Wednesday, September 28, 2022


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 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. 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.



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1 month ago

We once saw a ski boat near Needles washed off it’s trailer and went downstream during a flash flood almost a mile! Sure, camp in a wash if you want. You can have your own houseboat that way, : )

Wayne C
1 month ago

Look at the pictures of Death Valley after the rain a few days ago. 1.5” rain in a couple hours and it washed cars into each other and piled gravel around them and that was in the resort parking lot. No wash camping for me.

Bob M
1 month ago

Back years ago A group of us were TDY to Arizona. After work we were walking looking at some of the hand dug sites from gold prospectors. We had crossed a dry creek bed. There was a thunderstorm miles away. About a half hour later one of the guys looked up and a half mile away or so. The dry creek bed looked like someone just opened a dam. We had to quickly run across the creek to the opposite side. Never seen a sight like that before.

Donald N Wright
1 month ago

A long time ago, backpacking in Colorado, we followed the trail across the side of a mountain. The sun went down, the night was dark, and we were exhausted. The only place that was level was the trail, and that’s where we set up our tents. I would not recommend it, but sometimes you do what you got to do.

1 month ago

No. If you are not a trained geomorphologist or extremely experienced desert prospector, stick with the rule of thumb ‘don’t camp in a wash’. Sheesh. There’s a LOT of ground out there, no reason to look in washes.

1 month ago
Reply to  wanderer


David V
1 month ago

Did Johnny Robot write this article?

1 month ago
Reply to  David V

ROFL…I hadn’t even read the article yet, but upon seeing the headline I said to my wife: “I wonder if this is something they asked Johnny Robot!”

Part of Johnny’s answer may also have been: “If you are concerned about campground crowding, set up in a desert wash. You’ll have it all to yourself!” 😉

1 month ago

As Arizonans where desert washes are plentiful we would NEVER camp in a wash. There are some I’ve never seen with water but still wouldn’t take the chance. There is plenty of land out there, no need to be foolish and camp in a wash. My concern would be that many from outside the southwest may not be able to recognize a wash and camp there out of ignorance.

Don H
1 month ago

Sorry – this is just plain dangerous advice. Few to none of us is actually qualified to judge the potential for a flash flood, and encouraging campers to do so is just dumb. I sure hope that the next RV’ers to be washed away don’t sue this publication because “they said it was OK”…

Bob p
1 month ago

Why would anyone be so stupid as to set camp in a wash? A storm could happen 5 miles away that you couldn’t even hear and cause that wonderful flat wash to become a flooded river several hours after the storm has long gone. You never know how many ditches, creeks, fields, etc. drain into that wash. A 1/2” of rain 5 miles away could turn into several feet of raging river by the time it gets to to you.

Gary Broughton
1 month ago

Why would you want to stay in a hole, a dangerous hole, that you can’t see around you?

Vince Sadowski
1 month ago

I actually own all the way across the Tyson Wash in Quartzsite. The water runs north there and then turns west and flows to the Colorado. On Dec 31, 2016 we didn’t get that much rain in town. We woke up New Years morning to 4 feet of water flowing past.
There is no way you can know what is happening at the origin of the wash. I would never recommend camping in any wash.

1 month ago
Reply to  Vince Sadowski

Thanks for your very valuable insight, Vince. I think your advice is wisest.

Gordy B
1 month ago
Reply to  Vince Sadowski

I used to live in Cathedral City, Ca There was a 6ft. block wall around my yard. Between my house and the neighbor a block away up the hill, was a wash. It rained in the mountains 30mi. away, we never saw a rain cloud. A few hours later water and silt mud came cascading over the wall filling my back yard and pool. it was a foot and a half high on my sliding door to the patio, running in the side door of the garage and out the garage door. It did not rain at all in our area. Two years later it happened again when we had a light rain. Only a fool would take the chance of camping in a wash! Happy Trails.

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