How Desert Survival Works

Stranded in the Desert: In Your Car

Palm trees in a desert oasis
Palm trees in a desert oasis
Sergio Pitamitz /Getty Images

Let's say you're driving southwest across the desert and you want to avoid the major highways in favor of the more scenic two-lane roads. Before you go, you should take some extra precautions. Being stranded in your car in 100-plus degree heat is nothing to take lightly.

The first thing to do is tell someone where you're headed and what route you're taking, and then stick to that route. Get your car checked out beforehand to ensure that everything runs properly. Bring a working spare tire, backup hoses and belts, a gas can and a couple of quarts of oil. Pack a few gallons of radiator water and some extra coolant in your trunk, in addition to several gallons of drinking water. Pack a blanket as well -- the desert may be hot during the day, but temperatures can fluctuate as much as 40 degrees in a 24-hour period.


If your car breaks down, stay with it. Even if the trouble isn't under the hood, raise it to indicate that you need help. The inside of your car is going to be like an oven, so don't sit in it. The desert floor can be as much as 30 degrees hotter than the air, so stay off the ground. If you're in a van with removable seats, pull one out and put it in the shade that your raised hood provides. If not, sit on a blanket, tarp or anything else you have that will insulate you from the ground heat. Even though you're hot, don't shed your clothes. Loose-fitting clothing will soak up your sweat and keep you cooler. Think of how much colder you are in wet clothing than no clothing at all. If you don't have a hat to wear, fashion a head covering with what you have on hand. You may look silly wearing a cardboard hat, but your goal is to survive, not win a beauty contest. Drink about a liter of water per hour to stay properly hydrated.

If your car is stuck in the sand, take a moment and assess the situation. Most people get stuck further by reacting and spinning the tires. Get out and let some air out of your tires, but not too much. You want them partially deflated, but not so much that you won't be able to drive once you get unstuck. Apply even and slow pressure on your gas pedal and turn the wheel slightly and slowly. If you find that can't get yourself free, raise your hood and follow the rules listed above.

But what if no help arrives and you're running low on water? You're going to have to hoof it. We'll give you some tips on the safest way to set out on foot on the following page.