Hot, arid, and unforgiving, the desert is one of the toughest places to survive. This guide will teach you the most reliable ways to find water in the desert with tips, practical advice, and in-depth instructions to keep you hydrated.
Finding Water in the Desert
Is There Really Water in the Desert?
Of course, there is! It’s understandable that one might assume the desert is a dry and barren wasteland at first glance. You’re not likely to see puddles, lakes, ponds, or other standing pools of water like other locales. But just because you can’t see the water after a cursory glance, it doesn’t mean water doesn’t exist.
Desert animals and plants need water just like any other living thing. Even the smallest plants growing in the cracks of a parched desert landscape need water to survive. The rule is: If there is life, there is water. The problem is that most people simply don’t know where to look or they give up too soon. Let’s fix that, shall we?
Using Animals to Find Water
An obvious way to find water is to track where the large animals go. It’s sound advice in most survival situations, but in the desert, there’s a problem with that tactic. Most larger desert animals don’t come out in the blistering heat of the day. Frankly, you shouldn’t be out then either.
However, finding and tracking animals at night is difficult in more hospitable regions, so trying to do so in the desert is a nightmare. It’s cold, you’re probably lethargic from dehydration already, and it’s hard to see. That doesn’t mean creatures of the desert can’t help you, though. You just need to think smaller.
Many people ignore insects or try to repel them. This is a mistake in the desert. Yes, they can carry diseases and they can give painful bites that have the potential to get infected. On the flip side, they’re also great water detectors. If you see a cloud of flying insects, chances are good there is a source of water nearby. Bees are an especially lucky find. They tend to fly straight from the hive to water, which means you’ll spend less time searching.
Ground insects are a little tougher to find since they’re camouflaged so well and tend to hide when they feel vibrations from your footsteps. Without the benefit of wings and light bodies, they need to conserve energy. That means sticking close to home and staying near water. Keep in mind that one bug isn’t an indication of water, but seeing several in a small radius generally means water is nearby.
Lizards and Snakes
While not always an indication of immediate water, reptiles are a simple way to find what you need. Their trails are easy to spot in the sand and they’ll often burrow or sun themselves near insect nests or high activity areas. As I’ve pointed out already, insects stay close to water. Find the reptiles and it’s just a matter of time before you find the insects and the water, too.
Though birds can fly long distances and may hunt farther from home than insects and reptiles, they’re still a good way to find water. Not only do they need to stay hydrated themselves, they will spend a good amount of time hunting insects, lizards, and small desert rodents that live near a water source. I like to think of birds as the desert’s mobile billboards. They may be miles away, but if you see birds circling high in the air, you know there’s water that direction. The best time to spot flocks of birds is early in the morning and right before the sun goes down.
Using Landscape Features to Find Water
Find Dense Green Plant Life
Even a single plant means there is water somewhere. Granted, the more vegetation you see the better your chances of finding water for yourself, but you’re more likely to see a single plant first. You might be at the very edge of where the water is, so search for vegetation that gets progressively thicker or greener. Follow the signs and you may find yourself in the middle of a lush greenbelt at the edge of a stream or underground water source.
Find a Tree—Any Tree
Because trees take so long to grow, you can bet that water is nearby if you spot a large tree in the distance. Willows and cottonwoods are especially nice to find, but any broad-leafed tree is a godsend. They often have water at their bases. If you don’t find a spring or watering hole nearby the tree, dig down by the roots and the hole should fill with water. A nice bonus to finding a large tree in the desert is the shade it will provide when the sun is at its highest.
Check Stumps and Downed Trees
Downed and dead trees often absorb and hold water. If you see insects going in and out of a hole in a tree or large stump, there may be water stored inside. Don’t just reach in; that’s how horror movies start. Instead, tie some cloth to the end of a long stick and poke it inside the tree. If it comes out wet, you know you’ve hit the jackpot. Squeeze that water into a container and go for round two.
Dig in Dried Riverbeds and Ponds
If you come across a dried riverbed, stream, or pond, you might be able to find water just below the surface. While the surface water has already evaporated, if you find damp sand a few inches down, it means there is more water a little deeper. Keep digging. The best spot to start digging is right in a bend; that’s where water has eroded the bank and is most likely to have gotten stuck and settled into the bed. Once you have a deep hole and it appears to be getting sufficiently moist, cover the hole so desert critters can’t contaminate your water hole, and wait a few hours. When you come back, it will likely be full of water.
Look On and Around Rocks
Since rock is generally impermeable to water, you can often find small amounts of water hiding in and around rock formations. Look in the dividing lines between rock formations and in any natural dips or chips in the shade. You can also check below ground, right where the rock slopes into the soil or sand. Water may have settled underground, on the rock’s base.
If there are no huge rock formations you may still be able to find water under bowling ball-sized rocks partially buried in the sand. It can’t hurt to check under the smaller ones, too. Just be careful. Scorpions like to hide under rocks.
Find Desert Trails
If you can’t find any signs of water in your immediate area, look for desert trails left by animals, dried up running water, or other survivors. If a trail seems well worn, it’s likely you’ll find water at the end. Just follow the trail cautiously. You never know what’s waiting for you around the bend. Animals, other survivors, or an unexpected drop into a sandy abyss can put a damper on your day.
Check the Hills
Water will always come to rest at the lowest point in the landscape. That means if you see hills, you may find water at the base. Even if you don’t find water there, the hill is still a great tool. Climb to the top for a better view of the surrounding area. Look for other signs of water like distant birds, trees, greenbelts, and dried streams or ponds.
Search North-Facing Canyons
Since canyons are the lowest point, they tend to fill up when the rain falls. North-facing canyons get the benefit of shade for most of the day which slows evaporation of any water that is present. Of course, if you find water here, it may be stagnant and murky from sitting for a while. Hopefully, you’ve got some filtration methods on hand.
Other Sources of Water
Collecting Moisture from Plant Leaves
You can use a plant’s natural vapor releasing action to get a few sips of water. Place a plastic bag over a plant. Put a small pebble into the bag to create a low area for water to collect, then tie the bag snugly around the stem. Check the bag at the end of the day. You won’t get a lot of water with this method, and it’s not a fast fix, but a mouthful of water is better than nothing.
Drinking Cactus Water
Don’t believe everything you see on television, folks. The tired old trope of the desperate cowboy cutting into a barrel cactus and drinking some nice cool water is a dangerous Hollywood lie. Barrel cacti aren’t big, friendly barrels of water waiting to re-hydrate you.
While you can find moisture inside cacti, it’s not just water and it’s not easy to get. The liquid you get from mashing cactus flesh is high in alkalis which will greatly tax your kidneys and increase your suffering. You could end up vomiting and feeling nauseous during a time where you need to keep your wits and your fluids intact.
There is one type of barrel cactus that won’t make you immediately wish for death. That’s the fishhook barrel (Ferocactus wislizenii). It can still cause some gastric upset, and it tastes like bitter ass, but it’s not toxic like the others. It’s mostly found in south-central Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico. You can sometimes find them in New Mexico and Texas, too. They’re about 2-feet in diameter with wickedly hooked spines, hence the name. The yellow or red flowers and the fruit only grow at the top of the cactus.
All cactus fruit provides some nutrients as well as a bit of hydration, and it’s less likely to make you ill. The spines and prickly hairs can cause injuries, so burn those off with a few seconds in a fire. If you don’t have a fire, you can still peel the spines away with a knife. It’s a long process and not likely worth the effort if you have other options for water.
If you do opt for munching on cactus fruits for hydration, they’re usually easy to spot due to their bright red and yellow colors. One of the best types is the prickly pear because it grows so well in a wide variety of climates and is easy to identify. It’s a staple in Central American diets, but it’s also found in the southwest United States, Australia, the Galapagos Islands, and in northern Africa. Some have been seen growing as far north as British Columbia.
Collecting Dew in the Desert
An often-overlooked desert water source is morning dew. While each individual droplet isn’t much to look at, collecting morning dew can save your life. There are several proven methods for collecting dew, but don’t be afraid to experiment with new methods alongside these tried and true ones.
- Method 1: Hang clothing on a post, stick, plant, or rock overnight. It really is that simple. The fabric will absorb the dew and you can wring it into a cup, bowl, bottle, or straight into your mouth in the morning. You must wring the water out before the sun gets too hot or it will quickly evaporate.
- Method 2: If you have mesh inside your clothing, backpack, or on any of your gear, you can use that to collect dew. Remove the mesh from your gear and stretch it between two sticks, trees, or rocks. Tip it at a steep angle and stick the bottom of the mesh inside a bowl, canteen, or other container. Just like a spider’s web, the mesh will catch fog and dew. Gravity will help guide the dew drops down into your collection container. You can also use a cloth to absorb the dew from the dew-catcher.
- Method 3: Cactus spines aren’t just for protection; they’re designed to catch water from rain and fog, then direct it toward the base of the plant. Use a small bit of cloth during the early morning to absorb dewdrops from cactus and other desert vegetation. Squeeze the cloth into a container or directly into your mouth. This is a long and slow process, but it can keep you alive when you can’t find water anywhere else.
Using a Stick to Find Water (Dowsing)
The ancient practice of “dowsing” has gone by many names. Water witching, twitching, and simply “the gift.” It’s all about using a stick or other small object to find water. I don’t have any personal experience with it, but I do know several preppers who swear by it. It’s because of those steadfast believers and some intriguing supporting research that I’m including dowsing in this article. After all, if I’m ever stuck in the desert with no water and no other options, I won’t let skepticism be the death of me.
While most experts believe this is still just pseudoscience or simple wives’ tales, there was one German study into dowsing that raised some eyebrows. Over the course of ten years in the 1990s, researchers paired dowsers with geologists in several dry locations to test the accuracy of the dowsers. In a surprising twist, researchers discovered that dowsing was accurate. Well-drillers found water 96% of the time thanks to dowsers’ techniques. They didn’t just predict where water would be located, however. They also told drillers how much would be there and about how deep it would be.
If you’d like to give it a shot, here’s what you need to do:
- Find a Y-shaped stick. The best sticks are about 12 to 16 inches long.
- Hold the short ends—the top of the Y—with one tine in each hand. Use an underhanded hold, where your palms and heels of your hands are skyward. The long end of the stick—the tail of the Y—should be facing straight in front of you.
- With a somewhat loose grip, start to slowly move around the terrain.
- Focus on the dowsing rod, and when you feel it begin to tug downward, you’re getting close to water.
Some dowsers claim that you need to tighten your grip as you get closer to the water source or you’ll drop your stick. Apparently the “tug” on the stick is not only noticeable, but hard to miss.
Drinking Your Urine
I’ve covered the topic of drinking your own urine for survival in detail in a previous article because that’s just the kind of girl I am. Gross, I know, but it’s worth mentioning here. Yes, you can drink urine for survival, but it should be your absolute last resort.
There are many ways to sterilize urine before drinking it, so if you can do so, go for it. If your only option is drinking it straight from the tap with no filtration, make sure you’ve exhausted all other hydration options first. Once you begin drinking your urine, you don’t have long before it becomes dangerous as it will put significant strain on your kidney’s. Eventually, it will dehydrate you further. However, drinking your urine may buy you an extra few days in a tight situation, before coming back to haunt you.
Digging Holes for Water
Although I mentioned this in a previous section, it’s worth pointing out that you can dig a hole in any area you believe there to be moisture underneath the surface. In general, the deeper you dig, the more moisture you’ll find. This is probably the most reliable way to locate water. Using the information above, find an area that is most likely to contain moisture in the soil, then start digging!
- If you don’t have a shovel to dig with, use a sturdy stick or wide, flat rock.
- You can wrap your hands in your shirt or other fabric if you don’t have a shovel, stick, or rock. This will afford some protection to your tender skin.
- Dig down approximately 1 foot. If the sand or soil is still dry after 1 foot, try a different location. If it’s damp, there’s water deeper down—keep going!
- Sand can quickly fill your watering hole, so scoop it out with both arms and push it well away from the edge.
- Patting the sides of your hole can help shore up the edges and prevent caving.
- If you don’t have a cup, bowl, or bottle, use your shirt or other fabric to soak up water from your source and wring it out into your mouth.
- Underground water sources are less likely to be contaminated by animal feces or parasites, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Always filter your water if possible.
- It may take a few hours for your hole to fill with water. Be patient.
Stay in the shade during the hottest parts of the day, especially if you are doing something physically strenuous, like digging a deep hole in the ground. The early morning and evening are generally the best times to attempt to locate water in a desert landscape.
Video: Digging for Water in the Desert
In this video, the host demonstrates how to find water underground in the desert. He also shows you how to dig for, and collect, the water. If you decide to do this, you don’t need to drink the muddy water directly like the host does. You can wait a few hours for the water to settle in the hole so it’s not as muddy, and then strain it through your t-shirt prior to drinking it. It wont be perfect, but it will be far cleaner than the water this guy is drinking!
Getting stuck in the desert with no water doesn’t have to mean death is knocking on your door. With this guide, and a little determination, you’ll be able to find enough water to keep you going while you work your way out of the hot zone. Do your friends (and us) a favor and share this article with them so they will have a fighting chance if they find themselves in a survival situation. You just might save a life!
Now it’s time to hear from you! Do you have any best methods for finding water in an arid, desert climate? Share your thoughts in the comments below!