Survival in the Sonora Desert

The Sonora Desert is located in Arizona. It's hot and dry as you would expect. Your top priorities will be shelter and water. Shelter because it gets very cold at night, possibly below freezing. And water because the dryness will cause your body to dehydrate very quickly. The usual survival time without water is reduced significantly in this desert environment.

The good news is that it is quite possible to survive for many days in the Sonora Desert. I know this because I just watched the desert episode of Survivorman! In this episode, Les Stroud doesn't have much except for a knife, some water, and a broken dirt bike. He of course leaves nothing to waste during his 7-day stay in the desert.

Emergency Shelter
First on Les' list of priorities was to find some way to stay warm at night. During the winter months, temperatures below freezing are not uncommon. After some searching, he located a patch of long grass that he cut and tied (using wire from a broken motorcycle) together into bundles. In a group, the bundles form a mattress and/or blanket that would insulate him from the cold at night. Half way through the survival exercise, Les moved his mattress and blanket to be under a juniper tree which helped provide additional warmth while also keeping much of the morning dew off of him.

Water and Food
To find water, Les climbed a nearby hill so he could survey his surroundings. A good sign of water is change in plant life from dry, well-spaced shrubs, to tightly packed and green growth. Low lying areas also improve the chances of finding water. Some cacti, like the barrel cactus, are said to be good sources of water, but Les suggests that they be avoided because of a side-effect where your core body temperature drops.

Surprisingly, there were quite a few food options. Something you wouldn't expect in a dessert.

  • Scorpions can be eaten raw once the stinger has been removed. Watch out for the claws as they can still pinch. They can be found under rocks during the day or hunting food during the evening.
  • The fruit from barrel cactus (short, round, and has red thorns) contains seeds that can be eaten.
  • In addition, prickly pear cactus is edible — slice open one of the “leaves” and eat the green flesh in between the white veins.
  • Grasshoppers are edible, but they must be cooked first as they can carry parasites like tapeworms. Les suggests pulling off the heads which will also bring out the stomach with it. The rest can be eaten.
  • Beans from the mesquite tree can be eaten raw or pounded into flour.
  • Chew, but don't swallow, on grasses to extract the chlorophyll.

Dangers in the Sonora Desert
To complicate survival, there are dangers in the desert that you need to watch out for. There are the usual suspects such as snakes and scorpions. Add to that list Africanized bees (a.k.a. killer bees) and wild boars (travel in packs and will attack as a group). All are avoided by keeping a careful watch on where you are going.

In the end, Les managed to bring all the pieces together to survive in the dessert. He dealt with hydration issues, located enough food to get by for a while, and built himself a shelter to prevent hypothermia during the night. In a real life situation, he would be in a good position to await rescue.

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