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The desert. A parched, barren wasteland stretching for miles in every direction. If the maddening heat doesn't drive you into a Mushroom Samba or just kill you, the lack of water or one of the desert's many hostile inhabitants probably will. Basically, this trope is to Shifting Sand Land as Hungry Jungle is to Jungle Japes or Lovecraft Country is to Hollywood New England - a nastier, more serious portrayal of the same region.

Examples of Thirsty Desert include:




Lone Starr: Water! Water!
Dot Matrix: Oil! Oil!
Princess Vespa: Room service! Room service!

  • In The Way Back, the protagonists are crossing the Gobi desert. Two of them die of heat stroke and dehydration.
  • Death Valley serves as this in the silent classic Greed.
  • Lust In The Dust. Rosie's canteen falls and spills out its contents, causing her to exclaim, "My gin!"


  • In Robert E. Howard's "The Slithering Sands", Conan the Barbarian knows that the desert will kill him within a day, and strongly considers a Mercy Kill for the girl with him.
  • Claims the life of Arvid in The Emigrants tetralogy.
  • Arrakis of the Dune universe is one of the driest deserts in fiction and is home to Sand Worms that can eat large vehicles in one bite.
  • The Aiel Wastes in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series is one of the most hostile environments on the main continent. The only ones that are worse have been heavily tainted by the Dark One.

Live-Action TV

  • The Twilight Zone TOS:
    • The Libyan desert in episode "King Nine Will Not Return".
    • An (unnamed) American desert in "The Rip Van Winkle Caper".
  • The Prisoner (2009) had the desert surrounding the Village, filmed in Namibia.

Tabletop Games

Video Games

  • Appears in King's Quest III and King's Quest V. In the first game, it's essentially a barrier to prevent you from going too far the wrong way. It's an insidious maze in the latter.
  • Lamakan Desert in Golden Sun.
  • Very much a part of Quest for Glory II, where the player will literally die of thirst if you don't have enough water, and multiple foes ranging from vicious brigands to giant scorpions to rampaging mini T. rexes to ghouls will try to kill you.
    • Carried over to Quest for Glory III, which takes place in a Thirsty Savannah (and later a Thirsty Jungle).
  • Breath of Fire III features a trackless desert towards the end of the game. Travel is only feasible at night, as you're navigating by the stars, but you can travel during the day if you don't mind expending more water and getting disoriented (i.e. don't travel during the day). You start with enough water to just barely reach your destination, but you can escape back to the entrance without any problems, even if you've been traveling for days.
  • The Mojave Desert becomes this with the Survival mode active in Fallout: New Vegas. The fact that the water you need to survive also irradiates you is just insult to injury.

Web Original

Real Life

  • Generally averted in Real Life, since desert biomes are often teeming with life despite the harsh climate.
    • Death Valley has its name for a reason, though.
  • Parts of the Atacama Desert in South America haven't received rainfall in hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. Some areas receive moisture from coastal fog, other areas are as dead and barren as Mars.
    • In its most desolate regions the Atacama is allegedly sterile, as not even bacteria can survive there. When the Top Gear boys crossed the Atacama on a road trip, Jeremy Clarkson mentioned this - primarily to illustrate that co-host Richard Hammond was currently the smallest organism within a hundred miles.
  • The Rub' Al Khali[1] desert on the southern Arabian peninsula is one of the largest sand deserts in the world, taking up about 250,000 square miles of area. While it's not completely inhospitable (there is some life), it's close: water sources are extremely few and far between. On the flip side, though, it's geologically rich, with mineral and oil deposits estimated to be worth billions.[2]
  • The Taklamakan Desert in Central Asia is often considered the world's worst desert to attempt to cross. Antarctica is actually far bleaker to cross, but it's not a Thirsty Desert.
  1. The Empty Quarter
  2. So much so that some geologists call it the Rub' Al Ghali, meaning the Valuable Quarter, according to The Other Wiki