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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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!