Useful tips on finding water in the desert

Stef Zisovska

There are at least two places where you don’t want to be without water – a swimming pool on a hot summer day and a desert. The second one, of course, is scarier.

Being trapped in a desert with no water can be a real challenge. Maybe you have lost the trail, or have no idea about the time, or your water bottle spilled, none of these are good. Being in a hot and dry environment can be fatal if you are left with no water.



The first thing to remember is that the best water source is your tap back home. Take as much water as possible on your desert trip because there is not a lot of water in this hostile environment.


Everyone who has even little experience in desert travels will tell you to bring all the water you can carry.



Look for canyons that are facing north because they don’t get so much sunlight during daytime. There’s more chance of them containing rainwater that can last for a long a time in the shade. Sometimes there are north-facing pour-offs inside the canyons the size of a bathtub. Of course, the water is murky and full of dirt, but it’s better than nothing.

Look for broad-leafed trees like cottonwoods, willows, aspens or palm trees. Near these trees, there is often a spring or a water hole, if not there is water near the roots. Dig a hole near the roots and it should fill with water. These tree species grow near a water source so they can be your water detectors in a desert.



Following birds and insects can be very helpful in finding water. For example, if you are walking in Grand Canyon and there is nothing alive for miles, all of a sudden you notice a hummingbird and then a wasp. And soon after maybe a butterfly. There is likely to be a waterhole close to where they are. Another good idea is to climb to a higher vantage point where you have more chance of spotting a potential water source.



Never drink from a cactus! This myth is the most spread in survival guidebooks and movies. When you see a cowboy on a TV drinking water from a cactus, don’t trust him. That’s not water, but a fluid full of alkalis that will make you sick and vomit.


Only one of the five varieties of barrel cactus is not poisonous, a fishhook barrel. You can drink out of it.  So, learn which one you can drink from or avoid them altogether.


Fishhook barrel cactus Photo Credit

Prickly pear cactus fruits are good for eating, but they won’t give you all the necessary water.

A person can survive in a desert without water up to 48 hours if not moving too much and try to find some shade. The heat cuts your survival time down from the usual three days without water. If wandering around in the heat, you could have a stroke in three hours. Serious stuff.

So, if you told your close people where are you going, just wait for them to look for you and don’t waste your water.


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