Desert Sense

In the desert, the amount of water you can carry or find controls every aspect of your trip planning. So be prepared: Bring plenty of water with you. In case of emergency, here are the three main sources of water you can find in the desert.

1. Groundwater (springs, creeks, and intermittent creeks)

  • Where to look: Topographic or geologic breaks, such as at the foot of mountain ranges or at outcrops of hard, impermeable rock layers.
  • Clues: Unusually green vegetation and water loving trees like cottonwoods, willows, ashes, and sycamores.
  • Note: Look in the early morning, especially in bends and low spots in the bed.

2. Trapped run-off (water pockets, rock tanks, and plunge pools)

  • Where to look: Find water pockets on top of large boulders and level expanses of sandstone that hold standing rainwater. Rock tanks and plunge pools form in normally dry washes.
  • Clues: They are found upstream from the mouths of desert canyons. Look for wildlife activity. They often form in a series along a favorable stretch of canyon; so don’t give up if the first one has no water.
  • Note: Some water pockets can hold water for months after a storm.

3. Artificial water sources (drilled wells, guzzlers, and stock tanks)

  • Where to look:

    a) A drilled well usually has a windmill, storage tank, and water trough.

    b) Guzzlers (which collect rainwater, usually for wildlife), have a collection area of plastic or concrete, which feeds into a storage tank and a trough.

    c) Stock tanks are built to provide water for livestock by bulldozing a small earthen dam across a wash.

  • Clues: Guzzlers and stock tanks are generally built on gently sloping terrain. They can be seen from high distances. Looking toward the sun early or late in the day can help, because the small ponds reflect the water.
  • Note: The water troughs placed strategically and fed by water trucks hold stagnant water and should only be used in case of extreme emergency. Also, make sure to use a water purification system with every water source mentioned above.

- Adapted from Desert Sense: Camping, Hiking and Biking in Hot, Dry Climates by Bruce Grubbs (The Mountaineers Books, $16.95 paperback).

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