Sip, Don't Chug

—And other Desert Lies

Jan 1, 2002
Outside Magazine
Ultimate Desert Myth

Deserts are infernos.
Well, yeah—and freezers. In general, temperatures in the desert are the most extreme on earth. In a single month in Big Bend National Park in 1949, the high temperature reached 82 degrees Fahrenheit while the low hit minus three. Know what the weather can be like at your destination and prepare for the worst. For example, visitors to Antarctica, the world's largest desert, are advised to forgo Tevas in favor of mukluks.

Myth #1:
Strip down to cool down.

Cotton may kill in the mountains, but in the desert it can save lives. Indeed, light-colored clothing not only protects you from sunburn, but also traps sweat that would otherwise evaporate in the dry heat. Cloaked in a cool layer of your own perspiration, you're less vulnerable to heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Stripping is fine in Vegas, but in other desert locales indecent exposure is a capital offense.

Myth #2:
Food and water are equally important when you're lost in the desert.

Humans can survive without food for up to three weeks—but without water say sayonara, Sonora, in three days or less. Not only do you need water sooner, but you need more of it. Food can actually suck H2O from your gut during digestion, speeding up dehydration. Put simply, you're better off studying your map for the nearest water source rather than grilling up comfort food. (Mmm... javelina burger.)

Myth #3:
Deserts are full of fantastic mirages.

Well, there's no such thing as a Disney-style mirage where pantalooned sheiks eyeball a harem of buxom belly dancers (unless you're suffering from dehydration-related dementia, which is another story), but faux lakes and funky mountains do creep into view from time to time, caused by layers of heated air bending rays of sunlight. If you're not prepared, mirages can distort distances, leading to bad judgments and wrong turns. Trust your map, not the dancing girls.

Myth #4:
Cacti are lifesaving wells of potable water.

Well, you wouldn't exactly call the stuff inside a cactus "water." If you slice the top off a cactus, you'll find mushy green innards, and though you may be able to squeeze some juice from them, the bitter, alkaloid-rich liquid can cause vomiting or diarrhea, dehydrating you even more. Of course, a lucky gamble might keep the buzzards away a little longer.

Myth #5:
Sip to conserve your water supply.

What you learned in college applies in the desert as well: Chug, chug, chug, chug. You need to maintain the volume of water in your bloodstream to keep your billions of cells hydrated and your brain functioning, and demure little sips aren't going to get the job done. So go ahead and take a big gulp or two—rescuers have found more than one dead miser clutching a half-full canteen.

Myth #6:
If a rattlesnake bites you, cut open the wound and suck out the venom.

Steer clear of the old cut-and-suck and you avoid more than a nasty hickey. Slicing open a snakebite exposes capillaries to the venom, speeding it on its way to destroy blood vessels and muscle tissue. Instead, splint the punctured limb before hiking out to the nearest hospital ASAP. Chances are you'll survive. Of the 7,000 or so people bitten by venomous snakes in the United States each year, only nine to 14 bite it, so to speak.

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