You don’t really know a survival situation until you’re faced with one. There have been far too many cases of people getting injured or lost on a day hike in the desert, and within hours becoming depleted of their water supply. For the fortunate who make it out alive, hydration has been the greatest influencing factor to their survival.
Water is the most important substance that will keep your body alive and functioning, that is why it’s your priority to find a source of potable water when you’re in survival mode.
So what if you’re thirsty in the desert? Will a cactus be a good source of water to help you stay alive?
If you grew up watching cowboy movies, you may remember they used cactus water as a refreshing desert drink. But don’t believe everything you see. That may have worked on a movie set, but it will do you no good in real life.
Cactus is not a good option for potable water. Because the moisture inside the cactus pulp is highly acidic, drinking cactus water on an empty stomach will give you diarrhea or make you vomit, therefore dehydrating you even more. Your body will have to work harder to process the alkalis in the cactus water so it’s best that you don’t drink any.
In an extreme situation, you could drink a few sips of fishhook barrel cactus. The Seri Indians used this cactus as emergency water, but they reported pain in their bones and vomiting when drinking it on an empty stomach.
DIFFERENT TYPE OF CACTI
There are over 2,000 different types of cacti in the world. Proper identification can sometimes be difficult in situations where the varieties resemble each other. It’s advised that you become somewhat familiar with the types of shrubs, succulents and cacti available in the region you’re exploring or living in.
WHICH CACTI ARE SAFE TO DRINK WATER FROM?
The only option to drink cactus water straight out of the cactus is the Fishhook Barrel Cactus. This is to be ingested in small quantities and in dire situations only. Fishhook barrel cactus is said to be the least problematic of the cacti family when used as a water source. Either way, you would be risking your health. In a situation where you’re severely dehydrated, you may consider drinking this to soothe your thirst, however you could face other problems. Cactus water is very acidic and some varieties contain toxic alkaloids. Like any ingested substance, your body will have to process it through, requiring your body to expel more energy than you would otherwise gain from it and likely cause you to experience body aches, vomiting and diarrhea. In a desperate situation, it’s up to you to decide what is the better end result - risking dehydration or becoming sick.
CAN HUMANS DRINK THE LIQUID EXTRACTED FROM SQUEEZING A SUCCULENT?
No. For the same reasons described above, water extracted directly from a succulent is not safe to drink, especially on an empty stomach. This water should be purified before drinking.
CAN DESERT CACTUS BE USED TO PURIFY WATER?
Without getting too off topic, I found this information interesting and appropriate.
Several studies have been made in regards to purifying general drinking water with cactus mucilage. This is a process that is commonly practiced in Latin America using the prickly pear cactus. The process would begin with boiling the cactus pads, which they used for eating. The liquid water gel that remains after boiling the pads would be poured into their drinking water supply. Within five minutes, the contaminants would fall to the bottom of the container and the water on the top could be used for drinking. When the cactus mucilage was left for 36 hours, half of the arsenic originally present had been cleared out.
WHAT KIND OF CACTUS CAN YOU EAT FROM?
Fishhook Barrel Cactus produces a yellow fruit which can be eaten. The fruit is ripe between the months of November and March. Carefully pull the fruit away from the cactus and eat. The black seeds inside are also nutritious and safe to eat.
Hedgehog Cactus is safe to eat. White thorn is safer than the red thorn. To get to the meaty part, cut a sliver off the top of the cactus. Then, carefully peel it like you would a cucumber.
- In hot weather it can be eaten raw.
- In colder weather it must be cooked. To cook it, cut the cactus in small pieces, then add it to a pot of water. Boil it for 15 minutes until the liquid becomes gel-like. Drink the liquid but do not eat the fruit.
Prickly Pear Cactus is safe to eat- both the pads and the fruit (more information about the fruit below). This is the cactus that is often found in Mexican grocery stores and restaurants.
- When foraging for cactus pads, make sure to pick the ones that are bright green and firm (the older ones are dry and more difficult to chew).
- Cactus pads can be harvested any time of the year but the acid-content is much lower in the mid-morning.
- This cactus pads can be eaten raw, although most people prefer it when it’s cooked. It can be cooked over fire embers. The younger pads are best because they do not contain as much fiber as the older pads. When cutting the cactus pad off, make sure you use a knife and don’t touch the spines. Let the pad fall to the ground and then move it with your knife. Bring it to a flat area, and hold the pad down with a stick so it doesn’t move around as much. Meanwhile, use the knife to scrape off all the spines, on each side. During this time you should have your fire going. Once your fire is down to embers, put the cactus pads on top and cover it with the surrounding embers, that way it can cook the pads evenly. Allow it to cook for 15 to 20 minutes. When the time is up, carefully uncover the pads and shake off any remaining embers or dust. Allow a few minutes for the cactus pads to cool off, and then eat!
- If you have access to water, you can boil the cactus pads in water. Once they’re soft, remove them from the boiling water and rinse under cold water. As previously mentioned, the remaining water (or cactus mucilage) left from boiling the pads can be used as a water purifier.
TAKE CAUTION WHEN HANDLING CACTUS LEAVES
When handling cacti, you must be careful with the spines. Cactus spines will hook themselves onto the skin and you will need tweezers to remove them. If you don’t have tweezers, you will have to wait a few days until they come out on their own. Be careful to keep the wound clean so it doesn’t become infected and make matters worse.
CAN YOU EAT CACTUS FRUIT?
The fruit you see growing on the tips of the cactus pads are healthy, especially as a survival food if you’re in the wild. They are safe to eat raw and provide lots of nutrients to strengthen your bones and boost your immune system. The fruit contains high levels of concentrated water which will aid in preventing dehydration.
Be careful when handling the fruit of the Prickly Pear cactus because the outside is covered in glochids, which are tiny needles (or hair-like spines) that will cause irritation upon contact with the skin. To reach the edible part of the fruit you’ll need to peel the skin off. If you have gardening gloves, you could wear them while peeling the fruit to prevent the spines from touching you. Otherwise, hold the fruit down with a fork and peel it using a knife.
The typical advice you hear when going hiking or exploring the outdoors is to take enough water. In desert places where the temperature can get past 115 degrees F, having extra water is absolutely necessary.
What we oftentimes forget to plan for is accidents. In those times, our human instinct for survival will have us rationalize and do things differently than we would in calm situations. In desperate times of thirst, drinking cactus water might sound like a brilliant idea. Don’t make this mistake! The relief you will experience is often followed by illness, weakness and more dehydration. Your best option in this situation would be to eat the cactus fruit (hopefully it’s the right season), but it’s still not enough to keep you fully hydrated.
When preparing to go on any outdoor adventure, plan ahead for emergencies that may arise throughout the day. If you’re stranded in the summer desert heat for over 48 hours without water, your chances of survival will greatly diminish.
Don’t become a victim of your environment. Carry twice as much water as you normally would. Also take electrolytes, nutritious food, and proper tools and first aid items to help you in case you are injured. Finally, make sure you tell a trusted friend or family member where you are going prior to your excursion- if you become lost or hurt, a search and rescue team might be the best gateway to your survival.
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