The allure of Death Valley is undeniable - the extreme temperatures, otherworldly landscapes, rugged off-roading, and ability to escape from it all make it a mecca for those looking for adventure. Many who visit Death Valley are experiencing the desert for the first time, and just as many are desert experts; this environment has its own set of "common sense" precautions to take very seriously, and no matter your level of experience out here it always helps to be reminded of some key safety takeaways.
It's now mid-April, and the temperatures in Death Valley have already reached 100 degrees F. Spring and summer are no joke in these parts, and it's critical you keep yourself safe while out in the elements!
Growing up in Tennessee I was completely unfamiliar with the desert and the potential toll hiking, driving, and just being out in arid conditions could take on your body and mind (not to mention the AMAZING benefits of exposing yourself to these conditions). Not until I went to study geology in southwestern New Mexico did I start to really grasp how my body reacted differently to the hot, sunny, and exposed nature of the desert. This is a whole new ballgame! A mere shift in perspective. And when it comes to desert recreation, Death Valley is the destination where you'll need to plan the absolute best, especially during those hot spring and summer months.
Accidents occur every year in Death Valley. Prevention and preparation are key to making your time in and around the park safe and enjoyable. As evidenced recently, even truly experienced campers fall victim to the elements. The following tips are merely recommendations; do more research on the Death Valley National Park page and elsewhere before you visit the park.
I follow these guidelines each time I visit Death Valley, and since most of the time it takes a good bit of driving to get to your trailhead or your destination, packing extra things like water, food, first aid, etc. should be manageable with all of that extra space.
Tip #1 Let people know where you're headed.
If you plan on visiting a remote part of the park, a backpacking trip or, or simply away from the highlighted destinations on the park's map, let a friend or family member know what your itinerary looks like. Cell service is nearly nonexistent throughout the park (aside from at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek for some carriers), so if you do get into trouble, reaching out for help may be impossible.
If backcountry exploration is something you enjoy and do often, it might not be a bad idea to invest in a Garmin InReach, which allows you to text, send SOS alerts, and access area maps via a satellite connection (no cell service required).
Tip #2 Bring tire repair/inflation kits.
This is very important! While lots of the destinations in the park are accessible by 2-wheel drive, low-clearance cars, the extreme heat and geology (sharp volcanic and other types of rocks!) of the area make your tires susceptible to punctures/flats/blowouts.
Make sure your car has a spare tire! If renting your vehicle, ask the rental agent if there is a spare and if it's a full spare or a donut. Next, make sure you purchase some type of patch kit in case you need to mend a tire so it can take you back into cell range. A bike pump or a tire air compressor works as another mishap preventative tool.
Since driving is an absolute necessity for reaching the far flung beauty of Death Valley, taking care of those tires is essential.
Tip #3 Take more water than you think you will need.
Stay hydrated! Especially important during the warmer months (around the end of March-end of October), keeping extra water on hand is very important. If you rent a car, you can buy a (or more if you're with a group) 7 gallon water tank that's slender enough to fit behind the front seat in a sedan or anywhere in a truck bed/back of an SUV. While 7 gallons may seem like a lot of water, it's better to be safe than sorry when the temperatures are high, terrain rough, and possibility of getting stranded not zero.
When I head out for a full day hike, I'll bring at least 3 liters of water with me. I bring 2 Nalgenes and one 2-liter water bladder, which I don't fill up completely (usually I'll get it to ~1.6L). I find that I'll drink a bit less water in cool weather, but on warmer days, when it's 75 degrees and up, I'll likely drink all of it. Staying on top of your hydration is key to keeping a clear mind and functioning body (and having a great time!). If you start to feel confused, irrational, or sluggish, get to some shade and check to see if you've had enough water and calories - my state of mind is the first thing to shift when I'm dehydrated and undernourished on a hike.
To my knowledge there are at least three places you can fill up on water while in the park: Panamint Springs Resort, the gas station at Stovepipe Wells, and the Visitor Center at Furnace Creek. Comment below if you've found other spots where we can fill up!
Tip #4 Bring plenty of food.
Since I was young, I've always enjoyed packing like I'm going on a big adventure, even if it's a day hike or a one+-night backpacking trip. In Death Valley, thinking like this can save you if you get stranded. Salty snacks like chips, olives, jerky, and trail mix can help restore electrolytes lost through sweat. Nuun tablets or Gatorade are also great to pair with your water to help balance those lost electrolytes.
My go-to snacks on the trail (for a day hike) are salted mixed nuts, dried mango (Costco has a great option), chips (my favorite for hiking), and an apple/orange. If it's an all-day adventure, I'll also pack a sandwich for lunch. I don't mind carrying this kind of weight around with me - just think, as you eat it only gets lighter!
Tip #5 In case of a flat, car breakdown, or wreck, do not leave your car.
If your car breaks down, you get stuck in sand or mud, or get a flat tire, resist the urge to leave your car to find help. During the spring and summer months, leaving your car could spell disaster to you and your party. Do your best to remain calm, stay hydrated, and wait for help. Leaving your car behind reduces the chances that someone can find and help you, increases your chances of getting lost/injured, and puts you in danger of becoming dehydrated and disoriented.
By letting people know ahead of time where you will be on which days, you have a safety net in place in case things go wrong. Staying with your vehicle ensures that when someone comes to find you, you will be somewhere close to where you said you'd be.
Tip #6 Have a blast. This is the best place around.
Death Valley is such an incredible area. By preparing well, thinking ahead, and being aware of your surroundings, you should be able to have the time of your life. If you have any additional tips and tricks for staying safe in the outdoors, let us know!
For additional tips and resources, visit the Death Valley National Park site. Also, my favorite book (maybe of all time?) is Michel Digonnet's Hiking Death Valley: A Guide to Its Natural Wonders and Mining Past . This book has SO MUCH good information about amazing hikes, the best places to camp, local flora and fauna, mining history of the area, and more. After visiting the park 10+ times, I can say I still pull this book out to learn more about new spots. It's fun and easy to read; Digonnet is a refreshing wealth of information. I also recommend his Hiking Western Death Valley National Park: Panamint, Saline, and Eureka Valleys book. No better guidebooks exist for this area!