In looking at potential bug out locations across the Lower 48, as I did in my other book, Bug Out: The Complete Plan for Escaping a Catastrophic Disaster Before It's Too Late, it becomes obvious that some of the most remote and largest areas of trackless wilderness are still to be found in the arid West. The deserts and semi-desert environment of these arid regions are a tough place to survive and an easy place to die if you are not knowledgeable or prepared. In Getting Out Alive, I use as an example the case of an entire family of tourists from Germany who wandered off the beaten track in Death Valley in a rented van. They disappeared without a trace, and their skeletons were just found in November, 2009, 13 years after their fatal blunder that came about as a result of their inexperience and underestimation of the harshness of that environment.
On the other hand, those who have the skills and knowledge to travel and prevail in that environment have always had an advantage over those who cannot. Throughout the history of the settlement of the West, outlaws and native masters of the environment such as the Apaches gave their pursuers fits with their ability to live in places that seem impossible to human life. But most deserts are not quite the wasteland that they appear to be to the outsider, and those who have spent time there know they are teeming with life. The key to that life is of course, water, and the key to surviving in the desert is knowing how to find it. Here are a few suggestions taken from Broke Down in the Desert, which is the title of Chapter Eight in Getting Out Alive:
Where to Look for Water in a Desert
The desert environment is defined by the scarcity of water, but despite this almost all desert areas are inhabited by plants and animals that require at least some water. Many different forms of life are certain indicators of water in the vicinity. By knowing a bit about the nature of desert plants, insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals, you can often find their hidden sources of life-giving water. It also helps to remember that water flows downhill and naturally seeks the lowest level. In the desert, this may be at the base of hills or underground, especially where there is a large amount of vegetation. Even an apparently dry stream may yield water if you dig in the right place.
Anywhere you find damp soil or sand is a good place to dig. In dry streambeds, this will mostly be in the outside of bends under the concave bank of the outer curve, the same part of the stream that would be deepest if it were flowing with surface water. Even if you find only wet mud and no liquid water, the mud can be pressed in a piece of cloth such as your T-shirt to squeeze out precious moisture. Indicators of subsurface water in a dry wash include an abundance of green plants, especially those species that require lots of water such as cattails, cottonwood, or willow trees. Dense clouds of flies swarming over a particular spot usually indicate that water can be found by digging there; this is what enables the nomadic Bedouins of the Sahara to find water in the driest wastelands.
The presence of bees is also a certain indicator of water in the vicinity. Bees are rarely found more than three or four miles from fresh water. If you can see which direction they are flying to and from, you can often track them back to the hive and their water supply. Ants are likewise indicators of a water source. The ants and bees may be observed going in and out of a hole in the crotch of a tree—if so, there is probably a hidden reservoir of trapped rainwater there. You can find out by dipping a long piece of grass or a stick in it. Such natural tree reservoirs are common in dry areas, replenished by rain and by dew that condenses on the branches and trickles down. It can be mopped out with bits of cloth tied to a stick or sucked out directly with a hollow straw or reed.
Some species of birds, like doves, blackbirds, and other grain and seed eaters, are a reliable indictor of water. They spend the day feeding but at dusk make for a water hole to drink before going to roost. If you see them flying low and swift late in the day, they are flying to water. Carnivorous birds, on the other hand—such as hawks, eagles and owls—get most of the moisture they need from their prey, and are not reliable water indicators.
While desert reptiles such as snakes and lizards are largely independent of water other than dew and what they get from their prey, if you see frogs or salamanders there is almost always water nearby. Mammals also need water at regular intervals, though many that are found in the desert can travel long distances between drinks. Animal trails do not always lead to water, but fresh tracks of grazing animals such as deer that lead downhill late in the day will sometimes lead you to water.
Some of these water sources used by birds and other animals will be natural rock basins and pockets that trap rainwater and snow melt, sometimes holding it for months afterward. Native Americans such as the Apaches who thrived in some of the driest Southwestern deserts and mountains relied on these natural water basins when hunting and traveling far from streams. They are often located on sandstone ridges, in side canyons, and in narrow clefts in the rock. By carefully studying the terrain for areas of sandstone cut by water runoff you can usually find such hidden water basins.
Water can be obtained from certain plants, including dew that can be mopped up from grasses and other low-growing plants in treeless areas. The easiest way it to collect it is to use rags or articles of clothing to sponge it up in the early morning before the sun evaporates it and squeeze it into a container. Other plants contain water in their roots, stems, or leaves. Tree roots near the surface in gullies and other low areas can be pulled up and cut into short lengths to drain out the moisture.
Some desert plants such as the barrel cactus contain large amounts of water, but that water is very difficult to get without a good knife and lots of hard work—you need to cut the cactus into sections and mash the pulp to squeeze out the water. Water can also be evaporated from plants by placing leaves and stems in clear plastic “transpiration” bags and putting them in the sun. The water drawn out of the plant material will condense on the inside surface of the plastic and run down to the bottom, where it can be collected. Any type of clear plastic bag can work; the key is sealing it tightly to prevent water loss through evaporation. You can make a solar still from a sheet of clear plastic stretched over a hole about three feet wide by 18 inches deep. Use green plants to line the hole under the plastic to increase the amount of water condensed by the still.