FACEOFF: What’s The Most Important Desert Survival Skill?

desert survival skill, survival skills

Picture yourself alone beneath the blazing sun. You can feel the beginning of a sunburn and it’s only 11AM. Cursing yourself for forgetting a hat, you take another swig from the single bottle of warm water you grabbed from your car, cringing at the oily plastic taste. It’s already 3/4 empty.  You start to wonder if leaving the car was a good idea. Maybe someone would’ve spotted it? Yet the road is in the middle of nowhere. What a place for radiator failure. The horizon ripples with heat as you try to remember the last town you passed in your air-conditioned vehicle, radio cranked up, looking for that out-of-the way cell tower you were supposed to service. The road ahead stretches on forever. No shelter and no hope in sight. In another hour your water will be gone… and the worst of the day’s heat is still to come…


If you were stuck in the desert… how far could you go? What skills would you need?

The world isn’t as stable as it once was. And the world has never been very stable in general.

There are earthquakes, wars, plagues and riots, and the ever looming possibility of a TEOTWAWKI event.

There are even simple things like mechanical failure on a lonely strip of highway or a wrong turn on a hike.

Get stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time and you may end up dead. Yet the desert can be conquered – or at least survived – if you have the skill. Many tribes have done so throughout the centuries.

Desert survival requires serious knowledge and experience… and the experts we gathered to answer our questions abound in both. Men with their own unique skills, backgrounds and abilities.

Four desert survival skill experts: Max Cooper, Bob Hansler, Tom McElroy and AZ Prepper.

We asked them all the same question: What do you think is the #1 skill people will be sorry they didn’t practice before they end up being in a desert survival situation where their life depends on it?

Read and learn as one day the stumbling man in the desert… may be you.

Max Cooper on Desert Survival Skill

desert survival skill, survival skillsWhat do you think is the #1 skill people will be sorry they didn’t practice before they end up being in a desert survival situation where their life depends on it?

“The number one survival skill is mindset.

While this is more of a “soft” skill as opposed to a “hard” skill, it is incredibly important. You must have the mindset that you will survive no matter what happens. The desert is a brutal environment where everything is out to get you such as extreme heat, blistering sun, lack of water, poisonous snakes and a variety of thorns from plants and cactus. In a true life or death emergency your survival mindset must be strong.

I like to say, ‘The will to survive beats the skill to survive.’

desert survival skill, survival skills

A survival mindset allows you to properly plan before you enter the desert to ensure that you are properly prepared. It allows you to have contingency plans for when things do not go as expected. A survival mindset gives you the confidence and focus you need in an emergency so that the physiological and psychological reactions of stress do not overwhelm your coping mechanisms. Too many people overly rely on hard skills such as fire starting and shelter building while never giving any attention to the importance of mindset.

If you do not possess a survival mindset no amount of skills will keep you alive. A survival mindset gives you the mental capacity to focus on survival so that you do not give into fear.”


Vital Stats on Max Cooper:

Max Cooper is an author and survival instructor who is highly skilled in both mountain and desert environments. He has worked inside the criminal justice system, taught firearms courses, trained with the FBI and has extensive experience in officer safety and survival. He also designs outdoor gear systems to prepare for different types of emergency situations including natural disasters, terrorism, civil unrest, and more.

Go check out his books here and follow him on Facebook here.

Bob Hansler on Desert Survival Skill

desert survival skill, survival skillsQuestion #1: What do you think is the #1 skill people will be sorry they didn’t practice before they end up being in a desert survival situation where their life depends on it?

“Quick Answer: orienting by starlight. Being able to navigate at night is one of the most important aspects of desert survival. In the desert you should be most active at night. Knowing a few of the constellations and being able to locate the North Star can allow you keep your bearing, especially when heading over distance towards a landmark or potential water.

Complicated answer: the art of finding water. The most sought after substance in a desert is water. It is hard to find and those organisms that do have some stored away have become masters at holding onto it… so it often comes down to finding unclaimed water of your own.

First is patience. Shade and rest should be forced during daylight hours, your mind and body might urge you to act and move during the day, but that would likely be a fatal mistake. Let the twilight hours and the darkness of night become those of wakefulness and activity. Moving at night will save your body from the sun, reduce fatigue and lessen your water loss. An additional benefit to moving at night is that many deserts become cold after dark and staying active during these hours will keep you warmer.

Secondly, reading the land so that you have somewhere to go when the sun does finally fade. Simply stated, you want to find contours in the land. High points such as mountains will provide shade in their canyons and likely hold water of some form. Without mountains, head for lowland contours. Look for water runoff and dry creek beds. Follow these down while keeping an eye out for taller vegetation and areas of green. These lusher areas indicate that water is either at or close to the surface.

The further you travel down, the higher your chances of finding that lifesaving water.

An important note to consider when planning on walking by moonlight is that landmarks such as mountains are not always visible once the sun has set. Marking the direction of the mountains during the day and then orienting to that direction in respect to the north star when night falls can keep you on the right track through the dark hours.

Brush up on some basic astronomy.”

Vital Stats on Bob Hansler:

Bob Hansler teaches survivalist, bushcraft, and primitive skills in the great state of Texas. His popular YouTube channel is a wealth of information on everything from finding wild edibles to fishing and primitive cooking.

Bob is a lifetime advocate of Boy Scouts and an Eagle, as well as a former Biology Teacher and an avid outdoorsman with an insatiable desire to do more, learn more, and go further.

Tom McElroy on Desert Survival Skill

desert survival skill, survival skillsQuestion #1: What do you think is the #1 skill people will be sorry they didn’t practice before they end up being in a desert survival situation where their life depends on it?

“The trouble with theorizing about survival situations is that survival strategies are incredibly dependent on the resources available and the environmental conditions— there are countless variables. This is why I make sure my students have a huge bag of tricks to draw from so that they are able to dig deep into that bag and pull out just the right solution to the problem they are facing. Survival situations are the ultimate problem solving game, with the highest stakes. Its not enough to only know one friction fire making technique, or a few ways to make cordage from plants.

To be a good survivalist a person needs to have the ability to improvise with every environmental variable and adapt their strategy to suit the surroundings. I can imagine a desert survival situation where finding shelter materials is extremely difficult and others where it is a incredibly easy—the same for fire, water and food.

That said, I do feel that learning how to make an effective shelter and the ability to find water can be learned and completed with less practice than making a friction fire. Often times, a fire is necessary in a desert as there isn’t enough insulative materials to make a shelter that will keep you warm at night when the temperature bottoms out. Getting that first fire before nightfall can be the difference between life and death. Fire is also great in the desert as a signal and will increase your chances of being rescued immensely. For desert situations, the bow drill make of Yucca stalk and yucca leaf cordage is a great start.

Hand-Drill would be even faster if you can pull it off. However, for every thousand “survivalists” that learn how to create a bow-drill fire with prepared wood and a nylon cord as a string, there is one that can walk into the wilderness with nothing and make a friction fire from scratch. So, don’t assume that just because you can make a friction fire at home in optimal conditions, that you will also be able to make one in the wild. Get out there and do it time and time again, and when you really need it you change the worst night of your life into one where you stay warm and safe.”

>Editors NOTE: For a great video on other uses of the Yucca plant mentioned above you may also be interested in checking out our video on how to make yucca root soap.

Vital Stats on Tom McElroy:

Tom McElroy has taught survival and primitive skills to more than 15,000 students worldwide over the past 20 years. Tom has taught everyone, ranging from young children to avid hunters, outdoor enthusiast and elite military groups such as Seal Team Six. He has consulted for numerous news programs, Hollywood movies and was featured on the Discovery Channel. He hunted with blowguns in the Amazon with the Huaorani tribe, ran through Copper Canyon with the Tarahumara (Raramuri), lived with a tribal shaman in a palm thatched hut a hundred miles off the coast of Sumatra, trekked through the Baliem Valley of Papua New Guinea, the Andes of Peru, Sumba Indonesia and the Costa Rican Jungles.

Discover more and find out how you can join him for epic survival training via his website. His YouTube channel is also very worth watching.

AZ Prepper on Desert Survival Skill

desert survival skill, survival skillsQuestion #1: What do you think is the #1 skill people will be sorry they didn’t practice before they end up being in a desert survival situation where their life depends on it?

“The two key components for survival in the desert is water and fire. Without both of these, you die.

Water is the most important immediate item for the body to function, but once found, it often needs cleaning to be made safe to drink. If only needed overnight this isn’t important, assuming medical assistance will be available quickly afterwards. But if you are stranded in the desert for an extended period of time, you must have safe drinking water. If the water isn’t safe, then death can follow soon afterwards.

In order to make water safe to drink, a fire is necessary. And then when evening arrives and the temperature drops, a fire is needed to stay warm and make it through the night.

Click Here To Learn How To Start A Fire

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Although the temperatures throughout the day may reach into the 120’s, the evenings can drop down to the 50’s or lower, making hypothermia a real threat.

Therefore, fire-making skills are the most critical skill. Whether it is making and utilizing a bow drill with the components readily available in the desert, or utilizing flint and steel from a tin carried with you in the desert, practiced skills are required.

It is a very easy thing to learn and simple to perform if you know what to do and practice. If you don’t know what to do, it is near impossible. So without some knowledge and practice, death is fairly certain.”

Vital Stats on AZ Prepper:

AZ Prepper is a knowledgeable guide to preparedness and has written on everything from gardening to camping, raising quail to C.E.R.T. training.

His excellent site on raising rabbits has also helped many homesteaders get started (including David The Good’s wife). As AZ Prepper writes, “…despite what you may think, preparedness is a very fun thing! Once you get started, a whole new exciting world opens up! And it’s a great thing to do as a family. Get your children involved. Teach them skills and empower them to be able to handle all things throughout their lives. Involving them will teach them about responsibility, planning ahead and will also help increase their self worth. No matter how you look at it, preparedness is a very positive thing. Be sure to keep stay away from fear mongering. Being prepared eliminates fear. It empowers a person. Keep your intentions right and help others as well.”

Discover more here at his website.


These guys know their stuff when it comes to surviving the desert. We highly urge you to hunt them down online, follow their books, websites and YouTube channels and learn. A big thanks to all of them for joining us here at The Prepper Project – time and knowledge are some of the most valuable commodities and they graciously shared both with us. We will have them all back soon to answer more questions, so watch for that.

So how about you? Do you have the skills you need? I know I don’t: yet. That’s why it’s important to keep learning, and as Max Cooper wrote, “you must have the mindset that you will survive no matter what happens.” Get knowledge now before it’s too late.

Stay safe out there.

desert survival skill, survival skills




About David The Good

David The Good is a naturalist, author and hard-core gardener who has grown his own food since 1984. At age five, he sprouted a bean in a Dixie cup of soil and caught the gardening bug. Soon after, his dad built an 8’ by 8’ plot for him and David hasn’t stopped growing since. David is the author of four books, writes a regular column for The Ag Mag in North Central Florida, is a Mother Earth News blogger and has also written for outlets including Backwoods Home, Survival Blog and Self-Reliance Magazine. You can find his books on Amazon here. David is a Christian, an artist, a husband, a father of seven, a cigar-smoker and an unrepentant economics junkie who now lives somewhere near the equator on a productive cocoa farm. Visit his daily gardening and survival blog here: The Survival Gardener And for lots more gardening info, click here and subscribe to his often hilarious YouTube channel.

View all posts by David The Good

2 Responses to “FACEOFF: What’s The Most Important Desert Survival Skill?”

  1. Dexter Says:

    Love Max’s book on creating a Desert Survival Kit. I also live in Arizona and his kit is spot on. I also love the Mountainsmith platform that he uses. Solid author.



  2. Brian Says:

    Totally love Max Cooper’s books especially his bug out bag book. I own his desert survival kit book as well and like it. Great article all the way around with solid advice.


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