How to Find Food in the Desert [Ultimate Guide for Survival]

Stranded in the desert with no food or water in sight? It may seem hopeless, but there are ways to find sustenance in even the harshest of environments. Learn the tips and tricks of desert survival experts on how to find food in the desert, and how to stay alive in one of the toughest terrains on earth.

The desert looks barren at first glance; it’s dry, with very few plants and even fewer animals. However, if you know what to look for, there are many ways to avoid hunger in a survival situation in the desert when a closer inspection is done.

It can be a tricky thing to find wild edibles in the desert, but you will not starve with the proper knowledge. The first thing you need to understand is that not every bug or plant is edible. Some are even poisonous, so knowing the difference is crucial.

If part of your survival plan involves going into the desert, we recommend adding to your bug-out bag a book on edible and poisonous desert plants and bugs so that you do not rely on memory.

Food may not be your priority in a desert- depending on how well you are prepared. You can survive for three weeks with no food, according to the Survival Rule of Threes. Before food, there are two priorities: shelter and water.

Three days is a rule of thumb, but in the heat of a desert, you will not account for the survival activities. Hopefully, you’ve got water or a way to gather water. You should avoid eating if you don’t have access to any water since that will increase the need for water for your body.

In the desert, you may be able to find a few plants that can provide you with small amounts of water, and when we talk about the best foods to find in the desert, we touch on those below.

When searching for food, it is important to note that you should be careful before beginning your quest because there are poisonous plants and venomous reptiles and insects. 

Here are some tips you should consider if you have to eat. Your habitat determines the sources of food you can use.

To ensure that you get the appropriate proportions of fat, protein, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins, try to vary your diet.

The majority of experts agree that the fruits of cacti and legumes are the main edibles. All cactus fruit can be eaten safely! The legumes are plants with bean bearings. Beyond the scope of this article is the identification of all poisonous plants. Based on your degree of interest, I encourage you to study the matter further.

There is no habitat, relationship, seasonal appearance, or plant component pattern that can be successfully used to separate poisonous from harmless plants. But you have to use the “Universal Edibility Test ” you must eat and doubt whether a plant is poisonous or not.

To repeat once more, do not eat when water is not available, as food will only increase your need for water! In a survival situation where it is necessary to use strange plants for food, follow the following rules: AVOID plants with milky sap. AVOID all beans of red. Boil questionable plants if possible.

Test a cooked plant for a couple of moments by holding a small amount in your mouth. Do not eat it if the flavor is unpleasant (very bitter, nauseating, burning).

Tips for Finding Healthy Food in the Desert

  1. Do not eat when water is not available.
  2. Don’t exhaust yourself in search of food unless you have plenty of water. Store your sweat.
  3. AVOID plants with milky sap.
  4. AVOID all beans that are read.
  5. AVOID the bitter or soapy taste.
  6. AVOID spines, thin spikes, or thorns.
  7. AVOID anything that smells like almonds in the woody parts and leaves.
  8. AVOID pink, purplish, or black grain head spurs.
  9. AVOID three-leaved plants.
  10. Boil questionable plants if possible.
  11. Use the “Universal Edibility Test” if you doubt a plant is poisonous.

For Hunting:

Reptiles have a good source of protein and are relatively easy to catch. With reptiles, thorough cooking and hand washing are essential. All reptiles are regarded as carriers of salmonella, which is naturally present on their skin. In particular, turtles and snakes are known to infect people.

To add on, Salmonella can be deadly if you are in an undernourished state, and your immune system is weak. Cook food thoroughly and be especially careful after handling any reptiles by washing your hands. In most parts of the world, lizards are plentiful. Their dry, scaly skin may recognize them. On each foot, they have five toes.

The Gila monster and the Mexican beaded lizard are the only poisonous ones. When handling and preparing the iguana and the monitor lizard, care must be taken as they commonly carry the salmonella virus in their mouths and teeth. As an extra tip, the best tasting and easiest to prepare is the tail meat.

In a survival situation, your most valuable nutritional needs are protein and fat. Most insects are rich in that. Switch off your cultural bias against insect-eating. Edible bugs are great survival food, period. 


In a survival situation, hunting animals for meat is unwise unless you are an experienced hunter.

It’s hard to hunt, and you’re going to spend a lot of energy on getting your food. Consider trapping instead of hunting. Trapping needs less skill and leaves you free time for looking for other sources of food.

All you need is a simple trap that is simple to remember and easy to construct. Here is one.

desert food trap

Now, as a reminder, to survive, you must have water, but you can go for many days without food without negative effects. To be digested, protein needs water, so eating it will start making you more thirsty and dehydrated.

Universal Edible Test

Throughout the world, there are many plants. Even a tiny part can cause severe discomfort, extreme internal illnesses, and even death by tasting or swallowing certain plants. 

Therefore before eating any portion of it, apply the Universal Edibility Test if you have the slightest doubt about a plant’s edibility.

Step 1: Make sure there is a lot of the plant

If you can not apply it to an abundance of plants, you don’t want to go through all of these steps. The Universal Edibility Test is a thorough and lengthy process, and if you do not have enough of the plant you are testing, you do not want to waste time doing it.

Step 2: Separate the parts of the plants

Pull apart and into separate piles of flowers, buds, leaves, stems, seeds, and roots. As some components may be toxic, but others are edible, it is important to try each part of the plant separately. 

One instance where the stalks are edible is rhubarb, but the leaves are toxic, so this is a crucial step to take. Also, in this step, check the plant to make sure it is in good shape, not rotting, and has no insect infestation.

Step 3: Pick one part of the plant

Picking an alive plant segment will give you the best return on your investment in time.

Step 4: Smell the plant

Do not eat that part of the plant if the plant has an unpleasant odor. Odors that are strong or acidic should raise suspicion. It is best to avoid any scent that smells like almonds since that is an indicator of a harmful chemical.

Step 5: Touch the plant

For 15 minutes, touch a piece of the plant on your wrist. Do not eat that part of the plant if you experience itching, burning, or numbness. To check for the development of rashes or any other response, wait eight hours until the next step is taken. During this time, do not eat the plant.

Step 6: Put the plant on your lips

For this step, you can cook the plant sections and prepare them as you would eat them. Cooking plants are preferred because some, uncooked, are toxic raw plants. Once ready, touch your lips with the plant to test for itching, burning, or numbness. If, in the next 3 minutes, you experience any itching, burning, or numbness,t then do not eat that portion of the plant.

Step 7: Put the plant on your tongue

In your mouth, set a tiny amount of the plant and place it for 15 minutes on your tongue.

Step 8: Chew the plant

Slowly chew the plant and then hold it for 15 minutes in your mouth without swallowing. Spit it out and not eat that part of the plant if it tastes soapy or bitter.

Step 9: Swallow the plant

Swallow a seedling. Wait eight hours for any side effects, and if there are none, then prepare and eat at least 1⁄4 cup of that part of the plant. 

If, after another 8 hours, you do not feel any itching, burning, or numbness, then that part of the plant is edible! You will want to repeat this entire process for all parts of the plant because it is possible that the whole plant could be edible. You have now got fresh food.

CAUTION: Test all parts of the plant for edibility, as some plants have edible and non-edible parts. Do not assume that when cooked, a portion that has proven edible is also edible when raw.

Ensure there are enough plants, so the testing is worth your time and effort before testing a plant for edibility. It requires more than 24 hours to test each part of a plant (roots, leaves, flowers, and so on). Don’t waste time testing a plant that in the area is not everywhere.

What You Should NOT Eat in the Desert

Going back to our first point, without water, you should not eat anything. Eating food will increase the need for water for your body, and you need to hold off if you can’t supply it. Without food, you can survive far longer than you can without water. Do not eat plants that are poisonous or unknown. Try the Universal Edibility Test, as we mentioned above, if you are not sure about it.

Meat that is uncooked or undercooked should never be eaten. Risking sickness with uncooked or undercooked meat in the desert might be a fatal move. Diarrhea is one of the more subtle symptoms of food poisoning, but it can damage your chances of survival due to the dehydration that accompanies it.

Pass on the dead beasts that you find. In the desert, you can find better sources of food. It’s best to pass on the ‘free meal’ if you don’t know when or how it died. The heat of the desert makes it an excellent breeding ground for bacteria, and it can even speed up the process of dead animals’ decay.

Finally, eating fruit from plants within 100 yards of a road or highway in California is illegal. In a survival situation, that will not matter, but it is worth mentioning if you are foraging for fun. Obviously, the collection of fruit from private property or state/national parks is illegal.

Common Edible Desert Plants

1. Prickly Pear Cactus

food in the desertOne of the first tips you’ll be pleased to hear about finding foods for survival in the desert is that all cactus fruits are edible. They may not all taste terrific, but they are often good sources of water and nutrients. 

The prickly pear cactus is one of the more pleasant cacti to consume. It is about 85% water and has a high level of sugar and fiber! In salads, light green, spiky leaves, often referred to as pads, are often boiled or eaten raw. 

The flowers are edible and are a beautiful dark pink color. The fruits, oddly enough known as tuna, are surprisingly tasty. They’re fruity, they’re dried, and they’re often candied, but they’re good raw, and they have a good amount of water, so it’s a good bang for your buck.

2. Saguaro Cactus

food in the desertThey are widespread in the desert and can grow to 45 feet tall and live to be over 200 years old! In the early spring, May or so, they produce edible white flowers with yellow centers and bear edible large pink and red fruit during the next couple of months. 

This cycle ends around June, but even if you’re not fortunate enough to find a flowering, fruiting saguaro, the spongy, fibrous interior acts as a sponge that stores the water in the plant can still benefit you. To survive, you can eat it and extract water from it.

3. Desert Christmas Cactus

food in the desertThis little cactus looks and grows to be about 2 feet tall like scrubby shrubs. They are frequently found alongside bushes and produce small red berries with spines on them, but with a blade, you can scrape them off. 

The berries, which are a good source of vitamins, including vitamin C and vitamin and A. To add on, they are sweet and taste a little like strawberries.

4. Chia Sage

food in the desertThis plant’s seeds are exceedingly nutritious and provide good short-term energy. This short plant with dark purple spiky balls, periwinkle-colored tiny flowers, and textured leaves can also be consumed raw or used as a seasoning for soups and stews. 

The plant as a whole is edible. It is typically about 10 inches to 2 feet tall and looks like a bush. It can grow as an individual flower in drylands.

5. Agave

AgaveAgave plants look like aloe and differ from blue to bright or dark green in color. In many areas, the entire plant is edible, including leaves, flowers, stalks, and seeds. 

However, some parts of this species are too dry to be eaten. Historically, they have been used for making strings, baskets, rope, and shoes.

6. Pinyon Pine

food in the desertThey look like a combination of a pine tree of the Christmas type and a pine tree that grows in a bushy form. 

Pinyon Pine seeds are packed with nutrition and are also delicious. You can also make fine glue from the pitch of these trees.

7. Mesquite

food in the desertMesquite trees produce pods that look kind of like beans. 

You can dry them and grind them into flour that can be eaten raw or baked into a cake by mixing it with water.

8. Cholla Cactus

food in the desertHikers hate these prickly plants, but chollas are your friend if you are struggling to survive. There are edible and nutritious flowers and seeds in them.

The plant is bushy and covered in spikes that can be quite painful. Be careful to harvest the flowers, but just because they look intimidating, do not pass them by!

9. Yucca

food in the desertYucca plants are made of many spiky leaves that fan into a round planet, and in the summer, they grow fruit that is great to grill or, if you want, consumed raw.

By removing the exterior skin and boiling the insides, you can have a delicious meal. However, if you have to, you might eat it raw.

The plant’s roots are edible, too. They contain saponin in the roots, which can be toxic in large quantities. You can boil them so that most of the saponin is removed. Just for your information, no deaths from eating raw yucca root have been reported, but I wanted to let you know about it.

Final Word

We will not ask what choices you made to end up without food in the desert. Hopefully, if the situation presents itself, where you are starving in a desert, this guide has given you some ideas to sustain.

You might want to make sure that you are prepared for more than just running out of food if you are backpacking through the desert. Since our existence began, hunting and gathering have sustained humanity. No matter your location, you can find different foods.

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Continue to explore, stay prepared, and be safe.

2 thoughts on “How to Find Food in the Desert [Ultimate Guide for Survival]”

  1. Really useful article. I may try the traps for hunting. And I’ll definitely take note of all the rules for plants.


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