Lessons of survival and preparedness can be learned anywhere, but rarely are they as memorable as those taught by the desert. Here in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, the summertime temperature regularly exceeds 115 degrees. Not the sort of environment that one should enter unprepared but sadly, that’s exactly what I did on the following occasions. Back about ten years ago, I was a naïve newcomer to the state and didn’t understand just how unforgiving the desert can be. I’ll share these tales as both specific lessons learned, and also as general lessons of caution that can be applied across broader areas of preparedness.
It’s said that a man will kill for a spot in the shade when the desert sun is high overhead. You might think it’s an exaggeration, but it won’t be in a worst case scenario. In my case, I was poking around the hills, looking for old mines, gold, who knows what I thought was out there. The sun was overhead and bearing down hotter and hotter. I remember getting a little dizzy and looking for shade. There’s not much of it in the desert and not a lot of trees or large plants to provide cover. In fact the only thing I saw was a pile of large boulders, one of which made a big overhang, offering a few precious square feet of shade. I crawled up into it and lay back. Looking behind me, I saw that I had company. Coiled up not more than four feet away was a diamondback rattlesnake. I didn’t feel like contesting its right to be there. Slowly, I moved away and left the area. I ended up getting slight heat stroke but made it back to my truck before anything worse. Lesson learned – the best spots are going to be taken fast in a tough situation, and probably by someone badder than you who will kill to protect it if necessary. Be prepared to do the same.
You’d think that anyone living in a desert would know to bring enough water on a hike, and they usually do. What’s not factored into the equation is bringing enough water in case you get lost. Which is what happened one time to me. Thinking I could easily retrace my steps since I was basically skirting the shoreline of a lake on a hike, I wandered into the surrounding desert further than I should have. By the time I realized that I had become disoriented, my water was gone. I managed to find my way back to the lake, but was now still a couple of miles from the car in 100-degree heat. Not good. Fortunately I had some water purification tablets in my pack and was able to fill my bottle and use them on the greenish lake water that had a decidedly oily sheen to it from all the boat traffic. Not very tasty but enough to get me back to the truck where I had more water. In the end, I ended up being pretty sick from that lake water. Lesson learned – aside from the obvious lesson of taking more than enough water, I learned you can’t rely on what you assume will be there. In this case, I assumed the lake would give me water I needed, not realizing the poor quality of it. The same can be said for game you assume you’ll be able to hunt, seeds you assume will sprout or a secret cache that you assume no one will dig up before you get to it.
Here’s another experience that taught me well. I had taken my gun out for a walk in the desert in late June to do a bit of target shooting. Not thinking I’d be going all that far from the truck, I was wearing just Converse All-Star sneakers with the canvas sides and thin rubber soles. Lured further than was prudent by whatever forces compelled me, I walked about half a mile into the desert before I realized that the reason my feet had begun to hurt so much was because the desert floor had been baking under the sun all day and was now easily 120 degrees. The heat was coming right through the soles of my sneakers and literally burning my feet. I couldn’t walk more than ten steps at a time before I had to sit down and let them cool off. Well sure enough, the hot rocks and sand burned through my pants pretty quick too, and I wasn’t doing too well. At least this time I didn’t get lost and was able to high tail it back to the truck pretty quick, my feet burning the whole time. I ended up with blisters and serious pain for days after. Lesson learned – your gear may not be up to the unseen challenges facing it. The time to find out is now, not in a worst case situation.
Having ten years’ worth of desert experience since these incidents happened, I can laugh at myself for making these rookie mistakes. But what’s not funny is that if things really go downhill and we’re cast into a SHTF scenario, everyone is going to be making dangerous, even deadly, rookie mistakes. There won’t be a lot of safety nets in place to catch you. Now is the time to practice your skills, use your gear and learn what works and what’s a fail.