Tips for Traveling in the Desert

Badwater Basin in Death Valley by Kathy Alexander.

Badwater Basin in Death Valley by Kathy Alexander.

Traveling in the desert is a different ballgame than traveling the rest of the American West. To ensure your desert adventure is a success, check out this list of travel tips.

When To Go – In most cases, spring and fall are the best times to visit the desert. It just goes without saying that it is too hot in the summer. In the Mojave, desert temperatures can be freezing in the winter and consistently over 100 °F in the summer and early fall. In the late winter and early spring, strong winds are common over 25 mph, with gusts of 75 mph or more are not uncommon. In Death Valley, temperatures of 130°F are frequent.

Off-Road Adventures – Make sure you know where you’re going, as getting lost in the desert is easy. Before striking out on backcountry roads or hiking along trails, it’s a good idea to consult with park rangers. Road and trail conditions change quickly and often – they can tell what the current conditions are. Plus, someone will have a general idea of where you are. In hot weather, it is advised to stay on the main paved roads since they are patrolled periodically.

Drinking Water – Carry at least one gallon per day/person of drinking water. Plastic containers work better than metal containers or water bags. While drinking water can be obtained at several places in desert parks, you cannot rely on this, as some water sources must be purified before drinking. If you are relying on a spring that is listed on a map, when you arrive there, it might be dried up. In fact, it’s probably a good idea to follow the minimum guidelines for one gallon/person/day, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a little extra. Don’t ignore this guideline if traveling across the desert by car. Any number of things could happen, and you need a stocked-up water supply.

Sun and Heat Exposure – In the desert, you need to avoid exposure to the sun at all costs. Sunburns can be severe, and heatstroke or heat exhaustion can prove fatal. It is advisable to wear a hat, sunscreen, and dark sunglasses. Even though it’s hot, plan on wearing light, loose long sleeve shirts, and long pants. Remember to reapply sunscreen periodically to any exposed areas. Time your walking in the early morning and late afternoon when the sun is not as intense.

Abandoned Mine, Gold Point, Nevada, by Kathy Alexander.

Abandoned Mine, Gold Point, Nevada, by Kathy Alexander.

Stay out of Mines – Dotted throughout the desert, you may stumble upon or see an old mine that is tempting to explore. Don’t!! Areas near mines often conceal deep shafts where the timbers in their tunnels are rotten. One wrong step, and you could wind up at the bottom of one of these deep shafts. Mines and tunnels may also be filled with flammable and poisonous gases. Though authorities are doing their best to fill in these abandoned mines, dozens of people are injured and killed each year by stumbling into these old mines.

Thunderstorms – Quick and violent thunderstorms are not uncommon in the desert. Keep your eye on the sky – even when you can only see the storm in the distance. Flash flooding in canyons, washes, and gullies are frequent. Stay out of these areas if you see lightning or a developing storm anywhere near you.

Insects and Biting Flies – Though generally not dangerous, these pesky critters can be bothersome, and when the flies get to biting, it stings! Carry and use a good insect repellent.

Route 66 east of Peach Springs, Arizona

Route 66 east of Peach Springs, Arizona.

Automobile Care – You cannot take too many precautions for your automobile before traveling through the desert. Here is a list of things to think about:

  • Car Inspection — Before your trip, have your car thoroughly inspected by a competent mechanic. Carry spare hoses and belts in your trunk.
  • Keep tires at standard pressure. Soft tires can generate heat and cause blowouts. If you think the tires are riding hard, stop along the road for a few minutes; you will find that the tires cool quickly.
  • Frequently check the gasoline, oil, and water temperature gauges. Service stations can be miles apart in the desert. Carry additional oil and water for your car in your trunk.
  • Watch the temperature gauge. Turn off the air conditioner if your vehicle is air-conditioned and the gauge indicates that the engine is close to overheating. If the engine overheats, pull to the side of the road but do not stop the engine. Turn on the heater and, while the car is at fast idle, slowly pour water over the radiator core to cool it. Refill the radiator to its proper level only after the engine has cooled; the motor should be kept running.
  • Road grades can be deceptive. On warm days, shift to a lower gear that will allow the car to accelerate on grades and drive slowly to avoid overheating the engine.
  • Vapor lock may temporarily disable your vehicle. In that event, wrap a wet cloth around the fuel pump and line to cool them (for carbureted engines only).
  • Stay with your car. If your car breaks down, stay in the shade it provides and wait for help to arrive. Do not attempt to walk for assistance.
Saguaro Cactus near Oatman, Arizona. Kathy Alexander.

Saguaro Cactus near Oatman, Arizona. Kathy Alexander.

Beware of the Hantavirus – While there is no evidence to suggest that travel should be restricted in the desert, there have been several reports of the disease in the deserts of the American West. Listed below is a list of useful precautions:

  • Avoid coming into contact with rodents and rodent burrows or disturbing dens (such as packrat nests).
  • Air out, then disinfect cabins or shelters before using them. These places often shelter rodents.
  • Do not pitch tents or place sleeping bags in areas near rodent droppings or burrows or areas that may shelter rodents or provide food for them (e.g., garbage dumps or woodpiles).
  • If possible, do not sleep on the bare ground. In shelters, use a cot with a sleeping surface at least 12 inches above the ground. Use tents with floors or a ground cloth if sleeping in the open air.
  • Keep food in rodent-proof containers!
  • Promptly bury (or–preferably–burn followed by burying, when in accordance with local requirements) all garbage and trash, or discard in covered trash containers.
  • Use only bottled water or water that has been disinfected by filtration, boiling, chlorination, or iodination for drinking, cooking, washing dishes, and brushing teeth.
  • And last but not least, do not play with or handle any rodents at the camping or hiking site, even if they appear friendly.

Added August 2004, updated in January 2023.

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