The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across a keyboard

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Arid Climate and Desert Survival: Helping Your Heroine Stay Alive with JT Sawyer

Fiona -

Let's start by introducing you to the readers. Can you tell us what you do for a living, and your background?

JT - 
I work as a full-time survival and bushcraft instructor in the Southwest. My training company provides 1-21 day courses in desert and mountain survival for the general public and the military special operations community. I started out writing non-fiction books on survival about twelve years ago
and now have seven titles out.

Fiona - 
Okay, so JT I have a heroine, and she is stranded (by some horrible plot twist written by some equally twisted author) out in the middle of the desert with no water. Can you walk me through how this intrepid heroine would save her life? 

Maybe touch on some of the myths and truths of the situation. Right now all I've got in my survive-the-desert file is the image of Bear Grylls peeing on his shirt and wrapping it around his head...That doesn't seem like much help.

JT - 
Well, first, she'll want to stay put during the heat of the day, from 11 am to 4 pm so she doesn't turn into jerky. That means keeping covered like a cowboy, hole up in the shade, and conserve precious sweat. 
Keeping covered will increase survival time in the heat by 25% so skip working on the tan.

Cholla desert
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Avoid trying to get water from cactus as it's high in alkaloids and will only make her sick; avoid solar stills as they are merely a cool, reality-show staple; and, by all means, avoid swigging down urine which will only add to her heat stress.

Fiona - 
Oh, thank god, no urine swigging.

I have a question about cover. Let's say our heroine was driving along and her car broke down. I'm assuming she should stay with her car but not in her car. What if there is no shade to be found?

JT - 
North-facing boulders, stringing up a tarp off the hood of the vehicle or over some walking sticks.. these are a few things that we've done. 
Pull a seat out during the day or sit on a spare tire in the shade of the vehicle, then retreat back inside during the cooler hours of the night.

The desert is one place you really have to be self-contained as you can't even meet 3 of your 5 critical priorities (shelter, water, and fire). Staying with the vehicle, which is hopefully well-stocked with gear and water, is the best bet. It's like having a rolling survival kit, and it's much easier for searchers to spot. 

You've also got your car horn and mirrors for signaling so staying put is always better than walking out unless you failed to leave a travel plan with someone and, then, you are truly on your own.

Fiona -
Ha! I thought you were going to say she was shit out of luck

JT - 
I'll take luck any day, but when you're luck runs out your better have some skills!

Fiona - 

JT - 
You have around 48 hours survival time in the heat without any water, if you are smart with your own sweat. By this I mean, holing up, adapting, not moving around during the heat of the day, as mentioned. There are a lot of variables to survival time such as time of year, temperature, injuries, fitness level, body weight & age, etc... so she might be fine for 4 hours to 48 hours without water depending on her activity level and the factors listed above.

Video Quick Study (5:25) Intro to desert survival
Video Quick Study (6:32) Desert Shelter
Video Quick Study (6:21) a variety of desert shelters

Fiona - 
What physical traits would add to her survival, barring massive health issues.

JT - 
Being aerobically fit is key. 

Any time I am going to working/teaching in the triple-digit heat, I amp up my aerobic workouts in the weeks leading up to the event. Being thin can be an asset, I suppose. 

Not consuming any food unless you have water to go with it is key as doing so can further dehydrate you. 

Adaptation to heat stress takes about a week, and we see many very fit hikers and even triathletes succumb to heat exhaustion in the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, etc... because they have "big engines but little radiators." Dousing yourself with water (wet t-shirt) will help with convective cooling, too.

First aid
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Time-out for First-Aid 101
Heat exhaustion is part of a spectrum of heat induced medical conditions, starting with heat cramps and moving - sometimes rapidly - to heat stroke. 

Heat exhaustion is a medical emergency and must be treated as such.
* Being active in a hot environment can overwhelm a
   person's ability to regulate their body temperature.
* Heat Exhaustion symptoms include:
   `muscle cramps
   `profuse sweating
* When the body progresses past the point where it can cope then
   the following symptoms might occur:
   `If possible remove person to cooler environment
   `Rehydration is PARAMOUNT
   `Because heat induced symptoms can include vomiting sometimes
    rehydrating is difficult and requires an IV infusion.
    Link to further information

Video Quick Study (3:24) Tony Nester talks about signs of dehydration and choices about drinking untreated water and water purification. Caution about iodine tablets - who knew?

All Giza Pyramids in one shot. Русский: Все пи...
. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Fiona - 
Once, I went on a camel safari in Egypt. My experience with the desert was that when it was 129 degrees outside, my brain functioned erratically, and I forgot things like nouns. At night it was freezing cold, even by a fire. These extremes, I thought, were very
physically exhausting. Is this
your experience as well?

JT - 
You nailed it for sure- the desert is a land of extremes. 

Most visitors to the Southwest think of the cactus and the heat but often forget about the fact that we get snow. (6" yesterday at my house!) I've been out on field courses where we're cooking during the day in 110+ degree heat and then cloaked in a down jacket come nightfall. The fact that a desert has little cloud cover causes the radiated heat of the day to dissipate quickly at night. 

Yuma, Arizona holds the record out here where it once went from 120 F during the day to 34 F at night so you really have to be prepared by having water and electrolytes along with a fleeced or down jacket, even in the summer.

English: The Sonoran Desert near Yuma, Arizona...
The Sonoran Desert near Yuma, Arizona  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Fiona - 
Look JT, our heroine is still sitting in her car. She didn't tell anyone where she was going - she's on her own. She's decided that she needs to hike out to save her life. What should she take with her from the car?

JT - 
English: Polycarbonate water bottle
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
All the water she can carry! Even if it means lugging 3-4 gallons which is what she may consume in just one day in the searing heat.

Next, an umbrella would sure be handy for creating instant shade. 

Bust off a side-view mirror for later use in signaling and cut the seat belts out for lashing material or shoulder straps for carrying water. A CD, while becoming rare, can be used for signaling as well as a cutting implement. 

Some transmission or brake fluid can be used for assisting with fire lighting (not hard in the desert much of the year). Hopefully, she has some food, first-aid kit, knife, etc... but water and the ability to create shade/shelter are going to be the two most critical items to carry.

Video Quick Study (8:06) Finding Water in the Desert
Video - a little bit longer Study (19:39) More Finding Water in the  Desert
Video Study (25:08) 3rd part of Finding Water in the Desert
Video Quick Study (9:04) Finding your way the heck out of there.

Link to Ancient Pathways other videos with Tony Nester

Fiona - 
Wonderful. Now I'm going to admit to you that I'm not a huge zombie fan. But I really want to read your books because I love reading about survival. Can you tell us a little about your novels and how you put your years of bush craft experience to good use for our edification and entertainment?

JT - 

Amazon Link 99 cents!

In reading a lot of books in this genre over the years and having grown up on zombie flicks, I was always drawn to the types of characters who relied more on their brains and tactics than on their blazing automatic weapons to solve problems. Plus, having been out on month-long survival treks where you depend on the dynamics and cooperation of a small group of people, I really wanted to show what was possible, in terms of bushcraft and extended living, where the umbilical cord to civilization is severed. Readers have commented that they enjoy the fact that there is

a blend of survival, relationship
development, and military tactics
amidst a backdrop of zombies.

Fiona - 
That brings to mind an article I read about being stranded in the ocean. The author came to the conclusion that it is better to be alone because panic is contagious. I'm sure it depends on the personalities involved, but are your characters happy to be in a small group? Or do your guides wish they only had to look out for themselves? Help or hindrance or a little of both? 
(I'm also thinking of their sharing limited resources...)

JT - 
The main character is a recently retired from the military and he was looking to get away from it all by going on a 22-day river trip with a friend who was leading a small commercial trip. He quickly finds out the world has unraveled from a pandemic. He is once more thrust into a leadership role. So he is definitely a reluctant figure but has little choice, given his skills. 

Amazon Link 99 cents!
I have quite a lot of very strong female characters in this books and have had a lot of women tell me how much they enjoyed the characters and how the female leads balanced out the male characters. I have found on field courses that are all men, they often have very little social dynamics compared to groups that have even women present. The latter courses are always more lively, fun, and way more banter involved compared to the lone-wolf, "I don't need any advice" mentality of the all-male groups. Again, I've tried to incorporate these
strong male-female elements in the
story rather than it being simply a
slaughter-fest against the undead.

Fiona - 
JT you are beyond awesome. Now my

final question is this - what is the story
behind your favorite scar?

JT - 
My favorite scar would have to be the Uncle in the Lion King. 

Seriously, I have an embarrassing scar on my left ribs that came from working a military course. I was teaching a class on mantraps and evasion for a special forces unit who came out for a 9-day survival course. 

Amazon Link 99 cents!
We had gone over how to set a particular type of trap whose trigger mechanism (the part that springs once the trap is released) was place about twelve feet up in a tree. I had just set the trap and was standing on this branch, explaining to the soldiers below just how this was all supposed to work when the branch cracked, and I slipped down about four feet. No big deal as I caught myself on another branch. However, while sliding along the tree trunk, I gashed open my side on the broken branch. I wasn't about to complain or grimace given my audience below. I just grated my teeth
together while muttering how the trap
could be used. Once we were finished,
I climbed down and had my medic patch
me up. 

I still shake my head and laugh about how "effective" a mantrap can be, especially for the instructor setting it!

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

PS - I bought and read all of JT's books. My very first zombie books. While I'm not a fan of that genre - I thought JT's books were fabulous reads. I even e-mailed to him to ask for a sneak peek at his latest (now available). Audacious I know, but I needed to know what happened next! 
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  1. The desert does not sound like a fun place to me; 85 is too effing hot. I do have a question, though. JT mentioned the old advice about getting water from a cactus, and that it has alkaloids that just make you sick. What about using the cactus water to cool your skin instead of drinking it? Would that help?

    1. Hello Andrea
      Thanks for your interest (and patience as I just got back in). The problem with using cactus juice or pads for external cooling is that it is a gelatinous material. It would be like smearing sticky Vaseline on your skin.


    2. Thank you, JT! Given a choice between dehydration and sticky skin, I'll take that second thing! I sometimes use cucumber slices that way in summer.

      In your comment below about temperature extremes, that just sounds miserable. I used to work in a beef packing plant, which is refrigerated. In the summer time, the inside would be 40 F and humid, and outside would be 95 and dry, so it was a 50 degree temp change and dry/humid change in the course of a few minutes. People were always getting ill from the sudden change; lots of respiratory problems. In your Arizona trip that went from 96 to 18 and snow, was the group prepared for that?

  2. I'm fascinated by survival information, so this was a really interesting read. I hadn't heard about using the brake or transmission fluid to start a fire before. Gonna check out JT's books!

  3. So what happens when she runs out of water and still has several miles to travel? Does she drop dead? Is it then that drinking urine and resorting to other methods of collecting water come into play? These are generally pretty good segments of advice. This one kind of just says "make sure you have water and you only travel at night". So 48 hours passes and your hero/heroine is still out there. What now? That's what I was hoping to learn about. This one fell short of the mark.

    1. When I was climbing the Masada in Israel, a healthy/fit college student died,right there on the side of the mountain. She had not been drinking enough water prior to the climb and didn't bring enough with her. It was 129 degrees F of desert heat that day, and they couldn't get EMT to her in time. People tried to help by washing her down and giving her their water to drink, but she was vomiting, and it was of no use.

      Water is water and can't be replaced. In your plot line, you're going to have to figure out a way to keep your heroine hydrated.

      And that was the point of the article. Be prepared, stay put, walk out as a last resort, water can't be replaced by drinking pee or eating cactus. If you're going to write the scene right, I guess it boils down to that. I wish there were some magic. Though in one of his books JT writes about the Bedouin's digging down a foot into the ground, dowsing themselves with water, and covering with as much shade as possible.

      Anyway, that's my experience. When JT gets back to civilization he can weigh in.



    2. Hello CCTV
      The 48 hour timeframe was referring to someone who knew they would be out of that situation in a short period of time, as with a lot of our lost hikers here in Arizona. For someone in an evasion situation, then time and distance are your friends, as with our military personnel on the run in a desert survival situation. In this case, the heroine would get in as much travel as possible during the cooler hours of the morning or evening and hole up in the shade from 11 am to 4 pm. Consuming cactus or drinking urine is only going to impair your efficiency as you will be adding a substance (alkaloids with cactus and waste products with urine) that your kidneys have to process and thus further sending you down the slope of heat-stress. In come cases, where survivors have done the latter, they have plunged into heat stroke. Best thing for our heroine to do would be to tank up on as much water as possible (the human stomach can expand to hold 1-2 quarts of water) before leaving the vehicle or a waterhole along her trek, and then keep on moving while the temps are cool.

  4. How does the heat in an arid climate affect a person different than it does in a humid climate?

    1. Hello History Rebel,
      There are actually more cases of heat-exhaustion that happen in the tropics and the southeastern US than in the desert. When sweat forms on the skin in an arid setting, it is quickly evaporated thus providing essential cooling. This cooling mechanism is not in place in a humid environment where the sweat pours off you all day. For me personally, my body handles the triple-digit heat of the desert far better than the sweltering heat and humidity of the tropics.

    2. I live in the South and people here like to say the heat here is worse than out West because of the humidity. I always wondered if that was really the case. I know I'd rather take 95 with low humidity than 85 with high humidity, but I wondered if the heat in some places out West might be warm enough to trump the humidity difference.

  5. Good questions coming in. JT is out in the wilds surviving/teaching right now. When he gets back to civilization, I'll check in with him.

  6. Just another note - survival techniques depends on your desert. When I was in Egypt there was nothing but sand, sand, sand, sand and more sand. No vegetation, no tree line, no water sources, no boulders, no way to string a tarp to existing somethings - absolutely nada. It was rather frightening - the expanse of nothingness and temps in the 130sF.

    When I was in Israel - there were a few more resources but mostly it was rocks - so one could build wind abatement, and possibly find some shelter from the sun. No vegetation or water possibilities though.

    When I was driving across Texas, the landscape had possibilities, and too Utah, Arizona, etc. But, it was all very harsh weather wise
    I've been in blizzards in Canada and haboobs in Arizona - they are equally awful just for different reasons - My suggestion is that when writing your plot line, you do a little Google Earth search and maybe talk to some folks from that area (a SaR or other specialist) - let them beta read that section of your work to make sure it's accurate. People are really exceedingly kind about sharing their expertise.


    1. Fiona, great point about how things can change with different deserts. I was leading a winter trip in the Great Basin Desert many years ago and we had a storm roll in from Canada that dropped the temp 48 degrees in one hour, bringing it to -35 F. A few months later, I was out in Arizona guiding a trip and we had a daytime temp around 96 F followed by nighttime temps around 18 F with eleven inches of snow! A land of extremes indeed.

  7. If you’re planning a trip in one of the world’s deserts, then having at least some basic desert survival skills should be your starting point. There are two possible perspectives on this topic: you could be planning a camping trip where everything is uneventful or your trip can go completely sideways, like your car breaking down in the middle of nowhere, leaving you with few supplies and a minimal amount of water. See more