to defend yourself against the people, though, who have evilly and maliciously claimed their land around where you stand, albeit many years earlier. They are definitely in the wrong here.

The problem is, any weapons you have in the desert will be hot and sandy. If your signature weapon is a javelin, the sand won’t matter, but the sun may have heated it to the point that it burns your skin on contact.

Should you be more old fashioned and favour a gun, you have a few issues. The sun will again have heated it. Your bullets will also have been heated, and it isn’t ideal to have a lot of tiny explosives in your pocket, getting hotter and hotter. Keep the gun well covered, in a sealed bag if possible, or else it will need regular cleaning and oiling because of the dust. To keep sand and dust out of the barrel you can also cover it with one of those balloons you get in pub toilets.


Congratulations: You have escaped the desert, found a new, nomadic family, or possibly stumbled across a hidden paradise guarded by desert yetis. Sand is no match for you: you glue it to paper and smooth wood with it; you contort and deform it and bend its form to your will with a plastic bucket. You might stay out of the sun for a while, but the desert will know better than to go after your family again. Or whatever.

Next time on A Writer’s Guide…a different situation!

2 responses to “A Writer’s Guide to…Surviving the Desert!

  1. Pingback: A Writer’s Guide to…Surviving the Frozen Wastes! | Nexuseses

  2. Pingback: How to be a Hero | Nexuseses

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