GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL
It is hard to describe the excitement of exploring the remote, historic desert trails of the old West. The vast deserts of California, Nevada and other western states invoke images of dull uniformity for some when in fact they hold infinite variety, and are boring only to the uninquisitive. They offer unlimited opportunity for adventure, "far from the madding crowd".
The exhilaration of experiencing nature in the solitude of the outback, and the thrill of exploring long neglected roads and ghost towns are antidotes to modern urban development, and remind us it is not irreversible. On most of my expeditions you can go all day, or even for several days, without seeing another human being or vehicle.
RETRACING HISTORIC ROADS
Range Rovers give us a unique ability to explore remote, seldom visited areas through their "off road" ability. The phrase "off road" is a misnomer, as all such responsible exploration is done on roads. Traveling off roads is irresponsible and damages the environment. It is just that the old roads we use, such as old wagon roads used by the emigrants and pioneers, are not up to the standards most people are now used to in modern automobile travel.
Our Range Rovers are about the closest things most people can realistically have to those old wagons in terms of capability. On these types of old trails their speed is about the same or even slower due to the deteriorated road quality. Of course, modern "wagons" tread much more lightly with their pneumatic rubber tires and soft suspensions compared to the sharp hooves and narrow steel tires of the horse-drawn wagons. There is nothing quite like driving along some old primitive road in total solitude, imagining what it was like for the old-timers 100 or 150 years ago -- seeing the same views they saw and going at about the same speed. Talk about re-living history!
Unfortunately, visiting the more remote and beautiful places where one can experience solitude is becoming difficult at best as more and more of these primitive backcountry roads are being closed by legislation and regulation. This is often an overreaction to the past irresponsible excesses of a small proportion of four wheelers who have created an image, carefully nurtured by the media and environmental groups, as environmental vandals.
Such measures as the large-scale creation of "Wilderness" areas, sold to the public as methods of preserving the backcountry to be enjoyed by all, have the effect of closing off access to all but extremely fit young hikers. Notwithstanding these difficulties, it is still possible, with diligence and by traveling longer distances to the trailhead, to explore ancient roads and trails and experience the feeling of the early pioneers and freighters in their wagons.
GROUP VS SOLO TRAVEL
All books and brochures on back country exploration start of with the admonition to travel in pairs or groups. With two or more vehicles, you are much safer than with one. For example, statistically, the likelihood of two vehicles breaking down simultaneously are remote to nil, so you will have a means of getting back to civilization if yours does fail. Similarly, if your vehicle gets stuck, another vehicle can usually pull you out in minutes, as opposed to the hours you might spend digging and winching yourself out. Note, however, that it is not at all uncommon for both vehicles to become stuck. If you have a medical emergency -- well, you get the idea. Likewise it is safer to go overboard on precautions and preparation.
Some preparation and forethought can help ensure that remote journeys in the desert or elsewhere are not one way only. In the deserts of the West, the explorer can easily find himself 50 miles from the nearest civilization, well beyond the range of cellular phones and CBs. Tow trucks cannot be summoned and even the chances of meeting another vehicle are remote. Good maps and careful navigation are essential, as there are usually many more roads on the ground than on the map. The following is not a comprehensive guide to desert survival, but a few tips to supplement other sources of information. Accordingly, if the material below seems like overkill to you, then always travel in a group where other drivers are more experienced in off-pavement travel and have taken care of these essentials for you.
TELL SOMEONE WHERE YOU ARE GOING
The number one rule of survival in the desert or other hostile exploration environment is to tell someone where you are going and when you are expected to reappear. With this primary task covered, if you don't turn up within a reasonable time they will know where to get the search & rescue operation to start looking. Some people may argue that this rule violates the spontaneity of backcountry exploration, and granted, you may not know exactly where your route will lead, but you will have a rough idea. Tell your spouse, a friend, a ranger, the clerk at your hotel, or someone else reliable. Another option is to leave an envelope with someone to be opened if you don't turn up when expected. This point cannot be emphasized enough.
Whether you are in the desert, the forest, or the mountains, you and your vehicle are very small specks for someone to find when it comes to searching thousands of square miles. If you think that is an exaggeration, remember an area 32 by 31 miles is about 1,000 square miles. Put yourself in the shoes of those trying to find you.
VEHICLE MAINTENANCE, PREPERATION AND FAMILIARITY
Many people heading off pavement are literally asking for trouble by setting off into the outback in vehicles with leaking radiators, weak batteries and other symptoms of neglect. While breakdowns and becoming stranded can happen to anyone, you can at least minimize their likelihood by taking the following measures.
1. Keep your vehicle in tip-top mechanical condition. Renew your battery every couple of years, before it fails, or carry a booster. Perform all routine maintenance, and check all fluids before departing. A 50 mile stroll with a jerry can to the nearest town is not to be contemplated lightly, so top up before leaving pavement. In most desert "towns" marked on maps, gas is not available, let alone the super unleaded gas demanded by Range Rovers and some other vehicles. If yours is one such it pays to carry a bottle of octane booster. Use a brand that is compatible with catalytic converters and oxygen sensors.
2. Be familiar with your vehicle and its mechanical and electrical systems, in case you have to fix something. Bring a shop manual, basic spares and tools. Spares might include radiator hoses or repair kits, belts, and on older vehicles, ignition leads, distributor cap and rotor arm. Tools should include wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, vice grips, hammer, hacksaw blade, electrical tester, wire and tape. A puncture repair kit and tire pump are essential. More often than not, off-pavement tire leaks are caused by the sidewall getting punctured, so a repair often not possible. Therefore, a second spare tire is almost indispensable. If you use your only spare, think about what you will do if you get another flat.
3. Be prepared to survive a stranding, and live long enough for someone to find you. Survival gear might include first aid and snakebite kits, a flashlight, enough water and food for a week, extra water for yourself and the radiator (you can go through a lot in a short time in the desert), purification tablets, compass, mirror, blankets, candles, sunscreen, fire extinguisher and flares. An emergency aircraft locator beacon (EPIRB) is nice too, especially if you are traveling solo and get a broken leg.
4. Vehicle Recovery Equipment: The off-pavement abilities of a modern 4X4 allows it to get stuck or stranded in worse places, and when it does you will be glad you brought a shovel. Other handy vehicle recovery items include a tow strap, pick, crowbar, hand winch, or electric winch depending on the severity of the trail conditions being tackled. If you are in the desert, remember there is usually nothing to attach a winch cable to, so bring some kind of ground anchor.
NAVIGATION: KNOW WHERE YOU ARE AND KNOW WHERE YOU ARE GOING
Mastering basic navigation techniques is absolutely essential when traveling off pavement. For one thing, if you had to walk out, it would be nice to know what direction and how far you have to go. In remote terrain, regular road maps are of use only for getting to the general areas of interest. Your car's GPS system will not cover the roads in the areas we are talking about. Hand-held GPS units are very useful, but are generally best used in conjunction with proper topographic maps. The USGS 1:250,000 series is good for coverage of large areas but dated, omitting some newer gravel roads and showing many that are now closed due to "Wilderness" designations and over-regulation. An alternative is the DeLorme Atlas series. The USGS 1:100,000 metric series is excellent, and for fine detail of areas of interest there is no substitute for the USGS 7.5 minute series (1:24,000). Remember, though, that even these, like any map, can be incomplete or misleading.
When navigating in the outback, do not use the usual routine of looking for "the second right followed by the first left". This is a sure recipe for disaster; there are usually more turnoffs on the ground than shown on almost any map, so taking the wrong turn sooner or later is almost guaranteed. Instead, measure the distance to the next desired turnoff on the map, and make careful use of the vehicle's odometer to measure the corresponding distance actually traveled.
As noted above, the Global Positioning System (GPS) is now a wonderful aid to back country exploration, but be prepared to navigate with maps and a compass if it breaks down. Choose a GPS receiver with a Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) option, giving direct readouts of position in kilometers and tenths; this greatly simplifies its use with topographic maps. Both the 1:100,000 and 1:24,000 topos have UTM grid lines at kilometer intervals. Remember to convert between miles and kilometers when making any calculations.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU GET STRANDED
Regardless of what the trial lawyers would have us believe, no amount of care and diligence can guarantee prevention of disasters. If a stranding does occur, and efforts to repair or retrieve the situation are to no avail, what to do next? This rather disagreeable subject is beyond the scope of this page; books on desert survival should be referred to. Most recommend staying with the vehicle, on the grounds that it is easier than a human body for the search party to find. This is where the primary precaution above, letting someone know your itinerary before you leave, pays off. If you do try to walk out, don't underestimate the difficulties in this choice. Too many people have died in the attempt for this to be taken lightly. Here the importance of maps and navigation emerges again; if you do not know fairly accurately where you are, your chances of reaching help are correspondingly diminished.
Although the above matters are essentially disagreeable to contemplate, giving them some consideration before rather than during the expedition can reduce the risks and even enhance the enjoyment of your journey.