A note about desert riding.

I’m still playing catch-up but making progress. For now, here’s a bit of a PSA. I didn’t include this in my last post and should have, as it also factors into the two posts that I’m about to make.

Desert riding cannot be described as “safe.” If you attempt it, you are never actually safe. You are always in a situation that presents potential danger and are only one factor – a wreck, malfunction, or even not recognizing your own stress due to heat and dehydration – away from a dangerous or survival situation. For example, if your bike breaks down in the middle of the desert and cannot be repaired quickly then you are now in a survival situation, and your preparations and actions are the only thing that can keep you alive.

Preparation is key. My last post, about traveling to Pecos and Mount Locke, didn’t include this, and the upcoming two days include even more intense desert travel.

Knowing we would be crossing deserts I began preparing for this trip months ago. I had no experience with those environments, having never lived nor even been near them. I read what materials I could locate, including posts by search and rescue (a.k.a. SAR) personnel. Much of that has to do with hikers, but the information is still a valuable foundation.

When I went for that ride, I had checked over my bike to ensure it was in good operating order, packed some water, had my SPOT unit, and used my GPS (see the end of this post for an important note about these devices.) I stopped regularly at gas stations with small markets to get a bottle of water and drink that; the water I had packed was reserve in case I ran into trouble.

When riding together we are pulling a small trailer that has a cooler rack. We have a relatively large cooler on there (it can hold a 12-bottle case of water with all bottles standing on the floor of the cooler) that we kept full of water and ice, and we stopped frequently to drink water.

Also note that there are multiple forms of desert, and the conditions can very. Today, for example, we rode about 400 miles through desert, ranging from an elevation of about 3,200 feet and midday to over 7,000 feet and well after sunset. We went from serious heat to cold, needing to put on our insulated gear and our rain gear (effective wind barrier.) In the later, situation, there are many microclimes, and you will feel them easily, as the road-level air may go from pleasant to very chilly in a matter of a few hundred feet.

Today we had a situation that involved this. At one point, as we were discussing a soon-to-be-made stop to drink more water (while I liked having shade, I often pulled off at the entrance to small farm roads and driveways for this) she said about how she felt tired/drowsy and  “so, so hot.” Those words were an immediate concern to me; the potential for heat-related illness was very real. When we stopped and she removed her gear I could see that she was in a state of heat stress, but fortunately not a severe one. She mentioned that she was going to wet some of her clothes at the planned fuel stop, but that was 30 miles away and she may not have been able to endure that.

We had packed a washcloth for unrelated reasons. I retrieved it from the trailer, soaked it in the melt water in the cooler (which also had considerable unmelted ice,) wrung it out just enough that it wasn’t dripping, and placed it on the back of her neck. After a few minutes of that she began to feel much better. Next, I repeated the process of soaking and wringing the towel and gave it to her with the instruction to place it on her chest and stomach under her t-shirt. She said that she “felt silly” with it, but it was effective. The very low humidity of the desert means that the water will readily evaporate. To change from liquid to gas state, however, requires a lot of heat energy, and it will take that from surrounding materials – the air, your skin, etc.

A note about the electronics: they are no replacement for planning and sense. GPS is only as accurate as its map data. You need to keep it updated, and even then be skeptical. I set mine to avoid unpaved roads but was still cautious – since we’re on street bikes, if the road wasn’t paved we didn’t take it. We stuck to the largest routes in the areas, but even then, they can be desolate places in the desert. I often pick intermediate fuel stops with it but never rely on the specific station being open or, even, still existing; I look for clusters about the same distance along my route and pick the first, falling back to others if that doesn’t work out. As for units like the SPOT, they are great at their purpose, but don’t let them lull you into a false sense of security – they are no replacement for adequate preparation and should not influence your judgement of the risk. If you wouldn’t do it without the units, you shouldn’t do it with them, either.

As noted in the comments, do NOT rely on devices like mobile phones and smartphones as there is no coverage in large portions of such areas. I selected the SPOT unit for that reason – its communication is completely via satellite.

3 thoughts on “A note about desert riding.

  1. My first real experience with desert travel was on foot years ago … and I ended up with a heat stress reaction … in the midst of the Grand Canyon … on foot. Another thing to be wary of when relying on electronics (and this is something that folks used to highly populated areas may not realize), but there is a LOT of the USA that is not covered by cellular service or where service is blocked by terrain shadows.


    1. I’m glad that you survived that! And, yes, that’s an important point above cellular networks. The SPOT unit was selected for that reason – it is completely satellite-based.


  2. This brings back wonderful memories of a similar cross-country trek I made in August 1987 with my brother in a 1986 Honda Civic. We also stopped in San Antonio (to see the Alamo) and spent the night in Fort Stockton.
    The sun is riz, the sun is set,
    And here we is, in Texas yet.

    We had a nice stop in Las Cruces, NM, and somewhere in AZ in the Sonoran Desert.
    BTW, re cell phones, on our road trip in Oregon, the rental car had Sirius XM radio, and I guess because of the mountains, there were multiple places where we could not get a satellite signal.


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