Tips for a backpacking trip to death valley?
December 4, 2011 10:19 AM   Subscribe

First time backcountry camping in the desert. I'll be biking and hiking. Any tips from people who've gone on similar trips?

I'm planning a trip this january to death valley and was wondering if anyone had some tips on preparing for it and places to go in the park.

I'll be landing in Las Vegas and will buy a used bike there (from craigslist, or elsewhere?) which I will use to get to Death Valley. I think I would spend the first night at Furnace Creek because that's the closest campground when entering the park. Afterwards I want to leave my bike somewhere and go out on foot for a few days, backcountry camping. I'm thinking around stovepipe wells, maybe?

I have 12 days total, including my time in Las Vegas at the start and end of the trip.

This will be my first experience in the desert (I live in Montreal) so I'm looking forward to getting some tips from people who have more experience with desert camping!
posted by tristpinsm to Travel & Transportation around Death Valley, CA (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is minor except if it isn't--when hiking in cactus country have a pair of tweezers in your first aid kit.
posted by LarryC at 10:37 AM on December 4, 2011

be very careful with water. it's better to hike with too much than not enough. bring redundant filtering/purifying equipment, e.g., tablets and a filter. research where you can get water, and plan around that. ask locals and other hikers.
posted by cupcake1337 at 10:51 AM on December 4, 2011

It sounds like you're doing this on your own, without a buddy? That is an incredibly bad idea anywhere, but moreso in Death Valley. How do you plan on calling for help if you're injured? Your mobile phone won't be of any assistance. At the very least, take some kind of personal emergency locator beacon.
posted by buggzzee23 at 10:55 AM on December 4, 2011

Please talk to rangers before you leave and let them know where you are going and when you intend to return and check back in with them. Check with them about current availability of water on your route- most places I backpacked in Death Valley had none at the time I visited, even though it was their "rainy" season on paper. The NPS Death Valley site has some information about potential routes and water, but it is safest to assume that unless you have trustworthy and current information otherwise you will be packing it all in with you. Death Valley would not be my first suggestion for a novice backpacker, so please be aware of how serious the water situation can be, and don't get in over your head in terms of navigation.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:35 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you're going to be in desert land for a long trip, make sure to have shoes that you can easily shake the sand out of. It might sound like a big deal, but I've had friends on trips develop huge sores and blisters since they could not get the sand out of their boots every morning. Also, make sure to check the boots every morning for the standard creepy crawlies, I've had more problems with them in the desert than anywhere else.

Seconding, the thing about water. You can never have too much.

Finally, check the humidity levels. With low humidity, walking into the shade is like finding a nice air conditioner. We found it was easy to plan some morning and evening hiking with a nice siesta in the shade when it got really hot. It was nice to lay in the shade and nap. The shade made a huge different when dealing with the heat.
posted by Nackt at 11:36 AM on December 4, 2011

Death Valley rocks, and its a great place to go in the winter by yourself. I've done some similar trips. The days are short and it gets pretty damn cold at night, make sure you have a nice warm bag, and enough light juice to read or something. Camping off the valley floor, even just a little bit, will be much warmer.

There are some great slot canyons near stovepipe wells, with like a 10 mile approach hike but getting there with a bike makes for a super great day. Funeral Canyon for example. When I did this, the ground was hard and it was slow going up the alluvial fan on the bike to the foot of the canyon, but coming back down was sweet, no pedaling, desert sunset cruise. I did not lock up the bike at the canyons, but you might want to if you are worried about that stuff.

There are also some great hotsprings in Saline valley, quite close to death valley proper. And sand dunes, and most likely a decent sized group of naked hippies, so plan accordingly.

Also, especially on a bike, the racetrack is totally cool and remote, but don't ride on it if its wet, you will screw it up.
There is a really nice route that goes up the backside to the racetrack that is off limits to all but the nuttiest 4WD's, but readily accesible via bike.

Corkscrew peak is a great day, a really neat mountain and you will almost certainly see noone.

My suggestion for some sort of itinerary would be 2 nights @ furnace creek, see the tourist stuff there (all really cool). Then move up to the slightly more rugged stovepipe wells, see the slot canyons, daytrip to corkscrew, maybe if the weather is accommodating try Telescope peak - (the lower 48's biggest mountain from base to top). Head out to racetrack/saline (via Darwin Falls, a cool oasis) where you can easily set out on foot if you want, and you will be more comfortable with the desert. And lastly, if you have time, head out the park on the west side and check out 395 south in the rainshadow of the Sierras. Bishop, Lonepine, etc are unbelievably beautiful, then it poops you out into the mojave and you can get back to vegas via the 15. Once you are all good and dirty in the desert, poach a soak in one of the swanky Vegas hotel's hot tubs.
posted by H. Roark at 11:44 AM on December 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

It can be quite cold in the park at that time of year (well below freezing at night), especially at higher elevations.

That said, I took a magical trip to Death Valley in December about 10 years ago. We made the trip out to the Racetrack in the northern part of the park and stayed out for a few days. The only person we saw out there was a lone park ranger, perhaps because the road was recommended for 4WD. Maybe that would be good for a bike? The otherworldly Racetrack was well worth it.

That said, please tell a ranger/friend where you're going!
posted by seachange at 11:45 AM on December 4, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the replies!

Water was one of my concerns, I'll be transporting as much as I can, 5L a day is a minimum I think. I hadn't considered the problem of sand getting stuck in my boots though. I have a pair of standard hiking boots, which I think should be pretty easy to clean out...

About snakes and insects that might be dangerous, I still haven't done any specific research, but I read that winter months weren't the time of year when they're most present.

I hadn't heard of the Racetrack but it sounds pretty cool! To get there through Paramint from Stovepipe wells, to you have to leave the park or is there a road/trail that goes directly?
posted by tristpinsm at 12:02 PM on December 4, 2011

You can get to racetrack from the N or S. The road from the N is much better, but the cool kids take the road from the S (Lippincott or something), that comes up from Saline. You can get to there N from Panamint. These are some pretty remote roads - you will probably get no more then 1 or 2 cars per day on a lot of them. The Saline Valley road is famously bad - it looks not so bad and you are clipping along at 30 or so, but then these damn sharp rocks come out. A friend in a 4wd toyota pickup got 2 flats on one trip out, making for some excitement.

If you want to see the Racetrack, but want a more accessible 2WD graded road, come from the N. You also get to see the very cool Ubhebe Crater on the way.

I've chewed through a 1/2 dozen DV guides and found this one to be the best.
posted by H. Roark at 12:14 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Looking at a map, getting to Racetrack might not be possible as I won't be travelling by car... Thanks for the recommendation! I've been looking for a good guidebook and this one looks pretty great.
posted by tristpinsm at 12:23 PM on December 4, 2011

>will buy a used bike there (from craigslist, or elsewhere?)

I think you're leaving a lot to chance, here. You might try renting one instead.
A broken axle can make 20 miles suddenly seem like a long, long trip.
posted by the Real Dan at 12:26 PM on December 4, 2011

Response by poster: Renting a bike would be more expensive I think and less flexible, but I'm definitely considering it if I can't find a suitable bike in time. Do you know of any good shops or to buy or rent in Las Vegas?
posted by tristpinsm at 12:33 PM on December 4, 2011

The only thing I haven't seen mentioned is to be aware of the weather and flash flooding.

I usually bring a weather radio to get updates and a portable CB radio.

Channel 9 on the CB is for emergency response and makes me feel a little more safe when I'm in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of kids.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by snsranch at 6:12 PM on December 4, 2011

You can rent a satellite phone reasonably cheaply, and they've gotten smaller and lighter. You could argue that having it detracts from the true wilderness experience, but it sure is a nice safety net.
posted by SampleSize at 8:53 PM on December 4, 2011

If you have a GPS with built in maps, do NOT believe it in Death Valley and elsewhere. Many of the roads in less-populated places exist only on old maps, or haven't existed for 50 years, etc. There are plenty of stories of people getting lost for days because they believed their GPS. Buy real, paper maps from a reputable source, or stay on paved roads and well-established trails. Also a compass. You can be real mean to a Brunton and it will still tell you which way is north.

The desert is full of sharp things like cactus spines and thorns. Because it doesn't rain, sharp bits of metal that fall off of cars stay on the road for longer as well. When you get to LV and buy your bike, also buy good quality, kevlar-belted touring tires, pack a spare, pack a good number of tubes, and plenty of stuff for patching. A real frame pump is good too. Also lube. Replacing the chain and brake pads would be a good idea as well. The nearest bike shop is a real long ways away from Death Valley.

If you have an iPhone, buy the Starwalk app. The stars, if you haven't experienced desert stars, will Blow. Your. Mind.

Water- Platypus containers are amazingly sturdy, quite light, and make life much easier than a billion bottles.
posted by rockindata at 8:15 AM on December 5, 2011

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