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Words of Caution- Safety in the Desert- Lightning, Flash Floods, Heat, and Wildlife

Dangers of the Desert

For those visiting the southwest for the first time, words of caution are in order. The typical dangers inherent in outdoor activities still exist- becoming lost, falls, animal encounters, inclement weather. But the southwest offers its own exciting possibilities for mishaps. Do not be alarmed by this- knowledge, common sense, and proper planning will keep you perfectly safe, and insure your safe return.

First on the list is to know your limits- be aware of your physical abilities and be realistic about them. Use common sense- do not undertake a hike beyond your ability. Use caution when making decisions while in the bush- the implications of a bad decision are very different when you are five days walk from help. Next, plan and prepare for your trip accordingly and well in advance. Make sure that you do the necessary research, take the proper gear, that you are prepared for the terrain and the weather.

Before you set out into the wilderness, purchase all your mapsheets well in advance and do a thorough map reconnaisance (see our 12 February, 2009 Blog post for more on this subject). Learn the terrain, your routes, water sources and be sure to study the surrounding mapsheets in the event that you are forced to change your plans. Plan your trip on paper and leave your plan with someone responsible. Include your possible trailheads or entry locations, exit options, mapsheet names, grid coordinates, and the phone numbers of the local BLM or Park Service offices. Even if your plan is not set in stone, leave a general itinerary with one or more people that you can trust. Tell them when you plan to contact them. Give them a contingency plan- if you have not contacted them by a certain day, wait 3 more days, then call the local BLM or Park Service office, for example. I added the "wait three days" option to the contingency as I do not like to make my plans that strict. You can even make this 4 or 5 days or more if you like, but be realisitc. And finally, check in with the local BLM or Park Service office before your trip. Ask them about the weather, water, and other hikers' reports for the area. Get the proper permits from them, leave a general itinerary with them, and they will know where to look if someone calls looking for you.

Recent advances in technology make it inexpensive and simple to insure your safety in the bush. The SPOT Satellite messenger and the SARLink personal locator beacon are two examples of lightweight communication devices which can be carried by the hiker to call for help in an emergency situation. The SPOT allows one-way communication with friends or family via email or text messages. Read more about these devices on our SPOT and PLB review page.

Specific Dangers- Weather- Rain and Flash Floods, Lightning

In every region of the country where I have hiked, the locals have always said that if you do not like the weather, just wait a few minutes, or half an hour, or an hour, depending on where you are. This adage can be true for the southwest as well. The weather can change drastically, and sometimes quickly, but as long as you keep an eye on the sky and plan accordingly, you should have no worries. This means that you should plan for extreme heat, cold, rain, and even snow depending on the season by carrying the proper shelter, sleeping bag, clothing and rain gear. We make recommendations on what gear to carry for warm weather on our Desert Gear page. Learning about the weather in general, weather patterns, cloud formations and other signs in nature is helpful. Watch the prevailing winds, where the clouds generally form, what direction they travel, the time of day they usually appear, how close they typically come to you and if precipitation is visible off in the distance. Get a feel for the weather as you do for the trails you walk on. This may be a lot to ask if, for example, you are only backpacking for a week a year in southern Utah. But even then, as you become accustomed to your surroundings, you will begin to get a sense for the weather in your location.

We will begin by discussing precipitation. With an average annual rainfall hovering somewhere around 8 to 10 inches for most of the southwest, moisture is not a huge concern throughout most of the year. There are certain times of the year, varying with region- meaning latitude and elevation- when you should be watching more carefully. Early spring and especially late summer showers can become life threatening. These showers are often in the form of torrential monsoon downpours which create flash floods, filling dry streambeds with feet of water in a short amount of time. I have seen a bone-dry streambed that had not seen moisture in months become a swift running near-river, 10 feet deep in places, and un-crossable. By being aware of weather patterns for your area, by knowing the weather for the past few days at least and checking the weather report before you go, and if possible by checking in with locals who know what to expect, you can start out prepared and be safe on your journey.

Lightning often accompanies rainstorms in the southwest. Since lightning seeks high points as it makes its way to the earth, and considering that in many of the locations you may visit in the southwest you may be as high as the nearest tree, lightning can be particularly dangerous.

Everyone knows that you should seek cover in a lightning storm, avoiding metal, high points, water, and trees. For a more detailed list of tips for lightning safety, visit the National Lightning Safety Institute’s website. There you will find a page on personal lightning safety tips.

Suppose that you do find yourself high on a mesa top during a storm, having just climbed out of the canyon below to avoid the rising flash flood waters, soaking wet, with the largest bolts of lightning imaginable striking the mesa top just hundreds of meters from you, so close that your ears ring. Where would you propose to take cover in a situation like this?

Having found myself in this exact situation, I have the experience to say that the expert’s tips should be taken seriously. The mesa top in question had scattered Pinyon trees, boulders and large rocks structures which were unfortunately too long of a walk away to use as cover. Robert Pritchard and I on this particular occasion avoided the boulders and the larger trees and chose to find the lowest branches of the lowest trees to take cover under. We sat on our packs, laughing at the storm as the rain ran down our backs chilling us to the bone. As the lightning was moving by us, not towards us, this felt at the time like a safe choice. If the lightning began moving closer to us our final option would have been to lie down flat in between a couple of dunes away from the trees and hope for the best. We are happy to say that it did not come to that and that we made it out with yet another great story from the southwest.

Heat and the Sun

On the opposite side of being soaking wet, cold, and in danger of being struck by lightning, you may find yourself sunburned, thirsty, overheated and looking for shade. This scenario is very likely if you visit the southwest during the summer months.

To help avoid this situation, begin each day by drinking plenty of water, and drink often throughout the day. Protect your body by wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a long sleeve shirt and even long pants. For more information on dressing for the desert see our Desert Gear page. For a thorough discussion about drinking water, hydration and heat related illnesses in the desert see our Water and Hydration pages.

Animals Encounters

Animals can pose a real threst in the wilderness. In the desert you might encounter bear, cougar, bobcat, racoon, skunk, rattlesnake, ringtail cat, fox, scorpian and maybe even a black widow spider- all possible of creating problems for you. But the keyword here is possible. The real possibility of a hazardous encounter with a wild animal is quite small. In all my years in the desert I have had frequent, yearly meetings with rattlers, an occassional scorpian and beyond that only a few distruptive encounters with mice that got into food. I have seen most of the animals listed a time or two, but none have posed anything near a threat.

Based on the frequency of rattlesnake encounters I have had- four each in the summer of 2007and 2008- I would put them at the top of the list as a possible threat. Rattlesnakes and snakebites are covered in depth on our Wildlife page. Please take a look at it and read it carefully. Other animals are also discussed there.

Predator Control Devices

At the urging of long-time friend, chemist, and environmental scientist Christopher Parker, I have recently begun to research the M-44 sodium cyanide capsule and the Compound 1080 Livestock Protection Collars. These are predator control devices that pose serious threats to all animals and humans. Read more about it at Desert Explorer, or click on the Blog Link to the left to read my 06 February post on the subject.

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