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Edited by: John Stewart

Environmentally Responsible Off-Pavement Travel - Part III

Part III - Desert Exploration - The Lure of the Desert
By John Barbyns

Travelling a Dirt Road
Photo: J. Barbyns
Driving along a desert road

It is hard to describe the excitement of exploring the remote, historic desert trails of the old West. The exhilaration of experiencing nature in the solitude of the outback, and the thrill of exploring long-neglected roads and ghost towns are antidotes to modern urban development, and remind us it is not irreversible! The vast deserts of California, Nevada and other western states invokeimages of dull uniformity for some; in fact they hold infinite variety, and are boring only to the uninquisitive. They offer unlimited opportunity for adventure, "far from the madding crowd".

Vehicle Access

Exploration of the more remote ghost town sites and desert roads is largely impractical and even dangerous on foot, but relatively easy by 4WD vehicle. However, access is threatened in many areas, due to the California Desert Protection Act and similar measures. These have worthy goals in preserving the desert environment, but unfortunately do it in a way that eliminates environmentally responsible enjoyment of many dirt roads and trails. Of course, vehicles travelling such roads are not harming the surrounding ecology, but legislators have been misinformed (partly due to the image problem of "off-roaders") and pressured into closing them under the guise of environmental protection.

Ultimately, excluding the taxpayer from responsible access to his own land will only alienate the majority of responsible SUV-owning back country explorers whose support could otherwise be enlisted in the conservation movement. If you are concerned about this trend, please get involved and write to your congressman and other public officials about it. They DO listen!

Travel Precautions

Some preparation and forethought can help ensure that desert journeys are not one way only. The explorer can easily find himself 50 miles from the nearest civilization, well beyond the range of cellular phones and CBs. Tow trucks cannot be summoned and even the chances of meeting another vehicle are remote. Good maps and careful navigation are essential, as there are usually many more roads on the ground than on the map. The following is not a comprehensive guide to desert survival, but a few tips to supplement other sources of information.

1. Perform all routine maintenance, and check all fluids before departing. A stroll with a jerry can to the nearest town is not to be contemplated lightly -- so top off before leaving pavement! In many desert "towns" marked prominently on maps, gas is not available, let alone the super unleaded gas demanded by some vehicles. If yours is one such it pays to carry a bottle of octane booster. (Use a brand that is compatible with catalytic converters and oxygen sensors).

2. In remote areas, travelling in company with another vehicle is desirable (the chances that both will become immobilized are miniscule). Failing that, let someone know your itinerary before you leave, so the search party will know where to start looking if you do not return on schedule.

3. Basic spares and tools should always be carried when venturing off the pavement. Spares might include radiator hoses or repair kits, belts, ignition leads, distributor cap, and rotor arm. Tools should include wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, vice grips, hammer, hacksaw blade, electrical tester, wire and tape. An extra spare tire is desirable; a puncture repair kit and tire pump are essential.

4. Just in case, it's best to be prepared to survive a stranding; survival gear might include first aid and snakebite kits, a flashlight, lots of water, purification tablets, compass, mirror, blankets, candles, sunscreen, fire extinguisher and flares. An emergency aircraft locator beacon is nice too.

5. The off-pavement abilities of a modern 4X4 allows it to get stuck or stranded in worse places, and when it does you will be glad you brought a shovel. Other handy vehicle recovery items include a towstrap, pick, crowbar, hand winch, or electric winch -- depending on the severity of the trail conditions being tackled.

Environmental Awareness

Off-pavement capabilities bring responsibilities. If you plan to visit any of the areas described here, follow the "Tread Lightly!" principles for environmentally responsible off-pavement travel; don't provide ammunition for those who would exclude vehicles from the back country. Stick to established roads and trails, pick up litter, drive quietly, and be considerate to other users.

What if I'm Stranded?

No amount of care and diligence can guarantee prevention of malfunctions or even disasters. If a stranding does occur, and efforts to repair, unstick, or retrieve the situation are to no avail, what to do next? This rather disagreeable subject is beyond the scope of this page; books on desert survival should be referred to. Most recommend staying with the vehicle, on the grounds that it is easier than a human body for the search party to find. This is where precaution #2 above (letting someone know your itinerary before you leave) pays off. If you do try to walk out, don't underestimate the difficulties; too many people have died in the attempt for this to be taken lightly. Here the importance of maps and navigation emerges again; if you do not know fairly accurately where you are, your chances of reaching help and succour are correspondingly diminished.

Although the above matters are essentially disagreeable to contemplate, giving them some consideration before rather than during the expedition can reduce the risks and even enhance enjoyment of the journey.


A compass is essential. In remote terrain, regular road maps are of use only for getting to the general areas. The USGS 1:250,000 series is good for coverage of large areas but dated, omitting some newer gravel roads. An alternative is the DeLorme Atlas series. The new USGS 1:100,000 metric series is excellent, and for fine detail of areas of interest there is no substitute for the USGS 7.5 minute series (1:24,000). Remember, though, that even these (like any map) can be incomplete or misleading.

When navigating in the outback, do not use the usual routine of looking for "the second right followed by the first left". This is a sure recipe for disaster; there are usually more turnoffs on the ground than shown on almost any map, so taking the wrong turn sooner or later is almost guaranteed. Instead, measure the distance to the next desired turnoff on the map, and make careful use of the vehicle's odometer to measure the corresponding distance actually traveled.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is becoming fashionable among back country explorers, and can indeed be a helpful backup (though it is unwise to rely on it as your only navigational tool). Choose a GPS receiver with a Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) option, giving direct readouts of position in kilometers and tenths; this greatly simplifies its use with topographic maps. Both the 1:100,000 and 1:24,000 topos have UTM grid lines at kilometer intervals. (Remember to convert between miles and kilometers!).

Part I - Myth and Reality: The Image Problem of Off-Road Travel

Part II - Our Disappearing Roads and Trails and The California Desert Protection Act

Part III - Real-Life Desert Exploration

Find out what environmentally responsible off-pavement travel in the desert is really like, and how it enhances the appreciation of our environment and historical heritage.

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