This post is based on my old one that was closed when it became inactive. Rather than continually linking to it, I’m starting a new thread.
It’s not quite spring, but Death Valley is warming up and people from places with more moderate climates are asking about summer travel there. Here are a few basics.
Yes, it does get toasty. May-to-September daytime temperatures in the 120’s F range/48-52ºC are not rare. In July and August, they are typical. It often stays above 100ºF/38ºC at night. The relative humidity is very low, 10% or less, unless thunderstorms are coming. Health risks include dehydration, severe sunburn, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. But thousands of people enjoy Death Valley in the summer and live to tell about it. Please be one of them.
• Carry AND DRINK lots of water, about a gallon a day per person. DON’T SKIMP. In this weather, we constantly lose moisture from evaporation. It goes out when we perspire, eliminate, talk, and just breathe, two quarts or more a day even at rest. A couple of signs that dehydration has already started: you feel thirsty, you’re getting a headache, you are urinating much less than normal, your P is unusually dark. Drink spring, well, or other untreated water only in a dire emergency, and filter it if possible. Even filtering it from one container to another through your bandanna a few times is better than not at all. Hopefully you’ll be prepared enough never to need to do this.
• Fruit juice and carbonated, caffeinated, or alcoholic drinks are not a substitute for water.
• Even if your appetite is lower, some food is needed to maintain body electrolytes. These are minerals like sodium, potassium, and calcium that act on the same principle as battery electrolytes: they carry electrical impulses that keep our nervous system operating. The salty sweat that we taste on our faces or that stings our eyes is precious electrolytes being lost, and large water intake dilutes the remaining minerals. Over time, this can cause drowsiness, headaches, loss of muscle control, even heart problems. Food with salt or beverages with added electrolytes help restore the balance.
• Wear a hat with a brim to shield your head and neck. If you want, add a “cool collar,” a fabric band or scarf containing crystals that absorb water to form a cooling gel. Used as a bandanna or headband, it can cool your carotid arteries or jugular veins by several degrees, cooling the blood supply between your heart and brain. These might be sold at the visitor center and resorts. A wet bandanna does the same thing but dries quickly; cool collars work for a couple days on one soaking.
• Loose clothing of light-colored natural fabric is most comfortable, and woven is cooler than knit. Many desert experts suggest long sleeves and pants, but wear what’s comfortable for you. Use a sunscreen of your choice for your skin type. Wear sunglasses. Wear some kind of footwear. I prefer shoes or boots for hiking because sandals don’t give the ankle support I need, or protect from bumps, scrapes, or loose gravel and sand getting in.
• High fever with headache, dry, hot, flushed skin, disorientation, lapses of consciousness, and/or diminishing perspiration are symptoms of HEATSTROKE. The body has lost its temperature-regulating ability and is cooking, the way a roast continues to cook for awhile after coming out of the oven. This is a dire life-threatening condition, not to be mistaken for heat exhaustion. Anyone with these symptoms must be gotten into shade, cooled rapidly, and given immediate medical treatment. Untreated, victims go into a coma and die.
• Keep tabs on the weather, especially thunderstorm forecasts. This might sound like welcome relief, but in fact, DV is so dry that rain in the mountains often evaporates high in the atmosphere, never reaching the Valley floor. You’ll see gray “streamer” clouds in the distance and feel the humidity. If you think 120º under a clear sky and blazing sun is hot, wait until it’s clouding up and 120º with 37% humidity. The big risk is flashfloods. DV’s many alluvial fans (fan-shaped formations at canyon mouths) are the product of repeated deposits of ton upon ton of rocks, sand, plant material, etc., washed down and swept through canyon narrows with enormous force. Never hike or camp in canyons or washes if storms are coming. We cannot outrun a flashflood. If you’re trapped and buried, your next of kin may never know what happened to you.
• Don’t approach, feed, or handle animals. In midday heat, you’re unlikely to see snakes because they can’t regulate their body temp so they stay under cover. But don’t put hands or any body part where you can’t see. Don’t try to befriend coyotes, kit foxes, ravens, or any other creatures. Federal law prohibits interfering with wildlife, including feeding. Any animal may become defensive and attack, or harass people for food, and animals that become pests may need to be destroyed.
• Drive carefully. The biggest cause of visitor deaths is traffic accidents--not collisions, but one-car wrecks. Traffic is usually light, a temptation to speed. Dips and curves can sneak up on you. Combined with inclines (esp. Daylight Pass, Mud Canyon, Beatty Cut-off, Emigrant Canyon, and Townes Pass), they can send vehicles out of control.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR CAR
• Plan each day with enough gas to cover your travel plans and any unexpected side trips. Stations are at Furnace Creek, Stove Pipe Wells, and Panamint Springs in the park; Beatty, Pahrump, Lathrop Wells, Shoshone, Trona, and Lone Pine outside. Pahrump and Beatty are typically the cheapest, Panamint Springs the highest.
• Don’t overuse your brakes. On long descents, use brakes and transmission together to slow down. Many Americans who have driven only automatic transmission are not used to downshifting, but you need to do this. “Riding” brakes excessively will eventually overheat them and perhaps make them fail.
• Most modern cars will not overheat. But if this worries you, consider carrying a couple gallons of radiator water. On some roads, you’ll see signs before a long upgrade advising to turn off a/c to prevent overheating. This may not be necessary, but do it if the engine does overheat. Tanks of water are located around the park where vehicles are likely to overheat; this is not for drinking. Remember to let a hot radiator cool off before opening.
AND KEEP IN MIND
• Road conditions can vary with weather or construction. Check with the Park Service to avoid problem spots, delays, or disappointment at finding something closed. Call 760-786-3200 or go to the park website: nps.gov/deva/…road-conditions.htm
• There is no cell phone coverage. Pay phones are at resorts, visitor centers, and a few major road junctions. Other than that, the way you get help is to drive, walk, or send someone. If you see someone who may be in distress, broken down, or lost, check on them; it can be a matter of life or death. I have done this to discover it was just someone taking a break or enjoying the sun, but no one has ever gotten upset or failed to thank me for checking. Death Valley is a wilderness where nature comes to meet us, not a Girl Scout or Father-Son Webelos wienie roast. That's part of its appeal. So use a few common-sense measures, stay well, and have a wonderful time enjoying one of the Earth's greatest treasures.