Desert Safety Tips

photo of a list of what to pack when exploring the desertWe want your trip to the California Desert to be safe and enjoyable.
Please keep this information in mind and prepare well for your trip. Ultimately, your safety is your responsibility.

In an Emergency …

If you are in a location with cell phone service, dial 911. Cell coverage is very limited inside any of the wilderness areas in the desert, however, and you should not expect to depend on your cell phone in an emergency. If you plan on going into backcountry or remote areas, a satellite phone or a personal locator beacon is highly recommended and make sure you have informed someone where you are going and when you are expected back. If you have not returned by that time, that person should know to reach out to the authorities.

Heat & Sun

During the summer, expect high temperatures, intense sunlight, and low humidity.

Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration in the arid desert environment. Drink at least one gallon of water per day to replace loss from sweat.

Bring the water you will need with you wherever you are venturing and avoid exerting yourself during the hottest part of the day.

Don’t forget to eat! You need to take in calories to fuel your outdoor activities. On a hot day, eating salty snacks can help your body replace electrolytes that are lost by sweating.

For sun protection, wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothing and a wide-brimmed hat. Layers are very important to combat the extreme temperature changes that occur in the desert. Apply sunscreen to all exposed skin and make sure to reapply it throughout the day. Remember, sunscreen is not a “one and done” activity.  Protect your eyes by wearing sunglasses.

photo of a desert tortoiseWildlife

Keep wildlife wild. Any wild animal may be dangerous if approached. Additionally, wild animals can carry deadly diseases such as hantavirus, plague, and rabies. Always view wildlife from the safety of your car or from a distance. Do not approach animals to take pictures, and teach children not to chase or pick up animals.

Never feed wildlife; it is unhealthy for animals and may lead them to become aggressive towards humans. Store food in hard-sided containers or in your vehicle to prevent ravens, coyotes, and other animals from eating it.

It is exciting to see wildlife but remember: the desert is their home and we need to be respectful of that. Never disturb any burrows you see in the ground and never place your hand in them. Burrows are home to a variety of animals, including a few venomous animals such as rattlesnakes, scorpions, and black widow spiders. When hiking or climbing in the desert, always look before you place your hands or feet. Avoid stepping or reaching into places you cannot see.

Be cautious of bees. They are always looking for moisture and will fly into your vehicle, especially if you leave your windows cracked or down, so it is recommended to keep your windows up. Do not swat at them as the more agitated they get, the more likely they will be to sting you.

photo of a desert stormDriving

Be sure your vehicle is in good mechanical condition and that your fuel tank is full before you begin any desert adventure. Gas stations are few and far between in certain areas, so don’t take unnecessary chances. If you pass a fuel station, fill up even if you have plenty of gas in the tank as it may be a long distance to the next station.

Off-road driving should be avoided. The desert environment is more fragile than it may look. Off-road driving creates ruts, upsets delicate drainage patterns, compacts the soil, and leaves visible scars for years. Crushed and uprooted plants may not recover.

Always travel with extra water in your vehicle.

Flash Floods

Storms and flash floods can be powerful and sudden. Avoid canyons and washes during rainstorms and be prepared to quickly move to higher ground. While driving, be alert for water running across dips in the road. Remember: turn around, don’t drown.

photo of a card with Leave No Trace guidelinesHiking & Climbing

Planning to hike, climb, or cycle in hot weather? Plan to bring along two gallons (8 liters) of water per person, per day. A hydration backpack can be very helpful as they allow you to have easy access to water and hold spare waterbottles all while keeping your hands free. When the water is half gone, it’s time to start heading back.

Avoid hiking alone. Whether or not you’re with a group, always inform a friend or family member of your planned route and expected return time. Carry a map and compass and know how to use them as cell phones are not reliable in the desert environment. Check the weather forecast before departing for your hike, but recognize that desert weather can change suddenly. Remember that the first principle of Leave No Trace is plan ahead and prepare.

Carry a comprehensive first aid kit. Add a comb and tape to your kit as these items are often helpful in removing cholla and other cactus spines from the skin. Other suggested items for desert hikers include tweezers, safety pins, bandages of various sizes, antibiotic ointment, antiseptic towelettes, wound closure strips, moleskin or duct tape for blisters, compression bandages, ibuprofen, aspirin, antihistamine tablets, extra food and salty snacks, and an emergency blanket. This is not a comprehensive list but will help you begin planning.

Know your skill level and do not take chances. The desert can be deadly.

Stay Out, Stay Alive

Many old mine sites are found within the desert. If you choose to visit them, use extreme caution and never enter mine tunnels or shafts. They are unstable and can collapse at any moment.

Winter Visits

Winter temperatures can drop well below freezing. Hypothermia can be a hazard even at temperatures above freezing. Always carry extra layers of clothing during the cooler months.

The short days of winter lead some hikers to miscalculate how much time they need to complete a hike. Around the winter solstice, plan to be back at your starting location no later than 4:00 pm.