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Finding Food in a Desert

As we mentioned in a previous article, the desert is one of the harshest environments on the planet.  Water is incredibly scarce, both plants and animals struggle to survive there, which makes finding food in a desert hugely challenging.  Daytime temperatures can be as high as 120F and can drop down as low as 40F at night.  There are very few trees, so finding resources for fire and shelter is difficult. When stranded in the desert, your goal should always be to get out as quickly as possible.

However, there are scenarios in which you may be forced to survive in the desert for an extended period of time.  If you are injured, sick, lost, or in a vast wilderness then you may have to wait for rescue or take several days to hike out.  This means you will need to know which desert foods can keep you going.

My personal experience of surviving in the desert

Completing a high desert challenge a few years back in Southwest Colorado.  Not only did I have to deal with the desert environment, but this area was full of steep cliffs and gorges.  We were warned by the department of conservation that there was only one ranger covering the entire 175,000 acre area.  He basically told me that I was on my own if I got into trouble. There would be no water, no cell service, and no rangers to rescue me if things went South.

When I arrived at the canyon I intended to hike, I noticed a serious problem.  The conservation agent said I would not need climbing gear, but the entrance to the canyon was a sheer cliff with about a 100 foot drop.  Choosing Yellow Jacket Canyon because you can sometimes find small pools of water just after a rain.  Having been forced to change my plans and drop into an adjacent canyon.

The heat during the day was unbearable as I dropped into the canyon with a 50 lb pack on my back.  almost immediately had to start looking for water, but there was none to be found.

Trying  digging a well in a dry creek bed, but there was no moisture.  I noticed a few lizards and birds as potential food sources, but you cannot eat in the desert if you have no water to help with digestion.  It would just make me more dehydrated.

Hiking until dark and set up camp for the night was tough which led me to having to make a tough decision to make.  I could keep hiking and hope I found water and food, but I would be further from the road and may not have the strength to make it back.  After thinking about my family, my lack of knowledge about this particular canyon, and the possible consequences, I decided to head back.

Being severely dehydrated and barely had the energy to climb back out of the canyon, but I made it.  I got a taste of how harsh the desert can be.  It was one of only two instances in which I was forced to tap out of a challenge early for safety reasons. In this article, we will cover the challenges you face in the desert and how you can find food in this inhospitable wasteland.

Before We Talk Food in the Desert…

In a survival scenario, finding food in a desert should never be your first priority.  Especially in a dry climate, water will be more important.  The rule of threes states that you can survive three minutes without air, three hours without warmth from fire or shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food.  As the temperatures drop at night, fire and shelter will be a priority.  Aside from that, water is the next immediate need.

In this particular scenario, water is even more important.  With the heat of the desert, the cold at night, the dry air, and the work you need to complete, you may only make it a day without water.  In addition, you will need extra water for digestion when you find food.  Whether you find a stream, dig a well, or eat cactus for water, it will be an absolute necessity.

Edible Desert Plants in the US

Despite the harsh climate and lack of moisture, there are a variety of plants that can survive in the desert.  Some of these are good food sources and can also provide much-needed water.  In the desert, plants are your most abundant option for food.  Here are some desert plants to consider for food:


(Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, S California)

The first food source that comes to mind is the prickly pear cactus.  This is actually a popular food in Mexican cuisine, so it is one of the tastier survival foods.  You will need to remove the spines and possibly remove the tough rind on the outside.  It can be cooked or eaten raw but be cautious of how much you eat.  There is a high amount of acid in cactus, so it can upset your stomach.  Most varieties of cactus are edible, but you will want to test out any with which you are not familiar before you consume much.

Some of the famous cacti include Cholla Cactus, Sagoura Cactus, and Desert Christmas Cactus.

Different types of edible cactus found commonly in the US

Agave (Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, S California)

Like cactus, agave is a common desert food source.  It is used to make tequila, agave syrup, and many other sugar-based products.  It looks a bit like a giant Aloe plant.  One agave plant can produce several pounds of flowers in the summertime that can be boiled or roasted but must be cooked before eating them.  You can do the same with the stalks in the springtime, and they taste a bit like molasses. The roots can be eaten but must be roasted for several days. The leaves can be roasted and eaten, but they are fibrous and the fibers must be spat out.  Be aware that the sap from the agave plant can irritate your skin or stomach before it is cooked, so handle with care.

Chia Sage (SW USA and Mexico)

This plant grows low to the ground with blue flower balls and purple-green leaves. The entire plant is edible cooked or raw.  The leaves and stems can be uses as a seasoning, eaten as a salad, or used to make tea.  The seeds can be used as a seasoning or ground up for lots of other purposes.

Mesquite (SW USA and Mexico)

The mesquite tree is one of the toughest desert trees you will find.  The seed pods are ripe in the summer and can be eaten raw if you spit out the seeds.  You can also grind them into a flour for baking.

Pinyon Pine (SW USA and Mexico)

The scrubby pinon pine is much like any pine tree except that it needs very little water to survive. It produces pine nuts that are edible, and the needles can be used to make a tea rich in vitamin C.

Yucca (SW USA and Latin America)

his plant is common in desert climates and grows up to four or five feet tall.  The whole plant is edible, but all of it must be cooked except for unopened buds.  The most useful part of the plant is the fruit which is delicious when roasted.

Desert Amaranth (SW USA and Mexico)

This plant has seedy foliage that matures to a red or pink color.  The leaves and stems can be cooked or eaten raw.  The root is similar to a parsnip and can be cooked like any root vegetable.  The seeds can be popped like popcorn or ground for baking.

Edible Desert Plants Outside the US

Abal (N Africa, Middle East)

This is a shrubby plant that grows to about four feet tall.  It produces colorful flowers in the springtime that can be eaten raw for a boost in sugars and some extra calories.

Date Palm (West Asia, North Africa)

These trees look much like any palm tree and were probably the first trees cultivated for their fruit.  The dates are a sweet treat raw or cook.  They can be dried to preserve them for years if stored properly.  The young leaves can be cooked and eaten, and the seeds can be ground up and used for baking.  The flowers are edible raw or cooked.

Desert Raisin (Australia)

This scrawny plant is only about two feet tall, but each plant can have up to ten fruits on the plant.  They are large and dry out in the sun.  These fruits taste a bit like sun dried tomatoes and are ideal for chutney and sauces.

How to Test Desert Plants for Safety

When it comes to survival, you can’t take any chances. Consuming even the tiniest bit of a poisonous plant or living creature can cause severe discomfort and even death. While it’s a slow process, it’s necessary to apply the Universal Edibility Test before eating any portion of an edible source that you’re in doubt of. This test is easy to perform on plants. Below, we break it down for you:

  1. Separate all plant parts (roots, stems, leaves, etc.) and only focus on one piece at a time.
  2. Smell your chosen part to see if an unpleasant, acidic odor is present. If so, it’s likely toxic and can be discarded unless you’re in doubt of the smell.
  3. To test for contact poisoning, place your chosen piece on your wrist or inner elbow for a few minutes. Within about 15 minutes, you’ll notice a reaction if the plant piece is toxic. These reactions include a burning or itching sensation, numbness, or a rash.
  4. If the smell and skin tests are passed, prepare your chosen part as you plan to eat it.
  5. After prepared, test for a burning or itching sensation by placing a tiny portion of the plant to your outer lip. If no reaction occurs within 15 minutes, proceed by taking a small bite.
  6. Chew and hold the bite in your mouth for 15 minutes to test for a soapy or bitter taste. If none is present, swallow the tester piece and wait several hours. When no reaction occurs after waiting, it’s safe to assume that your chosen plant part is edible. If a reaction occurs, induce vomit and drink water.

Desert Animals

You can hunt or trap animals for food in the desert, but you must be careful about sun exposure and calorie expenditure.  Both hunting and setting traps can take hours of hiking in the hot sun.  You are best to stick to early morning and late evening for these activities.  Hunting small animals darting between rocks is tough without modern firearms.

Primitive trapping such as setting snares or deadfalls can work well, but you need lots of traps.  I would suggest setting at least 20 traps over the course of a few days. Then you just need to check them once or twice a day and reset the traps that have been tripped. If you happen to find a dead animal in the desert, be cautious of eating the meat.  Meat spoils quickly in the desert, so cut away any spoiled meat and cook what remains thoroughly. Here are some animals that you can consider edible in the desert:


Lizards, snakes, and even some turtles can be found in desert climates.  They each present their own challenges.  Lizards are quick and hard to catch, so traps work best.  Snakes can be hunted, but many varieties in the desert are venomous and need to be processed properly for eating.  Turtles are easy to catch but getting through that shell is tough.

Be sure you cook all reptile meat to well done as all reptiles are prone to carry bacteria that can make you sick. Avoid poisonous lizards like Gila monsters and Mexican bearded lizards. Remember that almost all cases of snake bites occur when a person is trying to kill a snake. Be careful and use a long stick.

Small Mammals

You will not find many mammals living in the desert, but you might get lucky.  There are a variety of different rodents that make their home in the desert.  Trapping is best for these critters as they are quick.


You will not find an abundance of birds in the desert, but some of them live off of the lizards and rodents in the area.  You will also have buzzards that feed on dead animals.  Without modern weapons, trapping is again best to catch birds.  Again, cook the meat thoroughly.  This is especially true for scavengers like buzzards that live on rotten meat.


Don’t forget about the bugs.  There are lots of different insects in the desert that are packed with fats and protein.  Just avoid any bugs that are brightly colored, fuzzy, or foul-smelling.  I suggest cooking all insects if possible and always remove the legs and stingers.  The only exception would be tarantulas as their legs are larger and are fine to eat when cooked. Locusts, ants, and beetles are common in desert climates.

Final thoughts

If you know where to look, there are ways of finding food in a desert.  Just be cautious about which plants and animals you choose to eat.  I suggest you try a little bit of any new food source and see how your body reacts before eating large amounts.  Once again, always be sure you have some water before you eat anything.  If you follow these rules and stick to these foods, you can find enough calories to keep you going until you find help.

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