In the Middle East, desert tours are the norm for almost all tourists who venture across for a visit. Everywhere you look, there are companies that specialize in dune-bashing, safaris and overnight camping in the sand.
Others decide to take a more independent approach, hire themselves a 4x4 and head into the unknown, with nothing more than a few bottles of water, some potato chips and a cooler box full of sandwiches and soft drinks.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard "It's fine! We're sticking to the trail." I'd be a very rich man.
The problem with getting into a jeep and driving across sand dunes is that everything is fine until something goes wrong. What seems like a fairly innocent problem by the side of the road downtown, can turn into a life or death situation within a hour when you're in the desert.
Floating across the sand in a Land Rover Discovery or a Toyota Prado feels amazing, but just a short stop with the air-conditioning turned off, reveals a rather unpleasant environment. Indeed, after a few minutes, it can get unbearably hot. If you think about it, you are now sitting inside a metal box, in direct sunlight with no ventilation, and if you can't get the car started again, your day-trip is about to become a fight for your life.
What to do before you leave.
A trip into the desert or into any dangerous environment should always begin with well-planned logistics before you even leave the house.
Let's run the rest of this article in a way that is properly planned, so that you can see what you really should be bringing with you. Then, if you want, you can cross-check it with what you think you should bring and see how close to, or far from the mark you were.
Always tell someone where you are going, and what time to expect you back, even if that means going to a local police station or your hotel reception and passing on the details there. Try and do this with two separate units so that if one happens to forget about you, which is very common in places where deserts are, then at least you have a back-up.
What to bring with you on a day-trip.
In the jeep:
At least 6x1.5 liters of water for each person traveling. Double this if you are planning anything off the beaten track.
Dry food like cookies and nuts, as a back-up to whatever food you are bringing. Chocolate and candy will not last an hour in the sun, so while it is fine when all is well, it will not be able to sustain you in a survival situation.
Spares for the jeep, including tyre, fan-belt and a battery. In the desert, because of the heat, car batteries fail without warning. A jeep without a power source in the desert is worthless as you can't even push it in the sand.
Two 2m x 1m lengths of tough carpet or grippy rubber sheeting far added traction if you get stuck.
A 3m x 2m tarpaulin and at least four 10m lengths of cord.
Ideally you should never go into the desert with just one jeep. It is ideal to be in a group with at least three jeeps with winches on the front of each one.
What to wear:
If you are new to being in the 125 degree heat of the desert, then you may have trouble accepting the advice that you should wear long sleeved shirts and trekking pants when you are there. The whole idea behind this is to protect your skin from the sun. You will also need a wide-brimmed hat and trainers - not sandals.
Should you get into a position where you need to walk for a while, sun-burned feet and sandals on a rocky or sandy desert trail is going to hurt - a lot! There is a reason why they called it sandpaper. It is very abrasive and will grate your skin off in sheets.
The following items are essential to ensure your best chance of coping in a harsh environment.
- Good quality knife
- Multi-tool (yes, as well as a knife)
- GPS and Satellite phone if available (will give location and get the message out, but you still need to wait for help)
- Matches and a fire-lighter
- 2 meters of aluminum foil (you can fashion this into a cooking pot to boil water)
- Good quality first aid kit (make sure you know how to use it)
- Head-torch (better than a hand-held one)
- Space blanket
- 10 meters of proper braided cord (not supermarket nylon string)
- Signal mirror (a CD will do the trick as well)
- Sunblock & sunglasses
What to do when things go wrong:
Losing the jeep is the main danger in the desert, as everything else can be sorted quickly. Illness orn injury can be stabilized and you can move out after that, but if you have no way of getting out, then you need to switch into survival mode.
The primary rule with desert survival is to never walk away from the jeep.
The second rule is to NEVER walk away from the jeep.
I cannot stress this enough. Your jeep is a life-saver.
Organizing shelter will be your main objective. People know that you are on a schedule, and therefore you will have the comfort of knowing that once a certain time has passed that folks are going to start looking for you.
Use your compass to check where the east / west line is, and that will give you a reasonable idea of how the sun is going to be tracking. If it is possible, move the jeep so that it is facing along the north / south line, this will give you a nice wide shade to sit in on the western side of the jeep.
Get your tarpaulin out and tie one corner to each of two points on the roof of the jeep, then tie off the remaining corners to build a shade like an awning. If you can't move the jeep, just tie off on the western edge keeping the jeep between you and the sun.
If you think that bringing a tarp is a waste of time, look at the photo below and think again.
The most important thing to do once you have gotten shelter is to stop moving until the sun goes down. Nothing will increase your requirement for water like walking around in the sun will. Stay calm and sit down. If you can, remove the seats from the jeep and sit on them. Comfort is the key. Cover all of your bare skin with sleeves and your hat. Keep your mouth closed, sit still and rest.
Drink water regularly. While there is a temptation to ration, you should really only start doing that if you think that no-one will be coming for many days. The value of telling people your plans should now have hit home for you.
Chances are that there is going to be no search team looking for you on the first night. So you will have to deal with an overnight stay in the desert. It will get cold, so make sure you wrap up well in your space blanket. If you can scrounge enough dry wood to build a fire, then by all means do so.
Rest is vital in the night-time so try to forget the situation until morning, then keep to the previous day's tactics and wait it out.
Remember to stay with the jeep. It is a lot easier to spot from a distance than you are.
Helicopters and aircraft may also be looking for you, so it is also a good idea to prepare a signal fire, using the spare tyre (rubber burns black smoke which is easy to spot). If you think you hear an aircraft in the distance, ignite the tyre using anything from rubbish in the car, to the material inside the seats. It is all replaceable, but you are not.
If you make eye contact with an aircraft overhead, use your signaling mirror. Even pilots who are not involved in a search for you will circle and report the position of a flashing mirror signal if it is persistent.
Finally, if no one comes after a few days, and you are running out of water, then you need to go mobile. Leaving the jeep is the last resort, but when there is little chance of someone coming, you have to start making tracks to get to civilization.
The only way to do this is at night. You can cover about 20km in the darkness. Most nights in the desert are bright and clear. Use your compass or the stars for direction and trek on.
In the daytime, use the space blanket or an outcrop to find shelter. If you cannot do this, your time is very limited: you have about 12 hours before you are in deep trouble.
Not everyone is lucky enough to survive being stranded in the desert, but if you stick to the tried and tested rules of the military and top adventurers as laid out above, you stand a much greater chance of making it.