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California Desert Driving Tips

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California Desert Driving Tips


California's vast deserts account for a considerable portion of the state, and offer some of its most dramatic and extreme vistas. Compared to some of the world's most famous deserts, many of those in California are relatively moderate and modernized. With a few exceptions, like the Eureka Dunes, these are not sandy Sahara-like expanses. Instead, many areas are mountainous, with sage brush and Joshua trees cropping up in the otherwise arid landscape. In winter, some areas even experience snow.

Most deserts in California are crossed by highways and freeways with sufficient amenities, and therefore make for a comfortable and convenient road trip, unless you choose to go off the beaten track, in which case extra preparation is recommended.

All of the above makes California's deserts not only a good choice for a road trip, but also for hiking, climbing and camping.

Here are some tips for preparing your car for a desert drive:

  • A standard car is not enough if you are planning to go off the beaten track. If the road is unmaintained, depending on the terrain, you will need all-wheel drive, a car-based SUV or a truck-based SUV, with sufficient clearance and traction.
  • Before setting off into the desert, you need to make sure the vehicle is in good condition. A thorough maintenance checkup is recommended. Also make sure you know how to change the tire and perform other repairs on your car if needed.
  • High quality tires are a must.
  • Make sure your emergency kit, tool kit and first aid kit are well stocked, and include appropriate equipment, like good quality spare and air pump, shovel, tow chain and towrope, traction mats or sturdy wooden boards, extra fan belts and radiator hoses, jumper cables.

To ensure your safety and comfort while driving:

  • Do not drive through the desert in the summer unless you are used to hot temperatures. If you are crossing the desert in the summer, make sure you stay on freeways and that your car's AC is fully operational.Travel in a group or a convoy.
  • Make sure there are ample supplies.
  • Have ample water supplies for yourself and passengers (and, if travelling off the beaten track, allow 3 days' water per person).
  • Have ample water for the car's radiator and cooling system.
  • Carry enough clothing and blankets to keep warm when the temperature goes down at night
  • Unmaintained roads will have many deep ruts that can damage the undercarriage. Rocks pose another risk to your vehicle and are best avoided as much as possible.
  • Watch out for thunderstorms and subsequent flooding, which may render roads impassable or wash them out entirely.
  • Watch out for quicksand, and be careful when driving of fine sand. When unsure, err on the side of caution.
  • Watch out for mud, especially after rain and at creek crossings. Rather than powering through, look for alternative routes.
  • When unsure, scout the terrain ahead on foot. Check river crossings for depth, firmness of soil and speed of the current to make sure it is safe.
  • Drive slowly.
  • Do not be tempted to leave the road. It poses a risk both to yourself and to others who may see your tracks and follow, thinking it is a path.
  • Should your car break down, do not wander away from it unless you can clearly see an emergency phone down the road or an inhabited building. Find shade. If you have to leave the car, leave a note explaining when you left the car and where you are going.
  • When travelling off the beaten track you cannot rely on cell phone coverage. It would be sensible to rent a satellite phone and a hand-held GPS that can tell you where you are currently and where to go, as well as allowing you to communicate your location to others. Do not part from these if you leave the car.

Based on Bruce Grubbs' Desert Sense: Hiking and Biking in Hot, Dry Climates and Hamish Reid's California Driving: A Survival Guide


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