The thirst is all-consuming as you lurch forward through the parched sand and loose rock of the desert canyon. You're lost, having ventured off the hiking trail miles ago. You have only half of a bottle of water left. Stopping under the unmerciful sun, you examine the bottle as if you were studying some precious jewel. Your body knows what it needs. But your mind says, “No! I have to save it!” You're not sure why, but somehow it seems too precious to waste, too valuable to use right now. So, you put the bottle back into your bag and continue stumbling forward, hoping to magically find a flowing stream in this barren land.

The Myth: We're often told that if we're out on a strenuous hike, holed up at home because of a storm, or stranded in the middle of nowhere, we should ration our water. But does that strategy hold water when you're in a sweltering desert?

The Reality: Human beings are adaptable creatures. We're capable of surviving on a lot less than you might expect, and there are plenty of examples of this. In 1981, a young sailor survived for 76 days in a small life raft in the Atlantic. During the final month of his ordeal, he carefully rationed his collected rain water — just one pint a day. He made it, surviving to tell his tale. And perhaps it's because of stories like this one — tales that linger in the pop culture consciousness — that the notion of rationing water in all types of emergencies is so widespread.

But the physical needs of a sedentary sailor lying in a damp rubber raft and someone walking through a waterless desert are quite different indeed.

In comfortable surroundings, an inactive adult usually needs about 2 quarts a day. In a dry climate emergency that includes exertion, the need may jump from quarts to gallons. High heat, low humidity, and dry winds can steal the water from your body quickly and in a way you won't really notice — until things get serious.

Dehydration can lead to diminished strength and motor skills, sluggish cognitive abilities, extreme tiredness, and ultimately death. We may need to be at peak performance to accomplish the tasks of survival in tough desert conditions, and we simply can't afford to work at a diminished capacity. Take a lesson from the humble yet ornery camel. In these harsh situations, the best place to store your water is in your body, not in your canteen.

Alternative Uses: You may not be able to get more drinking water in a survival situation, but you can always take steps to limit your water loss. Consider these other techniques:

  • Dress the Part: When traveling through hot climates, wear light-colored shirts with long sleeves, long pants, and a wide hat. It might seem counterintuitive considering the heat, but keep as much skin covered as possible, even your face. This limits your skin exposure to the sun, keeping you cooler — and it helps to hold in moisture. Ideally, you should wear cotton clothing in the day time, as cotton fibers will hold your sweat longer than other fabrics and help to preserve any perspiration and the moisture in your skin. Just make sure you have a dry change of clothes for nighttime, as the temperature can plummet in the desert at night (and wet clothing can chill you).
  • Go With the Flow: If possible, limit or avoid activity at the hottest part of the day. Walk, climb, or work in the early morning or late evening (or at night, if you have a light source), and rest in a shady place during the heat of the day.
  • Get Radical: Save water early and often. Don't wait until you're almost dead from dehydration to start implementing water-saving survival techniques. Breathe only through your nose, since mouth breathing causes unnecessary water loss. And when things get really dire, pee on your clothing to cool yourself down and keep your skin hydrated. Don't suck on buttons or stones to keep your mouth moist. There's no water in them — duh! — and they represent a choking hazard if you lose consciousness.


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