Monday, February 10, 2014

Take safety with you when exploring the Southwest desert

Cold winters make the Desert Southwest a major drawing card for snowbirds. Who can resist putting down the snow shovel and the parka in exchange for some of the most intriguing back country imaginable – all of which can be explored in your shirt-sleeves in February?

Still, every year some of those desert wanderers don't come home. The desert is indeed intriguing, but it's also unforgiving. Get lost or have a breakdown in the desert and exposure can and does kill the unprepared. Here are some tips to help you stay safe if you go off-road and hit the desert trail.

File a "flight plan." Let someone know where you plan to go, and when you plan to be back. Put it in writing, including what you'll be driving, and give 'em a map. If you change your plans when on your route, let your contact person know. If you don't come back when you should, they can contact authorities to help.

Be prepared for trouble. Take plenty of water – at least a gallon per day, per person on your expedition. Take extra water, in case you get stuck, along with medications and a bit of food. If you do get stuck, don't think you can "ration" you water. Your body doesn't live on rationed water, drink what you need – that's why extra water is essential.

Sure you've got a cell-phone, but plenty of places are cell "dead zones." A CB radio might work, but the only sure-fire communications device is a satellite phone. Other electronic gear that can be helpful is a GPS unit – if you do break down, the GPS can pinpoint your exact location, allowing you to tell rescuers where to find you. Others care a personal locator beacon (PLB). The PLB, when activated, sends out an electronic cry for help – less expensive than a satellite phone, but certainly limited. Carry a flashlight and extra batteries.

Before you head out, get information on where you plan to go. Some desert roads will accommodate an automobile, but most terrain requires a vehicle with higher ground clearance. Even then, a two-wheel pickup can easily get hung up, and four-wheel drive rigs are probably your best bet. Even then, breakdowns occur, so make sure your rig is well maintained, and carry spares: Spare tire, extra oil, drive belts, gas, and coolant.

If push comes to shove and you do have a breakdown, stay with your vehicle. It will provide something easily seen from a distance (like from a search plane), it also gives shade – an essential from the heat. You can break off a mirror to signal with, burn the floor mats for a smoke signal. Be sure to put the hood up as a signal of distress. If you MUST leave the vehicle, leave a note in clear view of what direction you're heading.

When it gets hot, keep your mouth shut. Breathing through your nose, and not talking, helps to keep your bodily hydration in place. Stay off the ground – it's hot there, use the car seats for elevation. That'll also keep you up from where bugs and snakes hang out.

Wear sunglasses, lip gloss, and sun block creme. Keep your clothes on – if you keep covered up, you're less likely to dehydrate. If you have extra socks, change them, put the old ones out in the sun to "freshen," and then change them again. Does wonders for your mental condition.

Those most likely to come back from an unexpected adventure are those who prepared in advance for the unexpected.  Happy trails!