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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Should boondocking in desert washes be avoided?

Setting up your boondocking campsite in a desert wash is considered by many RVers to be foolhardy and should be avoided. Many real life stories circulate about hikers being washed away in flash floods and boulders, trees, and splintered RVs tumbling down washes ahead of a raging torrent.

But these tales do not in themselves prove that every wash ("a dry creek bed or gulch that temporarily fills with water after a heavy rain, or seasonally" - Wikipedia) is unsafe to set up camp. To make an informed decision whether to camp in a wash, you need to study several factors about the wash. These include:
  • Configuration and shape - Is the wash deep and narrow with steep sides constricting flow
  • Width - Determines how far run-off can spread out, which also determines flow rate and depth
  • Distance from head - The further from the head of the wash the more runoff will build up and the deeper the runoff will be
  • Area of drainage - A wash that drains a large area of plateaus with many feeder washes will accumulate more runoff, producing deeper water, faster current, and more debris
  • Evidence of previous flooding - Height of debris caught in limbs of shrubs and trees growing in the bottom of washes
  • Season - Most flash floods occur in summer when heavy, short downpours produce a quick buildup of runoff
  • Weather predictions - Keep up with weather predictions for the immediate and surrounding areas for at least three days ahead
Washes to avoid would include those that are narrow with steep sides (photo left) that accumulate water like the end of a funnel. These are the most dangerous, especially if they are long and drain a large area with many feeder washes. These you would avoid completely in summer, and in winter if rain is predicted within five days in the immediate or surrounding areas. If you can find a wider wash, take it instead.

Those washes that would be safe to camp in would be wide, with no restrictions that would cause runoff to build up to anything over a couple inches in depth in heavy summer downpours. They would be short with few feeder washes to build up run-off, and have little evidence of debris caught up in tree branches and no evidence of uprooted trees or large boulders that had washed down.

The best time to camp in these washes would be when most of us are there, during the winter snowbird season, when rains are light and soaking, unlike the torrential downpours of the summer monsoons. Many dispersed desert camping areas are in washes that are safe, such as Craggy Wash (photo top) in Lake Havasu City.

But with climate change, El Nino effects, and the possibility of aberational weather patterns, it pays to keep abreast of the coming weather, and if the possibility of heavy rain is predicted, then it's time to move to higher ground for a few days.

Learn about Bob Difley's eBooks on Boondocking and Desert Boondocking at


  1. Another good to know blog Bob. I don't think I would camp in a wash in AZ.I have read and seen
    what a flash flood can do to cars and people who tried to get through a drainage ditch in Phonix,AZ. High ground is much better.
    To each their own where they park and camp.

  2. There is more to consider than merely the risk of a flash flood. Everyone knows the advice to camp 200' from water. But that rule is misunderstood -- correct LNT is camp 200' from the [i] normal seasonal high water mark[/i]. Many desert streams will have a trickle down the center of a wide scour. Camp anywhere in that flood zone and any waste or trash accidently left behind (or intentionally buried) will be in the water flow next flood.

  3. Many years ago I was exploring around Ocotillo in s. Anza Borrego. There was a beautiful evening orange cloud display, and I drove up In-Co-Pah/Devil's Gorge to photo it - a GIGANTIC anvil-head cloud moving up from the Gulf of Ca. I decided to camp up top. (If I can find an old slide, I'll scan it.) That night (sometime around 1980's) Ocotillo, in a very wide wash bottom, was largely washed away by a 5' head of water. I still often camp in washes, but look for weather, and usually on a berm or outcrop in the wash bottom for peace of mind.

  4. As for the comment "people who tried to get through a drainage ditch in Phonix,AZ", I consider a drainage ditch to be a steep sided wash that accumulates runoff from a wide area, and therefore prone to flash flooding and a place to avoid when rain is in the prediction. If flood waters can't spread out, they will go up the sides of whatever channel they are running in.