Desert Driving Tips That Could Save Your Hide
You'll need more than a bottle of water to stay safe and beat the heat
Planning to spend your vacation touring the deserts of the American West? Have to drive through the desert to get where you’re going? Moving to a sunny town in red rock and cactus country? Deserts can be uniquely beautiful — and uniquely dangerous, even if you’re in a vehicle and you have AC.
Remember where Death Valley got its name, and follow these tips no matter what desert you find yourself in.
Related: How to Survive a Hike in the Desert
Bring your cellphone and cellphone charger. Enough said.
Bring plenty of water. Water is not something to skimp on. Who knows whether you’ll find yourself detained longer than expected in the desert, such as by a flat tire. You’ll want a full gallon of drinking water for each passenger, advises the Maricopa County, Arizona, Parks and Recreation Department.
Get your cooling system ready. Engines run hot in the desert, so check the coolant fluid level before your trip. Also have your belts and hoses inspected; old ones can dry out and crack, leaving you stranded. Stow five gallons of coolant or water in case your radiator gets thirsty, advises the Maricopa County, Arizona, Parks and Recreation Department.
Check your battery. The average life expectancy of a car battery in Arizona is only 28 months, according to AAA. Plus, in the desert batteries can die suddenly without the typical warning signs, such as dim lights or slow cranking, that you might encounter in a colder climate. Keep an eye on the battery fluid level, remove corrosion from the cables and terminals and have it tested regularly.
Fill up on gas whenever you can. Gas stations may be few and far between, so fill whenever you have the chance.
Don't touch hot car parts. You can burn bare skin by touching overheated metal, such as a seat belt buckle or outside door handle, according to AAA Arizona. Kids are especially sensitive to such burns. Try to keep your car cool by parking in the shade, placing a sun cover against the windshield while parked and cracking open a window or two.
Never leave the kids in the car. No matter how cool the interior, never leave children or pets alone in a parked car. Once the air conditioner is turned off, temperatures can rise by 20 degrees or more in a matter of minutes. “Even if it's pleasant outside, you can overheat in a car,” says Valerie Vinyard, a spokesperson for AAA Arizona. “And cracking the windows doesn't really do much.
Watch out for “bleeding” tar. In hot weather, the tar that's normally embedded in road pavement can liquefy and bubble up to the surface. This creates a dark, slippery patch on the road. To drive over it safely, maintain a steady speed and don't steer or brake suddenly, advises the Utah National Guard.
(Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Stop for dust storms. Strong winds can generate a 3,000-foot-tall wall of dust called a “haboob” that can reduce visibility and pockmark windshields. If you encounter a dust storm, pull completely off the road, set your parking brake and wait it out. Turn off all lights, according to Arizona’s Department of Transportation, and stay in the vehicle with your seatbelt buckled.
If you can't pull over, turn your lights on and use the center line to guide you while driving at “an appropriately reduced speed,” according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Beware of rainstorms. Heat isn't your only enemy in the desert. Massive rainstorms occasionally race across the landscape, such as the summer “monsoons” of southern Arizona, according to the Arizona State University. Typically, “the streets are super slick for the first 10 or 15 minutes because the oil buildup hasn't had a chance to run off,” says Vinyard.
Rainstorms also will flood low spots in the road, such as between hilltops or through a creek bed. If you see water, don't try to cross it. Only two feet of depth can sweep your car — and you — downstream with the flood.
Related: SafeBee’s Top Driving Advice
Protect your tires. “Hot ambient temperatures and road surfaces can contribute to this heat, which may cause a tire to fail more quickly,” says Dan Zielinski, senior vice president for public affairs at the Rubber Manufacturers Association, which represents tire manufacturers.
Watch for signs your tires are overheating, such as a strong rubber smell. Also look for excessive wear on the tire's outer shoulders or small cracks in the tread and sidewall. “This occurs in most tires, but if the cracking becomes severe, where the cracks become more wide and deep, it can lead to tire damage,” says Zielinski.
Related: How to Change a Flat Tire
Stay with the car if you break down. If you have a breakdown, remaining with the vehicle is safer than walking to find help, according to the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department. You can become dehydrated and disoriented after only a short hike through the dry heat. Plus, a disabled vehicle is a lot easier for rescuers to spot than a disabled pedestrian.
Raise the hood to let passing motorists know you need help. Drink water and stay in the shade, even if it means lying underneath the chassis. One self-described weekend warrior suggests traveling with a tarp, two poles and lashings to create your own shade when you need it.
If you must leave the car, leave a note with the time you left and the direction you're walking.