“I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name” America – 1971
I grew up in a big Northern city surrounded by millions of people so for me visiting the desert for the first time was like taking a trip to the moon. And for some strange reason, I have always been drawn to these vast, dry lands. I wanted to see huge cacti hovering over the line of the horizon, jagged rock formations, roadrunners, coyotes, tumbleweeds, dust clouds and rough looking desert dwellers. So, when I finally had some extra time and money, I went to the desert.
And I must say the experience changed my life. I know some people dream of going to Paris, London, Tokyo, or Disney Land but I was content to go to the desert. Why, I love them so much that I’ve traveled to deserts in Texas, Mexico, Colombia, Peru and I plan on visiting more deserts around the world when I have the chance.
Maybe I love them because they are absolutely foreign to me. A place that’s the complete opposite of what I was used to. I was just a city boy after all, but you know what? I adapted to that rough terrain and thrived. I spent several months out there. Visiting different towns and hiking/camping deep in the wild unpopulated landscape. The experience was mind-opening, to say the least. In this post, I’ll explain how to survive, have fun and really enjoy your desert experience. So, let’s get into it then!
The number one thing you have to be prepared for before you go out to the desert is survival. I’ll tell you the main things to be aware of below.
You gotta bring in your own food. I used to stay in small towns, buy food there, then I’d go out to the desert and spend several nights out underneath the stars. You must calculate how much food you need before you go. Otherwise, you might have to eat edible cactuses, bugs, snakes or rats in order to survive. But I don’t recommend killing the local wildlife because this terrain is highly delicate. It’s better if you bring in your own supplies.
We were lucky when we went out. We found a gorgeous natural spring deep inside a desert cavern. The water was pure and delicious. If you aren’t able to find these wonderful springs, you must hike in with some water in big jugs, which can be quite heavy. Or if you can identify them, there are certain cactuses that contain pure H2O. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the local flora and fauna before your trek, these various species could possibly save your life in an emergency situation.
If you’re running low on water, then I recommend you put some water in your mouth and stop talking. Hold it in there for a while. This will help to fight thirst and keep you hydrated for longer periods of time. Keep your mouth shut to prevent losing moisture.
One of the things about the desert that’s real dangerous is getting lost. Especially in the Tatacoa desert of Colombia which has labyrinth shaped formations across the desert floor.
When starting a hike from a specific point, remember to look at the terrain above from where you start. If it’s a town then the lights will shine at night. They’ll be recognizable from very far away, especially if it’s the only town in the middle of nowhere. You must always remember the features of the view above the town or wherever you plan to return to. Perhaps the shape of a mountain peak beyond will be easy to recognize and remember. These features can guide you when you plan on returning.
Trekking at night during a full moon is an amazing experience. The moon shines so bright that it creates shadows almost as clear as the shadows made by the sun during the day. Visibility will be very high because there’s usually no clouds in the desert sky. Take advantage of this opportunity to do some night-time explorations.
The temperature during the day can be brutally hot. That’s why many desert dwellers take a siesta to rest their dry, desert bones. Usually, they just lounge around under the shade and do nothing at all, while sipping on a soda or other cold beverages. But at night time temperatures will drastically and quickly drop to almost freezing temperatures. If you’re out in the middle of the desert you better be prepared, otherwise you could get hypothermia which is potentially fatal.
Bring a winter sleeping bag, or a few blankets and a camping pad. You don’t want to lay directly on the desert floor, it is an extremely cold surface at night. I ignorantly did this my first few times out and I barely got any sleep in. I spent most of the night trembling in misery, waiting for the morning light of the sun to bring much-needed warmth.
Making a fire is a good way to stay warm. Rocks can be heated up in the flames, carefully taken out and used as little portable heaters. They can also be arranged behind the fire to concentrate and direct the heat towards you.
You’ll have three main sleeping options:
- Hike in with a tent, which is heavy but may be practical for your situation.
- Sleep in a cave, but be careful of local critters that you may find in there, some of which may be poisonous.
- Get a camping pad or few sheets of cardboard and lay on the dirt. This is fine to do. Just make sure you’re not positioned in a low-lying area where a flash flood could wash you away like a piece of driftwood in the middle of the night.
There are huge gnarly cacti in the dry desert terrain so pointy and dangerous that if you accidentally fall on them they will kill you. So be careful and watch your step!
Some of the cactus species have tiny hair-like needles which are extremely annoying. If you brush up against them they ’ll stick into your flesh and you’ll have to hand pick them out one by one, which could take several hours before you remove them all!
I never had any issues with the animals, although there was this one annoying rat creature that kept crawling towards our campsite late at night, scruffling and snooping around our gear. And a wild donkey that made a god-awful sound when we were trying to sleep, but besides that there was no animal trouble. If you do see a dangerous species, a snake or a scorpion, then just stay away from it. It won’t attack you unless provoked. This is why watching your step is so crucial to survival. You could easily step on one of these creatures by accident and they will strike you as a defensive instinct. They are difficult to see as they blend perfectly into their environment with their naturally camouflaged skin.
Make sure to keep your hiking boots in an inaccessible place at night to prevent scorpions from crawling in while you’re asleep.
Okay, now that we got all that intense survival stuff out of the way, let’s have some fun out there!
First of all, if you want to go someplace that’s romantic and secluded then this is probably the best option in the world because there are very few people or forms of entertainment to distract you from getting close with your partner. Some areas don’t even have internet access.
Go out on daily hikes, cook meals, drink wine or tequila and enjoy the spectacular sunsets which are awe-inspiring. They change from blue to orange to pink to red to grey and to every color in between. My friends and I used to watch the sunsets as if we were watching an IMAX movie. Every evening we would all get comfortable outside of the house and watch in awe and reverence. It was the most beautiful and peaceful experience. Observing the skies movements while the comforting silence of the night slowly crept up and enveloped our existence.
Dawn is just as amazing. After dealing with the frigid cold of the early hours we always welcomed the morning light to help warm our cold bodies.
What else is there to do in the desert?
Meditating – Finding peace amidst the all-encompassing silence and solitude.
Pick up a Cool Looking Rock – There’s a wide variety of rocks and crystals in the desert. You may even find a fossil or a meteorite if you are lucky!
Study the Plants and Animals – Despite the fact that deserts are so dry they are actually teeming with life. When you go, you’ll see quite an abundance of different plant and animal species which are perfectly adapted to live in the waterless terrain.
If you and your friends or lover want to go someplace peaceful and calm and get in touch with the beauty of nature then I couldn’t recommend a better place than the desert.
There are many to pick from all around the world: the Arabian desert in the Middle East, the Sahara of Africa, the Chihuahua or Sonora desert of Mexico, the Gobi desert of Mongolia, the Tatacoa desert of Colombia, the Sechura Desert of Peru, the Atacama Desert of Chile, the Mojave of California, and countless others across the globe that lay dry and still waiting to be explored by the brave.
When you do finally get to the end of the road and find yourself in the middle of the vast wide-open space, I recommend you turn off all your devices, disconnect the WIFI and sit still for a few days, listening to the pure sounds of desert life. Watch the small birds as they fly past. Look closely at their streamlined bodies and you’ll see a smile on their cute little faces. As you relax and contemplate the setting of the sun beyond the long dramatic horizon you’ll realize why those little creatures are smiling and feel the same level of inner contentment.