5 Amazing Real-Life Desert Survival Stories

man standing alone in the desert

No landscape embodies adventure more than the desert. Those arid, sandy lands have hosted some ill-starred missions, with gritty explorers surviving thanks to luck, smarts, and courage.

Here are five of the most extreme desert survivors in history:

Captain James Riley

In 1815, the American brig Commerce ran aground on the northwest coast of Africa. Captain James Riley and his crew were justifiably petrified. They had read that the local desert nomads were partial to enslavement and possibly cannibalism. Instead of testing that assertion, however, the sailors returned to the ocean in a longboat.

Nine days later, dogged by exposure and thirst, they changed their mind and returned ashore. A gang of Bedouins duly captured and forced them to tramp across the Sahara for days with scant food or water.

In a fit of hunger-sparked delirium, one of Captain Riley’s crew chewed at his forearm’s sun-charred flesh.

The crew looked doomed, but eventually, Riley persuaded a desert trader named Sidi Hamet to buy himself and four crew members and guide them north to a trading post where they could be ransomed and sent home.

En route, Riley and Hamet survived extreme deprivation and a bandit attack. Riley recounted in the tale in his memoir, Sufferings in Africa.

Witold Glinski

Witold Glinski’s desert survival story is the strangest in this epic list. The reason: Glinski claims his survival story was stolen by a Polish Army lieutenant called Sławomir Rawicz for his book, The Long Walk.

Apparently, Rawicz read Glinski’s real story of his Second World War desert escape in papers that he found in the Polish Embassy in London during the war.

It seems that Glinksi knew his tale had been stolen but never grumbled because he wanted to forget the war and get on with life.

Glinksi supposedly escaped from a Gulag in Siberia in February 1941. He and his companions trekked 4000 miles across the frozen forests of Russia, the Gobi Desert, Tibet and over the Himalayas into British-run India. The incredible trek took 11 months.

En route, four of Glinski’s friends perished. “For water, we sucked frost from stones in the early morning, then turned them over and found moisture below.

We got so thirsty we even sipped our own perspiration,” the UK-based Pole told the Daily Mirror.

Mauro Prosperi

An Italian police officer turned pentathlete, Mauro Prosperi gained fame after getting lost in the Sahara Desert during a 1994 endurance event: Morocco’s Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands).

At one stage in the six-day, 233-km event, a sandstorm caused the epic endurance runner to get lost.

After 36 hours, Prosperi ran out of food and water. He survived by eating bats living in a deserted mosque and the odd snake that cropped up in the dunes.

Finally, after nine days of Sahara isolation, a nomadic family found and took him to an Algerian army camp. From there, he was whisked to the hospital.

He was 186 miles (299 km) off course and had lost 40 pounds. On returning to Rome, the father of three was greeted as the Robinson Crusoe of the Sahara.

Dean King

Captain James Riley’s memoir was destined to inspire a modern explorer to follow his path. Meet maritime historian Dean King. In the name of research, King planned to go on a National Geographic-funded mission to retrace Riley’s trek across the Sahara.

King and company flew to Casablanca and then to the disputed land of Western Sahara, now run by Morocco. There, military police sporadically thwarted their efforts at tracing Riley’s precise path. King and his team, however, continued.

They covered more than 100 miles of the western Sahara Desert on foot and by camel, feeling the animal’s awful gait known as “the rack.” After riding 20 miles, King was bleeding through a wound in his back.  

He also took a tumble from his camel, raced barefoot across searing sand and jagged rocks and climbed cliffs.

His own memoir is called Skeletons on the Zahara.

Aron Ralston

In 2003, American adventurer Aron Ralston headed solo into the desert of southeastern Utah and fell into a canyon called Blue John. An 800-pound boulder pinned his body to the wall, crushing his hand.

He strained to free himself without success.

Instead of despairing, Ralston summoned the spirit to record several clips of his predicament with his video camera, logging his experiences and leaving last messages for friends and relatives.

He also etched carvings into the wall so others would understand what happened. Ralston, however, never gave up.

Finally, when his clamped hand had lost all feeling, Ralston decided to amputate, using a pocket knife. The tactic worked. After his miraculous escape, he became a public speaker and still climbs mountains with his prosthetic arm.

His memoir that tells of the hell he went through trapped in Blue John’s jaws is called Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

In the future, Ralston plans to climb Mount Everest.

8 Simple Desert Survival Tips That Could Save Your Life

Accidents and emergencies can turn anyone’s desert trip into a life and death situation. But you don’t need to be a full-blown survival expert to stay alive.

Here are eight simple tips for staying alive so you can tell your grandkids the story one day.

1.  Keep a Lid on It: Keep your head covered, either with a big hat or whatever you can find. If the top of your head is exposed to the sun, your body wastes lots of precious energy keeping cool.

2.  Find Some Cover: Now that your head is covered, get the rest of your body out of the sun. Construct your own shade shelter or hide from the heat behind a cactus or shrubs, a rock outcrop, or in a ravine. Wait for the cool evening or morning hours to forage for food and travel.

3.  Don’t Drink the Water: Well, don’t guzzle it. Take small, rationed sips throughout the day, and monitor your dehydration- the darker your urine, the more water you need. Be wary of any water you find- it may be contaminated- the last thing you can afford is getting sick.

4.  Stay Hungry: The more you eat, the thirstier you get. Nibble enough to keep your energy up. If you don’t have any water, don’t eat.

5.  Keep Your Cool: Panicking makes a bad situation dangerous. Assess your predicament and make a plan. If you’re lost, stay put- your chances of being rescued will drop if you wander off.

6.  Make Your Mark: If you do try to head back, mark your original location and your route as you go along. Use landmarks in the distance to keep you on track.

7.  Keep Your Mouth Shut: Conserving energy is everything, so move slowly and breathe through your nose to slow the rate of dehydration.

8.  Hunker Down: As hot as things get doing the day, the nighttime cold can kill. Find a cozy spot to spend the night where you can keep warm and stay alive.

About the Author

Rick Coleman
Rick Coleman
Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona Rick Coleman is a Lifeofadventure.com featured contributor who has written for a wide range of international travel publications. He loves the outdoors and has covered thousands of miles in the pursuit of his next adventure.
Rick Coleman
Rick Coleman
Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona Rick Coleman is a Lifeofadventure.com featured contributor who has written for a wide range of international travel publications. He loves the outdoors and has covered thousands of miles in the pursuit of his next adventure.
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