Desert 101

When you come to visit us here in Canyon Country, these basic pointers and facts will help ensure you have a safe and fun time. The Grand County Search & Rescue folks are busy enough; you don’t really want to utilize their services. Use your head, have fun, enjoy the canyon country, and don’t get lost or hurt.

For You

This is a big one. Plan on drinking about a gallon a day if you’re active here in the desert. This means thinking ahead, pre-hydrating before your ride, and having the means to carry a lot with you. Partying hard the night before dehydrates you so take that into consideration as well. To plagiarize a popular ad, “Hydrate or Die” – believe it.

Getting out of the sun can be challenging at times, so make the best of it when the opportunity arises. Mid-day sun and dry wind can cause rapid dehydration. Wear protective clothing & headwear, and use sunscreen.

Slickrock is a hard surface and unprotected heads don’t fare too well on impact with it. Wear your helmet and live to ride another day.

These days there are tons of energy foods on the market that are easy to pack and effective to use. That said, fig bars, fruit, sandwiches, or even Snickers bars are also very useful for those who “don’t eat astronaut food”. Bonking twenty miles out in the desert backcountry with just a couple empty Powerbar wrappers in the bottom of your pack is not good – plan ahead.

Carrying a basic first aid kit is a good idea, but knowing how to use it is even more important. Don’t count on someone else having what you need and coming to your rescue.

At the very least, carry a pump and patch kit. Goathead thorns and cactus needles mean that flats are part of the riding experience in the desert and walking your bike out just ain’t fun. Consider carrying (and knowing how to use) other tools as well. A sensible tool kit might include a chain tool, allen keys, tire levers, wrenches, screwdrivers, shock pump, and zip ties. If this sounds like a lot to carry, take a look at the multi-tools available on the market these days and also consider the weight of your bike when it needs to be carried back out to the trailhead.

LOST & (hopefully) FOUND
Getting lost can be fun – as long as you can get yourself unlost. Getting lost can also be dangerous and even deadly. There are lots of great guidebooks & maps available for the Moab area. Get one, carry it, and use it. Learn how to navigate or hire a guide. The canyon country can be a confusing place, and an unplanned night out might be cooler than you’d think. Don’t just prepare yourself with the idea that everything will go perfectly; bring extra clothes, extra water, and matches on your ride and hopefully you won’t have to use them. Our local Search & Rescue team is very good at finding adventurers “ lost in the desert” but all too often what they find is a body – don’t be one of them.

Season and Weather

The prime riding season gets started around mid March and continues through the end of May. Winter can still be in full swing elsewhere while here in the desert you can find perfect riding conditions. Nights are still pretty cool, however, so plan on needing warmies at camp. Rain and stormy weather (and the possibility of flash floods) are more common in early spring but they can happen anytime. Annoying bugs aren’t much of a problem, but they do show up more in the later half of spring.

Yes, it gets hot. Yes, really hot. June is not too bad but July and August see mid day temperatures in the 100’s as a general rule. All the horror stories about heat exhaustion and dehydration come true – taking off for a hard ride at noon is not a good idea. You can, however, enjoy the desert on a bike in the summer. Early morning rides (after the rocks have cooled down all night) are fine; daylight past 9:00pm means evening rides can be longer, and (if you have the proper equipment) night riding is fabulous. Late summer brings a few thunderstorms so be prepared.

The second great riding season. September and October bring back the perfect riding weather with milder days and cool nights. This usually lasts into early November and often later. It’s not uncommon to see a 45 degree temperature difference between mid-day and mid-night so plan accordingly. Even though it’s not too hot, the humidity is very low so dehydration is still a threat.

It does snow here, and it does get cold. Winter riding is definitely possible but snow, ice, and freezing temperatures can be a factor, especially in late January and early February. Still, winter conditions are comparatively mild and relatively warm days (short ones) make riding worthwhile.

For the Desert

“Cryptogamic soil”, “microbiotic crust”, “biological soil crust”: these are all names for a unique life form here in the desert. It’s a mix of moss, lichens, microfungi, algae, and cycanobacteria that is neither plant nor animal but is very much alive. It is essentially the topsoil of the desert ecosystem, stabilizing erosion and fixing nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil. It is also unfortunately quite fragile and subject to serious damage by careless biking and hiking. Learn to recognize it, avoid tracking through it, and stay on the trail.

The desert sandstone is spectacular stuff. The ancient Anasazi left their traces in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs. Dinosaurs left and even deeper impression. Please don’t feel the need to add your own “works of art”. Altering existing glyphs or trying to chisel them out to take home with you is definitely uncool. Leave them as they are for the next thousand years please.

If you can carry it out on your ride, you can carry it back in. The dry climate means that trash that would normally take 400 years to biodegrade will take 800 years so don’t leave your garbage out there. This is important at your campsite as well as on the trail.

Most of the desert critters and nocturnal, so riding during sunlight hours is generally low impact. Still, there are creatures out there that don’t need to be harassed so please be mindful. Riding through potholes is damaging to brine shrimp (check these little guys out if you get the chance). Snakes and lizards on the trail should just be left alone. If you see a coyote, relax, be still and watch. Don’t stalk it once it leaves. Please don’t chase elk or bighorn sheep during rutting season.

No, we don’t mean your riding buddies, we’re talking excrement here. This is mainly a campsite issue but it goes for the trails as well. Keep your waste away from water sources and run off areas. Pack it out (and your paper) if at all possible.

Canine friends generally don’t mix well with desert riding. Besides the dehydration factor and the slickrock tearing up their paws, dogs tend to make a mess of the crypto, dig up fragile vegetation, terrorize wildlife, and they don’t carry out their waste like you do. Think twice before bringing Fido on the ride.

If you do get lost, don’t try to climb down a cliff to a road you might see below. The possiblity of getting “rim-rocked” (where you slide down something and can neither climb back up or continue down) is very high. If you are unsure of anything, follow your tracks back!! You can always get back that way, it just takes longer.


Note: All of the photos on this page are by world-renowned Moab photographer Tom Till and are featured in his book “In the Land of Moab – Photography & Essays”. To see more of his work, visit his website at www.tomtill.com.