How to Stay Hydrated in a Desert

Two Methods:Preventing DehydrationFinding Natural Water Sources

Even a short hike in the desert can be dangerous, especially if you're walking alone. You need much more water than you would in other environments, and you need to drink it frequently. Bring enough water to prepare for the worst. In an emergency, trying to find water is difficult and dangerous.

Method 1
Preventing Dehydration

  1. Image titled Stay Hydrated in a Desert Step 1
    Know your water needs. Due to differences in climates and individuals, it's difficult to predict your exact needs. As a starting estimate, expect to sweat out 500–700 mL (17–24 oz) every hour while walking at 35ºC (95ºF), or 700–900 mL per hour of walking at 40ºC (104ºF).[1] Drink enough water to make up for this amount, and pay attention to your urine. If your urine is mostly clear, you are well hydrated. If it is dark or has a strong smell, you need more water.
    • Aim for the lower range of this estimate if you are in the shade, and the higher range when walking in the sun. You will not need as much water while sitting.
    • Most people underestimate the amount of water they need. Rely on solid measurements or urine color, not on how thirsty you feel.
  2. Image titled Stay Hydrated in a Desert Step 2
    Bring along plenty of water. Bring more water than you need, in several containers. Store the excess back in your vehicle or shelter. If possible, store it somewhere away from direct sunlight, which can make water unpleasantly hot, and eventually wear down plastic containers.
  3. Image titled Stay Hydrated in a Desert Step 3
    Drink in swallows, not sips. Sipping water may prevent the water from reaching your vital organs. Drink at least a few swallows at a time to ensure effective hydration.[2]
    • Drinking too much water on an empty stomach can lead to vomiting. If you think this may happen, start with a swallow or two. Wait a few minutes for your stomach to settle, then drink some more.
  4. Image titled Stay Hydrated in a Desert Step 4
    Do not ration your water. Trying to save your water will just make the symptoms of dehydration set in sooner. Even in an emergency situation, drink enough water to stay hydrated whenever possible. Although drinking will trigger your body to urinate, most of it is water you would have lost anyway.[3]
  5. Image titled Stay Hydrated in a Desert Step 5
    Include salt in your diet. You will also lose sodium and potassium as you sweat, which can decrease water retention and eventually cause serious health problems.[4] Snack occasionally on food that contains salt, as well as potassium-rich foods such as bananas, dried apricots, or nuts.[5]
    • If your sweat does not taste salty, or does not sting when it falls into your eye, you need more salt.
    • Salt only helps water retention if you are hydrated enough to take advantage of this effect. If you are dehydrated, large amounts of salt can make the problem worse.[6]
  6. Image titled Stay Hydrated in a Desert Step 6
    Stay covered. Any exposed skin encourages perspiration due to rapid evaporation. Wear a hat and lightweight, long-sleeved shirt and trousers.[7]
  7. Image titled Stay Hydrated in a Desert Step 7
    Seek shade in the hottest part of the day. In most deserts, especially in summer, conditions are brutally hot from about 10 am to 4 pm. One of the most effective ways to conserve water is to stay in shade during this time, away from wind. Do not exert yourself during this time.[8]
    • In an emergency situation, walk during the night instead of the day.
  8. Image titled Stay Hydrated in a Desert Step 8
    Eat less if you're running out of water. In an emergency, conserve water by eating as little as possible. You can survive much longer without food than water, and digestion takes water out of your system.[9]

Method 2
Finding Natural Water Sources

  1. Image titled Stay Hydrated in a Desert Step 9
    Look for wildlife. Birds circling or making noise are often visiting a waterhole, or at least damp ground where you could dig for water. Flying insects are another promising sign, as are animal tracks heading downhill.[10]
    • Bees in particular often fly directly between water sources and the hive.
  2. Image titled Stay Hydrated in a Desert Step 10
    Dig near vegetation. In general, the greener the plant, and the wider its leaves, the more it needs a permanent water source. Digging near a promising tree or dense vegetation can sometimes lead to water.
    • When digging, choose a low spot where water would naturally drain. Dig about 30 cm (1 ft) deep. If you notice damp soil, make the hole wider and wait a few hours for water to seep in.
  3. Image titled Stay Hydrated in a Desert Step 11
    Dig in drainages. These are dry most of the year, but water may linger underground. The best option is a canyon with the mouth facing away from the sun (north in the Northern Hemisphere, or south in the Southern). Walk upstream and dig at the base of the wall, or anywhere that feels damp.
    • In dry riverbeds, the force of the water may have eroded the outside bend of a river during a tight turn. The last flow of water may get trapped in an eroded depression here, so this is a good place to dig.[11]
  4. Image titled Stay Hydrated in a Desert Step 12
    Dig at runoff points. These are sometimes difficult to identify without experience, but they're worth a try if you don't see anything else. The most promising features are slopes of hard, impenetrable rock, disappearing under the sand or soil.[12][13]
  5. Image titled Stay Hydrated in a Desert Step 13
    Look for water pockets after a rain. Water and wind can wear holes into stone, which then fill with water after a rain. Isolated rock outcrops and level surfaces are the best places to look for these.
    • In shady canyons or valleys, these pockets can stay full for days after a rainstorm, sometimes for weeks in a cool, sheltered area.
  6. Image titled Stay Hydrated in a Desert Step 14
    Purify the water. Whenever possible, pour the water through a microfilter, or drop in purification tablets (such as iodine). That said, in an emergency, go ahead and drink it. Dehydration is more dangerous than waterborne disease, especially in a desert.
    • Boiling water is even more effective, if you have access to a fire. All pathogens should be killed by the time the water reaches a boil, so no significant amount of water will be lost to steam.[14]


  • If you're out of water and don't see any clues of where to look, seek higher ground. You may see vegetation, animals, or canyons from up above, or even the glare of sunlight reflecting off water. (Since the hike uphill will waste water, this is a last resort.)
  • Digging will cause you to lose more water to perspiration. Don't waste water digging in unlikely places.
  • Visit the desert with friends whenever possible, in case of emergencies. Tells someone where you will be going and when you expect to return.
  • If you're hiking alone make sure to have a cell phone just in case. Keep in mind that you may not have any signal so have another back-up plan as well.


  • Saltwater and urine do not hydrate you. However, in an emergency, you may use apply them to your skin and clothing. This will cool you down through evaporation, relying less on your own precious perspiration.[15]

Things You'll Need

  • Lots of water
  • Snacks that include salt and potassium
  • Hat
  • Lightweight, long-sleeved shirt
  • Lightweight, long trousers
  • Good hiking equipment.

Article Info

Categories: Survival Kits | Backpacking and Hiking