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Desert Survival Skills

Desert Survival Skills

A practical, comprehensive handbook for both short-term and long-term survival in the Chihuahuan and other North American deserts.

July 2000
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269 pages | 6 x 9 | 48 halftones, 43 line drawings |

Remote desert locations, including the Chihuahuan Desert of northern Mexico, southern Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, draw adventurers of all kinds, from the highly skilled and well prepared to urban cowboys who couldn't lead themselves (much less a horse!) to water. David Alloway's goal in this book is to help all of them survive when circumstances beyond their control strand them in the desert environment. In simple, friendly language, enlivened with humor and stories from his own extensive experience, Alloway here offers a practical, comprehensive handbook for both short-term and long-term survival in the Chihuahuan and other North American deserts.

  • Preface: A Philosophy of Survival in the Desert
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: People and the Desert
  • 1. Intelligence: The Ultimate Survival Tool
  • 2. The Priorities of Desert Survival
  • 3. Survival Kits
  • 4. Water
  • 5. Fire
  • 6. Shelter
  • 7. Aiding Rescuers
  • 8. Expedient Vehicle Repairs and Uses
  • 9. Chihuahuan Desert Plant Resources
  • 10. Chihuahuan Desert Animal Resources
  • 11. Expedient Tools and Weapons
  • 12. Weather Hazards
  • 13. Desert Hazards, First Aid, and Sanitation
  • 14. Traveling and Wayfinding
  • 15. Debriefing
  • Appendix A. Wilderness Survival Schools
  • Appendix B. Equipment Sources
  • Glossary
  • Selected References
  • Index

The late David Alloway was an interpretive naturalist at Big Bend Ranch State Park who taught and practiced arid land survival techniques in the United States, Mexico, and Australia for over twenty years.


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Please Read This Section First

To survive in desert conditions, we must strip away precon ceived notions of what the desert is. The true question for the human race is not if we will survive the desert, but if the desert will survive us. The motto of my desert survival courses is "Down with eremophobia!"

Eremophobia is the fear of the desert. Throughout this book are real-life examples of tragedies that happened in desert surroundings. These are not meant as scare stories to frighten people away, but as examples of incidents that could have been avoided with preparation and practical knowledge. When we exchange fear for respect, we are ninety percent on our way to not only surviving the desert, but helping it survive as an ecosystem. We can do this in several ways.

The blueprint for desert survival is found in the plants and animals that live there. If we can imitate their survival strategies, we can become a part of the desert's ecosystem instead of an antagonist. Learning to sit out the heat of the day, equating water with life, and becoming nocturnal are not only easy steps, but basic desert living skills. Learning to travel, work, and rest with the rhythm of the desert, we do not waste time and energy struggling against things we cannot change.

When we learn to respect the desert and its resources, we are no longer in a fight for survival, but in a partnership. Although I strongly advocate that the reader practice certain survival skills found throughout this book, I would be very saddened if it caused wanton destruction of desert resources. Many of my students have been sent by the military and law enforcement agencies and have a strong need to learn long-term survival strategies. This is why I have included a lot of specific information in this book. Ninety-nine percent of people entering the desert will never need these advanced strategies. But I have also elected to write for the one percent who may need this knowledge. Please use it wisely.

It is important to remember that some of the procedures in this text, such as harvesting certain plants, and some hunting, trapping, and fishing techniques, are very illegal—and with good reason. They are to be used as a last resort, a condition that will seldom arise. The average person will be pretty well off with a water source and fire. This again is the rhythm of the desert. Take what you need and leave the rest.

We can also defend the desert when we are away from it, at the polls, in the legislatures, in the courts, and through education. I earnestly ask that you use this book as a maintenance manual for our desert environments, and not an excuse for exploitation. No plant or animal that lives in the desert destroys the resources it depends on. The key to our own survival is to follow this example.

Also, of course, the people: though rare as radium you find, if you can find them, a superior breed in the deserts—consider the Bedouin, the Kazaks and Kurds, the Mongols, the Apaches, the Kalahari, the Aborigines of Australia.
—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

You Are Made for the Desert

To most urbanized people the desert is a forbidding place, inhospitable to life in general and openly hostile to humans. This is a cultural misconception, created in recent times by novels and films. Whether you believe the cradle of humankind to be in an African gorge 3 million years ago or at the confluence of two rivers in Iraq a short six millennia past, humans have lived in arid lands for longer than the reach of our collective memories. People have inhabited regions in North America for longer than the current deserts have existed. Despite the fact that people have moved on to many other areas of the globe, the human race is well adapted to the desert.

Walking upright in sunny areas has a great advantage over walking on four legs. Bipedal creatures receive sixty percent less solar radiation than quadrupeds. Because air currents move slower close to the ground, bipedalism exposes more of the body to cooling breezes. The sparse body hair of humans allows for greater air cooling, but thick hair is needed on animals going about on all fours to protect the skin from large areas exposed to the sun's rays. A large brain must be kept cool, so the human head is usually well covered with hair to ward off the sun. Because humans in a natural state forage instead of graze, bipedalism is a convenient form of locomotion to free the hands for carrying and work.

Anthropologists once believed that human bipedalism evolved to facilitate the making of tools, but current findings now place this form of locomotion 2 million years prior to tool manufacture. In other words, bipedalism is an environmental advantage—you are made for the desert.

Dark-skinned people have the further advantage of pigments that protect them from harmful ultraviolet rays. People like myself, whose ancestors lived in northern Europe, developed light-colored skin to help assimilate vitamin D in a region with cloudy skies and short winter days. A little knowledge can help even us fair-skinned Celts who have settled in the desert. Walking on two legs means a wide-brimmed hat can shade most of your body. Wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt further protects us from the sun, while a loose fit still allows air to cool our unhairy bodies. The hat also helps cool our large brain, which is by far the best survival tool we have.

The desert will not support thousands of people for very long. Old-world archeological sites and contemporary North American suits over water rights bear this out. But for you and me, quietly making our own way and taking only what we need, the desert is a provider. Everything we need to survive is here if we adapt our behavior to desert realities. We have a precedence to survive in deserts that goes back to the dawn of our species. To survive, we must not fear the desert; we must learn how to live with it once again.

What Is Survival?

The word "survival" has been devalued in recent years to a point that it no longer necessarily refers to matters of life and death. Vapid talk shows host people who claim to be survivors of everything from bad divorces to tax audits. Manufacturers append the word to all sorts of junk to sell to unwary persons. Many people believe I teach American Indian survival techniques, but I disagree. The original American desert people were no more practicing survival skills than I am as I watch a football game with a cold beer. They were living. No doubt they often encountered life-threatening situations, but were these situations more dangerous than what we experience in rush-hour traffic?

In our context, survival is when a person from an industrialized society is suddenly put back into the ecosystem without material support or the knowledge of what to do. This book is not about fleeing into the wilderness to avoid doomsday, about guerilla warfare, or about how to start a back-to-nature lifestyle. This book is about when, for reasons beyond our control, we are thrust back into the natural environment and cannot leave of our own free will. The ecosystem covered is the desert—specifically the Chihuahuan Desert.

Why the Chihuahuan Desert?

Of the North American deserts, the Mojave, Sonoran, Great Basin, and Chihuahuan, the Chihuahuan Desert is the least studied and contains some of the most remote locations of the four. There are several ways to define a desert, the simplest being as a region that receives an average of less than ten inches of rainfall a year. By this definition, the Chihuahuan Desert is the largest on the continent. Chihuahua is a Tarahumara Indian word that means "hot, sandy place." In other words, it is such a magnificent desert that we must say it twice in two languages!

The Chihuahuan Desert extends through the Mexican states of Zacatecas, Durango, Coahuila, and Chihuahua, into Texas, southern New Mexico, and southeast Arizona. It is a high desert, ranging from 1,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level. The altitude range combined with diverse geology makes for a great variety of life. It does not have many tall cacti, so often associated with deserts in fiction, but its plant life has provided food, beverages, fiber, dye, medicine, construction materials, and fuel for thousands of years of human occupation.

Most books on desert survival are written with the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts in mind. These are the most "popular" deserts: the Sonoran with its giant saguaro cacti, and the Mojave with its famous Death Valley. Many of the survival strategies found in those books will work in the Chihuahuan Desert, and much of the information in this book can be used elsewhere. The more specific your knowledge in any given area, however, the better your chances of surviving emergency situations.

Within the U.S. portions of the Chihuahuan Desert are national parks and state parks. Mexico has a few parks within its limits, with very large ones planned across from the Texas border in Chihuahua and Coahuila. Mexico is becoming more interested in tourism from outdoors people—hikers campers, rafters, and equestrians out to see the rugged beauty of this great desert. There has been little development so far, a fact that will attract many adventurers. Persons entering this area will need to be prepared to help themselves in emergencies. Even in Big Bend National Park, Texas, with a staff of over one hundred people, there are occasional deaths due to dehydration, injury, hyperthermia, and hypothermia. There is a need for public education on preserving this desert, and how to survive it.


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