by Leon Pantenburg
Desert Survival Skills by David Alloway
Whenever someone writes a book on wilderness survival, the general public seems to assume that the writer is an
Adequate water is crucial in any environment, but particularly in the desert. The Nalgene bottle in the center is what I drink out of, and the collapsible Platypus soft bottles are carried filled in my pack
expert. But the skeptical newspaper man in me always asks: Says who? What wilderness? What are his/her credentials? Does the writing show some common sense? Will my BS alarm start to sound when reading?
David Alloway, author of Desert Survival Skills, has experience and the survival skills, and his book is worth reading, even if you don’t live or recreate in an arid area. Alloway is an interpretive naturalist at Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas, and has practiced arid land survival techniques in the United States, Mexico and Austraila for over 20 years.
Alloway himself became the first non-Australian to complete the 200 K Pilbara Trek in Western Australia. He holds certificates in emergency medicine, search and rescue and swift water rescue. Subsequently, Alloway writes from a hands-on experience background, and the book is excellent information for anyone who ever goes into wilderness areas.
Now, the desert rats know that the arid places have a unique beauty that frequently inspire pinch-me-I-can’t-believe-I’m-here moments. These times, and a multitude of intangibles, cause people to return to the desert. These folks have probably learned many of Alloway’s skills.
So why should the average person read a book about desert survival? One axion of survival common sense is that Mother Nature can become a harsh witch within a matter of minutes and try to kill you. Those who venture into any wilderness must be prepared for a harsh, unforgiving environment. There are consistant patterns in surviving any emergency, be it urban or wilderness survival, and a survival mindset is necessary to get through anything!
But, if you’ve ever felt drawn to the wide-open arid spaces, you will need specific survival skills. And even if you don’t plan on getting out of the car, large parts of the west are desert, with many miles between gas stations. All it will take is your vehicle breaking down in an isolated stretch and Presto! You are in a survival situation!
I love hiking and hunting in the desert and my first desert hike was in Death Valley in the late 1970s. Being raised in the midwest, the desert fascinated me. But it didn’t take long to realize that different survival skills are needed in dry areas. Equipment-wise, you’ll still need the Ten Essentials and much of the same gear you’d need in different environments.
Alloway writes a great section on what gear to carry for desert sojurns. He also believes strongly in carrying a pocket-sized survival kit along with the rest of your gear!
The difference between hiking in the desert, as opposed to other areas, is water. In the desert, you can’t plan on
Leon, and his hiking partner John Nerness, were miles away from water in this Death Valley “forest” campsite. The hike occurred during Christmas of 1977.
finding a place to re-supply. You can plan on needing a minimum of one gallon per day, and a weight cost of about eight pounds per gallon. Subsequently, for one three-day Death Valley hike , I started out with 24 pounds of water, in addition to everything else!
It is fitting that Alloway lists water as the top priority of desert survival and devotes some 30 pages to the subject of how to find it. In the discussion, Alloway tells how to possibly fix a broken windmill to produce water, ways to break into an irrigation water line, potential locations where water might be near the surface, and places to look for moisture.
My BS alarm starts going off when people promote solar stills as a way to gather water in the desert. You build one by digging a hole about a cubic yard in size, then follow the directions in virtually any survival manual. My experience, after helping build several, is that solar stills don’t work.
I wish they did. Before deer or elk season opened, I’d build several throughout my desert hunting areas, and use them to replenish water bottles. Or, the guys in my hunting camp would construct several stills around base camp, and never have to ration water for cooking or washing. In most cases and scenarios, in my opinion, you are wasting energy and precious sweat to build a solar still.
Alloway agrees, to a point. He writes that solar stills: “…are almost a cult item in survival lore.” In all Alloway’s survival classes, they build a solar still. Apparently, the idea is to show that they can’t be depended on to supply adequate water in the desert. Under ideal circumstances, they might produce a cup, up to a record quart, of water per day, Alloway writes, but some stills produce nothing.
I appreciate writing based on fact and experience and that’s why I recommend Desert Survival Skills. Reading Alloway’s book is a great place to start learning about desert survival and developing a survival mindset for that environment.
Desert Survival Skills
The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life
- STOP: Use this exercise to reduce stress and focus your thoughts.
- Write a note to let people know where you went, before you left.
- Dress with the right fabrics.
- Have a plan to make a tarp shelter.
- Carry lightweight, compact fire starter.
- Find the most effective fire ignition system.
- How to make charcloth, a material that can catch a spark from any source.
- Use charcloth as an effective method of catching a spark to make a fire
ABOUT LEON: Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and a wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker, two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships, and a freelance writer for the Bulletin newspaper in Bend, Or.