Here’s some straightforward handy advice from Mick Conefry‘s new book, The Adventurer’s Handbook: From Surviving an Anaconda Attack to Finding Your Way Out of a Desert. Read it, or risk dying of thirst next time you get lost in the Sahara. Don’t say you weren’t warned…HOW TO FIND WATER IN A DESERT
Follow the birds and the bees
The presence of bees is a sure sign that there’s fresh water within a few miles. A bee can cover a mile in 12 minutes and will fly in a straight line to a water source 1,083 yards (1,000 m) away. Grain-eating birds such as finches and pigeons need water to survive so they are another good indicator of nearby water. They drink at dawn and at dusk, and tend to fly very low and straight when they are seeking water. Flesh-eating birds such as crows and hawks are not such good indicators, because they can survive much longer without water.
… but don’t trust dogs
According to nineteenth-century expedition lore, any water that a dog or a horse can drink is also fit for human consumption. This is not true; dogs have a much more robust digestive system than humans. If in any doubt, it is best to boil any water found in the field. Then to get rid of its flat taste, aerate it by pouring it back and forth between two containers.
Look to the trees …
Palm trees are a sure sign of water; it usually lies within a few metres of their base. There are water reservoirs present in Australian She-oaks (Casuarinas) and in some species of wattle.
… and their leaves
It is possible to extract water from leafy green plants by tying a plastic bag over them as tightly as possible. As the air inside the bag warms the plants release moisture, which condenses on the inside of the bag. It may not taste very good and only small amounts of liquid will be released, but in desperate straits there might be no other choice.
Get up at dawn
Even deserts usually have a heavy dew which lasts for an hour after sunrise. It can be collected by laying out pieces of cloth and then wringing them into a container. An old Bedouin trick is to turn over any half-buried stones – they are cooler on the underside and will encourage dew to condense.
Leave the cacti alone
Many deserts in North America contain large cacti, but there’s a lot of dispute about their value as an emergency water supply. In the Wild West days, the barrel cactus was said to hold a gallon of water inside, just waiting for thirsty cowboys to take a swig once they had chopped the top off. In fact this is not true, although barrel cacti do have reservoirs of liquid stored in their pith; in emergencies this pith can be chewed or squeezed into a container. But be warned: there are some types of barrel cactus which contain toxic chemicals. Chewing their pith will cause vomiting and diarrhoea and make dehydration worse. The flesh of certain cacti causes hallucinations when eaten – fine if you’re looking for a ‘head trip’ but not for a conventional expedition.
And when you find water …
Don’t drink it too quickly. Rapid re-hydration can cause the electrolytic salts in the blood, lost through sweating, to become even further diluted. In severe cases this can have fatal consequences. It is a good idea to consume small quantities of salt, but salt tablets are often difficult to absorb and cause stomach cramps.
Read more about life lessons from history’s greatest (and not-so-greatest) explorers in Conefry’s terrific book.