How Desert Survival Works

Dangers of the Desert: Heat Casualty

This mirage in the Namibian desert looks like a pool of water. But it's not. It's sand. Nothing but sand.
This mirage in the Namibian desert looks like a pool of water. But it's not. It's sand. Nothing but sand.
Pete Turner/Getty Images

Heat casualty is the most common danger you'll face in the desert. There are three basic types of heat illness:

Heat cramps are caused by a lack of salt due to excessive sweating. The sodium and chlorine in salt are electrolytes, and your muscles need them to function properly. Heat cramps feel like regular cramps -- the muscles in your legs, arms or stomach constrict, causing discomfort. When you feel the cramps setting in, stop walking and get into some shade and off your feet. Drink some water and, if you have it, add some salt to your canteen. If you've been saving that sports beverage, drink it -- it has a good amount of salt. After some rest and hydration, your cramps should go away.


Heat exhaustion is caused by further loss of water and salt. Some signs that you may be suffering from heat exhaustion are:

  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Weakness
  • Pale skin tone
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Cold and clammy skin
  • Fainting

Treat heat exhaustion much like cramps. Get in the shade, sit down, elevate your feet and drink water. If you have enough water, douse a towel or bandanna and apply it to your skin. Loosen your clothing and fan yourself.

Heat stroke is caused by a complete failure of the body's heat-regulating system. This means your body temperature rises rapidly and you're unable to sweat and cool down. The symptoms are:

  • Severe headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscle twitches or spasms
  • Confusion and aggression
  • Very high body temperature and hot, red skin
  • Increased heart rate
  • Hallucinations
  • Unconsciousness

Treat the same as heat exhaustion. Find shade, lie down, elevate feet, loosen clothing and drink water. You should also pour water on your skin and have someone in your group fan you vigorously. You could die from heat stroke, so it's no time to save your water. If you have some cool compresses in your first-aid kit, apply them to your armpits and groin area -- two areas that will help lower your overall body temperature.

­On the next page, we'll read about desert dangers that crawl, bite and sting.