Off-Roading in the Desert: What to Know Before You Go

A trip to the desert can be one of the greatest adventures we’ll take as off-roaders — climbing up trails along cliffs, admiring the endless slick rock and beautiful arches. There’s a sense of freedom and untapped adventure that comes with the desert.

But wait — before you gas up and go, take note: while the desert is a place of great adventure, it can also be the most unforgiving. We’ve made a list of critical desert tips to know before you go. (And fall and winter seasons are a great time to explore when temperatures aren’t scorching hot!)

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Download Your Maps for Offline Use

One of the best parts of escaping to the desert is being able to unplug and get away. It’s so primitive! Phones? We don’t need phones! Yeah, not quite. Be prepared to lose Internet access when you need your trail maps more than ever. Don’t waste your time with paper maps that are limited in trails and can get lost or damaged. (I’ve definitely dropped a trail book in water more than once. Oops.) Carry your phone and download your maps for offline use so, with or without service, you know exactly where you are and how to get back.

Know the Terrain

Before heading out, familiarize yourself with the terrain. Are you in an open OHV area? Will there be canyons or cliffs, trails through trees, or do you have to cross any creeks? Scan your satellite maps and drop Waypoints at any spots that may require extra gear or attention.

onX Offroad Bonus: The Offroad App uses your phone or tablet’s internal GPS so you know exactly where you are, even when out of service. Additionally, the new 3D maps allow you to tilt the map and see the land like never before.

Track So You Don’t Get Lost

The desert’s landscape is stunning: all the red, yellow, and brown rock, the cliffs and canyons. However, if you’re not paying attention, it can quickly all start to look the same.

That is a recipe for disaster.

At the trailhead, remember to start your Tracker so you have a clear track of where you’ve been. This will help you backtrack your steps if you get lost, and also stay on route if you’re doing an out-and-back trip.

Equally important, tell a buddy where you’re going. Drop a Waypoint in the App and share it in a quick text: “Hey, just wanted to let somebody know I’ll be here on Saturday. Jealous? :)”

Follow the Weather Closely

I’m not sure if it’s the weather gods or bad luck, but I swear I keep hitting the nastiest weather. Who else has been off-roading and all of a sudden there’s a torrential downpour? A blinding windstorm? An unexpected blizzard? No matter what time of year you may be off-roading in the desert, the weather can change quickly (and yes, it can snow!) Summers bring dangerously high temperatures. And the rest of the year, nights in the desert are cold.

Follow the weather forecasts closely and keep monitoring it throughout your trip. Don’t just rely on the sky; those winds can carry in bad weather quickly.

onX Offroad Bonus: Up-to-date weather is built right into the App for you, right on the main map screen. Tap the green circle in the lower right to see a 7-day forecast for temps, wind, precipitation, and sunrise and sunset.

Pack Emergency Gear

Desert off-roading trips can take unexpected turns (bad weather, flat tires, getting lost) which is why you should always be prepared for the worst. Here are a few items we never leave home without:

  • Battery pack and charger for your phone — If you’re lost and still in service, you may need to call for assistance. If you’re out of service, having access to your downloaded maps could save your life.
  • Recovery Kit — Make sure you have desert-specific recovery tools, such as traction boards and a shovel. It’s always good to carry a winch kit, but you may not have anything to winch to in sand or on rock, so don’t rely on it. We also like having kinetic straps, chains, a jack, and an air compressor.
  • Food and water — Pack enough energy bars and non-perishable food for your entire crew. I always have a stash of bars in the glove box. Yeah, they’ve melted and frozen, and have been smashed to smithereens, but they’re still edible. Also, make sure you have plenty of water, even if the temps are cool.
  • Warm gear — You may set out on your trip when it’s 80 degrees, but the desert nights can be very cold. Your Tommy Bahama won’t look so fly when you turn blue. Pack layers and some emergency blankets.
  • Lights — No one likes to change a tire in the dark using their phone’s light. (Been there.) Pack some headlamps and quality LED lights you can set up as you work.
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Jenny Sheets

Jenny Sheets is the copywriter and on the product marketing team for onX Offroad. She lives in Montana where she dirt bikes, trail runs, camps, and overlands with her husband and dog.