Staying Safe in the Desert: Flash Floods
In the last few weeks I’ve had two experiences that I thought had potential to be dangerous so I thought I should write about them and share them with all of you. That’s especially true now with the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous coming up and many people heading toward the desert for their first time. If you’re at all like me, you have no idea what to expect because it’ll be your first time in the desert. I’d lived in Alaska all my life so I could tell you all about cold-weather survival, but I’d never spent time in the desert as an adult and knew nothing about safety issues there. Over the last 6 years I’ve learned quite a bit about it and so I want to share some of that with you. In this post, and one more after it, we’re going to cover these topics which are unique to the desert:
- Flash floods.
- Getting lost and carrying water
- Dangerous snakes, and spiders.
The worst thing you can do is live your life in fear so my main goal with these posts is to reassure you that the risk is greatly exaggerated and the odds of you ever being harmed from one of these is extremely unlikely. It could happen, but with a reasonable amount of caution it never will. I’m no expert on any of these things, but every winter for the last 6 years I’ve been living on public BLM desert land, and for nearly every one of those days I’ve walked at least 5 miles a day across the desert (that’s about 10,000 miles total). In that time I’ve seen and experienced lots of things including a flash flood and walking within a few feet of rattlesnakes. The dangers are real, but very unlikely to harm you. In this post we’ll cover flash floods and in a later post we’ll cover the other two.
You’d think that dying in a flood in a place that gets just a few inches of rain a year was a ridiculous idea, but there’s almost never a year when it doesn’t happen to somebody, so every person who comes to the desert needs to be aware of why flash floods happens and how to avoid them.
Logically, since the desert is made mostly of sand, you’d expect that when it does rain the water would just sink right down through the ground and disappear, but that is totally wrong. For whatever reason, when rain falls on the desert virtually none of it is absorbed into the ground, instead it just sits on the surface. Since the surface is rarely flat, it rolls downhill until it hits a low spot and starts to accumulate with all the other flowing waters. Since that low spot is rarely flat the accumulated water also rolls downhill pretty quickly cutting a deeper channel as it goes, eventually forming a gully or wash. All the water in the channels and washes flow downhill and if the terrain is right they all come together in increasingly larger and deeper ravines until the force and speed of the accumulated water becomes tremendous. When that happens the flash flood has become a life threatening situation and anyone caught it its path has very little time to get out of its way or be killed by it.
Fortunately there are only a few places in the desert where the terrain is just right to create a flash flood capable of killing. Most of the desert is wide enough that the excess water flows into channels that might fill up with 3-4 inches of water but it moves too slowly to do great damage. I’ve been in a spot where we got a huge, overnight rainfall and the water on the wash behind us was about a foot deep and 12 feet wide and moving very fast. It was very impressive but if you had been camping in that wash all your camping gear would have been carried away and probably ruined, but it never would have been life-threatening, just expensive and tremendously inconvenient. That’s the way nearly all flash floods are and your odds of even being struck by one of those is extremely low.
How to Avoid Problems with Flash Flooding
- Never camp in a dry wash, flood plain, deep canyon or anyplace surrounded by steep walls. If you’re an expert at canyoneering this doesn’t apply to you, but very few of us are, so simply don’t do it. Before you ever set up a camp in the desert, you MUST look around the camp and see where the lowest place is because if there is a storm it’s very likely that place is going to have water in it. Once you find the low spot, build your camp well above it. If you’re in the low spot the best you can hope for is that all your stuff is going to be soaked and the worst that can happen is it will be swept away. You don’t want either of those things to happen, so make sure there you’re not in the lowest area.
- In the summer, watch the sky, especially on the horizon, for storm clouds and listen for distant thunder. All across the desert southwest it has very large summer monsoons and they can strike suddenly and without any warning. The risk of unexpected flooding is highest in the summer from Mid-June to September or August. What’s worse, in the right situation you can have clear skies above you but a monsoon can dump a torrent of rain 10 miles away and it can run down gullies and slot canyons and kill you before you even know it’s raining. Fortunately most of us are snowbirds so it’s not a problem, but if you are there in the summer, it’s especially important to not to be in flood-prone areas of the desert because they are so unpredictable. While it’s no guarantee of safety, you also want to watch the sky and listen for distant thunder. That may be all the warning you get if you’re in a canyon.
- In the fall and winter, be very aware of weather reports. Normally, you have quite a bit of advance notice about fall and winter storms coming into the desert because they are huge systems that the weather service tracks for a long time—in the fall they are traveling north out of the Tropics and in the winter they are coming off the Pacific coast of the US. If you’re in the desert in the fall and winter you want to be watching media weather reports and constantly tracking all the storms heading you way.
- Be prepared to wait out a flood. If you do what I said and never camp in the low spot, then floods can actually be a grand adventure. Watching and listening to the the might and fury of nature’s storms from the comfort of your van is a great experience as far as I’m concerned. But you always need to be prepared to wait out the aftermath of the storm. If you follow these steps you should never have a problem with damage to your camp, but the road you came in on can be flooded, too muddy to cross or even washed out and gone so you need to have enough food, water and supplies so you can sit tight until you can get out again. Patience is the key to keep a safe, fun adventure from turning into a disaster.
Four years ago I was camping in the desert north of Quartzsite with a few friends and we heard on the radio about a huge storm coming our way. We had selected our camp well so we knew we were in no danger of a flood. So when the storm hit we just sat back and enjoyed it. Without any doubt, it was the biggest storm I’ve ever seen in the desert and the next day what had been a common dry wash behind our camp was a raging river; it must have been 12 feet across, a foot deep and running at 30 mph. That day I gained tremendous respect for the power of water! The road passed through the wash and had standing water in it for 3 days, but we were prepared so it wasn’t a problem for us.
What I want for you to take away from this post is that if you follow a few common sense rules about camping in the desert, you can have a wonderful and safe time but if you don’t you can be at great risk. Now, go out there and have a safe adventure exploring nature!