Camping Safety in Big Bend National Park

Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada: The Highland Heart
Big Bend National Park: A Study in Contrasts

A jagged bolt of lightning ripped through the sky, illuminating a vast desert plain. My eyes had yet to recover from the first onslaught when another struck. Then another. Another. The car I was hiding in, having abandoned my tent, suddenly seemed like feeble protection. Its metal frame was no more impressive than a tin can against the storm’s might.

Dear God, I thought. I’m going to die.

A storm brews over the desert


Thankfully, I didn’t die, but that night I witnessed the most thrilling (read: terrifying) electrical storm I had ever seen. It was a poignant reminder of the unyielding might of nature.

Camping Safety

 

Big Bend National Park is situated in the middle of the dry Chihuahuan Desert, but there are more temperate mountain islands throughout. It has a long dry season, but sometimes there are overcast, rainy skies and thunderstorms.

When I visited the park with Marie, who blogs over at Ardent Camper, we had no idea what we were getting into. Now that I’m safely out of the storm (seriously, “few scattered thunderstorms” will never seem like a benign prediction again), I’ve had a chance to organize my thoughts and come up with a few essential tips for camping safety in Big Bend National Park.

(psst if you’re looking for tips on what to pack for a general day hike, head on over here.)

1. Stay hydrated

Big Bend National Park is a desert, and even the air seems to want to suck the moisture straight from your skin.

Staying hydrated is a necessity, and skimping out on water can have dire consequences. Dehydration is no joke, and people die or are hospitalized in the park every year as a result of not drinking enough water.

The ranger station recommended that we drink a liter of water per hour (and we always carried as much as possible in our camelbak bladders). During long, strenuous hikes, or during the hot summer months, you may need even more. Keep in mind that water is heavy, so prepare accordingly when you’re packing.

On our longest hike, a 4.8 mile round trip trek up the Lost Mine Trail, we packed about 5 liters of water each. It was heavy, and may have been a bit of overkill, but I didn’t mind the extra weight, knowing that I would be safe from dehydration.

Make sure you bring a day pack capable of holding a nice-sized water bladder (I’m in love with my Osprey 20L) and if you’re camping primitive pack in more than enough water.

2. Check your timing (and altitude!)

Down in the desert it can be brutally hot, whereas the mountains are cooler and far windier.

One of the many mesas that dot Big Bend

The seasons are different in Big Bend. While the upper reaches of the mountains do get snow, it is more important to pay attention to whether you are going during the dry season or the wet season. Being a desert, the rainy season is short, but powerful. Driving through the desert we saw numerous dry riverbeds that turn torrential during the heavy rains.

Similarly, shifts in altitude make a huge difference. In the Chisos Mountain Basin it was often a good 10-20 degrees cooler than it was on the desert plains where our campsite was set up. Not only that, but higher altitudes could lead to altitude sickness. Be prepared and give yourself time to acclimate.

Even the time of day can have a big impact on the temperature, with hot days and cold nights.

3. Hide your food

One of the many birds that makes its home in the mountain basin.

Wildlife is always a concern in national parks, and Big Bend is no different. Despite the somewhat barren appearance of parts of the landscape, it is home to a number of different animals, including black bears, mountain lions, javelina, and numerous species of snake and scorpion. Most of these animals won’t bother you unless they feel threatened, so long as you take proper precautions.

All of the tent and car-side primitive camping sites offer bear boxes, so make sure you use them. If you’re blazing your own trail, I recommend bringing along a bear bag well-suited to camping light, like this one.

Prepare yourself for when you won’t be at camp by bringing bear bells (I like the magnetic ones) and bear canisters, locking up all of your food, and maintaining a stocked first aid kit. It’s also a good idea to keep emergency numbers on hand, just in case.

 4. Be ready for unpredictable weather

A storm brews over the Chisos Mountains

If it says 10% chance of rain, prepare for the biggest thunderstorm of your life.

It’s just safer that way.

With a ring of mountains surrounding the desert, it’s astoundingly easy for these powerful storms to pop up, seemingly out of nowhere. Flash floods, fires and lightning strikes all become potential dangers during these freak storms. Don’t stay on the trails if you think a storm is coming, have an escape plan in place, and make sure you camp on high ground.

 5. Don’t forget to look up

'The Window' at sunset.

Okay, this one isn’t technically a safety tip, but I would be remiss not to mention the sky. Whether it’s for the best stargazing of your life, or to enjoy the stunning sunrises and sunsets, Big Bend’s expansive view of the sky does not disappoint. With the darkest skies in the lower 48 states, the stars provide for a truly breathtaking experience, and the mountains reflect the glow of the setting and rising sun.

Big Bend is definitely beautiful, but, like anywhere, it’s important to take the appropriate precautions. Be safe, plan ahead, and enjoy the natural wonders of this park!

Looking for more tips? Marie over at Ardent Camper has a few more suggestions for your next trip to Big Bend National Park!

Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada: The Highland Heart
Big Bend National Park: A Study in Contrasts
  • I love camping, some fab tips there, thanks! Here in England we don’t have to contend with intense heat or scorpions, but we did have encounters with both in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. Thinking about a bit National Parks camping trip next year so will definitely be back for advice!

    • I’m glad we were able to help! Feel free to message us anytime with questions about camping in the parks! Between the two of us, we’ve made it to quite a few. 🙂

  • Great tips for camping safety! I’d also love to visit Big Bend 🙂 Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler!

  • There is so much to think about when you go camping. Stuff that you wouldn’t normally think as important become so essential. I would love to visit Big Bend one day – it looks so gorgeous. Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler.

    • It’s definitely interesting to see how important things you take for granted are. And you definitely appreciate certain things — like showers! — a lot more when you get back!

      Thanks for the comment, and love being a part of #SundayTraveler!

  • I have lived in Texas for practically my entire life, and I have yet to visit Big Bend, although my sleeping bag has. Thank you for the safety tips as I didn’t realize that Texas had bears. That last tip about looking up really appeals to me as I am craving some top notch star gazing.

    • No problem, thanks for the comment! When you make it out to the Big Bend area you might want to check out the McDonald Observatory. They have star gazing parties every weekend with their giant telescopes. We didn’t have a chance to go this last time, but it’s absolutely on our list for the next trip!

  • I obsess over hydration in deserts too… and also everywhere 🙂 In china I get worried because the humidity makes me sweat SO much and god knows I’m not drinking anything that doesn’t come out of a bottle here.

    • Oh, you know, I didn’t even think of that! Which is crazy because it’s really humid where I live too. Dehydration is definitely scary crazy, though. It hits you so fast, and when you’re camping you could be really far away from water sources.

  • Great tips guys. I am an experienced trekker, but I still forget some of these tips sometimes. People often underestimate the challenges posed by the weather, both sun and rain. Not to mention, Big Bend looks amazing!

    • Thanks! It was a wonderful trip, to be sure. I think sometimes I’m a bit over-obsessive when it comes to safety, especially if it’s a new environment. I had never been camping in a desert before and was especially scared of dehydration.

  • This post made me think how different the camping is in Europe and back home or in the USA. It’s all about wild, nature and vast spaces back home (where all your tips come really handy), while in Europe it’s all about vacation extravaganza with big swimming pools, evening entertainment, loads of restaurants, and small pitches. Great post!

    • It helps that there are a lot of big, open, wild places in the USA! I did spend a decent amount of time doing the latter sort of camping as a kid. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve become a bigger fan of using camping as a way to escape everything. I’m looking forward to visiting some non-USA parks this summer! Plitvice is on the list!

  • looks like a cool spot. I love summer storms!

    • I know, aren’t they wonderful? Especially once they pass and everything smells so fresh and clean.