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Episode 66 S2-31

Desert Survival: Finding Shelter


Special Guest:

Without Land Ch 31

James E. Hart

The Without Land adventure takes an abrupt turn. Here today to teach us about desert survival and how to find shelter in the desert is Survival professional and author of Urban & Wilderness Survival, Emergency Preparedness, James E. Hart.

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In 1955 James Hart was stuck on the Interstate with his family. Even though cars were easier to work on, their radiator blew outside of Bakersfield. Back then there were no rest stops or convenience stores. Other cars were not a frequent site on the road and they waited seven hours to get someone to stop. They were not prepared to be stranded this long in the desert with no water. They sucked on rocks to keep their mouths wet and curled up in any shade they could find. Finally, they got a tow but James made a personal vow to never let anything like this catch him unprepared again. James says, "When you are out of water that long in the heat, it makes an impression on you."


James explains that there are some major differences between survival in the forest versus survival in the desert. In the forest you are generally higher. There is more wind, clouds, and evaporation. There are more water sources and more shade sources. The desert may only get twenty four inches of rain per year in a semi-arid region and ten inches in an arid region. You will need to find cottonwood or other greenery to lead you to water. The greenery will show you places it may have rained recently. Also you can follow the animals and find water areas but this may take ten to fifteen days to accomplish.


James is most familiar with the deserts of Utah. There the groundwater is contaminated with ground salt and sulfur. You have to distill the water in these areas; a survival straw will not remove the contaminates. Shrubby areas will lead you to where you can dig down on dry stream beds to find water. You may have to dig two to three feet down to find moisture. Then you can set up a solar still to harvest the water.


For shelter in the desert you want to look for an area that will protect you from the wind. The desert can be very deceiving; with temperatures of one hundred and ten degrees in the day time and forty to fifty degrees at night. You can find shelter behind sage or rock outcroppings. If there are any clouds that look like rain, don't be camped in a flood prone area. Flash floods are common and very dangerous. Even rain ten miles away can cause a flash flood further down the stream bed, debris in the rushing water will be a major threat.


Caves are not too hard to find. The desert is not as flat as people think. You could also shelter on the side of hills, in arroyos, canyons or by desert mountains. Even a small depression can be big enough to fit your body into and then pull branches over yourself. 


Travel must be done at night and in the early morning. James recommends splitting the days into four parts. From sun up to 9:00ish is the time you want to travel. From 10:30ish to 5:00ish you should rest. From 5:00ish to 10:00ish you should travel and then from 10:00pm to sunup you should be resting.

Heat is the biggest threat in the desert. It saps your strength and dehydrates you. In survival situations the rest time during the day is the time you want to set up signals so you can be found. Watch out for hornets, snakes, Gila-monsters and coyote dens when scouting caves for shelter.

There are some special considerations for your go-bag if you are going into a desert survival situation. You want to carry a shemagh or light shawl made of cotton that is approximately forty eight inches by forty eight inches to use over your head and face. Make sure you have 1-2 of them. You will want an extra canteen as well as a plastic tarp and stainless steel cup to make your solar still.  You should also include a reflective tarp for your shelter and make sure you have your walking stick. 

Wherever you make your shelter it only has to be big enough for you to be blocked from the wind and retain heat. Don't waste too much energy making a shelter that is too large.

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Without Land Ch 31

James E. Hart

A veteran of 2 tours of duty in Viet Nam, James began his survival training at the age of 7 when he was stranded in the Mojave Desert for 7 hours without food or water during a family move in 1954. Since then he has been through the scouting program where he attained Life scout, served as Scoutmaster, Assistant Scoutmaster, Venture Advisor, and earned the Badden Powell Award. An avid outdoorsman, he has winter camped in Utah and northern Quebec, Canada, snowshoed in upstate New York, Utah and Quebec, and camped in the Mojave Desert of California, the Uintah Mountains of Utah, and the Piney Woods of East Texas, among numerous other locations. James has traveled and been through 42 of the 50 states of the US. Three provinces of Canada, sailed the Pacific Ocean, and crossed the Equator and 35 countries from jungles of South America to the Himalayas of Nepal.


Having earned an Associates of Photography Degree from Houston Community College, he has beautifully captured many of his travels with his camera.


Now retired from a career with the Trinity River Authority of Texas, James resides in Dallas, TX, where he lectures on Wilderness and Survival Training. He is the author of SWET Survival & Wilderness Experience Training, Urban & Wilderness Emergency Planning, 35 other booklets on wilderness training, monthly articles for Survival Life Magazine, and a column and articles for The Garland Messenger Newspaper. James also does workshops and speaking engagements.

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