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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1 Comment

  1. Would like to know where he found wild boar... To date there have only been 4 small sounders of them found in Arizona and in pretty specific places....Now Javelina you can find and look like small versions of them a large adult getting up to around 80lbs They do travel in herds but are no relation to a pig they are a over sized rodent.. If you know where to look and how to find it there is quite a bit of water from natural springs and small streams in part of the desert there. Also a abundance or rabbits and jack rabbits...rare but also very possible to run into a bear here and deer...would be more worried about mountain lions and coyotes...with the top predator for running into being rattle snakes.. I have lived in, hunted in and trapped around this area on average temperature can change by 40 to 50 degrees from day to night... Prickly pear you might be able to eat but are covered in hair like spines along with the large ones that keep many away...They normally need burned off or handled with caution
    if one is going to eat them..Some areas are infested with scorpions but others you would be hard pressed to find one....This can also be very rugged country with washes deep canyons and huge areas of boulders...in other places it might look flat but is very much rolling hillsides... Depending on area in or around it's edges or on higher ground you can find varies types of trees....All this makes surviving here fairly easy by using some common sense...parts of this desert is national forest and fishing get aways... Trust me is not like a forest you are thinking of is one of cactus's...trust me it can be very deceiving from looks...are enough hills and dips that you think you are looking at flat land scape and 100 yards in front of you might be a building or vehicle, is very possible to run into a old miners shack or adobe building or foundation....

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