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How Bedouin Survive in the Desert without Gear

A few weeks ago, we compared the typical trekker’s packing list with a Bedouin gear list in this blog post; the comparative simplicity of the Bedouin list was incredible. But how do Bedouin get by with so little in the harsh desert climate? Shay Rabineau follows up on his last post with a bit of explanation:

During our trek across the Sinai, each of us probably carried a total of thirty or forty items. Most of those items were in our overnight packs, which traveled by camel. Some were in our daypacks, which we took with us while walking, and the rest were in our pockets.

But right away we noticed that our Bedouin guide carried much less equipment. He told us that even this was more than he would carry if he were traveling on his own. So we asked him: What would you carry if you were crossing the desert by yourself?

He thought about it and listed a few key items right away: water, tea, a knife, and something for making a fire. When we pressed him, he added a couple more things: a lightweight blanket for the night and a few handfuls of food. But this short list was hard to believe. We had more questions:

Wouldn’t you need to carry more than just one or two water bottles?

He told us he could go from spring to spring; and if he needed to, he could walk a day without any water.

What about boiling water for tea?

Not a problem – in places where people regularly camped, there was usually a tin can left there for that specific purpose.

He was similarly dismissive about most of the rest of our questions:

What about a flashlight?

I don’t need a flashlight if I have fire.

What if you make it into camp after dark?

I would never make my camp after dark.

But you smoke. What about cigarettes? 

OK, I guess I would bring cigarettes too.

It is clear that wilderness skills and local familiarity can enable hikers to carry far less. The Bedouin guides who have intimate familiarity with the rugged terrain of the southern Sinai Peninsula are an amazing example of this. How do they do it?

First, they are familiar with the Sinai, its navigable paths, its caves and shelters, and its food and water sources. What may look like a remote wasteland to outsiders is surprisingly rich in resources to the people who know the area. Springs, cisterns, wells, and oases provide water and nourishment when necessary.

Second, they are acclimated to the terrain and climate of the Sinai and know their physical limits when traveling. One of our guides said that in mild weather, he could walk about a day without needing water, and could get by on a handful of dates for food if he had to.

Third, they are well-connected with the other Bedouins across the Sinai. In the event of an emergency, Bedouin guides know where the nearest human settlements are, and are adept at scanning the landscape, near and far, for signs of human presence.

Fourth, they know how to adapt to the dangers of the desert in different seasons. During the heat of the summer, they might carry more water; during the winter season, they watch the weather, keep an eye out for flash floods in wadis, and are sure to camp on high ground.

All of these factors help keep local Bedouins from getting into trouble in the first place, and enable them to trim down on emergency gear. Their comfort with the desert helps them also weed out gear western hikers might consider essential. The wadis of the Sinai are clean and sandy, so groundsheets and camp chairs are unnecessary. Warm weather eliminates the need for a tent or a sleeping bag; our guides generally slept in their clothes and added warmth by wrapping up with a single blanket.

Bedouins are resourceful to the point that they don’t just survive in the desert; they thrive. A few scraps of dead wood, gathered during the day’s walk, are enough for building an evening cooking fire; loose clothing is perfect, when kneeling, for fanning embers into flame; a rusted tin can found in the bottom of a wadi makes a fine tea-kettle; and a bag of flour and just a few other staples can give rise to a surprising variety of backcountry cuisine.

Add a camel to the equation, and a Bedouin guide can travel almost without limit.

Photo by Evan Bryant/API

Bedouin: the Original Ultralight Backpackers

Shay Rabineau and a few others from the API team spent ten days exploring route possibilities in the South Sinai back in November. While he’s always considered himself to be a skilled outdoorsman, there’s nothing like spending a week or so trying to keep up with Bedouin to show how much you could still stand to learn. Just look at the difference between what Shay feels he needs to carry for a few days in the desert and what their Bedouin guide Musalem brings along for the same trip: 

Shay’s gear list:

• Carried on person: clothes, sandals, scarf, knife, camera, watch, sunglasses

• Other stuff we shared: GPS units, maps

• Things the camel guides carried for us: food, cooking equipment, water

• Large backpack (to load overnight gear onto camel)

• Small daypack (to carry day-hiking necessities)

• Sleeping pad

• Plastic groundsheet

• Fleece jacket

• Wind/waterproof jacket

• Change of clothing

• Extra socks and underwear

• Gloves and thick scarf

• Shoes

• Knife

• Mirror

• Toilet paper

• Cup

• Bowl

• Spoon

• Water bladder

• Small water bottle

• Headlamp

• Extra batteries

• Notebook and pen

• Snack food

• Biodegradable soap

• Hand sanitizer

• Toothbrush

• Toothpaste

• Laptop computer and charger

• Mobile phone

• Personal first aid kit

• Lighter

 

Musalem’s gear list:

• Carried on person: clothes, sandals, shemagh, phone, watch, cigarettes, lighter

• Dates, flour, cheese

• 2-3 liters of water

• Tea

• Light, warm blanket

• Knife

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How on earth do they do it? Next week’s post will go into detail about how to survive the desert with so little.

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Water Etiquette in the Desert

We are always exploring new and exciting regions that are associated with Abraham’s heritage. Evan Bryant recounts his experiences on one such trip in the southern Sinai Peninsula: 

We arrived at Moiyet Mileihis (Mileihis spring), a magical oasis in an orange, red and yellow striped sandstone basin at the foot of Jebel Mileihis, on the third day of our 11-day trek in the Sinai Peninsula.

A single robust palm tree near a shady alcove in the sandstone cliff betrays the life-giving water flowing from the spring hidden behind it, filling a small manmade pool below. Arriving at this place was a very welcome treat after a long, hot slog through the loose sand of Wadi Mileihis – each step of the way only acheived 70% of what I’m accustomed to with firm footing.

Most of the others in my group were already sitting in the shade by the pool when I arrived sweaty and panting. I promptly dipped my hands into the cool water to splash my face.  Refreshed, I sat down beside the others.

After a short pause our local contact Ben said to our guide Musallem:

“Shall we take this opportunity to talk about water etiquette in the desert?”

Whether the timing of this question had direct reference to me or not, I didn’t know. But at that moment, a creeping embarrassment came over me as I realized that table manners had been nowhere in my mind since coming to the spring, and perhaps my birdbath didn’t quite comply with the desert standard.

“Yes. Let’s talk about water etiquette,” said Musallem.

Ben continued:

“Do you see the teapot and the water bottle there on the edge of the pool? You always use those to take water from the spring. Never use your hands directly in the water. We all have to come to this one spot in the desert, so it’s essential to keep it pristine.”

Now my ears were red. Yes, partially because of the sunburn, but doubly so with the embarrassment. I felt like an awkward barbarian in the presence of Bedouin civility.

Up to that point the real significance of oases in the desert had never occurred to me. Throughout my life I’ve always packed in my own water or used modern filters and tablets for water purification. I’d never relied directly on Mother Nature for my water supply and certainly never in a barren wilderness like the Sinai where that survival necessity is so scarce.

Just then, sitting at the foot of that spring, I suddenly saw in my mind’s eye the centuries fly by and the thousands of desert dwellers and pilgrims who had come before me to that very place to fill their “ghirbes” (Bedouin goatskin water bladders). Who knows – Moses himself could have drunk from these waters!

I was humbled.

And a deep sense of gratitude filled my heart for the opportunity to learn the vital lesson of water etiquette in the desert––at the source.

– Evan Bryant

Photo Credit: Evan Bryant