Staying Safe in the Desert: Flash Floods

When I went down to Algodones I knew a storm was coming. On the way back I took this shot of the KOFA NWR. Notice how there are black clouds over me but clear skies over the mountain. If I were camping in the mountains, a wall of water could be roaring  down on me right now  even with clear skies above.

When I went down to Algodones I knew a storm was coming. On the way back I took this shot of the Kofa NWR. Notice how there are black clouds over me but clear skies over the mountain. If I were camping in the mountains, a wall of water could be roaring down on me right now even with clear skies above.

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:

  1. Flash floods.
  2. Getting lost and carrying water
  3. 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.

Flash Floods.

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.

It rained on and off while I was in Yuma Dec, 17th but when I got I back to Ehreneberg the skies opened up and there was a Biblical Deluge! As hard a rain as I've ever seen! It was very heavy but didn't last long. Right after there was this fantastic rainbow.  In the desert a hard rains means flash floods and we got some.  The rest of these photos were taken then.

It rained on and off while I was in Yuma Dec, 17th but when I got I back to Ehreneberg the skies opened up and there was a Biblical Deluge! As hard a rain as I’ve ever seen! It was very heavy but didn’t last long. Right after there was this fantastic rainbow. In the desert a hard rains means flash floods and we got some. The rest of these photos were taken on the three mile drive back to my camp.

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.

Where I stopped to photograph the rainbos had several gullies and all of them were running fast with water like this one. It's only about three feet wide so it's not dangerous.

Where I stopped to photograph the rainbow there were several nearby gullies and all of them were running fast with water like this one. It’s only about three feet wide so it’s not dangerous–unless you were camped in 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
After taking pictures of the rainbow I headed back to camp. I came upon this flooded section of the road. I carefully srove through it watching to see how far it came up the tires. It was only about 8 inches so I knew I was safe. Had the dip in the road been deeper here, it could have been running very fast and been very deep, creating a dangerous situation. Caution and patience are imperative in the desert at all times, but especially after a rain.

After taking pictures of the rainbow I headed back to camp and came upon this flooded section of the road. I carefully drove through it watching to see how far it came up the tires. It was only about 8 inches so I knew I was safe. Had the dip in the road been deeper here, it could have been running very fast and been very deep, creating a dangerous situation. Caution and patience are imperative in the desert at all times, but especially after a rain.

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.

I took this shot out the window of my van as I crossed my temporary lake in the middle of the road.

I took this shot out the window of my van as I crossed my temporary lake in the middle of the road. That was the little rainbow that could! It’s still there even after I took pictures for 30 minutes.

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!

When I got back to camp the wash behind it was a little creek but it was nowhere near doing any damage our stuff.  BEFORE I SET UP ANY CAMP, I LOOK FOR THE LOWEST SPOT WATER CAN RUN AND I MAKE SURE I'M FAR FROM IT.

When I got back to camp the wash behind it was a little creek but it was nowhere near doing any damage to our stuff. BEFORE I SET UP ANY CAMP, I LOOK FOR THE LOWEST SPOT WATER CAN RUN AND I MAKE SURE I’M FAR FROM IT.

Bob
About

I've been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

31 comments on “Staying Safe in the Desert: Flash Floods
  1. Avatar Walt says:

    Bob, your camp doesn’t look that far away. How far from the wash are you?
    Walt recently posted…#178 – Lessons LearnedMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Walt, I paced it off today and it’s 30 long paces to the middle of the wash. That’s probably right about 30 feet. We were nowhere near the water.
      Bob

  2. Avatar Douglas says:

    Very correct. Like fire, water can be your best friend or your worst enemy and both also refresh the landscape, but it doesn’t look like it right after a flash flood or forest fire.

    I have had a great respect for the desert, and nature in general, for so many years. Besides a few thorns here and there, I guess that is why I have never been bit, either figuratively or literally.

    A friend of mine’s dog got a lot of thorns in her snout once.
    Douglas recently posted…Ammunition and electronicsMy Profile

  3. Avatar Rob says:

    There was a youtube video from the last year or two showing a flood arriving in one of the washes at Quartzsite. That was a lot of water all at once!

  4. Avatar JudyMae says:

    Flash floods come quickly, can be deep, and can kill you. When I was a girl in Colorado, my Dad & I stopped on a bridge over a wash which had been dry moments before. Now the water was very swift and deep and there were several dead cows floating along in it. Cows can actually run fast and can jump but they weren’t fast enough to get out. Made quite an impression on me!

    • Bob Bob says:

      JudyMae, something like that must stay with you for life. As traumatic as it was, it probably has kept you safer. Thanks for telling u about it.
      Bob

  5. Avatar CAE says:

    Most urban environments are far more dangerous than anything in nature.

  6. Avatar Patrick says:

    Thank you Bob from the other side of the ocean. Merry Holiday

  7. Wow, I was a bit nervous about camping so close to a wash while I was there. How did everyone do over there?
    LaVonne Ellis recently posted…Fear of the unknownMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      LaVonne, no one had any problem at all. This area is so flat there is no chance for the water to really accumulate or downhill to give it any speed. You would have had to have been very close to the wash to have any problem and nobody is.
      Bob

  8. Avatar Joe S says:

    This is a great article Bob. A little knowledge of how the world works around us can be a life saver.

    It brings to mind the scene from “Into the Wild” where he parks his car near a desert wash and it gets destroyed in a flash flood.

  9. Avatar David Carter says:

    Years ago my wife and I hiked into the Smoky Mountains for a night of primitive camping. The designated spot was in a dry wash. I refused to setup there as I saw it as a danger if it rained. I opted for a higher spot and encouraged the three other couples we met to do the same. Not wanting to get in trouble they all camped in the wash. A hard rain came and completely flooded the designated camp site. We had to rescue one couple because the water came in so fast that it was up to their chins before we could get the backpacking tent open for them to escape. All three couples hiked out in the middle night. Next morning a ranger came in and I told her the story and pointed out the need to move the campsite. Instead of understanding the problem she proceeded to throw us out of the park for not camping in the designated spot. She said she was doing us a favor by not issuing a fine. Desert, mountains, coast-always be aware and err on the side of caution.

  10. Avatar DougB says:

    My barber in Quartzsite told me that last Spring, the entire business/tent area south of I-10 was underwater, including the paved roads. That takes some doing.

    I’ve also found that, as you noted, access trails/roads often become the conduits for water flow, cutting off travel until the whole thing dries out. That’s merely interesting if you are adequately stocked with water and necessaries, but a nagging worry if you’ve been caught with your supply levels low. Even bone dry, washes can be a challenge due to unsupported sand/soil. 2WD vans and trucks, and anything pulling a trailer can be at risk. I saw two rigs stuck in Wickenburg this year, and had to tow out a van myself a month ago in Quartzsite. And that was no picnic. My mantra is: If in doubt, get out and walk it first. It’s infinitely cheaper and safer than a brave charge, especially when you’re running solo and the closest help is many miles away.
    DougB recently posted…Unique Fixer-UppersMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Very good advice Doug! We’re going to talk about getting lost and stuck in a future post. I had a friend just get stuck in a dry wash and he got himself all twisted around and lost. It turned out okay but it could have gone bad very easily.
      Bob

  11. Avatar dan says:

    Hello again:

    A geologist in Tucson from the university of Arizona told me that the reason the rain rolls off the ground instead of sinking into the sand, is that in most of the southwest USA, the land has volcanic (solid) rock underlying the sand or sandy soil, so there’s no place for the water to go but in to the ditch( or in Spanish arroyo )and downhill.

    Of course in the Midwest and other “geologically mature / older” places, there is dirt, which has the quality of being able to absorb the moisture depending on the type, and number of roots of plant life which it entertains. This absorbing of water slows down the eventual downhill flowing of water in soil rich areas. Soils that have a high degree of organic matter, such as residue from roots of plants, and deceased organic bioligic materials can often absorb and retain the water for some period of time before it is released.

    Of course the desert canyons and plains, do not have all of the biologic materials, and often you have cactus and other plants actually growing onto stone or in the sand.

    Also, Your statement about the desert monsoon where the large thunderstorms bring the heavy rain and flashfloods being in the June to August timeframe is a well-known truism in the desert communities to the locals, and completely correct.

    The worry is though that perhaps the weather may be changing. Earlier this fall in late October for example, in Tucson there was one of the heaviest rains of the year, and places all over Tucson had the arroyos overflowing, and streets and other low lying areas flooding all over town and in the countryside.

    Here’s an article from Tucson.com….. about Phoenix…

    WACKY WEATHER

    A series of strong storms pummeled Arizona during monsoon season, creating dramatic rescues, turning freeways into rivers and flooding homes as retention basins overflowed. A long dry spell that began the year was broken by the first rain in 70 days in early March, followed by a series of dust storms, and then a near-historic summer monsoon season that saw Phoenix and its suburbs receiving more than twice the average rainfall. A Sept. 8 storm that was made up of remnants from Hurricane Norbert brought more than 3 inches of rain to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in just seven hours. The area’s normal seasonal total is 2.7 inches. The topsy-turvy weather also led to an unlikely pest infestation in the desert: an outbreak of mosquitoes.

    Also here’s a story how 4 local school kids died in a tragic flood in Southern Arizona in September this year…

    4 student deaths in 6 weeks pain SV’s Buena High

    SIERRA VISTA — Students at Sierra Vista’s only public high school are coping with the loss of four former and current classmates, all friends who died in three separate incidents during the past six weeks.
    September 02, 2007 12:00 am

    This article shows that even the locals, who KNOW the dangers of flooding in the desert can be fooled.

    So, I think your good advice about watching the weather in the desert perhaps should be observed all year around because as you say it’s very dangerous, and because you just never know what kind of weather you’re going to get with the changing of the weather patterns.

    regards,
    Dan

    • Bob Bob says:

      Hi Dan, that’s all good advice! Thank you.

      I was here for all the fall storms but I was lucky that Flagstaff was just out of their reach and they were not a problem for us at all. I made a distinction between them and the monsoons because as your newspaper story confirms, they were tropical storms coming up out of Mexico. Anyone watching the weather on the news knew they were coming and should have been prepared. Metro Phoenix was hit extremely hard by floods, but they all knew it was coming.

      My advice was for boondockers and had they been following it they would have known a massive storm as coming and they had to be camped in a very safe location.

      You’re totally right, we should watch the weather year around, but the monsoons are much more unpredictable that just because you don’t have a warning on the news doesn’t mean it isn’t coming for you. My point was don’t rely on it.

      As this year showed, the fall in September is the most dangerous because you are getting both, the monsoons and storms out of Mexico. The wildly unpredictible and the predictable.
      Bob

      • Avatar dan says:

        You are 100% correct. September is the most dangerous month, and the monsoons are very unpredictable. Also your advice to campers and boondockers is correct. Flooding is deadly dangerous if you have gone to sleep in a tent in a wash, almost a guaranteed drowning.

        Regards,
        Dan

  12. Avatar Myddy says:

    Wow, I would love to listen to the sound of that rushing water from inside my van. Scary, but beautiful. We had a flash flood where I am staying today, it was scary and I had to move to higher ground to get around it, but it was lovely to look at and listen to. I love thunderstorms and their sounds.
    Myddy recently posted…She-wee female urinal deviceMy Profile

  13. Avatar Lightfoot says:

    Bob, I really appreciate this info. Your site is truly a gem.

  14. Avatar PJT says:

    How timely that I’m reading your blog today as we sit north of Quartzsite — and it’s raining — and there’s a flood watch. We are a safe distance from the wash (and have lots of supplies) so have no concerns about “washing away” across Hwy 95. Excellent article, Bob.

    • Bob Bob says:

      PJT, I missing this storm because I’m in Florida visiting my mom, but I wish I were there, there is just something about desert storms that I love.

      Enjoy it!
      Bob

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