Citizen Hiker: Desert Safety and Survival

Mare CzinarMay 14, 2019
Share This

John Jay Pelletier can’t stand a whiner. The Mesa resident and retired member of the elite U.S. Army Green Beret special forces espouses self-sufficiency as a desert survival instructor at the Superstition Mountain Museum in Apache Junction.

“If you don’t have a plan and a will to live, kiss your ass goodbye,” he says. This advice is especially pertinent during the summer, when rescue helicopters circle hiking trails on a near-daily basis.

“In Arizona’s dry heat, one must ‘camel up’ by drinking 50 percent of your body weight in H2O the day before a hike, and also bring enough water for the duration. One 16-ounce bottle is not going to make it if you’re climbing Camelback [Mountain],” Pelletier says.

In survival situations, Pelletier says following bees just might save your life.

“If you’re up high, go downhill and look for greenery. If you’re on the plains, keep an eye out for birds and bees as they head for water in the early morning.”

Though many think getting water out of a cactus is a good survival technique, that plan has its limitations. “It can be done up to two to three weeks after the last rain,” Pelletier says. “Take a small barrel cactus, slice off chunks and suck on them for moisture. It will be tart, gritty and sticky. Good luck with that.” If you find yourself lost and out of water, Pelletier suggests you employ the “F” word.

“Stay calm, stay put and focus,” he advises. “The vast majority of people who succumb to the heat do so because they panic, wander in circles and are found dead about a mile from where they strayed.”



Daily water needs vary by individual. Basically, you should be drinking enough to keep your urine clear. A general rule of thumb is that you’ll need to drink three to five quarts per day in the desert heat.


  • Do not eat food, as water is needed for digestion.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Keep your mouth closed (sorry, chatty folks) while hiking to reduce water loss.
  • Seek out shade.
  • Roll a small pebble (or hard candy) around in your mouth to keep your tongue from swelling.
  • Since urine is mostly water, it’s safe to drink in life-threatening situations.

For more than 50 years, PHOENIX magazine's experienced writers, editors, and designers have captured all sides of the Valley with award-winning and insightful writing, and groundbreaking report and design. Our expository features, narratives, profiles, and investigative features keep our 385,000 readers in touch with the Valley's latest trends, events, personalities and places.