Planning key to survival when visiting desert

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — If someone says, “you go one way, I’ll go the other way, and we will meet up on the other side,” do not agree to it if you are out in the desert.

First, evaluate your surroundings. This idea may work in a grocery store or at a racetrack, but park rangers at Joshua Tree National Park warn that such an approach between park visitors will inevitably lead to a party member getting lost.

Joseph Zarki, chief of Interpretation at Joshua Tree, has dealt with missing person incidents resulting from visitors wandering away from marked hiking trails, falling while rock climbing and getting stranded after vehicle breakdowns.

To avoid future incidents, Zarki is working to educate park visitors on desert survival.

He argues that survival involves much more than drinking plenty of water and applying sunscreen. It requires packing the right gear, recognizing marked trail routes, evaluating personal climbing skills and preparing for emergencies.

“Whether you are hiking, climbing, driving, camping or biking, always tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return. Don’t hike alone if you can avoid it. Make sure you have adequate food, water and clothing suitable to the time of day you’re going to be out, and wear sunscreen and a hat to protect yourself,” said Zarki. “Most importantly, if you get lost, just stay put.”

For desert hikers and campers, a large part of survival hinges on the contents of a backpack. Packing essentials include a gallon of water per person per day, sufficient food, waterproof tents for overnight stays and extra blankets.

“Overnight backpacking is awesome because you are self sufficient, you have everything you need to survive for multiple days on your back. It is like a turtle carrying your own food and your water,” said park visitor Eric Thomas, age 27.

Ming Huang, who came to the park from San Diego, spent the night on Ryan Mountain with a 25-pound backpack full of Ramen noodles, curry, rice, water, a tent and a sleeping bag.

Camper Dennis Yankulov from Los Angeles reaches into his self-pitched, waterproof tent to grab some extra blankets for sitting around the campfire (Photos by Hannah Romig).

At the Hidden Valley Campground, Austin King and a group of friends were equipped with their own firewood and headlamps. After her first night of camping, King realized that cooking hearty meals was more satisfying than snacking on small granola bars or trail mix.

“Don’t bring snack foods, thinking that they will be easy meals, because they won’t fill you up. Pack food like beans, hot dogs, potatoes, eggs and bacon,” said King.

Before heading out for a hike in Joshua Tree, take the time to collect a desert map at one of the three visitor centers. Although hiking trails are well marked at the beginning of each path, maps are helpful because side trails blur actual path boundaries and make it difficult for hikers to distinguish between the right and wrong way.

“One of the problems we have here at Joshua Tree is we have a lot of what are called social trails,” said Zarki. “These are trails that are not official park trails, but are made either by hikers or horseback riders and they look like paths.”

With the park extending almost 80,000 acres, it is extremely important that visitors stick to designated trail paths. Zarki said that most people usually rescue themselves before an emergency is proclaimed, but Joshua Tree Search and Rescue is deployed about six times a year.

“Most people just wander around a little bit and then all of the sudden they stumble out on the road and they’re fine,” said Zarki. “The search and rescue team is a highly skilled group, though.”

Paid park staff and nearby town volunteers engage in weekly training programs in the desert to prepare for missing person reports. If lost, they recommend that you continue to call out for help. In one incident at Barker Dam, a man fell into a ravine sink. He was located five days later only because he continued to shout for help.

As the head ranger for Joshua Tree’s night sky programs, Pam Tripp tells her guests to prepare for extreme temperature changes. From day to night, desert temperatures can drop up to 40 degrees. The fluctuating climate poses a heightened threat to those who tour the park by car because passengers are the most likely individuals to be unprepared for the weather.

“People don’t know how to prepare for the climate and they often forget that they are pretty insulated in a car with air conditioning or a heater but, if that car breaks down, you need to deal with the weather outside. Even if you do get stuck out eight miles or so and that is a distance and average person can cover, it’s different in the desert,” said Tripp.

The motto of staying put resonates in this type of situation, because it is likely that the search team will be able to locate a vehicle. Tripp says that, if your car breaks down, the best instrument for attracting attention is a reflective CD or similar object.

Climbers are urged to be honest in recognizing their skills. Visitors flock to Joshua Tree for the specific reason of climbing the massive rocks that decorate the desert landscape, and it is common for the activity to be considered a family event.

“Make sure when you’re climbing to get good equipment, to know how to use it and to not overdue your climbing skills. People often forget that it is easier to go up than it is to go down,” said Zarki.

With three deaths in 2011, Zarki, Tripp and the rest of the Joshua Tree staff are emphasizing desert safety now more than ever. One of the biggest challenges comes with the popularization of the park as it appeals to international travelers.

“There are a lot of international people who come from Europe and aren’t used to the desert. We are trying to figure out how to communicate information about desert safety to a visitor population that speaks a different language,” said Zarki.

Noted progress has been made with the availability of park information in Dutch, French, German, Japanese, Italian and Spanish at visitor centers and entrance stations.

Ultimately, however, visitors must assume the responsibility of educating themselves about the proper way to pack and prepare for an adventure in the desert.

“You have to rely on yourself for cooking and you have to do certain things to stay warm and keep your body alive out here. You do not really see those things in the city. You know you do not have to work to keep yourself alive in the city, but when you are hiking or camping, you do. It is that extra little thrill,” said Tony Sassu, an experience hiker who traveled to Joshua Tree from Florida.

If You Go

Joshua Tree National Park
74485 National Park Dr.
Twentynine Palms, Calif. 92277

Year-Round Visitor Center Hours

  • Oasis: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Joshua Tree: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Cottonwood: 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.

For emergencies:

  • Phone: 909-383-5651
  • Cell phone service in inconsistent in the park. Call collect for guaranteed reception of call, and keep a first aid kit and water with you at all times.

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