I have created this page
to highlight and outline general rules, needs, thoughts, theories, conditions,
and perspectives on coping with the deserts of the southwest, particularly
with the average railfan in mind. If you are visiting a desert area for
the first time, especially if you plan on railfanning in the summer, you
need to read this page. Please take a few notes (or print this page) and
understand some basic principles of the desert and how it can affect your
railfan trip. As a general guide, the deserts I'm referring to include
the Mojave, Sonoran, and the Great Basin areas. This includes for the most
part the ENTIRE states of Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. Parts
of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and the southern portions of California also
apply as there are many isolated desert locations there too. See the map
for my rough thoughts on the areas I consider to be deserts. The shaded
areas shown here are general in nature and should be supplemented with
more in depth research on your particular destination. For example, there
are some very hot, dry places in the southern reaches of Oregon, Idaho,
(Blue lines on map represent Interstate Highways, not RR tracks)
The first and foremost
consideration of any desert railfanning trip has got to be the weather.
Lets review what you can generally expect from the desert by season. Be
sure to get detailed info for your specific area from any reputable
weather forecasting center. A meteorologist I am NOT! Besides, the area
outlined above eclipses 600,000 sq. miles, an area larger than Alaska,
so what is going on in one location might not be the same as in a different
location, possibly even one just a few miles away!
Spring (February to
May): Early in the spring the desert will come alive and is by far
the nicest time to visit. Daytime temperatures can crawl into the 80's
and nighttime lows may be in the 40's or lower. Spring will bring longer
days and everything in nature will be in a buzz. Keep an eye out for occasional
strong early season storms, and remember to take cover during a lightning
storm. If you don't have a building to retreat too, the next safest place
is your car. Storms may bring rain, snow, sleet, or hail, depending on
many factors. This is one of the harder times to predict what to expect. Summer (June to early
Sept.): Maybe the most inhospitable place on earth is the desert
at the height of summer. Temperatures across this region can soar to 110+.
Monsoonal rains across Arizona and New Mexico can, and do, bring flooding
to those normally dry, harmless looking washes. Lightning is especially
dangerous as shelter can be hard to find and storms can arise quickly.
Night temps are often wonderful though and 60's usually dominate. There
is nothing better than being in the middle of nowhere and looking up at
the billions of stars in the heavens, with no city lights to dampen their
brightness. Autumn (Sept to mid-Nov):
Fall will bring a needed respite from the scorching summer heat, but the
damage is done by the time the cool air arrives. Trees, grasses and other
vegetation usually have assumed a deep shade of brown, and are brittle
and dry. Leaves will have fallen off and with winter around the corner,
everything is preparing for the cold. Temperatures will vary widely depending
on location, but you might expect day time highs in the 80's in early autumn
cooling to the mid 60's or less by late fall. Higher elevations will reach
the fall season sooner than lower ones, so be thinking of heavier clothing
if you are going to be in these areas. Winter (Late October
to February): Desert winters can be as harsh and dangerous as
the summer and specific precautions should be heeded during these times
to make your trip enjoyable. You can expect to find plenty of cold air
and snow depending on you location. Elevation is quite possibly your biggest
concern. Ice and other inclement weather can be experienced in a flash.
Temperatures well below freezing in the higher elevations and heavy snows
are the norm, so be aware of your location and adjust for the situation
you are in. In the more "traditional" desert areas the temperatures will
be more mild and comfortable during the colder parts of the year. There
have been many trips where I have had short sleeves and shorts on in mid
December, only to have on the heaviest coats on the next day because a
storm blew through the night before. Quite possibly the biggest concern
for winter railfanning is the wind. Even a slight breeze can really affect
the temperature you feel and the need to deal with extreme wind chills
should be planned for. Remember that 70 mph train will be pulling along
some healthy winds behind it and can make it feel much colder than it is. ***
I cannot stress enough the need to get SPECIFIC
weather information about the location you plan to visit, during the time
you will be there. A forecast that is much over 4 days old or so is probably
too far into the future to be very accurate or useful. Something less than
3 days in advance would be the most preferable. The area covered in this
guide is simply too large a space to be painted with such a broad brush
as I have done. Don't assume anything when in the desert, because that
is usually when you'll get into trouble. ***
While not a complete survival list, here are some must have items
as well as a few toys to have in the desert:
Water - Need I say more?
Maps - A must for exploring. Delorme offers the BEST maps for the southwestern
states. Even then, some of the roads shown don't exist or are impassable,
so be flexible
Cell Phone - Don't get too relaxed, they often won't work in far away
locations. IE Don't think they'll always save your butt in a pinch.
GPS - Toy yes, invaluable navigational tool yes. At the very least get
Wide brim hat - Great for keeping the sun out of your face and sunburn
off your neck
Full size spare tire - Don't count on that P-O-S spare you get with
most vehicles, those of you in a rental, plan to avoid dirt roads. (Most
rental companies won't allow you to off road anyway.
Itinerary - Tell someone not on the trip about your intentions and plans,
that way if trouble arises there will be a place to start looking.
Cash - In case that gas station is 100 miles from nowhere and won't
Flares - while not the most convenient to carry, they could come in
really handy if you get lost.
First Aid Kit - A must!
Toilet Paper - Do you really want to get caught without it???
Snow Chains - Bring with you for those winter trips along the snow covered
Anytime of year
Depending on what type
of trip you are planning, supplies can vary widely. I'm assuming
for this page that you are only going to be doing day excursions and returning
to a hotel for the night. (If you are camping, I'll also assume that you
know what the heck you are doing, and as such I won't go into it here.)
Generic items (not seasonal specific) for a day trip in the desert may
include toilet paper, trail mix or other snacks, lip balm (this is very
helpful), cooler for drinks, maps of your area, cell phones, and a first
aid kit. A folding chair for a place to sit is also something nice to have
along, and much more comfy in many instances than the car seat. A note about cell phones.
Don't count on a cell phone to bail you out of trouble. Depending
on your provider and location you may or may not get a signal. Be prepared
to sustain yourself in the event of an emergency. As a general rule if
you are near a US interstate (I-15, 40, 80, etc) you'll probably get reception
for your phone. There are exceptions to this rule though, as I have tried
several phone providers over the years and have found gaps with all of
them while on the various western interstates. You don't even want to know
about off-the-beaten-path routes, yikes! Speaking of 'off the
beaten path railfanning', and the supplies to do it with, you should ask
yourself a few questions while you plan a desert escape. They might include
the following: How far am I from traveled roads or a town? How much
gas do I have? How much water do I have? If I get stuck in some remote
location, will I have enough water to last until I can get out? Does someone
know my planned route today in case I don't check in? If you think
I'm being a little too worrisome, just come live out west for a bit and
you'll hear the reports of some fool who died of whatever stupid act, that
in almost all cases was completely avoidable with a bit of planning. Don't
underestimate the extreme nature of the desert is all I am stressing.
Summer specific supplies
For the typical day run,
the most important commodity is water. You'll need (in the summer especially)
potentially 2+ GALLONS for each person! A recent trip to the Needles Sub
(Ludlow, CA) in June, saw me consume 6 32 oz bottles of water. That
was along with several glasses at the restaurant for lunch and being in
the AC for 3 hours during the hottest part of the day. WATER, WATER, WATER!!
Don't be fooled by winter time temps either, the humidity is still very
low and you can still get just as dehydrated in the winter as you will
in the summer. Of course you'll not need the quantity as summer, but still
drink plenty, you'll be glad you did. During the summer; sunscreen,
sunglasses, and shade of some kind is a must. (umbrella, tail gate on an
SUV, something.) Your goal is to stay out of the sun as much as possible.
We are not camels! You can't stay in the sun all day and not be affected.
Keeping out of the direct sun, and hydration is your biggest defense against
Stroke and Heat Exhaustion. If you plan on hiking
any, even just from the road to the tracks, good shoes are a plus. Sharp
plants abound in the west and those sandal things just don't cut it. Remember
happy feet means happy railfan! Pants can be a plus, so bring a pair
with you, even during summer. Rocks can be hot, and if you are intent on
climbing some rock for that great picture, pants may keep you from getting
burned. A hat with a wide brim, towel for your neck, and a loose fitting
long sleeve shirt may keep you from a serious sunburn and may not be a
bad thing to bring along.
Winter specific supplies
Winters will be very cold
in many location across the desert, so bringing appropriate clothing is
a must. Staying warm will make your railfan trip more enjoyable and safer
too. The key to staying warm is to stay dry. For those who don't know snow,
be aware of the effects of melting snow on your shoes and clothing. Wet
feet and cold temps = disaster. Keeping dry in cold temps is the number
one goal. So with that in mind keep a water repellent jacket as your outer
layer, and shoes should not allow water to seep in. If possible an extra
pair of shoes and a few dry socks are a good idea. Remember, chances are
you are going to be standing near tracks where the potential for wet melting
snow exists. Gloves and knit caps are a plus as well as long johns for
those colder locations.
If you plan on visiting snow country, think about bringing snow shoes to
tromp around in. Drifts tend to occur along the ROW and there are no plows
coming here. Snow shoes will help you get around for that perfect winter
shot. Obviously if you are
someplace with no snow, then this is far less of a concern. Simple warm
clothing is your only need. The southern portions of the mapped area above
usually experience very mild winters, with nothing more than a light jacket
being needed. That said, all areas mapped out can experience bitter cold
and should be thoroughly understood before any trip is made. Yes it can
get cold in LA and San Diego, though it is less frequent and less severe
than other locations...obviously! Like the summer, water
is still very important, as the low humidity and dry winds can cause dehydration.
While not as bad as the stroke / exhaustion, getting dehydrated means at
the very least feeling miserable and could ruin your trip.
Another critical part
of a desert railfan trip is the mode of transportation. I'm assuming a
car or truck of some kind, so if you show up on a bicycle, I expect you
to know what you need. Your car is your lifeline in the desert, especially
if you plan on getting off the beaten path. Any number of things can cause
a problem. I'm no mechanic, but here are a few things I would be checking
for. Before you head out,
be sure there is sufficient engine coolant. Over-heating is a real problem.
I've personally seen 4 cars burn to the ground (not mine thankfully) because
they overheated in the summer. Like you and water, engine coolant
is your cars best friend. Gas. If your are
in a unfamiliar place keep your tank above half full. It isn't unheard
of to be 70 to 100 miles from the next gas station. Remember that the closest
gas, might be the station you passed 15 miles back. Most vehicles on a
half tank are going to get to the next stop. Don't get low on the stuff,
or you'll be walking. Tires. Talk about
a bummer. Flats blow (he he). Make sure your spare is in good condition.
IE has air in it. If you are going dirt roaming it, be extra careful. I
had one experience where I lost 2 tires on a dirt road. Luckily, I was
in a traveled location (Moffat Tunnel) and was rescued by the tow truck.
At home I carry 2 spares, and to date haven't gotten three flats on one
trip. Knock on wood! Overall vehicle maintenance
is a must. If you car is making funny noises don't head out into the middle
of nowhere! I really don't think I need to say that, but you never know.
If you're from the east, believe me, you've never been "in the middle of
nowhere" like you can be out west! It truly can be a desolate lonely place.
Another tip to help you: During the summer, while making those long sustained
climbs up many of the desert mountain passes, turn your air conditioner
. You may get a bit warm, but not nearly as hot as your car will get when
it is working hard to climb that hill. This is the main cause of overheated
vehicles during the summer. Turn the AC back on going downhill when the
stress on the engine has subsided.
First Aid / Emergency
First and foremost I am
no doctor and this guide is not meant to be an all inclusive instruction
manual to first aid or emergency procedures. It is simply some thoughts
and suggestions I have come up with to help you avoid disaster. Again
it could be a long while before that ambulance arrives, assuming you can
even contact them, so the actions you take at the moment of trouble will
likely determine the outcome of an emergency. The most important thing
you can do with first aid in the desert is to be prepared. Prevention is
the biggest key!
Follow these two simple rules and you'll likely avoid the biggest concerns for
health in the desert. They are: 1) Don't get sunburned and 2) Don't get
dehydrated. Quite possibly two of the most likely, and possibly most concerning,
things that can happen to you, are 100% avoidable!
If you are going to be spending some time in the desert there are always
a few questions to ask yourself. First, how do I stay out of the sun, and
second, how do I stay out of the sun. The sun us your cameras friend not
yours! You'll need the awesome light of the sun to properly expose
your images in the desert, but don't let the sun expose your skin too.
I've had some bad burns in my life and you'll be in agony for a good while,
depending on how bad the burn. I once itched for 5 weeks after peeling
from a bad burn, which was almost worse than the burn itself. Fortunately, getting
a sunburn is one of the easiest things to avoid. Sunscreen is your best
start. You easterner's with that fair skin (you know who you are), be forewarned
that the desert sun is unlike anything you've ever experienced before.
Don't think that "You can handle it." Other tips are wide brimmed
hats, small towels (for your neck), and sunglasses. your eyes will thank
you. Bring an umbrella for shade and don't hesitate to come in out of the
high afternoon sun, when the rays are the worst. Should you get a sunburn,
immediately remove yourself from further exposure and get the skin cooled
down with cold compress and / or a cool shower. You need to get as much
heat as possible out of the skin as quickly as you can to avoid more extreme
damage. Also aloe really does help, as your skin will dry considerably
after burning and adding moisture will help it to heal. Blisters should
not be popped and if severe enough a doctor should be consulted.
This occurs when you get too dry inside. A general rule for liquid consumption
is this 'If you feel thirsty, you are already starting to get dehydrated.'
Begin drinking water as soon as you can in the morning, and then throughout
your day out trackside. You want to get your body full of water. There
are several things that can occur, but the worst are Heat Exhaustion and
Heat Stroke, the latter of which can be deadly.
"Heat Exhaustion occurs when
the body's internal air conditioning system is overworked, but hasn't completely
shut down. In heat exhaustion, the surface blood vessels and capillaries
which originally enlarged to cool the blood collapse from loss of body
fluids and necessary minerals. This happens when you don't drink enough
fluids to replace what you're sweating away. The symptoms of heat exhaustion
include: headache, heavy sweating, intense thirst, dizziness, fatigue,
loss of coordination, nausea, impaired judgment, loss of appetite, hyperventilation,
tingling in hands or feet, anxiety, cool moist skin, weak and rapid pulse
(120-200), and low to normal blood pressure. Somebody suffering these symptoms
should be moved to a cool location such as a shaded area or air conditioned
building. Have them lie down with their feet slightly elevated. Loosen
their clothing, apply cool, wet cloths or fan them. Have them drink water
or electrolyte drinks. Try to cool them down, and have them checked by
medical personnel. Victims of heat exhaustion should avoid strenuous activity
for at least a day, and they should continue to drink water to replace
lost body fluids. Heat
stroke is a life threatening illness with a high death rate. It occurs
when the body has depleted its supply of water and salt, and the victim's
body temperature rises to deadly levels. A heat stroke victim may first
suffer heat cramps and/or the heat exhaustion before progressing into the
heat stroke stage, but this is not always the case. It should be noted
that, on the job, heat stroke is sometimes mistaken for heart attack. It
is therefore very important to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms
of heat stroke. The early
symptoms of heat stroke include a high body temperature (103 degrees F);
a distinct absence of sweating (usually); hot red or flushed dry skin;
rapid pulse; difficulty breathing; constricted pupils; any/all the signs
or symptoms of heat exhaustion such as dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting,
or confusion, but more severe; bizarre behavior; and high blood pressure.
Advance symptoms may be seizure or convulsions, collapse, loss of consciousness,
and a body temperature of over 108° F. It is vital
to lower a heat stroke victim's body temperature. Seconds count. Pour water
on them, fan them, or apply cold packs. Call 911 and get an ambulance on
the way as soon as possible."
drinking fluids be aware that regardless of what you think, water is the
best! Do not substitute alcohol or caffeinated sodas for water. I'm
not saying to not drink pop or beer, but make sure that you have plenty
of water along with them. In fact you'll need to drink more water if consuming
Coke, Pepsi, tea, or that Bud! The reason for this is the caffeine
constricts your blood vessels making it tougher for your body to shed heat.
Alcohol and caffeine are both diuretics, which means it causes your body
to remove water faster, IE you pee more. Not a good thing in a desert!
Ahh, the stinging, biting,
and poisonous types! Yes they are out there. Rattlesnakes, scorpions, spiders,
and others. We'll cover the main ones you are likely to encounter. Rattlesnakes.
First and foremost, they are the desert's vermin control, PLEASE don't
kill them if you can at all avoid it. I promise you they are far more afraid
of you than you are of them. They will leave you alone, given the chance!
That having been said, how do you avoid them? Rattlesnakes, like most desert
critters, are mostly nocturnal. This means they are on the prowl at night.
Unless you are out then, you are unlikely to ever see one. I have seen
exactly 2 in 10 years of extensive hiking and railfanning. Your best chance
to see one is in the mornings when they emerge to warm up and can generally
be found on the sunny side of the ledges and cliffs. Watch where you put
your hands and feet when climbing, especially during those morning hours.
This is when you are most vulnerable to being bitten. (Don't stick your
hand into a crevice to get a grip without looking. That crevice might be
occupied!) If you came face to face
with a snake, keep your cool! Sudden movements can provoke a strike. Assess
the situation and plan a route to escape. As a general rule, any striking
snake can only strike approx. 1/2 of its body length. Since most western
rattlesnakes are less than 6 feet in length, 3 feet of clearance is a good
rule of thumb. In other words, if you are over 3 feet from the snake, it
probably can't actually bite you. Moving back slowly will generally diffuse
the situation and you can then retreat to a safer location. Should you need to take
more drastic measures, try to get something between you and the snake,
a his likely target, your legs. A camera or camera bag can be slowly
lowered in between you and the snake, or maybe you can slip behind a bush
quickly. Whatever you can do to get something in front of you. If all else
fails, get ready and move fast!!! You will need that split second
of surprise to get away, so don't hesitate if you make your move. The snake
is likely going to strike and if you stop in that first moment he might
get you. Again, you probably only need 3-4 feet to be out of immediate
danger. If you are bitten, seek immediate medical help. You may only have
a few minutes to get this help. Scorpions, spiders,
and others (SSO's). I'll lump these together because the scenarios
in which you'll meet most of these will be the same. Most SSO's live in,
under or around items lying in the desert. Trash, wood, rocks are normal
places to find these creatures. If you aren't out there flipping over some
old rail spike container you most likely will never see an SSO. They
too like to come out at night and by then you should be snug in your bed.
If you are doing the night photo thing, just be aware that more is going
on around you. You are faster than any
SSO's you'll meet so if you see one don't panic, its not going to get you.
Tarantulas are common depending on where you are, but by far are not the
worst spider you'll see. The black widow is your most common poisonous
desert spider and are easily identified by the red hourglass mark on the
belly of an otherwise black as night spider. The bite of a black widow
is generally not deadly to a grown man, but is extremely painful and should
probably be looked at by a doctor in every case. Brown recluse spiders
are especially dangerous though less common than a BW. The bite of a recluse
can cause drastic sores which can become infected and develop into gangrene.
Any bite, by any desert critter, should be given due recognition by a doctor. Lizards. The Gila
monster is North America's only poisonous lizard. Its range is limited
to western and southern Arizona, but can also be found in extreme southeastern
California, southern Nevada, extreme southwestern Utah, and southwestern
New Mexico. It is slow and spends up to 98% of its time underground. It
is very unlikely that you will ever see one in the wild. Insects. The low
humidity of the southwest keeps biting insects to a minimum. Mosquitoes
and gnats are almost nonexistent. Biting flies are around, but not in great
numbers. Your biggest problem (and it's not that big) will be some kick
ass ants, and the ever growing hives of killer
bees. I've not seen any killer bees yet, but they continue to move
north from Mexico and are now found in every border state of the southwest
as well as NV.
If you come to the desert unprepared, the desert has a way of exposing
your lack of planning. This is generally not a good thing. I have traveled
many thousands of miles, in some of the most remote locations imaginable
across the southwest, and I can tell you that planning is the only thing
that assures the mind and comforts the soul. When you can go for miles
and miles and never see another living person, it is a good thing to know
what your capabilities are and where your limitations lie.
For those of you coming
form the east, where cities and towns are frequent, and rural only means
there is just one fast food joint as opposed to six, it won't take long
to realize that once you get off the beaten path out west, you really are
on your own. 'On your own' is especially true for railfans. Our hobby lends
itself to exploring locations far from civilization and often times under
less than ideal circumstances. It is with this challenge in mind that this
page was born, and for those coming to merely visit the desert, than this
guide is for you. Enjoy the desolation and relish the isolation, and respect
the conditions of the great American West!