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9 Tips for Safe Desert Road Trips

Bryce Canyon

There’s something about the desert: the light, the colors, the unusual cacti and spring wildflowers, the vast and beckoning spaces. All these things combine to create the perfect backdrop for a road trip. Before heading out on your desert adventure, though, read our tips on how to stay safe along the way.

#1: Carefully Plan Your Itinerary

When planning your itinerary, factor in road conditions and historical weather patterns as well as sightseeing, rest-area, and overnight stops. A well-laid itinerary is especially important if you’re going into more remote areas and/or off the main roads. It’s also important if you’re driving a rental car. Some agencies have restrictions on taking their cars off-road, so check rental agreements and insurance coverage and make necessary allowances in your itinerary.

#2: Take a Hub-and-Spoke Approach

Plan an itinerary that starts and/or ends in a metropolitan or resort area or make it a base for day trips or overnight excursions. On a trip to Las Vegas, for example, you can visit the South Rim of the Grand Canyon on an overnight. You can also head north into Utah’s red-rock country for a day or two. Alternatively, select a national park route. The parks service has lots of great resources and amenities that will make your trip both interesting and safe. Also, look into America’s Byways routes—scenic and time-honored.

#3: Consider Working with a Travel Agent

Given that desert travel requires a certain amount of expertise, it’s not a bad idea to work with a travel agent who specializes in national parks, camping, the outdoors, etc. Such an agent will be able to guide you in terms of itinerary, rental car, accommodations, outdoors outfitters, tour options, and more. Tripology.com  is a great website on which to find a travel specialist by destination and interest. Also, check out the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) referral site.

#4: Get Medical-Evacuation Insurance

Among other things, med-evac insurance will cover you should you need to be air-lifted (not covered by all general health-insurance plans) to a major hospital, rather than being transported to a local clinic, which might not have the facilities needed to handle serious illnesses or injuries. Check the terms and conditions of such plans, though, to be sure you’re covered based on the activities you’ll be undertaking; some plans won’t cover you if you’ll be participating in adventure sports, say.

#5: Gear Up the Car

Before heading out, take care of any repairs you’ve been putting off, even minor ones. Be sure that your lights, windshield-wiper blades and fluid, and the spare tire are all good to go. Schedule a complete tune-up, oil change, and tire replacement or rotation. You should plan to bring a tire jack, jumper cables, a gas can, reflective triangles and vests, flares, a small took kit, and heavy-duty work gloves.

#6: Pack for the Unforeseen

You obviously need plenty of food and lots of water (not only for yourself, but also, possibly, for your car). Plan to drink more water than you usually would, especially at higher altitudes, where dehydration sets in even more quickly and can catch you unawares. Also pack a battery-powered lantern, a smaller flash light, lots of extra batteries, extra prescription medication, a very well-equipped first-aid kit, sunscreen and lip balm (UVA/UVB and with an SPF of at least 20), sunglasses, hats with wide brims, good walking/hiking shoes, and blankets and warm outer layers of clothing (it gets chilly at night in the desert).

#7: Have Back-Up Plans

Have an atlas in addition to your phone and GPS. Leave your itinerary with a reliable person back home; include check-in times for the various segments of your journey, check in on schedule, and don’t deviate from the itinerary without alerting your contact. If you breakdown, stay with your vehicle. If you have cell service and have called roadside or emergency services, someone will be there soon enough. If you don’t have cell service, your contact back home will call for help when you miss your check-in.

#8: Make Convenience Stops Whenever You Can

In some deserts there are long, desolate stretches of road. Along such routes, stop at rest areas, gas stations, and convenience stores whenever you can to stretch your legs, stock up on water and snacks, and top off the tank. Even if you don’t need gas or sundries, pull in and inquire about upcoming stops—and whether or not they will be open by the time you’ll reach them.

#9: Respect Your Surroundings

Desert drives often take you through protected park and even tribal lands, so follow the usual principals of “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” Also, respect gated, fenced off, or posted areas; these are closed off for a reason, sometimes even indicating private property.

Rand McNally’s writers and editors have created several great desert road trips, among them: Utah Canyon Country  and Southern Arizona Loop. Enjoy!