The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 34: Desert Backpacking Tips

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Deserts seem scary and inhosptable. But if you learn to explore them safely, you'll discover amazing, large and isolated wild places. This week on The WildeBeat; Desert Backpacking Tips.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number thirty four.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Some of the largest and least visited wilderness areas in the U.S. are in desert terrain. If you really want to discover unconfined solitude and quiet, a desert trip is a sure way to do it. Steve Tabor is the president of the Berkeley, California based group, The Desert Survivors.

STEVE TABOR: Hiking in the desert is tremendously inspiring, because of the variety, the sense of freedom that you get, and just the wide open space that I like about it. There's no clutter. It's that feeling of limitless expanse of the wilderness that I really crave nowadays.

STEVE: Steve lead two hundred twenty six desert backcountry trips since nineteen eighty nine. He hiked in areas that might not have been visited by another human in dozens or even hundreds of years. He also trekked a thousand miles a crossed the desert from the Pacific Ocean to the Continental Divide. I asked him for advice for beginning desert backpackers.

STEVE TABOR: People fear the desert. I think because they're unfamiliar with it. A lot of people think the desert is going to be harder hiking than a place where they would typically go, like the Sierra. But actually, I found it to be easier. For one thing, you can see where you're going, seldom do you run into problems with dense brush, and often times you can have a really good hike without a lot of elevation changes, which is something you'll get in the Sierra. What we find, often times, is people don't want to carry the water. But, how much water do you really need? You want to calibrate your water needs to the temperature, and the strenuousness of the hiking that you're going to do. The rule of thumb that I follow is, if the daily high is going to be more than eighty five, then you're going to have to carry more than a gallon for cooking and drinking. Lower than that you can just scale your water needs down. If in a typical winter day where it never gets above sixty, then you probably would figure about half a gallon a day — maybe three-quarters. So that would mean for a three-day trip you would carry something like a gallon and a half or two gallons. Seldom do people go to the desert when it's hot. Usually we go to the hot desert in the fall, winter, or spring, when the temperatures are cooler, and you don't need that much water. And it's seldom be so cold that you really need a lot of warm clothing, so you save on the warm clothing. Usually we take a tent with us in the car, but rarely do we even use it. It's probably not going to rain, but the wind's going to blow and cause you tent to flap and you won't get any sleep. Other than that, though, most people just bring what they would ordinarily bring. We almost always carry a wind breaker, and then, if it's going to be sunny you will almost always want to have sun screen, you'll always want to have a wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun off your face and neck. The other part of the fear is, "God, where am I going to go?" It's a lot different from staying on what I call, treadmill hiking, where you're on a programmed trail that says it's this many miles to that lake, and you have a guide book that shows you a picture of that lake so you know [what] it's going to be like — elevation profiles and et-cetera. You won't find too much of that in the desert. You have to make your own way, which to many of us, that's the wonderful thing about it. But there's a tremendous sense of freedom that you get, especially of you can read a topo and use a compass to be able to just go out there and I'm going to walk over here and see this. And you're not going to have any crowds. It's only if you're in the parks on the tourist trails that you'll find the crowds.

STEVE: So you're not going to have any crowds, you're also not going to have anybody around if you need help.

STEVE TABOR: That's true, and you have to be more self-sufficient. You have to know what you're doing, you have to be able to read the map, and you are being foolhardy if you can't read the map and just go out there.

STEVE: Let's talk about just the sun and the lack of shade. A lot of your trips are in the cooler season, but even then that can be a problem for some people.

STEVE TABOR: Yes, it is. And especially if you're not used to being out in the sun. You can take on heat. You can also take on ultraviolet rays and you can get a burn. I've actually been in situations where glare off the sand, similar to snow blindness, or what they call glacial fatigue, glacial lassitude. I've actually been nauseous from the from the reflectivity of the ground. Actually burning you from the bottom-up. If you're worried about cancer use sun block — zinc oxide or some other chemical will actually keep all of the ultraviolet rays off of your skin. I use it sporadically myself. I just try to get the widest brimmed hat that I can, and I'll also always keep my body covered all the way down to my wrists and all the way down to my ankles. A lot of people want to get out there and use their shorts. Well, you can get a sun burn with your shorts, but you can also have cactus and sharp rocks and some of the spiny brush tearing up your legs too. You want to use light-colored clothing that tends to be more reflective. You want to have clothing that's fairly loose and not constrictive. So you want to have, like, a bunch of air close to your skin. You want your clothing to be breathable from any kind of breeze will whisk away not only the moisture, the sweat, but also the heat from your body. The trick to keeping hydrated is keep sipping water through the day. Because if your mouth gets dry, you're already way dehydrated. And you've got to get enough water in there so that it's no longer dry. If you stop salivating you're already on your way to dehydration.

STEVE: Let''s talk about plants. I know I had some unpleasant encounters with a plan; the Cat's Claw.

STEVE TABOR: Oh yeah. That's notorious. Cat's Claw is, as the name implies, is a plant with claws, or rather, spines, that are shaped just like a cat's claw. And they are rounded, and they will tend to grab at things like your clothing or even your flesh, or whatever. That's another reason why I say, "don't wear shorts." But there are other things. There's a, for example in some places you and agave. The agave is what people call a century plant, and everyone that I know of has a spike-like thorn right at the end of the fleshy leaf. And some of them have cat-claw type curved spines right down on the edges of the leaf. Probably the worst of the plants is the Teddy-Bear Cholla, which is a cactus that has joints that break off, and these joints are just loaded with spines. And if you brush up against them the whole spine will break off and just travel around with you. And you won't have just one or two spines, I mean this thing is festooned with spines all the way around. You'll have like twn or twenty spines sticking in you. And of course if you try to grab it with your hand you'll have the spines sticking in your hand. Well, we've devised a method for that. You'll always acrry a comb with you, and you just take the comb in there and stick the tines of the comb in between the spines and just flick it off very quickly. And of course the person will say, "ouch!" But they'll be very happy because the things will go flying off.

STEVE: What are the animals you have to be worried about?

STEVE TABOR: You're not going to see any scorpions or rattle snakes, or anything like that on a winter trip, or even an early spring trip. For those creatures to be out the daily temperature's got to be sevety degrees or so, or more. To tell you the truth I have not seen very many snakes in the desert. I've led two hundred twenty six trips. I don't think I've seen snames on more than twenty of them. The biggest problem I've found in the warm season in the southern deserts is ants. Because they will drive you crazy and will keep you awake. So if I'm going to go down there in the summertime or anytime when it's over about eighty five or ninety then I'll carry a tent just to keep the ants off my body.

STEVE: On most of the Desert Survivor's trips I've seen advertised you carry all of your water, yet there are trips and routes you can take where there is some natural water on the way.

STEVE TABOR: As a general rule, if the water source shows up on the U.S.G.S. seven point fiv minute topogrwaphic map for that area, and it is a named spring, it will have water. If it's an unnamed spring, we went to one in Death Valley over President's Day and we didn't find the spring. So the rule that I follow is if you know the country and you've been there before in that season and it had water, chances are you might want to depend on it again. But you wouldn't want to get there with no water at all. It can be a crap shoot. And you don't want it to be. It's best to research it well in advance.

STEVE: You can find a link to the desert survivors on our web site. We'll hear more about them in a future program. Please let us know about your desert group or outings by calling our comment line.

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Next time -- we'll visit a desert wilderness.

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please see our website for ways to support future editions of The WildeBeat. Contribute your comments to webmaster at wildebeat dot net, or call our comment line at 866-590-7373.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number thirty four. Thank you for listening.

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