The desert can be a land of extreme conditions. Seared and barren deserts feature a stark and unembellished beauty not found anywhere else in the world. Open spaces, howling winds, sunbaked rock structures, and tenacious flora and fauna mix to form breathtaking vistas and memorable experiences. However, the expedition could quickly and easily end in disaster if adequate preparation is not taken to safeguard against unknown calamities that can befall even the most experienced trail rider.
Hot Days, Cold Nights
Temperatures in America’s deserts during a typical summer day can easily and frequently soar into the triple digits. The highest temperature in the United States—134-degrees Fahrenheit—was recorded in 1913 in Death Valley. The high temperatures in the day are a simple function of atmospheric conditions prevalent in that band of longitude (notice that the world’s biggest deserts are located along the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn?). Trade winds push moist air toward the tropics, which deprives that moisture via high-pressure systems. Furthermore, tall mountains (like the Rockies in the United States) block moist air, forcing rainfall on the windward side, leaving the leeward side especially dry.
Because of these dry conditions, the lack of clouds, and the absence of moisture in the thin air, the ground absorbs the sun’s rays. If moisture were present in the soil, the heat would evaporate that moisture, effectively cooling the ground. Also, a lack of water means a lack of lush vegetation, which would otherwise retain moisture and coolness.
Conversely, when the sun dips below the horizon, the heat stored in the ground quickly dissipates, and the lack of moisture in the ground and air allows the surface to cool rapidly. Since there are no clouds to help trap in the heat at night, temperatures can drop quickly and drastically.
If you and your crew intend to go deep into sun-scorched lands, planning should take place as soon as possible. Going blindly into the desert makes for a disastrous recipe, so having a distinct plan in place before you step on the gas is important, not only to you, but also to those that might have to rescue you.
Map your route with estimated travel times, but be flexible. Visit off-road forums and web sites that may have information about the area you’re visiting and/or the roads you’ll be taking. Know the distances between planned campsites or stops, and make allowances for technical areas or potential hazards that may slow your caravan. Make note of any side journeys or possible side trips that your group may be interested in. Your planning now will help you familiarize yourself with the area and it will keep you from unrealistic goals.
The most important step here is to file these plans, along with contact numbers, with a trusted family member or friend who is not going with you. If you don’t report to him or her at predetermined intervals or in a timely manner at the conclusion of your trip, they will become the point person to help direct the authorities.
A few days before you leave, keep an eye on the weather. Although it can change at the drop of a hat, pitching a mild, temperate day into one with blazing heat and gale-force winds. Having a weather radio with you is invaluable, especially if there is some question as to what is in store during your trip.
Not only does dry and hot inclement weather affect you personally and physiologically, it can do a number on your vehicle too. The most likely cause of breakdown in the desert (despite trail riding dangers) is an overheating engine. Before you leave, make sure your fluids—coolant and oil—are topped off, and it wouldn’t hurt to change them with fresh fluids.
Check that not only your battery is fully charged but also that your alternator is fully functioning. Evaluate the condition of your radiator and its associated hoses. High temperatures will mean increased pressure in your engine’s cooling system; these pressures can be enough to cause a weak hose to suddenly fail.
Make sure your tires have the proper tread and inflation for the roads or trails you’ll be surmounting, and have methods with you to fix or change a flat. Check the air pressure in your spare tire too.
The Right Clothes
One of the most important decisions you can make is deciding what to wear. Hot dry climates can be unforgiving, and a few hours in the wrong kind of clothing can be devastating. Overall, wear clothes that have contrasting colors to your environment. Although we recommend khaki and light (but solid) colors while most of a typical desert can be classified as “khaki,” perhaps mix it up with a bright colored hat or an orange windbreaker. Avoid camouflage of any kind; it is helpful to be seen if you need to be found.
Pants: Avoid shorts and flip-flops. This isn’t the beach. It’s hot, yes, but you want to keep as much of your skin covered as possible; a low-humidity environment means a high UV exposure. This means long pants of a cotton variety, and they should be loose fitting so they can breathe and allow air to flow between the layers. Wear light colors like khaki and other beiges, not black or dark colors.
Because the desert is littered with prickly bushes, sharp rocks, and spine-studded cactus, long pants will help protect your legs from scratches, stickers, and random abrasions. As for underwear, avoid loose boxers or form-fitting briefs, but go for something in the middle (try a boxer-brief) that won’t bunch up and chafe in some interesting but uncomfortable spots. A nylon or a spandex blend will keep you dry but won’t ride up on you or weigh itself down if it gets wet.
Shirts: The same goes for your legs as does your arms: You want to keep them protected from the harsh sun as well as the local vegetation. As with the pants, consider light colors to reflect some of that UV light and loose fitting to allow for breathability.
Again, go with cotton, as it is beneficial in hot climates because sweat evaporates very slowly, holding it near your body for a longer period of time. The problem here with cotton is that you’ll want to be dry by nightfall. That said, if you are lathered in sweat by the time the sun sets, switch out to a dry shirt.
Some recommend wearing a base layer (a simple t-shirt) under your long-sleeve shirt. This allows for another barrier to retain sweat, and it gives you the option of unbuttoning your long-sleeve shirt while your t-shirt keeps the sun off of your skin.
Headwear: When you are outside, the back of your neck, shoulders, ears, and nose are some of the most exposed real estate on your body, so they’ll need to be protected by a large, board-rimmed hat. A baseball cap in this case will not cut it unless you add a bandanna to the back (ala a Foreign Legion kepi), as you need to keep as much of your head and shoulders protected from the sun. A hat with a chinstrap is a good idea; otherwise you’ll be chasing your hat more than you’ll be wearing it.
Jackets: Since the cyclical nature of the desert’s weather means that it can be scorching during the day but freezing at night, you’ll want to have handy a variety of jackets, from a light jacket and windbreaker to a full-size coat for if the temps really plummet.
Footwear: Rocky soil and murderous thorns can be hell on your feet, and your feet are the only way you’re getting home, so you’ll need to look after them as if your life depended on it (and it might). Don’t skimp on a quality pair of boots. You’ll want support for uneven terrain, good grip for slippery and sandy rocks, and something tough that will keep out the stickers. A taller collar will provide ankle support and may even prevent a snake from making contact.
For socks, like underwear, stay away from cotton. Wool or synthetic materials wick away moisture, protect against chaffing and help keep blisters at bay. For especially sensitive feet (or if you plan a lot of hiking), opt for a pair of sock liners; although they will make your feet hotter, they will stop some of the rubbing.
Eye Protection: Most times, a good pair of sunglasses will provide protection for your eyes. Harsh UV rays can actually cause “snow blindness” from the rays reflecting off of the rocks and sand. Wrap-around glasses protect your peripheral vision. Make sure your glasses aren’t just cheap tinted plastic and that they can block UV rays.
Consider bringing with you a pair of goggles to protect your eyes if you encounter windy conditions where fine grains of sand can worm their way into most every crevice. Dry and sandy eyes are a terrible condition.
The Right Gear
In addition to all of the normal stuff you would load up in your rig—like recovery gear, shovels, winches, first aid kit, flashlights, tools, et al—there are some specific gear you’ll want to make sure you have with you in case your entire trip goes south—which it can in a heartbeat.
Water: That single word cannot be stressed enough. Water. Plenty of water. Bring more water than you think you’ll need…and then bring some more. Because of the dry atmosphere of the desert, water will be quickly wicked away from you. Your eyes, mouth, and skin will dry up and you’ll sweat profusely—which will also quickly evaporate, sometimes before it does any good—and that water can’t be replaced.
It is a general rule that each person should have a gallon of water for each day they will be in the desert. So, if you have a five-man crew and you’ll be out for five days, you’ll need to bring 25 gallons of water at least.
Maps/Compass: Don’t rely on your phone or your car’s navigation, as both of those could fail, leaving you with only your wits and memory to guide you in the correct direction. Instead, pack with you a paper map of the region you’ll be in and a decent compass to orient the map with.
Sunblock and Lip Balm: While in the desert, the sun is your enemy, especially if you are at a higher altitude. Keep it off of your sensitive skin with a high-SPF-rated sunblock and lip balm, something at least SPF-40. Lip balm is better than merely slathering sunblock on your lips because lip balm has some staying power (like lipstick), while sunblock can be wiped off.
Emergency Signaling: In case you get separated from your group or you are stuck in a breakdown situation and you need to signal over long distances, nothing beats a signaling mirror. A reflective surface (your rig has three, right?) can bounce light for at least 100 miles, and most everyone who spends any time outside, understands what an S.O.S. Morse Code message means. Baring a mirror (or at night, keep with you a whistle) and again, three blasts (or S.O.S.) can let people know up to 10 miles around you that you’re in trouble.
Fuel: Know how far your vehicle will travel on a tank of gas, and then add in some wiggle room for slow, inefficient trail riding. Part of your initial planning should take into consideration how far you’ll be traveling and how much gas your trip will consume.
It is always a good idea to keep a jerry can or two of fuel on hand, even if you have no plans of needing it. Something might come up, and running out of gas will quickly put your trip on hold and maybe even your life in peril.
The raw naked beauty of the desert is captivating and inviting. It is crisscrossed with trails and roads carved out by many people before you, but that doesn’t mean that help when you need it is prevalent. The only other person you might see for days on end is the person in the seat next to you, so for the most part, you’ll be on your own.
On average, 675 Americans die every year from preventable heat-related illness. Though most of the dead are elderly, infants, and children, anyone who works or plays outdoors, those without adequate access to shelter, and people who have been weakened by medical conditions are also very much at risk. Don’t let the allure of the desert be your undoing. Plan, prepare, pack, and predict…your life might just depend on it.
Heat-Related Ailments, Illnesses, & Remedies
Human beings have survived in hot climates since the dawn of time. If we follow the basic rules that our grandparents knew before the existence of air conditioning, it’s quite possible to avoid heat-related illness. The most important is to drink plenty of water and let your body’s cooling system work. Then be reasonable about what you choose to do in direct sunlight. When fighting the heat, a little common sense goes a long way, and the basic treatment is always the same:
- Stop all activity and rest in a cool or at least shady place, to cool the body
- Drink good fluids – water, juice, or electrolyte sports drinks
- Determine whether medical attention is necessary
1. Heat Cramps
Heat cramps are among the first signs of heat-related illness. When fluid loss from sweating and evaporation depletes the body’s salt and water reserves, muscles respond by cramping up. Most often, this happens in the legs, arms, and midsection. It’s important to remember that these are not ordinary cramps, and that if left unaddressed, the sufferer will proceed rapidly towards life-threatening events.
To treat heat cramps, follow the basic steps and get the victim to a cooler place, drink plenty of good fluids, and allow the victim to rest. If you do these things but the cramps are still happening after an hour, seek medical attention and get the victim to drink more fluids.
2. Heat Fainting
Fainting or passing out from the heat is technically called “heat syncope.” This is often preceded by dizziness or nausea. Heat is the usual cause of syncope, but you can also feel this from a bad sunburn, even on an overcast day. Or, when you walk out into extreme heat from an air-conditioned building, a wave of dizziness can strike. That’s a form of syncope, too.
The solution to syncope is much the same as for all heat-related illness – rest, in a cool place if possible, and drink more fluids. If the symptoms do not pass within an hour, seek medical attention.
3. Heat Exhaustion
Heat exhaustion is closely related to heat fainting – and fainting is usually part of a heat exhaustion event. Heat exhaustion happens when the initial signs of heat-related illness have been ignored and the body suffers excessive dehydration. Heat exhaustion strikes some people harder and faster than others. The elderly and those who are overweight or have heart conditions or high blood pressure are particularly prone to heat exhaustion, so if someone you know is at greater risk, keep a closer eye on that.
Heat exhaustion is characterized by extreme sweating and moist skin, weakness, dizziness or sleepiness, confusion, muscle cramps, and nausea or vomiting. The victim may have a ruddy or pale look compared to normal, breathing may be fast and shallow, and he or she may be running a slight fever.
The treatment is similar to the less severe symptoms, but immediate and more intense care is needed at this point. Get the victim to shade or indoors to a cool area. Offer them cool—but not cold—water, juice, or sports drink. Cool the victim by applying water-soaked cloths, or get the victim into a cool shower or bath. If possible, seek medical help immediately.
4. Heat Stroke
When heat-related illness becomes immediately life threatening, we call it heat stroke. Heat stroke is when the victim’s ability to sweat breaks down, leading to severe body temperature spikes. A victim of heat stroke may have his or her body temperature rise to 106 degrees within minutes. Brain damage, organ damage, and death are imminent. Immediate first aid and medical attention are critical at this point.
Everyone should recognize the signs of heat stroke. Usually, a victim will have hot, dry skin, but in early stages they may still be sweating. Hallucinations, difficulty speaking, confusion, dizziness or fainting are also likely to be presented. Physically, the victim may be experiencing chills or pain, particularly headaches.
Time is critical when dealing with heat stroke. Call 911 (if available) immediately and inform the operator that you’re treating heat stroke. As with lesser heat maladies, get the victim into shade and cool their body by any means available. This may include soaking the victim with available water, or simply fanning them with cooler air. Victims may or may not be able to drink at this point. Medical care will be a necessity if at all possible.
This article originally ran in the July/August 2017 issue of Tread magazine.