I'm writing a sci-fi story in which a group of people are stuck in an endless desert. While I've mostly figured out the philosophical aspects of the story, there are still the practical ones. It's a desert. No water, scarce food, hot during the day, maybe cold during the night. The people have arrived there wearing only their clothes and maybe carrying a few pieces of technology and some transportation. Is it realistically possible to survive this journey for long?

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding. Please provide some details: what exactly is "their clothes". LA casual wear or Vladivostock winter garment is a lot of difference. Also, are there oasis? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jun 23 '18 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ These are random people from all over the world. Probably most of them have casual clothes. An occasional oasis is possible, although can they survive without it? $\endgroup$ – Alex Rejba Jun 23 '18 at 17:58
  • $\begingroup$ We're going to need a lot more details in order to help you out. How did they get there? Is their vehicle still with them or were they dropped off? What kind of technology? Are we talking Swiss-army knives and a compass or 3d printers and laserguns? Any vegetation in the desert? Wildlife? Please edit your question to give us some more information. $\endgroup$ – Pinion Minion Jun 23 '18 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ This desert doesn't host any oversized, crystal-teethed worms by any chance, does it? Otherwise it won't be the lack of water or shelter that does them in. $\endgroup$ – LSerni Jun 23 '18 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ You may want to read Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, an autobiography about his years as a pilot. The relevant part here is about when he and his radio-operator crashed in the Sahara desert, and were stuck three days there without water. He describes their attempts to get moisture, then their wanderings trying to get back to inhabited lands as dehydration settles in. $\endgroup$ – Eth Jun 25 '18 at 11:02

A human cannot live more than 3-4 days without drinking, especially in a broiling environment like a desert.

Their immediate chances of survival depend on the ability to find an oasis, where they can gather water, within 3 days at most.

Then comes the issue of clothing: a warm desert is a nasty place, one need to be protected from the sun and heat during the day, and from the freezing cold during the night.

No, the fancy bermuda and short sleeves shirt are not going to do a lot for them, it would be better if they would be dressed like the Tuareg, with wool to insulate them from the environment.

Last but not least, the problem of food: finding food in a desert is pretty difficult, but a human can survive some week without food as long as water is available. But if they manage to find an oasis, they might also find some food: birds, plants, rodents, insects.

Of course, the above figures are valid for healthy people in decent conditions. If they are older or younger, the survival span may drastically shorten.

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    $\begingroup$ Having the rare oasis here could add a lot of tension in the story as the wanderers are faced with the dilemma of stay here as we slowly run out of water, or press forward, going we can find more water before we run out. $\endgroup$ – Garret Gang Jun 23 '18 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ This is being a bit picky, but deserts aren't inherently hot, they're just dry. Antarctia is a rather extreme example of a cold desert (well most of the inland area is), and there are numerous other cold deserts. The Gobi in China, the Patagonian in South America, and the Colorado Plateau in the US are all good examples. $\endgroup$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Jun 24 '18 at 0:34
  • $\begingroup$ @AustinHemmelgarn: The question specifies "hot during the day, maybe cold during the night". $\endgroup$ – ruakh Jun 24 '18 at 1:33
  • $\begingroup$ @ruakh Oops, missed that in the original question, sorry. $\endgroup$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Jun 24 '18 at 15:34

Yes. But they need a guide.

lizard man http://www.zbrushcentral.com/showthread.php?38562-Lizard-Man

Random humans in the desert will die, as prior answers lay out. But your castaways encounter a native who shows them how to survive. I envision this native as without speech, or at least speech the humans understand. Its motives are unclear but it becomes very clear that this alien desert is dangerous, and without the help of the guide the humans will rapidly die.

I like the idea that the alien guide is paid by the humans in song. The humans know a lot of songs. We all do.


Remember the "hierarchy of survival." Humans can survive for 3 minutes without oxygen, three hours without shelter (meaning naked in any extreme climate, hot or cold), 3 days without water and three weeks without food. Based on that hierarchy the heat could kill them in a few hours, and lack of water in a few days at most. Even if they overcome both of those issues, in whatever way, they're probably going to starve to death within weeks unless someone has the expertise and equipment to do some hunting or foraging.

You need to describe your setting well because depending on what kind of desert they're in they're possibly going to die a lot faster or last a lot longer; something like the Sonoran is far more survivable than the Empty Quarter's sand seas.


No water is enough: they will live up to three days before dying of thirst. And this implies very nasty things like drinking their own wastes and finally blood.

  • $\begingroup$ OK, then let's assume that after 3 days of suffering there is a deus ex machina event, and they happen upon a futuristic machine that extract molecules from the air and transforms them into water. Will that be a good solution that will allow them to continue? $\endgroup$ – Alex Rejba Jun 23 '18 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ ...wouldn't it just be more interesting if there were oases to be found? DeM will spoil all the adventure $\endgroup$ – Valerio Pastore Jun 23 '18 at 18:39
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    $\begingroup$ It's not "3 days of suffering". It's one day of suffering, one day of torment as you become less and less rational, and a final day of delirium and hallucinations and finally unconsciousness before you succumb. Heat exhaustion and heatstroke can speed up the process. If they must comprehend instructions on the machine, the third day might be too late. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jun 23 '18 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ So if you don't want a deus ex machina, the critical bit of knowledge that one of the people must have is how to build a solar still and the critical bits of technology are plastic sheeting and containers to collect liquid. $\endgroup$ – KerrAvon2055 Jun 24 '18 at 0:34
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    $\begingroup$ An 'endless desert' is prone to have such scarce humidity as making it impossible to collect any useful during nighttime. Deserts are notoriosuly the driest of places. $\endgroup$ – Valerio Pastore Jun 24 '18 at 5:42

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