7 Tips to Writing Desert Adventures: Don’t Forget the Sand

Spaceballs the Meme!

A lot of things can be forgotten when you’re writing about a desert adventure.  We may focus on one problem and forget others.  Helps to do some research on how these places really are, but that doesn’t mean things can’t be boiled down for a foundation.  Take these 7 things into consideration.

  1. Water is essential and can run out.  This might sound like a ‘duh’, but you’d be surprised how often authors go to extremes.  A hero might have no water and somehow survive for weeks for dramatic effect.  Too much!  Others will never run out of water, which removes the biggest risk entirely.  Always think about how it is rationed and if the heroes were able to prepare.  Available funds, carrying capacity, and number of party members/animals are important too.  Camels help in some ways, but can the heroes really rush out to buy a bunch of those and known how to ride them?  Finally, always remember that the water will heat up even when in a container, so it probably won’t be a cool, midday drink.
  2. Speaking of keeping cool, desert nights aren’t hot.  The dry air isn’t able to retain the heat once the sun goes down, so it gets cold fast.  There are variations, so it might fall to cool or warm.  Still, it is a drastic change from the daytime temperatures.  It’s a reason why so many stories have characters traversing a desert at night instead of the daytime.
  3. Aside from dehydration, a character should be careful about exposure threats.  Sunburns, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke are incredibly dangerous. With the possibility of a hero traveling in armor or how they might not be wearing a decent hat, the chances of succumbing to this becomes greater.  Think about how you would avoid such things and have your characters do the same if they can.
  4. Surprisingly to some, deserts are not always vast expanses of sand with an oasis placed at every dramatically appropriate location.  There are a lot of rocky regions in deserts that characters can look for.  It might be a small spot or a ridge that follows an ancient range that has long since been turned to dust.  Rocky areas can provide shade, maybe plants that are edible, and some animals for hunting.  At the very least, it can help characters stave off the madness that can come from seeing nothing more than sand in every direction for days.
  5. Walking through a desert with no landmarks or sign of cities on the horizon can pummel the psyche.  You don’t know when your journey will end or if you have enough supplies to make it.  God forbid you got turned around at one point and are going in the wrong direction.  This psychological aspect that stems from a sense of isolation and impending doom an really up the tension.
  6. Animals need to think about water and food if they’re going to live in a desert.  You can’t drop anything in there that obviously can’t survive in there.  How does a giant animal find enough food and water?  Do the smaller ones have a way to avoid getting cooked on the hot sand?  Researching real desert animals can help here because they have amazing adaptations.  That or you can just make magic the reason.
  7. There’s no reason that you can’t have a civilization living in a desert.  The barren wasteland approach is appealing and you can do that as well.  Yet, there could always be a group of people who have found a way to survive and thrive in the desert.  It may be that they found a source of water and built a town around it.  Perhaps a nomadic group that follows storms or animals or anything that allows them to maintain their society.  It isn’t easy, but it’s doable if you sit and think.  After all, that’s how you get out of any problem.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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18 Responses to 7 Tips to Writing Desert Adventures: Don’t Forget the Sand

  1. Good thoughts on deserts. Even when there are plants, they aren’t always helpful. Many have spikes and thorns, but chopping them open can offer your animals some relief.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice job, Charles. Interesting about deserts is how cold they get at night. There is no humidity or cloud cover to keep the heat in so most escapes to the atmosphere. Midday hot. Midnight cold. Can be a challenge.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. missimontana says:

    As someone who lives in a semi-desert area, I heartily agree with all you said. I would add one more source of potential trouble for heroes: deserts are full of critters that bite, sting, and are often poisonous. Rocky crevices are their natural homes. And they love climbing into bed with people. At my last home, we had scorpions in our bed, clothes, shoes, etc. Not deadly, but still giving a painful sting.
    Yes, many plants are edible, but you need to know exactly which parts at which time of year. Cacti don’t store water, but in some species, if you can scoop out the center, it will keep you alive for awhile. Some cacti have edible fruits in Autumn. And some plants are edible only if you can boil them in water first. I like to read about plants used for healing; this is where I learned this info. Most people don’t use these plants anymore because:
    1. They can’t be harvested well with bare hands. Thorns, needles, tough, sharp leaf edges. Some cacti can only be broken with an ax.
    2. They taste horrible and are tough to chew, even after cooking.
    3. Like mushrooms, it can be dangerous if you don’t take the time to learn to identify the edible species.
    Good article. There is more life in the desert than people realize, and it can be either a lifesaver or a threat in a story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Honestly, I thought the animal thing was kind of a given. People use them so much in desert adventures that it felt like that was the one thing everyone does know about the environment. I wasn’t sure about the plant one either because I would have needed to do more research than I had time for. These posts are certainly more overview to get people curious about the type of adventure. I do appreciate the added information though because I had no idea about the healing plants part. It was only recently that I read about cacti not being sources of water like in movies.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. L. Marie says:

    Excellent tips, Charles! So much to think about. I’ve never been to a desert. I watched a documentary on animals found in the desert. Very fascinating. (This was one of the extras included with the movie RANGO.)


  5. If the characters are able, they should try to hire the proverbial native guide who could show them how to shelter and what plants are safe to eat. Even better if the native guide might be part of some group that has its own agenda. Lots of potential for drama with that.


  6. N. M. Friedland says:

    I grew up in Arizona, so I was skeptical about this, as I always heard of the dangers of the heat and what now growing up. (I mean, obviously it’s a lot less extreme with houses and cities and the God blessed AC)
    I am happy to say that while none of the suggestions fully surprised me, there were a few things I hadn’t considered, so thanks!


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