How to Stay Heat-Safe in the Desert Backcountry

You're on your own out here. Be prepared. | Creative Commons photo by Matthew Lee High

Last week's piece on surviving desert heat came out just as it was established that two tourists who'd died on a back road in Joshua Tree National Park likely succumbed to the heat. And while it can be relatively easy to get through a torrid summer when you're in the city, the outback is a different matter.

Sadly, the two unfortunate park visitors -- Augustinus Van Hove, 44, and Helena Nuellett, 38 -- seem to have made a series of unfortunate choices in the hours before their demise. Had they made a different decision or two, they might now be around to tell the story of their adventure. A bit of preparation and a bit of desert savvy could easily have saved their lives. And they could save yours.

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Van Hove and Nuellet, who had visited Joshua Tree NP as a side excursion on a planned trip from the Coachella Valley to Arizona, were found dead on Monday August 22, within a few miles of their rental car on Black Eagle Mine Road. Their vehicle, a Dodge Charger, was stuck in a sandy section of the road. There were a few empty water bottles in the vehicle.

It is thought that the jaunt up Black Eagle Mine Road was intended as a pilgrimage to the site of the Joshua tree immortalized in Anton Corbijn's photos gracing the U2 album The Joshua Tree. If so their deaths were especially needless, as the actual site of the tree in question -- deceased for over a decade -- is some three hundred miles north, a quarter-mile from a paved road.

Despite that possible misdirection, the two would likely have survived their mishap if they had followed a few basic rules for desert backroads travel.

Rule 1: Always carry adequate water in your vehicle. In summer, a healthy adult at rest in desert heat will need a gallon of drinking water a day. If you're venturing onto the desert's many dirt roads, double that. Freeing a stuck vehicle is strenuous work, even if you wait until sunset to do it, and you may find yourself stranded for more than a day. It's trivially easy to carry enough water when you set out, and almost impossible to correct the mistake of not doing so once you're stuck.

And don't assume campgrounds in the desert will have taps so you can refill your bottles. Most campgrounds in Joshua Tree, for instance, do not.

Rule 2: Never venture off the pavement without at least a half a tank of gasoline. People from Europe, and from the eastern United States as well, often don't realize just how many miles there are between gas stations and other services out here. The iconic signs you sometimes see saying "next services 100 miles" are chiefly notable in the desert because someone bothered to put up a sign. There are thousands of places to run out of gas in the California Desert that have no such warning attached. Always top off your tank.

A full tank of gas may seem beside the point if your vehicle is stuck irretrievably, but consider this: gas in your rental car means air conditioning. Had Van Hove and Nuellet spent the daylight hours relaxing and staying as cool as possible, they may well have been able to walk out after dark to the Cottonwood campground -- one of a very few sources of drinking water in the entire park.

Rule 3: Stay With Your Car. Even if you run out of gas and lose your air conditioning a vehicle is one of the best sources of shade in the desert, unless you have the forethought to get stuck near a large rock formation. Besides, a vehicle is orders of magnitude easier for search and rescue people to see from a distance than you are on foot. In the well-known 2006 case in which James and Kati Kim and their daughters were stranded for a week and a half on a snowy, forested mountain in Oregon, rescuers were able to find Ms. Kim and the girls because they had stayed close to their car. James Kim, who has left the car in a desperate attempt to find help, perished of exposure to the elements.

There are some times when the "staying with your car" rule might be bent sensibly. Had Van Hove and Nuellet waited until dark to move, and then headed back the fifteen or so miles to Cottonwood Campground -- or even to Pinto Basin Road to flag down passing traffic -- it might have meant quicker rescue than waiting it out, especially if they hadn't let someone know about their planned route. Still, unless you're in adequate shape, familiar with the area, and thoroughly hydrated -- and you've waited until the temperature is back down in the double digits -- it is almost always a better idea to stay with your car.

Rule 4: Remember that the desert is remote, unforgiving, and generally untamed. Language barriers may have been part of the reason that Van Hove and Nuellet took a low-slung Dodge on a road marked "Four Wheel Drive recommended," but people who speak perfect English make the same mistake all the time in the Southwestern deserts, and many of them die as a result. That bright white stripe Google Maps suggests as a convenient road may be a century-old mining trail, or a track of deep, sandy ruts that will permanently entomb your Subaru. Cellular service is not to be counted upon, and in many places in the desert, where towering canyon walls block out the sky, even satellite services can be iffy. My girlfriend and I drove last week at night in the valley where Van Hove and Nuellet died, and even FM radio was blocked by the surrounding mountain ranges. The deserts offer opportunities for solitude beyond that to which most people are accustomed, where help is not just a speed-dial away. Therefore;

Rule 5: Do Your Homework. Make sure your maps are recent, intact, and published by someone other than German hipsters with a vague sense of where the U2 Joshua Tree was. Ask for advice from Park Rangers: that's what they're there for. Rangers are especially helpful with regard to road conditions, seeing as their jobs generally require them to nurse overworked National Park Service vehicles over hundreds of miles of rocky, washed-out poor excuses for roads. And read up before your trip on how to conduct yourself in the desert. Dave Ganci's book Desert Hiking is a great place to start.

The desert can be unforgiving, but it's a sublime place to witness, unlike any other place on Earth -- even in the heat of summer. The desert can give you adventure stories to tell for years afterward. With a bit of caution and preparation, you'll be around to tell them.

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