How Desert Survival Works

Dangers of the Desert: Flash Floods and Sandstorms

A desert sandstorm can reduce visibility to practically nothing.
A desert sandstorm can reduce visibility to practically nothing.
Frans Lemmens/Getty Images

So you're doing a good job in the heat and you've managed to avoid your biting and stinging enemies. You're home free, right? Not so fast. There are a couple more natural dangers that may come your way: sandstorms and flash floods.

Sandstorms are violent wind storms that occur often in the desert. In the Middle East, sandstorms can crop up and stay there for up to three months. While these winds won't kill you, they frequently cause auto accidents as a result of the blinding effect of the sand. If you're driving and a sandstorm occurs, pull over immediately, turn off your car and headlights and turn on your flashing hazard lights. If you're on foot, put on goggles or sunglasses if you have them and find a large rock to crouch behind. If there's a large dune nearby, get to higher ground only if there's no lightning accompanying the storm. Tie a bandanna or other piece of cloth around your face and mouth. If you have spare water, wet the cloth beforehand. If you don't have goggles or sunglasses, wrap the cloth over your eyes as well and sit tight. These winds vary widely in duration -- it may only last a few minutes, so don't panic.


This SUV owner probably wishes she had read this article before heading off-road.
This SUV owner probably wishes she had read this article before heading off-road.
Karl Weatherly/Getty Images

Sandstorm conditions are also ideal for rain storms, in which case flash flooding becomes a threat. The desert sand doesn't soak up water quickly, so heavy rains can produce flood conditions very quickly and without warning. Dry channels, ditches and lake beds will fill quickly and the water can be strong and violent -- sometimes creating a wall of water 10 to 30 feet high. Remarkably, more people drown in the desert than die of thirst [source: USGS]. Because of the threat of a flash flood, you should never rest or sleep in ditches or dry creeks -- even if it doesn't look like rain. Desert thunderstorms come on quickly and without warning and can uproot trees and move boulders. A rain storm in Las Vegas in 1999 swept cars away, killed two people, injured many others and caused millions of dollars in property damage [source: Desert Research Institute].

In the event of a flash flood, get to higher ground as fast as you can and avoid standing near rocks or trees. It's best to get 30 to 40 feet higher than the nearest low point. If you're in your car, pull over and put on your hazard lights until the rain has passed. If the rain continues and rises up the car, abandon the vehicle and move to high ground on foot. These storms are rough, but usually short-lived.

Your best bet for surviving a flash flood is to keep an eye out and anticipate its arrival. Most people who die in these floods are caught off guard. Pay attention to weather reports and be alert for thunder and lightening in your area. If you suspect a storm is coming, get to high ground and wait it out.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "Dehydration: Signs and Symptoms." The Mayo Clinic, 2008.
  • "Desert Awareness.", 2008.
  • "Desert Survival Safety Tips.", December 1, 2005.
  • "Desert Survival.", 2008.
  • "Desert Survival.", 2008.
  • "Desert Survival." The Discovery Channel, 2008.
  • "Desert Survival.", 2008.
  • "Sidewinder.", 2008.
  • "Survival, Evasion, and Recovery." U.S. Military Field Manual 21-76-1, June 1999.
  • "Surviving out in the Desert Southwest.", 2008.
  • "What is a desert?", 2008
  • Alloway, David. "Desert Survival Primer.", 2008.
  • Alloway, David. "Desert Survival Skills." University of Texas Press, 2000.
  • Taylor, Lynn. "Collision Course: When Flash Floods Hit the Desert." Desert Research Institute, 2002.