To the casual observer, the Arizona desert is
a strange yet beautiful place. It has some of the most unusual and enticing landscapes,
wildlife and plants in the world. The sun shines relentlessly. Shadows mystify.
Hills beckon. Exotic things grow. What is over the next ridge? What might I miss
if I don’t look?
Yet, for the unwary, unsuspecting or uninformed visitor,
the Sonoran Desert can be an unforgiving place. A small blunder can turn an afternoon
drive off road or an overnight camping trip into an emergency. People sometimes
die in the desert!
With so many moving to desert areas or vacationing in the desert region, it
is important to understand desert life so that safety precautions can be taken.
Even being caught on the side of a road without enough water can be dangerous.
Yearly, residents of the Sonoran Desert hear helicopters flying overhead,
searching the desert arroyos for a winter visitor or an unlucky resident who
has not returned from an outing. Regularly, the news carries stories about someone
who climbed a cliff and could not negotiate his way back down. Stories abound
about people caught in flooded washes during monsoon season. People simply underestimate
the severity of a desert environment.
Even the experienced hiker can get into a dire situation. Fortunately, they
usually travel prepared for emergencies, so they survive. They have learned from
past errors. With a bit of knowledge and a lot of common sense, tragedies can
be avoided. There is no such thing as being too prepared when you are in an environment
that can pose danger. After all, surviving in the desert is nothing more than
plain old common sense with a few added bells and whistles.
Here are a few tips:
A. Share your plans. Tell someone where you are going
and when you plan to be back. Let them know your route, the type of vehicle you will drive, and communication
methods you will use. Leave a map, and do not change your plans without letting
someone know. Leave the following information, in writing, with someone whom
you will notify upon your return:
- your route and destination;
- vehicle description;
- traveling companions;
- any potential health issues; and
- what type of emergency supplies you already have with you, including medications.
B. Do not depend exclusively on a cellular/mobile phone. They don’t
always work in remote areas. If you are in doubt, check with your service provider
or the link below to confirm coverage areas. It is wise to be skeptical of promises
made about battery life and coverage area. (See http://www.wildebeat.net/supplements/E037/.
C. Instead of relying unduly on a cell phone, especially
for your more ambitious wilderness excursions, consider the rental or purchase
of a satellite phone. A satellite phone, or “satphone,” is a mobile phone that communicates
directly with orbiting communications satellites. The handsets can be the size
and weight of the original mobile phones of the 1990s. They also have a large
retractable antenna. (Visit the site http://www.allroadsat.com/rentals/globalstar-rentals.aspx
for more information.) Two large satellite networks cover the U. S.: Globestar
and Iridium. Satellite phones work better than cell phones although they do require
a wide “view” of the sky to get a reliable connection. (Visit http://www.wildebeat.net/supplements/E037/.)
D. A CB or ham radio is another option. Ham radios have the potential to work
from very remote locations; however, they are a do-it-yourself proposition, and
they require a government license. They also require training and informed gear
selection to be of full use. (See http://www.wildebeat.net/supplements/E037/ .)
E. Consider carrying one of the handheld GPS devices
now available. These
can provide very helpful topographical maps, aerial photography and satellite
imagery for the desert traveler. An example is the Earthmate GPS PN-20 with Topo
USA 6.0 National & 1GB SD Card/Reader. This device is low-cost, has high-sensitivity,
and delivers capabilities previously unavailable at any price.
F. You can also purchase a personal locator beacon (PLB) - emergency life-saving devices that can be used when all else fails. A PLB is
a small transmitter that sends out a personalized emergency distress signal to
your nearest rescue service. They are becoming a highly effective and internationally
recognized way of summoning help, though they should be used only in life-threatening
situations. (See http://www.mypilotstore.com/MyPilotStore/sep/3382.)
G. Make sure you are using a vehicle meant for desert
terrain. If your vehicle
does not have offroad capability, it is unwise to make the trip. Make sure you
are skilled at maneuvering an offroad vehicle in difficult terrain. Many people
buy vehicles with four-wheel drive and assume owning the vehicle makes them an
expert. Offroad driving requires having the proper vehicle and the skill to handle
it in rough areas. Classes are available for those wanting to learn the “how
to’s” of offroad driving. Since many problems in the desert start
with a car that breaks down due to ill repair, be prepared for everything. Make
sure your car is in good condition with good hoses, a spare tire, spare fan belts,
necessary tools, extra gas, water and oil. A tune-up is wise prior to offroad
adventures. Using a mechanic who is informed about the proper maintenance of
an offroad vehicle is a wise choice. Make sure your gasoline tank is full, and
bring extra fuel.
H. Listen to your body. Bring sufficient
water for each person traveling with you. A good measure is one gallon per person per day. With water, the rule is, “More
is better.” You can always drink it when you get home if it is not used,
but if you don’t have it when you need it, it can be a matter of life
and death. With water, make sure you drink it as needed. Rationing water can
become very dangerous. Often when a person is dehydrated, the thinking processes
malfunction. Drink what you need. Don’t tell yourself you’ll save
it for when you really get thirsty. That just doesn’t work in the desert.
Soda is not a substitute for water because it tends to dehydrate the person drinking
I. Respect the heat. If water is limited, keep your mouth closed. Do not talk,
eat, smoke, drink alcohol or eat anything salty. Limit activity.
J. Be prepared for emergencies. Have adequate first aid supplies, including
proper medication for anyone who requires it. If someone is diabetic or asthmatic,
for example, it is vital to have enough of their proper medication with you.
Bring more, rather than less, than you need.
K. STAY WITH YOUR VEHICLE. It will
be the first thing found by searchers because it’s much easier to detect
from the air. In addition, your car has many things to help with your survival
such as mirrors, hubcaps, a horn, a battery, lights, a lighter, gas, oil and
floor mats. Raise the hood and trunk of your vehicle to show distress. Pilots
and rescue workers look for this as a sign of emergency.
L. Make sure you have a flashlight with new and extra
batteries. An investment
in a better quality flashlight might be worth your while in the end. Remember,
a cheap flashlight is...a cheap flashlight.
M. If you feel absolutely certain about your location
and route and feel you must leave your vehicle, make sure you leave a note for
rescuers telling them
who you are, when you left, and the exact route you plan to take. If you don’t
know exactly where you’re going, stay put.
N. Do not sit or lie directly on the ground, which may be 30 degrees hotter
than the air temperature. Improvise a sunshade and elevate your body. Think creatively
with the supplies you have. Use a car seat or something to raise yourself at
least a foot and a half off the surface. There is also a greater possibility
of having a problem with a poisonous insect or snakes when you are directly on
the ground. In addition, stay outside of your vehicle, especially in the mid-day
heat, until things cool down.
O. Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes. Even though desert glare might not
seem to make a difference, it will impair your distance vision and hamper your
adaptation to night vision. It can cause severe headaches. If you have no sunglasses
available, improvise with a sun shield made from cardboard or cloth, a hat or
bandana. Applying charcoal, soot, or oil around your eyes may help.
P. If you have lip-gloss, use it. Do not lick your lips, as it will hasten
chapping and splitting.
Q. Dress properly. Wear the proper foot protection and keep your body covered.
The sun can be a killer. Change your socks regularly, even if you are changing
to used socks. Sunning and aeration of socks and undergarments have a marked
freshening value, physically and psychologically.
R. Do not remove clothing in an attempt to stay cool. This hastens dehydration.
Wearing clothes helps you avoid sunburn. Cover up your arms, legs and face as
best you can. If you have sunblock, use it.
S. Be watchful. If you see a dust storm
approaching, cover your face as best you can to keep the dusy out of your lungs.
T. If the weather is cool, start a fire in a cleared out pit without
overhanging branches. Always
bring waterproof matches.
U. A roadway, even a remote dirt roadway, may signal passing traffic. Stay
on it. It can bring help.
V. Watch the sky. Flash floods may occur any time thunderheads are in sight.
Weather can change in the desert quite rapidly. Do not remain in dry washes (arroyos)
which can flood suddenly, becoming dangerous.
W. Try to keep control of your emotions. There is nothing more dangerous than
X. In any survival situation, everything you do must be preceded by the thought:
Am I safe in doing this? If there’s any question, don’t do it.
Y. Use common sense! Hire a guide if you must, but never undertake something
for which you are not fully prepared. Finally...