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Southwestern Deserts and Railfanning.

 Railfanning in the Desert Southwest
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        I have created this page to highlight and outline general rules, needs, thoughts, theories, conditions, and perspectives on coping with the deserts of the southwest, particularly with the average railfan in mind. If you are visiting a desert area for the first time, especially if you plan on railfanning in the summer, you need to read this page. Please take a few notes (or print this page) and understand some basic principles of the desert and how it can affect your railfan trip. As a general guide, the deserts I'm referring to include the Mojave, Sonoran, and the Great Basin areas. This includes for the most part the ENTIRE states of Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. Parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and the southern portions of California also apply as there are many isolated desert locations there too. See the map for my rough thoughts on the areas I consider to be deserts. The shaded areas shown here are general in nature and should be supplemented with more in depth research on your particular destination. For example, there are some very hot, dry places in the southern reaches of Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming.

(Blue lines on map represent Interstate Highways, not RR tracks)


Sections of this guide
Seasonal Info Supplies Transportation First Aid / Emergency Critters

Seasonal Info

        The first and foremost consideration of any desert railfanning trip has got to be the weather. Lets review what you can generally expect from the desert by season. Be sure to get detailed info for your specific area from any reputable weather forecasting center. A meteorologist I am NOT! Besides, the area outlined above eclipses 600,000 sq. miles, an area larger than Alaska, so what is going on in one location might not be the same as in a different location, possibly even one just a few miles away!

        Spring (February to May): Early in the spring the desert will come alive and is by far the nicest time to visit. Daytime temperatures can crawl into the 80's and nighttime lows may be in the 40's or lower. Spring will bring longer days and everything in nature will be in a buzz. Keep an eye out for occasional strong early season storms, and remember to take cover during a lightning storm. If you don't have a building to retreat too, the next safest place is your car. Storms may bring rain, snow, sleet, or hail, depending on many factors. This is one of the harder times to predict what to expect.
        Summer (June to early Sept.):  Maybe the most inhospitable place on earth is the desert at the height of summer. Temperatures across this region can soar to 110+. Monsoonal rains across Arizona and New Mexico can, and do, bring flooding to those normally dry, harmless looking washes. Lightning is especially dangerous as shelter can be hard to find and storms can arise quickly.  Night temps are often wonderful though and 60's usually dominate. There is nothing better than being in the middle of nowhere and looking up at the billions of stars in the heavens, with no city lights to dampen their brightness.
        Autumn (Sept to mid-Nov):  Fall will bring a needed respite from the scorching summer heat, but the damage is done by the time the cool air arrives. Trees, grasses and other vegetation usually have assumed a deep shade of brown, and are brittle and dry. Leaves will have fallen off  and with winter around the corner, everything is preparing for the cold. Temperatures will vary widely depending on location, but you might expect day time highs in the 80's in early autumn cooling to the mid 60's or less by late fall. Higher elevations will reach the fall season sooner than lower ones, so be thinking of heavier clothing if you are going to be in these areas.
        Winter (Late October to February):  Desert winters can be as harsh and dangerous as the summer and specific precautions should be heeded during these times to make your trip enjoyable. You can expect to find plenty of cold air and snow depending on you location. Elevation is quite possibly your biggest concern. Ice and other inclement weather can be experienced in a flash. Temperatures well below freezing in the higher elevations and heavy snows are the norm, so be aware of your location and adjust for the situation you are in. In the more "traditional" desert areas the temperatures will be more mild and comfortable during the colder parts of the year. There have been many trips where I have had short sleeves and shorts on in mid December, only to have on the heaviest coats on the next day because a storm blew through the night before. Quite possibly the biggest concern for winter railfanning is the wind. Even a slight breeze can really affect the temperature you feel and the need to deal with extreme wind chills should be planned for. Remember that 70 mph train will be pulling along some healthy winds behind it and can make it feel much colder than it is.
        *** Again I cannot stress enough the need to get SPECIFIC weather information about the location you plan to visit, during the time you will be there. A forecast that is much over 4 days old or so is probably too far into the future to be very accurate or useful. Something less than 3 days in advance would be the most preferable. The area covered in this guide is simply too large a space to be painted with such a broad brush as I have done. Don't assume anything when in the desert, because that is usually when you'll get into trouble. ***


While not a complete survival list, here are some must have items as well as a few toys to have in the desert:

Anytime of year

        Depending on what type of trip you are planning, supplies can vary widely.  I'm assuming for this page that you are only going to be doing day excursions and returning to a hotel for the night. (If you are camping, I'll also assume that you know what the heck you are doing, and as such I won't go into it here.) Generic items (not seasonal specific) for a day trip in the desert may include toilet paper, trail mix or other snacks, lip balm (this is very helpful), cooler for drinks, maps of your area, cell phones, and a first aid kit. A folding chair for a place to sit is also something nice to have along, and much more comfy in many instances than the car seat.
        A note about cell phones. Don't count on a cell phone to bail you out of trouble.  Depending on your provider and location you may or may not get a signal. Be prepared to sustain yourself in the event of an emergency. As a general rule if you are near a US interstate (I-15, 40, 80, etc) you'll probably get reception for your phone. There are exceptions to this rule though, as I have tried several phone providers over the years and have found gaps with all of them while on the various western interstates. You don't even want to know about off-the-beaten-path routes, yikes!
        Speaking of 'off the beaten path railfanning', and the supplies to do it with, you should ask yourself a few questions while you plan a desert escape. They might include the following: How far am I from traveled roads or a town?  How much gas do I have? How much water do I have? If I get stuck in some remote location, will I have enough water to last until I can get out? Does someone know my planned route today in case I don't check in?  If you think I'm being a little too worrisome, just come live out west for a bit and you'll hear the reports of some fool who died of whatever stupid act, that in almost all cases was completely avoidable with a bit of planning. Don't underestimate the extreme nature of the desert is all I am stressing.

Summer specific supplies

        For the typical day run, the most important commodity is water. You'll need (in the summer especially) potentially 2+ GALLONS for each person! A recent trip to the Needles Sub (Ludlow, CA) in June, saw me consume 6  32 oz bottles of water. That was along with several glasses at the restaurant for lunch and being in the AC for 3 hours during the hottest part of the day. WATER, WATER, WATER!!  Don't be fooled by winter time temps either, the humidity is still very low and you can still get just as dehydrated in the winter as you will in the summer. Of course you'll not need the quantity as summer, but still drink plenty, you'll be glad you did.
        During the summer; sunscreen, sunglasses, and shade of some kind is a must. (umbrella, tail gate on an SUV, something.)  Your goal is to stay out of the sun as much as possible. We are not camels! You can't stay in the sun all day and not be affected. Keeping out of the direct sun, and hydration is your biggest defense against Heat Stroke and Heat Exhaustion.
        If you plan on hiking any, even just from the road to the tracks, good shoes are a plus. Sharp plants abound in the west and those sandal things just don't cut it. Remember happy feet means happy railfan!  Pants can be a plus, so bring a pair with you, even during summer. Rocks can be hot, and if you are intent on climbing some rock for that great picture, pants may keep you from getting burned. A hat with a wide brim, towel for your neck, and a loose fitting long sleeve shirt may keep you from a serious sunburn and may not be a bad thing to bring along.

Winter specific supplies

        Winters will be very cold in many location across the desert, so bringing appropriate clothing is a must. Staying warm will make your railfan trip more enjoyable and safer too. The key to staying warm is to stay dry. For those who don't know snow, be aware of the effects of melting snow on your shoes and clothing. Wet feet and cold temps = disaster. Keeping dry in cold temps is the number one goal. So with that in mind keep a water repellent jacket as your outer layer, and shoes should not allow water to seep in. If possible an extra pair of shoes and a few dry socks are a good idea. Remember, chances are you are going to be standing near tracks where the potential for wet melting snow exists. Gloves and knit caps are a plus as well as long johns for those colder locations.

        If you plan on visiting snow country, think about bringing snow shoes to tromp around in. Drifts tend to occur along the ROW and there are no plows coming here. Snow shoes will help you get around for that perfect winter shot.
        Obviously if you are someplace with no snow, then this is far less of a concern. Simple warm clothing is your only need. The southern portions of the mapped area above usually experience very mild winters, with nothing more than a light jacket being needed. That said, all areas mapped out can experience bitter cold and should be thoroughly understood before any trip is made. Yes it can get cold in LA and San Diego, though it is less frequent and less severe than other locations...obviously!
        Like the summer, water is still very important, as the low humidity and dry winds can cause dehydration. While not as bad as the stroke / exhaustion, getting dehydrated means at the very least feeling miserable and could ruin your trip.


Vehicle Maintenance

        Another critical part of a desert railfan trip is the mode of transportation. I'm assuming a car or truck of some kind, so if you show up on a bicycle, I expect you to know what you need.  Your car is your lifeline in the desert, especially if you plan on getting off the beaten path. Any number of things can cause a problem. I'm no mechanic, but here are a few things I would be checking for.
        Before you head out, be sure there is sufficient engine coolant. Over-heating is a real problem. I've personally seen 4 cars burn to the ground (not mine thankfully) because they overheated in the summer. Like you and  water, engine coolant is your cars best friend.
        Gas. If your are in a unfamiliar place keep your tank above half full. It isn't unheard of to be 70 to 100 miles from the next gas station. Remember that the closest gas, might be the station you passed 15 miles back. Most vehicles on a half tank are going to get to the next stop. Don't get low on the stuff, or you'll be walking.
        Tires. Talk about a bummer. Flats blow (he he). Make sure your spare is in good condition. IE has air in it. If you are going dirt roaming it, be extra careful. I had one experience where I lost 2 tires on a dirt road. Luckily, I was in a traveled location (Moffat Tunnel) and was rescued by the tow truck. At home I carry 2 spares, and to date haven't gotten three flats on one trip. Knock on wood!
        Overall vehicle maintenance is a must. If you car is making funny noises don't head out into the middle of nowhere! I really don't think I need to say that, but you never know. If you're from the east, believe me, you've never been "in the middle of nowhere" like you can be out west! It truly can be a desolate lonely place.

        Another tip to help you: During the summer, while making those long sustained climbs up many of the desert mountain passes, turn your air conditioner OFF . You may get a bit warm, but not nearly as hot as your car will get when it is working hard to climb that hill. This is the main cause of overheated vehicles during the summer. Turn the AC back on going downhill when the stress on the engine has subsided.

First Aid / Emergency

        First and foremost I am no doctor and this guide is not meant to be an all inclusive instruction manual to first aid or emergency procedures. It is simply some thoughts and suggestions I have come up with to help you avoid disaster.  Again it could be a long while before that ambulance arrives, assuming you can even contact them, so the actions you take at the moment of trouble will likely determine the outcome of an emergency. The most important thing you can do with first aid in the desert is to be prepared. Prevention is the biggest key!

       Follow these two simple rules and you'll likely avoid the biggest concerns for health in the desert. They are: 1)  Don't get sunburned and 2) Don't get dehydrated. Quite possibly two of the most likely, and possibly most concerning, things that can happen to you, are 100% avoidable!

        Sunburn:  If you are going to be spending some time in the desert there are always a few questions to ask yourself. First, how do I stay out of the sun, and second, how do I stay out of the sun. The sun us your cameras friend not yours!  You'll need the awesome light of the sun to properly expose your images in the desert, but don't let the sun expose your skin too. I've had some bad burns in my life and you'll be in agony for a good while, depending on how bad the burn. I once itched for 5 weeks after peeling from a bad burn, which was almost worse than the burn itself.
        Fortunately, getting a sunburn is one of the easiest things to avoid. Sunscreen is your best start. You easterner's with that fair skin (you know who you are), be forewarned that the desert sun is unlike anything you've ever experienced before. Don't think that "You can handle it."  Other tips are wide brimmed hats, small towels (for your neck), and sunglasses. your eyes will thank you. Bring an umbrella for shade and don't hesitate to come in out of the high afternoon sun, when the rays are the worst.
        Should you get a sunburn, immediately remove yourself from further exposure and get the skin cooled down with cold compress and / or a cool shower. You need to get as much heat as possible out of the skin as quickly as you can to avoid more extreme damage. Also aloe really does help, as your skin will dry considerably after burning and adding moisture will help it to heal. Blisters should not be popped and if severe enough a doctor should be consulted.

        Dehydration:  This occurs when you get too dry inside. A general rule for liquid consumption is this 'If you feel thirsty, you are already starting to get dehydrated.' Begin drinking water as soon as you can in the morning, and then throughout your day out trackside. You want to get your body full of water. There are several things that can occur, but the worst are Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke, the latter of which can be deadly.

Following are excerpts from OSU page

    "Heat Exhaustion occurs when the body's internal air conditioning system is overworked, but hasn't completely shut down. In heat exhaustion, the surface blood vessels and capillaries which originally enlarged to cool the blood collapse from loss of body fluids and necessary minerals. This happens when you don't drink enough fluids to replace what you're sweating away. The symptoms of heat exhaustion include: headache, heavy sweating, intense thirst, dizziness, fatigue, loss of coordination, nausea, impaired judgment, loss of appetite, hyperventilation, tingling in hands or feet, anxiety, cool moist skin, weak and rapid pulse (120-200), and low to normal blood pressure. Somebody suffering these symptoms should be moved to a cool location such as a shaded area or air conditioned building. Have them lie down with their feet slightly elevated. Loosen their clothing, apply cool, wet cloths or fan them. Have them drink water or electrolyte drinks. Try to cool them down, and have them checked by medical personnel. Victims of heat exhaustion should avoid strenuous activity for at least a day, and they should continue to drink water to replace lost body fluids.
        Heat stroke is a life threatening illness with a high death rate. It occurs when the body has depleted its supply of water and salt, and the victim's body temperature rises to deadly levels. A heat stroke victim may first suffer heat cramps and/or the heat exhaustion before progressing into the heat stroke stage, but this is not always the case. It should be noted that, on the job, heat stroke is sometimes mistaken for heart attack. It is therefore very important to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat stroke.
        The early symptoms of heat stroke include a high body temperature (103 degrees F); a distinct absence of sweating (usually); hot red or flushed dry skin; rapid pulse; difficulty breathing; constricted pupils; any/all the signs or symptoms of heat exhaustion such as dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting, or confusion, but more severe; bizarre behavior; and high blood pressure. Advance symptoms may be seizure or convulsions, collapse, loss of consciousness, and a body temperature of over 108° F.
        It is vital to lower a heat stroke victim's body temperature. Seconds count. Pour water on them, fan them, or apply cold packs. Call 911 and get an ambulance on the way as soon as possible."

        Note:  When drinking fluids be aware that regardless of what you think, water is the best!  Do not substitute alcohol or caffeinated sodas for water. I'm not saying to not drink pop or beer, but make sure that you have plenty of water along with them. In fact you'll need to drink more water if consuming Coke, Pepsi, tea, or that Bud!  The reason for this is the caffeine constricts your blood vessels making it tougher for your body to shed heat. Alcohol and caffeine are both diuretics, which means it causes your body to remove water faster, IE you pee more. Not a good thing in a desert!


        Ahh, the stinging, biting, and poisonous types! Yes they are out there. Rattlesnakes, scorpions, spiders, and others. We'll cover the main ones you are likely to encounter.
        Rattlesnakes. First and foremost, they are the desert's vermin control, PLEASE don't kill them if you can at all avoid it. I promise you they are far more afraid of you than you are of them. They will leave you alone, given the chance! That having been said, how do you avoid them? Rattlesnakes, like most desert critters, are mostly nocturnal. This means they are on the prowl at night. Unless you are out then, you are unlikely to ever see one. I have seen exactly 2 in 10 years of extensive hiking and railfanning. Your best chance to see one is in the mornings when they emerge to warm up and can generally be found on the sunny side of the ledges and cliffs. Watch where you put your hands and feet when climbing, especially during those morning hours. This is when you are most vulnerable to being bitten. (Don't stick your hand into a crevice to get a grip without looking. That crevice might be occupied!)
        If you came face to face with a snake, keep your cool! Sudden movements can provoke a strike. Assess the situation and plan a route to escape. As a general rule, any striking snake can only strike approx. 1/2 of its body length. Since most western rattlesnakes are less than 6 feet in length, 3 feet of clearance is a good rule of thumb. In other words, if you are over 3 feet from the snake, it probably can't actually bite you. Moving back slowly will generally diffuse the situation and you can then retreat to a safer location.
        Should you need to take more drastic measures, try to get something between you and the snake, a his likely target, your legs.  A camera or camera bag can be slowly lowered in between you and the snake, or maybe you can slip behind a bush quickly. Whatever you can do to get something in front of you. If all else fails, get ready and move fast!!!  You will need that split second of surprise to get away, so don't hesitate if you make your move. The snake is likely going to strike and if you stop in that first moment he might get you. Again, you probably only need 3-4 feet to be out of immediate danger. If you are bitten, seek immediate medical help. You may only have a few minutes to get this help.
        Scorpions, spiders, and others (SSO's).  I'll lump these together because the scenarios in which you'll meet most of these will be the same. Most SSO's live in, under or around items lying in the desert. Trash, wood, rocks are normal places to find these creatures. If you aren't out there flipping over some old rail spike container you most likely will never see an SSO.  They too like to come out at night and by then you should be snug in your bed. If you are doing the night photo thing, just be aware that more is going on around you.
        You are faster than any SSO's you'll meet so if you see one don't panic, its not going to get you. Tarantulas are common depending on where you are, but by far are not the worst spider you'll see. The black widow is your most common poisonous desert spider and are easily identified by the red hourglass mark on the belly of an otherwise black as night spider. The bite of a black widow is generally not deadly to a grown man, but is extremely painful and should probably be looked at by a doctor in every case.  Brown recluse spiders are especially dangerous though less common than a BW. The bite of a recluse can cause drastic sores which can become infected and develop into gangrene. Any bite, by any desert critter, should be given due recognition by a doctor.
        Lizards. The Gila monster is North America's only poisonous lizard. Its range is limited to western and southern Arizona, but can also be found in extreme southeastern California, southern Nevada, extreme southwestern Utah, and southwestern New Mexico. It is slow and spends up to 98% of its time underground. It is very unlikely that you will ever see one in the wild.
        Insects. The low humidity of the southwest keeps biting insects to a minimum. Mosquitoes and gnats are almost nonexistent. Biting flies are around, but not in great numbers. Your biggest problem (and it's not that big) will be some kick ass ants, and the ever growing hives of killer bees. I've not seen any killer bees yet, but they continue to move north from Mexico and are now found in every border state of the southwest as well as NV.


In Closing


        If you come to the desert unprepared, the desert has a way of exposing your lack of planning. This is generally not a good thing. I have traveled many thousands of miles, in some of the most remote locations imaginable across the southwest, and I can tell you that planning is the only thing that assures the mind and comforts the soul. When you can go for miles and miles and never see another living person, it is a good thing to know what your capabilities are and where your limitations lie.

        For those of you coming form the east, where cities and towns are frequent, and rural only means there is just one fast food joint as opposed to six, it won't take long to realize that once you get off the beaten path out west, you really are on your own. 'On your own' is especially true for railfans. Our hobby lends itself to exploring locations far from civilization and often times under less than ideal circumstances. It is with this challenge in mind that this page was born, and for those coming to merely visit the desert, than this guide is for you. Enjoy the desolation and relish the isolation, and respect the conditions of the great American West!