As hiking guides in New Mexico’s wilderness and desert areas, we are often asked what a hiker should do if he is stranded in the desert without water.
An easy way to prevent this situation is to properly prepare for desert hiking – pack at least one gallon of water per person per day. This can easily be done through the use of a CamelBak or water bottles. One of our favorites is the 128-ounce hydration bladder by Ultimate Direction Hydration Reservoirs: it is easy to use AND to clean and the bladder is made of resistant enough a material that it allows you to freeze it the night before for a double-whammy:
However, if you find yourself stranded without water, the number one rule of all emergencies is to not panic. Look around – the desert is a wealth of flora that have adapted to hot, arid conditions over the centuries and can provide hydration if you know where to look.
The best water sources in the desert and common in the Southwest are the barrel cactus and desert agave. There are several species of cacti that bloom in the spring and have fruit in the summer. All cactus fruits are edible, and the best tasting fruit comes from the saguaro, prickly pear, and barrel cactus. The Agave plant differs from the cactus as it is a member of the succulent family and has smooth leaves with thorny hooks at the edges.
You can cut into the trunk of a barrel cactus and chew the somewhat slimy pulp to extract the water. It is very acidic and, like many cacti, contains toxic alkaloids due to the way photosynthesis is carried out within the plant. Do not swallow the pulp as it will cause nausea, diarrhea, and temporary paralysis. You can, however, use the pulp as an external analgesic.
The fruit of a barrel cactus is the most accessible since it does not have spines like the fruit found on the prickly pear cactus. Both the flowers and fruit of a barrel cactus can be eaten raw. The fruit is high in Vitamins A and C and is a good source of hydration.
Almost all parts of the desert agave – leaves, flower, stalk, blossoms, and seeds, can be eaten. The flower stalk can grow from five to fifteen feet high. Peel the rind and you will find the most tender part at the top. Both the pulp and juice can be eaten raw. Yellow flowers bloom May to July and provide nectar for hummingbirds and insects. Often during the driest months, the agave leaves are the only water source for bighorn sheep.
One of the many benefits of using experienced and well-trained hiking guides on your outdoor journey is their knowledge of how to prevent wilderness emergencies with proper preparation and their ability to recognize environmental hazards. Before you set out on your next adventure, seek out Wilderness First Aid-certified guides as that is your best guarantee of educational fun and safety while on a hike.
Adelaide McMillan and Audra Jones are owners and operators of New Mexico Enchanted Hikes, LLC (http://www.NewMexicoEnchantedHikes.com), a guided hiking company located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that offers day trips, backpacking excursions, and custom hikes throughout New Mexico. They have over 15 years of outdoors and hiking experience and are certified in Wilderness First Aid through the National Outdoor Leadership School.