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How to Survive: Finding Water in the Desert

4 tips for where to look, 3 tips for where NOT to look, and one reason to ignore it all

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HINT: It's not this easy.

There are at least two places you don't want to be caught without water—a water balloon fight and, of course, in the desert. But sometimes things don't go as planned. Maybe you got lost in Zion's backcountry, or you underestimated how far you'd be hiking or, worse, your water bottle spilled. Now you're out in one of the country's hottest, driest, most forbidding environments with nary a drop to drink. We asked Tony Nester, survivalist and owner of Flagstaff, Arizona-based Ancient Pathways outdoor survival school, for tips on how to find water in the desert.

Don't leave home without it.
Like a good teacher, he took the opportunity to wag a (friendly) finger in our faces, and remind us that the best plan is to be prepared, and bring enough water in the first place. "The most important thing to remember is that the most reliable water source is your tap in your home or in your hotel room before you head out, because there’s just not a lot of water out here."

Look inside north-facing canyons.
"If you have a topo map, or you can just be up on a ridgeline and eyeball this off the land, try finding north-facing canyons. When they fill up with snowmelt or rainfall, because they don’t have southern exposure and they’re protected much of the day from sunlight, they tend to retain water in large quantities, sometimes for months at a time. We’ve found north-facing pour-offs in canyons where there’s literally more than a Jacuzzi-sized amount of water in them. Sure, the water is stagnant and murky and probably has pollywogs and all that, but it’s better than the alternative."

Look for water-loving, broad-leafed trees.
"Look for the bright green foliage of cottonwoods, willows, aspens and, if you're in the Mojave Desert or Africa or the Middle East, palm trees. It’s the broad-leafed, bright green foliage that you’re looking for; much different from evergreens. Whenever I'm out on a trip with students, if we see a cottonwood or sycamore or willow from a distance—and it stands out as a green assault upon your eyes, because it’s the only thing out there for miles around that isn’t sand- or rock-colored—we’ll often stake some time on walking to those. They will either have water on the surface in the form of a spring, there will be a water hole nearby or, at the very least, you can dig a hole down to the roots underneath, and it will fill up with water."

Look for birds and insects.
"Look for birds and insects. We’ve had a lot of luck over the years in Grand Canyon or the Sonoran Desert, where we’ll be hiking five or six miles through a really remote, desolate region when suddenly we come around a bend and see a hummingbird and then a wasp and, soon after, maybe a butterfly. After you’ve seen nothing for a couple of hours, suddenly there’s life, and it's important to take note of that. We’ve located water holes that way. Those critters are in that area for a reason, so situational awareness will help you notice that sort of thing."

Get to higher ground.
"The last thing that can really help is if you can get to a vantage point. It doesn’t mean climbing up a ridgeline or anything, but if you can get up a little bit on the trail and look around, you can sometimes see reflections, you can sometimes see those cottonwoods and willow trees. I always carry a little pair of binoculars with me—just some 8x24s—it’s an essential part of my desert gear, because that can save me sweat and calories by homing in on a water source that is reliable, instead of wondering about something I see off in the distance and burning up a bunch of energy in trying to get there."

Don't drink from a cactus.
"Solar stills don’t work. Getting water out of cactus doesn’t work. Those are the two myths that show up again and again in the TV shows and literature. You don't get 'water' from cactus; you get a stomachache and vomiting. In movies, you see a cowboy lop off the top of a barrel cactus—a big, beach ball-shaped cactus—dip his ladle in and get a drink of water. That’s not water, though. It’s a noxious fluid that’s very high in alkalis. That’s a problem, because when you’re heat-stressed, when you have heat exhaustion and you add some of that stuff to your body, you’re going to further tax your kidneys and plunge yourself deeper into trouble, possibly even into heat stroke. Basically, you’re ingesting a substance that your body has to process, which is not recommended. You can drink from a barrel cactus, but only one of five varieties—the fishhook barrel—isn’t toxic."

Eat cactus fruit, but don't count on it.
"There are plenty of edible cactus fruits out there—prickly pear, for example. We’ll harvest those in quantity on our courses in summer, and you roast them up for 30 seconds in the coals (to burn off the little hairs and spines) and then you can eat them. But it’s not going to replace the copious amounts of fluid, the 2 or 3 gallons of water you’re going to need in the heat."

Throw this advice away.
"The bottom line is that research from the Grand Canyon and search-and-rescue operations out here shows that a person who is lost and runs out of water—we’re talking in the summertime, with triple-digit heat—can live up to 48 hours if they’re smart with their own sweat. So think like a cowboy: hole up in the shade, keep covered, get out of the wind and wait for searchers. But if you don’t do that; if you try to push on in search of water in the heat of the day, you could possibly drop dead from heat stroke within three hours, just from taxing your 'engine' too much. So if you've let somebody know your hiking plans, sit tight and wait for help."

Tony Nester has taught outdoor survival courses across the desert southwest and Rocky Mountains for 20-plus years through his Ancient Pathways school.

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