Thursday, September 21, 2023


Is it safe to camp in a desert wash?

By Bob Difley
Setting up your boondocking campsite in a desert wash is considered by many RVers to be foolhardy and should be avoided. Many real-life stories circulate about hikers being washed away in flash floods, and boulders, trees and splintered RVs tumbling down washes ahead of a raging torrent.

But these tales do not in themselves prove that every wash (“a dry creek bed or gulch that temporarily fills with water after a heavy rain, or seasonally” –Wikipedia) is unsafe to set up camp. To make an informed decision whether to camp in a wash, you need to study several factors about the wash. These include:

  • Configuration and shape – Is the wash deep and narrow with steep sides constricting flow?
  • Width – Determines how far run-off can spread out, which also determines flow rate and depth.
  • Distance from head – The farther from the head of the wash, the more runoff will build up and the deeper the runoff will be.
  • Area of drainage – A wash that drains a large area of plateaus with many feeder washes will accumulate more runoff, producing deeper water, faster current and more debris.
  • Evidence of previous flooding – Height of debris caught in limbs of shrubs and trees growing in the bottom of washes.
  • Season – Most flash floods occur in summer when heavy, short downpours produce a quick buildup of runoff.
  • Weather predictions – Keep up with weather predictions for the immediate and surrounding areas for at least three days ahead.

Washes to avoid would include those that are narrow with steep sides (photo right) that accumulate water like the end of a funnel. These are the most dangerous, especially if they are long and drain a large area with many feeder washes. These you would avoid completely in summer, and in winter if rain is predicted within five days in the immediate or surrounding areas. If you can find a wider wash, take it instead.

Those washes that would be safe to camp in would be wide, with no restrictions that would cause runoff to build up to anything over a couple inches in depth in heavy summer downpours. They would be short with few feeder washes to build up run-off, and have little evidence of debris caught up in tree branches and no evidence of uprooted trees or large boulders that had washed down.

The best time to camp in these washes would be when most of us are there, during the winter snowbird season, when rains are light and soaking, unlike the torrential downpours of the summer monsoons. Many dispersed desert camping areas are in washes that are safe, such as Craggy Wash (photo top) in Lake Havasu City.

But with climate change, El Niño effects, and the possibility of aberrational weather patterns, it pays to keep abreast of the coming weather. If the possibility of heavy rain is predicted, then it’s time to move to higher ground for a few days.

However, with the crazy and unpredictable weather these days, it might be safest just to avoid camping in a desert wash. It’s your own personal choice, of course.

You can find Bob Difley’s RVing e-books on Amazon Kindle.



  1. Wow, while these observations are valid and reasonable, anyone who sets up in a wash has too be a local expert, has to keep tuned in 24/7 to upstream weather, and have a good exit strategy. If you don’t have a warning system don’t do it. Winter storms in the desert are no longer benign puddle makers. Most rescues in our area of Tucson are the result of locals thinking that there were a few inches of water in the wash. after a rain Those days are gone, at least find a playa that is 12-24″ above the low spots you’ll have more time to get moving.

  2. We have camped in washes in the Mojave in southern California. But we spent a lot of time there and pretty much knew the history of the washes we camped in. And always checked the weather report.

    • It is very irresponsible to even publish an article that even suggests camping in a wash. With the lack of common sense displayed in todays world someone will undoubtedly camp in a wash without heeding the “what ifs” mentioned in the article. We see the lack of common sense everyday with people trying to get a selfie of themselves and a wild animal, suddenly going bad and being injured. “Oh this is a perfect place, look no weeds or bushes, the sun is shining bright.” But 4 miles away dark clouds are forming for a gully washing, frog strangling rain storm that’s going to wash away those campers inside of 30 minutes.

  3. I was in Arizona sightseeing where some previous were looking for gold across a dry creek-bed. A thunderstorm hit miles away. As we were walking around a short time later we looked up the dry creek bed and a wave of water was coming full speed down the creek bed. Quickly we ran to the other side before the water came. My 1st and only experience with a desert creek wash.


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