Is it safe to camp in a desert wash?

11

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 left) 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; and if the possibility of heavy rain is predicted, then it’s time to move to higher ground for a few days.

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

##RVT819 ##RVDT1380

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Graybyrd
2 months ago

Years ago I was weekend-exploring desert roads south of Vernal, Utah. We were miles from any notable landmarks. I noticed a small dust cloud moving in the distance, slowly coming closer from the far direction beyond a small wash we’d crossed. I glanced at the horizon and noticed heavy black clouds hanging low over a miles-distant high ridge on the skyline. I turned around, and headed back a couple miles to where we’d earlier crossed. I had an uneasy feeling, and didn’t want to get cut off and stranded. After crossing, we waited. Soon I could hear a rattling, clattering sound in the distance, with dust thrown in the air. It was a wall of debris, thick and churning. No water was visible as the tapered-back ‘plug’ was forced down the wash. Soon, as it moved past where we were standing, the churning, muddy water became visible behind the debris dam, and after that it became a roiling flood rising to the level of the clay dirt walls of the gully. Never camp there. Never be complacent..

Admin
RV Staff (@rvstaff)
2 months ago
Reply to  Graybyrd

Wow, Graybyrd! What an experience! Good thing you used your instincts and got out of there. Take care, and stay healthy. 😀 —Diane at RVtravel.com

Irv
2 months ago

I think this was a balanced article with appropriate cautions and things to consider.

One important factor not clearly stated is you need to be especially careful of drainages that begin farther away than you can see and hear storms. Your wash may carry water from storms many miles away.

Nanci
2 months ago

The last two winters in Arizona have had several huge rainstorms with significant flash flooding. We avoid camping in washes and always check distance from wash before boondocking. If needing to drive through a wash we now make sure that it is hard enough to not get stuck. Experience with foot deep loose gravel is a great teacher.

Don
2 months ago

All of these “factors” are subject to individual judgement – which is so often faulty that I much prefer just NOT camping in a dry wash. Period. Any time, any wash… FAR better safe than sorry!

Seann Fox
2 months ago

Sorry Bob I have to disagree. Camping in the wash at any time is just plain stupid. I’ve seen Riggs washed away in January in California

Bob Love
2 years ago

Think about what’s stupid! Driving anywhere. Taking an airplane ride. Riding a roller coaster. Climbing a ladder. Getting in (or out) of the tub or shower. Opening your front door. Deep-frying a turkey. Even getting out of your bed! I’ll bet all of these things have probabilities of injury or death in line or higher than intelligently camping in a desert wash. Everyone takes chances every day by living, just try to be observant and careful and enjoy life as you can. Not getting out of bed is not an option.

Richard Baker
2 years ago

S AZ…..

Richard Baker
2 years ago

Living in S AS, I find this to be a very irresponsible article. It IS STUPID too camp in a dry wash at ANY time of the year!

Ren Hinks
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Baker

It hasn’t rained in Tucson for several months now and living in southern Arizona, you know that 99% of the time the flash flood warnings are during the monsoon, not winter. Paying attention to weather forecasts should be sufficient heads up that a blanket statement of never staying in a wash, in my opinion, is overly cautious. I’d be more concerned about not getting stuck in a sandy wash or in the warmer months, encountering all the wildlife that travels in the washes.

Veronica Cavanaugh
2 years ago

Thanks for posting this article! I love the Southwest so this is some great advice for me!