On our recent survival series 19-21 we posed a question; If you’re stuck in a desert can you drink water from a cactus. The response was surprising. Many people have been led to believe that you can drink water from a cactus.
Contrary to popular belief you cannot. 😭 I answered this on episode 19-21 at number 20 as follows
Again, this is a false myth that needs to be analyzed. While cactus do not contain any sort of fresh real water, they do contain some sort of gooey juice in their pulp. However, this liquid is full of toxins and therefore can be fatal and deadly. It has been consumed in the past but only in emergency situations in which the supply of water was running definitely low.
There are at least two places you don’t want to be caught without water—a water balloon fight and, of course, in the desert.
Maybe you got lost in Zion’s backcountry, or you underestimated how far you’d be hiking or, worse, your water bottle spilled. Now you’re out in one of the country’s hottest, driest, most forbidding environments with nary a drop to drink.
Don’t leave home without it.
The best plan is to be prepared, and bring enough water in the first place. The most important thing to remember is that the most reliable water source is your tap in your home or in your hotel room before you head out, because there’s just not a lot of water out there. 😨
Look for water-loving, broad-leafed trees.
Look for the bright green foliage of cottonwoods, willows, aspens and, if you’re in the Mojave Desert or Africa or the Middle East, palm trees. It’s the broad-leafed, bright green foliage that you’re looking for; much different from evergreens. Whenever out on a trip, if you see a cottonwood or sycamore or willow from a distance—and it stands out as a green assault upon your eyes, because it’s the only thing out there for miles around that isn’t sand- or rock-colored— oftenyou can stake some time on walking to those. They will either have water on the surface in the form of a spring, there will be a water hole nearby or, at the very least, you can dig a hole down to the roots underneath, and it will fill up with water.
Look for birds and insects.
Look for birds and insects. If you’re in Grand Canyon or the Sonoran Desert, hiking five or six miles through a really remote, desolate region when suddenly you come around a bend, you may see a hummingbird and then a wasp and, soon after, maybe a butterfly. After you’ve seen nothing for a couple of hours, suddenly there’s life, and it’s important to take note of that. Water holes have been located that way. Those critters are in that area for a reason, so situational awareness will help you notice that sort of thing.
Get to higher ground.
The last thing that can really help is if you can get to a vantage point. It doesn’t mean climbing up a ridgeline or anything, but if you can get up a little bit on the trail and look around, you can sometimes see reflections, you can sometimes see those cottonwoods and willow trees. I always carry a little pair of binoculars with me—just some 8x24s—it’s an essential part of anyone’s desert gear, because that can save you sweat and calories (unless you need to burn 😃) by homing in on a water source that is reliable, instead of wondering about something I see off in the distance and burning up a bunch of energy in trying to get there.
Don’t drink from a cactus.
Solar stills don’t work. Getting water out of cactus doesn’t work. Those are the two myths that show up again and again in the TV shows and literature. You don’t get ‘water’ from cactus; you get a stomachache and vomiting. In movies, you see a cowboy lop off the top of a barrel cactus—a big, beach ball-shaped cactus—dip his ladle in and get a drink of water. That’s not water, though. It’s a noxious fluid that’s very high in alkalis. That’s a problem, because when you’re heat-stressed, when you have heat exhaustion and you add some of that stuff to your body, you’re going to further tax your kidneys and plunge yourself deeper into trouble, possibly even into heat stroke. Basically, you’re ingesting a substance that your body has to process, which is not recommended. You can drink from a barrel cactus, but only one of five varieties—the fishhook barrel—isn’t toxic.
Eat cactus fruit, but don’t count on it.
There are plenty of edible cactus fruits out there—prickly pear, for example. We’ll harvest those in quantity on our courses in summer, and you roast them up for 30 seconds in the coals (to burn off the little hairs and spines) and then you can eat them. But it’s not going to replace the copious amounts of fluid, the 2 or 3 gallons of water you’re going to need in the heat.