Desert Driving Tips

Experienced desert travellers can skip this page if you like, but if you're a first-timer in the desert or you just don't have much desert driving experience, we urge you to read and heed.

You will see every kind of road imaginable in the desert, from the multilane interstate freeway to the barely discernible dirt track. All lead to magnificent destinations, and all can be hazardous if you aren't prepared. Preparation is quite simple: make sure your vehicle is appropriate for the road you have chosen. All vehicles can handle the interstate freeways (and there are more interstates than you may think in the Mojave), but very few vehicles can handle a remote desert track. For the remote roads you'll need a high-clearance four wheel drive vehicle. You'll also need the training and ability to handle one. Do not try to drive your small two wheel drive sedan on a back country dirt track. You won't make it, plain and simple. The key to successful desert driving is this: use your head! Follow these tips:

1) Make a local inquiry of road conditions before turning off the freeway

2) Let someone know where you're going and when you're coming back (and don't change your destination without letting this person know), and tell them when you have come back so they don't needlessly send Search and Rescue into the middle of nowhere looking for you

3) Carry your cell phone, though you won't always have coverage. Better to have and not need...

4) Carry a signal mirror. This can be one of those high-tech Air Force survival mirrors or a cheap cosmetic mirror; they work the same. But keep one in your glove compartment

5) Carry warm clothes and blankets. You will experience all weather conditions in the Mojave, from 120 degree summer days to near-Arctic conditions. No foolin'. We have been snowed on more times in the Mojave than anywhere else

6) Carry a good pair of walking or hiking boots, and a wide-brimmed hat

7) Carry food. Restaurants and convenience stores are few and far between, and sand doesn't taste very good

8) Respect property rights. Believe it or not, much (but not most) of the Mojave is private property. Just as you would not want people driving across your front yard or entering your living room without first asking permission, neither do the property owners of the Mojave. Be courteous. We are not lawyers, so do not take this as legal advice, but this is what's kept us out of jail for forty years of desert travel: basically, if a road is gated and/or posted with a "No Trespassing" or "Keep Out," or "Private Road" sign, do not enter. Go someplace else. If a road crosses a fence but there is no gate and no signs, go ahead at your own risk, but be willing to turn around if challenged. If you feel you absolutely must travel a road that is posted or gated, find the owner first and ask permission. Desert property owners have assured us that, in most cases, all they wish is that you ask first, and that you not make a mess while you're on their property (this is not without some risk, however; it is very difficult to determine who actually owns the property, and whoever gives you "permission" may not be the property owner. Beware). But keep in mind that one of the main reasons people live in the middle of noplace is that they wish not to be disturbed. It's rare, but if you disturb the wrong person or trespass the wrong road, you may encounter a property owner who will dispense with calling the county sheriff and show you the wrong end of a shotgun instead. That's why we just turn around when we encounter posted or gated roads. Much of the Mojave is military property, and the above advice applies there as well. The military is very serious about trespassing, and if you trespass on military or other government land you will find yourself in front of a federal magistrate explaining why you did it. In any case, if you trespass on private or military property, you're breaking the law and you can be fined and even do time for it.

9) Weapons. Should you carry a weapon? We do whenever we're on back roads. The Mojave is reasonably safe and there are no gangs or roving bands of highway robbers, but like all places, the Mojave has its bad apples. The difference between the barren Mojave and downtown LA is that it takes a cop several hours to respond to the Mojave, if you're even able to contact one. The decision whether or not to carry a weapon is totally up to you, but if you decide to do so, obey all firearms laws, and be safe.

10) And most important: carry water. Lots of it! You'll need, at a bare minimum, one gallon per person per day. Seriously. Even if you never leave the freeway, make sure you have plenty of water. You may be on a heavily tavelled interstate freeway, but if you break down and the tow truck takes six hours to show (not an uncommon situation), you can get mighty thirsty. By the way, coffee, soda pop, alcohol, or sports drinks are not substitutes for water. They actually dehydrate you. If you absolutely must have your trendy sports drink, dilute it with four parts water to one part sports drink, and then drink only a little. Oh, and don't take salt tablets; they do far more harm than good, and stories of their benefits are just old wives' tales. Your body's electrolytes can be maintained with just a potato chip or two, and potato chips are much more appetizing than salt tablets.

If you break down:

Don't panic. You're not the first person to beak down in the desert. Stay with your vehicle and wait for your friend to report you missing. Wait for a Highway Patrol officer or good samaritan to come by. Don't try to walk out unless you have no other choice. Exhaust all means, such as your cell phone and signal mirror, before you attempt walking. If it's hot and you must walk, wait until evening or night. But it's just best not to attempt to walk. Stay with your vehicle. A car is much more easily spotted from the air than a lone person (we know; we've had to do it). After a breakdown in a remote area the temptation to try to walk out is strong. You've just got to resist it.

If you are new to desert driving, or new to driving in California (especially if you are visiting from the UK, Australia, or New Zealand), plase visit Hamish Reid's superb website "California Driving: a Survival Guide." Mr. Reid offers far more insight into desert driving than we can here, and his writing is very entertaining. We reccomend this site highly even if you are a hard core native Californian driver.