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The Out There Guy's tried-and-true Desert Survival Tips.

By Kevin Franklin

JUNE 8, 1998:  YOU DON'T KNOW an environment until you've experienced it during the climate that makes it different from everywhere else. Given the option, most folks would go to cold places in summer, or to wet places during the dry season. Few seek out the desert in the summer.

This is all backwards. To really get a fix on a place and what it's all about, you have to visit it during its defining climate: to meet the land on its own terms and adapt to it. Hiking through the desert among fields of poppies and wildflowers gives you only one notion of what makes the desert look the way it does. When you stand alongside a saguaro in the middle of summer, you gain a new respect for a plant so large and bulky that manages to survive in 110-degree, rainless weather.

All the organisms that live here have evolved to deal with the heat and dryness--in fact, they depend on it. A cooler and wetter desert may feel like a reprieve to us humans, but without the conditions to which our indigenous creatures have adapted, they'd cease to exist.

But taking on the elements doesn't have to be a miserable experience. It isn't for the plants and animals that live in the desert, and it doesn't have to be for you, either.

Timing: Planning your hours of activity is key. Rarely if ever do you see large mammals--or much of anything, for that matter--moving in the summer during the noon hours. The old Indian expression holds true: "Only Englishmen and mad dogs go out in mid-day." It's best to hike in the dawn and twilight hours--just watch out for the other critters, like rattlesnakes, also likely to make use of these windows of opportunity.

Shade: When it's hot, shade makes all the difference. Some botanists believe the principal purpose of cactus spines is not defense, but shade. If you can't go underground, shade is the next best thing for cactus and man alike.

When setting up a summer base-camp, planning for shade is perhaps the most important element. The big, blue tarps available at outdoor stores can be useful, but they need modification for practical use. The picture on the box always shows an idyllic, grassy setting with no wind. As they're sold, these tarps will stand briefly in a well-sheltered backyard. In the real world, they blow down and away in nanoseconds.

First, get rid of the stakes they come with. These have zero chance of holding a big tarp in even a modest gust of wind. The best alternative I've found are concrete spikes. Sold at lumber yards and Home Depot, they can be hammered and will hold in virtually any soil type--from caliche to soft sand. The ideal, 18-inch type weighs over a pound and has multiple holes useful for tying cord. And they're cheap! Obviously, these are not for backpacking; but they're the cat's meow for a base camp.

For backpacking, a small tarp tied into a tree can convert a poor shade tree into a fine shelter. With any tarp, the cords are critical. Again, forego the pre-packaged nylon string and inadequate plastic clip. You're far better off investing in some quality cord and learning a rolling knot (like a tarbuck knot, found in any good knot book).

Clothing: Finally, adequate clothes make the difference between comfort and heatstroke. While it may seem cooler to wear a tank-top and shorts, a light, long-sleeved shirt and loose-fitting cotton pants will protect you from sunburn and create a less-dry micro-climate between your clothing and skin. This cuts down on excessive water loss.

Same with hats: Baseball caps can't hold a candle to a wide-brimmed hat in protecting your head and a good part of your body. The open space in the top of a cowboy hat has a purpose--it insulates your head from the surface of the hat. The wider the brim, the better the shade. Of course, some compromise must be made between utility and protection: You want to move easily through brush and in crowds.

Water: Kangaroo rats never have to drink a drop of water. By processing the hydrogen in the seeds they eat and the oxygen in the air, they produce their own metabolic water. Unfortunately, humans can't follow suit, so we must pack our own. Water is the clear line between life and death in the desert. Hiking in the summer requires at least two gallons a day. When backpacking overnight and making meals, three gallons will keep you comfortable. At seven pounds a gallon, that's a lot of weight. If you line all those water bottles on the floor, it looks like a preposterous amount. It isn't. Even if you're acclimated to desert heat, military research has shown you cannot acclimate your body to using less water. Carry the water at the expense of all other gear. Do yourself a favor and freeze water in your bottles. It doesn't last more than two days, but for that time it can't be beat.

But water alone isn't enough for strenuous hiking: You need to replenish your body's electrolytes (in human terms, that means the simple sugars that fuel the brain). One simple solution is to freeze iced tea or any non-carbonated sports drink.

Summer desert hiking requires some preparation and thought--and maybe even a bit of madness. But for the true desert rat, it's worth the effort. You come to a deeper understanding about the place we live in. You might even come away with a better comprehension of what's really important in life: a little shade and a cold drink.


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