The info here is based on experiences in the 'Colorado Plateau' area of the southwest deserts.
Backcountry travel in the desert presents one with the unique, but serious issue of available water. Whether backpacking, ultra running or bikepacking the need to have adequate water to survive is ever-present.
That said, there are many trips in the desert southwest where you come and go without giving hydration a second thought. Coyote Gulch style outings with constant flowing water under your sandals are simple to plan, easy to execute, but often rife with noisy crowds, regulations, busy campsites and a sense of a lost wilderness. Water is typically the reason these places are overrun.
For remote, committing traverses, big loops and generally out-there areas without pre-trip Google support the traveler is entering the zone where water may be the limiting factor. Limiting in many ways: how much water can I carry, how far and how fast can I go between known sources, how willing am I to risk running low, do I take the chance and go in there at all?
This article deals with the challenges of going to the unknown, and return hydrated.
Map browsing is inspiring. The Colorado Plateau is largely uninhabited, roadless and federally protected. The potential for epic routes is huge. Canyons, mesas, mountains. Rivers in deep chasms, often seemingly inaccessible. Flat slickrock gives away to vertical cliffs without a break for miles. All through this maze of contrasts one can dream up month long trips without seeing another human, full of dicey scrambling, quicksand, disappointing cul-de-sacs, slots, peaks, domes, talus and prickly bushwhacks.
But none of these dreams will come to fruition without water. And it’s rarely there. That’s why it’s lonely out on the Plateau.
Finding a couple of shallow pools in a shady little canyon, Maze District, Canyonlands NP
Why not just shoulder the jugs of water needed for an extended weekend? People do this. Depending on the environment, one gallon per day per person is a realistic minimum for a conserving individual (no washing, leave the dishes dirty, etc). This will equate to 25 lbs for three days.
The good news is the load will rapidly diminish. The bad news is the modern ultralight pack, which it is assumed the reader is using, carry that sort of weight poorly.
First day range will be limited, so this method lend itself well to a basecamp style outing, with day hikes from a settled camp. Not the type of itinerary associated with big adventure.
16 year old loaded with overnight gear, packraft and a gallon of water! Remote country west of the Green River.
Spring and fall are the prime tourism times on the Plateau. Summer in the outback is deadly - simply forget about it. And winter, well, we’ll get to that.
Of the two high seasons, spring is reliably better for finding water. Seasonal creeks might be flowing, snow can linger in higher, shady nooks, the weather may deliver a shower or two. Natural springs are charged. Moist ground from winter doesn’t immediately absorb runoff.
Fall is our driest time and can be very tricky for backcountry water needs. This is when all the tricks and hard-won experiences needs to come out. The seasonal flows are gone, everything is dry, the summer monsoon, if it happened at all, is a distant memory. Success mostly depends on the scant possibility of recent rainfall.
Summer has rain; pouring, devastating, violent, noisy explosions of deluges. Sometimes. Other times not. But it doesn’t really matter, because the temperatures are insane, the light is piercingly bright and all the pretty landscapes are washed out and shadowless. The rock emits heat deep into the night making rest an uneasy struggle. Stay away.
Winter. Nobody experienced with the advanced rules of backcountry travel get in trouble in the winter on the Plateau. It’s not pleasant being out there, in the sandal wearing, skinny-dipping, wildflower type of way, but it’s fantastically doable. Snow lingers in all the shadowy recesses, providing an ample source of water allowing the explorer to freely move anywhere. Long, frigid evenings at camp, late morning sun in icy, shady canyons; the main challenge of desert winter is how to deal with all the time between moving. And don’t forget that a veneer of snow on slickrock is the definition of slick. Plateau wanderers will know what I mean.
Either too little or too much. Such is the desert.
The freedom of travel that winter snow provides is almost matched by rainfall. A week of unsettled weather before heading out is good news. An afternoon of rain in the middle of a trip is like gold. But planning around the fleeting application of sporadic showers is a game of chances at best. View it as bonus, or better, be flexible: Watch the weather, then head out on a spontaneous expedition when things fall in place.
Even then, rain can disappoint, and more often than not. It rained at the trailhead, but oddly enough not a drop fell in the chosen canyon system. Typical southwest rain doesn’t make dry creek beds flow again for more than a couple of days, or hours. The dry air and sun evaporate pools overnight.
Recent rain made this 3 day trip into a known dry region simple.
There are not many ‘perennial’ creeks in the southwest. Their numbers are so few that most are overrun hotspots with little room for adventure. And they, too, can dry up in late season. But if you stumble upon a true backcountry creek it’s a time to revere.
Some old improved sites are still maintained, promoting continued flow.
These massive erosional water courses shaped the Plateau. The Colorado, the Green, the San Juan, Dolores and Escalante. Add a few others with the word ‘river' used more liberally, merely as a romantic reminder of that day in early spring when water was actually at a riverine level.
The size of the rivers have enabled them to carve deep canyons, and thus most are only accessible at a few spots, some well known and others obscure, guarded secrets. Knowing of a river access is not the same as making it down. Routes are inverted mountaineering, with complex navigation, unseen drops and exposed ledges. Side canyons would seem to provide the simplest access, but often have massive pour-offs abruptly stopping progress. The water gained, when an intrepid explorer eventually make it to the banks, is silty and not of any use without special treatment.
Massive pothole with a shady overhang. This area had no water for miles around on this hot weekend in October.
Potholes are the foundation of successful advanced route planning. Finding the ones with water in them is the ultimate trick of sketchy desert travel. Recent precipitation is mandatory to success.
Potholes flourish on flat expanses of slick rock, on top of domes, and in slickrock canyon bottoms. Some types of sandstone are prolific with potholes, others hardly form any. Navajo and Wingate are reliable potholers, as are Cedar Mesa and White Rim sandstone. During rain they fill quick, but in porous layers they also empty in short time.
Obviously, slickrock is key to locating potholes.
In sandy, gravelly or wooded terrain without bare rock, head towards the rim of a nearby canyon. If the transition from flat to vertical is abrupt, typically the rim area is potholey slickrock.
Rocky dome landscapes often have slickrock surroundings and shallow canyons, and are visible from afar. It could be worth a detour if water is needed.
Some canyons have slickrock sections. Impassable pour-offs usually terminate in sculpted rock when approached from above. Any canyon shelf or transition between layers of sandstone could indicate slickrock. Often just dropping into a shallow canyon and heading up or down for a distance will yield a pothole or two. And maybe there’s a puddle in the bottom of the shadiest one.
At times potholes in stream beds are so carved out and deep that the cowboys called them ‘tanks'. Because their deep shady recesses tended to hold run-off for much longer then the average shallow pothole, these tanks were well known locations to early travelers, with names like the springs. Perusing old literature and tales might lead to info on these sources of water.
Lowering a bottle into a dark, frigid pool deep in a 'tank' like pothole. Ernie's Country, winter afternoon.
Often thought of as sure-bet trip saving goals, USGS marked springs are often dry, or merely wet sand, or destroyed by livestock. Some are seasonal, and dry up in fall and winter.
Last century cowboys improved many of them, but the unmaintained piping might have blocked flow or otherwise made the water go away.
Active grazing areas typically have well developed springs. The livestock that gather here make a mess of the water but a pristine drip can sometimes be found. It might be a deep constructed culvert, a fenced off inclosure, or simply a hard to get to source.
A few springs in well trodden areas are regularly reported on, and up to date information can be obtained. The Maze is one such place.
Hunting for obscure springs found on maps or learned of otherwise is the peak bagging of the desert. The spring hunter keep meticulous records, with pictures, seasonal variations and flow rates, if any. It’s advanced geocaching with some risk attached.
The White Rim does not have many reliable springs. This is one of the few!
Food and camp.
If possible camp and cook near water. The importance of this cannot be overstated.
After hiking all day, a slow and meticulous rehydration effort takes time, and lots of water. A full night of sleep, breathing in arid desert air, is yet another dehydrating affair beyond what most think. So the next day starts out with making up losses again. Cooking two meals, dinner and breakfast, takes water. And then one needs full containers for the route ahead.
Doing all this from a dry camp is challenging.
Try to cook the meals ‘wet’ or soupy, so the body doesn’t have to add a lot of water for digestion.
Leaving the last snow patch behind for lower and drier territory.
Water filter. For backpackers these days this is mandatory equipment. The use and misuse is well documented, and should be understood before attempting the trips this article pertain to.
Collapsible jugs for carrying extra capacity on long dry stretches.
String for lowering bottles into deep potholes (tanks), or cisterns and developed springs.
Tube for siphoning or sucking water out of super shallow potholes. Often included with the water filter.
Household alum powder to settle silty river water. Found in grocery store spice isles, the application of this chemical is an art. Used extensively by river runners, it will settle any silty source completely in 45-60 minutes. If done correctly. Google it, and experiment. Success not guaranteed.
Melting snow on a winter trip.
Most dogs don’t understand the need to pre-hydrate. They drink until the slightest feeling of satiation, then stop. The owner, who is taxed by the perils and commitment of the route, will be begging and pleading. To no avail.
The solution is a small vial of olive oil. Add a few drops to a bowl of water and any savvy backcountry hound will drink till the last drop, every time, anytime.
A marked spring on the USGS topo, this one like most others often disappoint. Luckily a little snow still lingered in the shade.
As is often the case, an ability to move fast for long continuous periods increase the safety margin. Fitness, experience and an inherit sense for the land all contribute. Arriving at a dry source at 2pm with strength left is better than struggling in at dusk with the tank empty and finding dry potholes.
Often the current overall state of water sources can be determined early on in trip. With eyes open and desert awareness on high one can see the how the chances will unfold as the trip goes deeper, and prudent strategies can be laid out. Wet sand, a sunny pothole with water, such observations bode for good times.
One also has to weigh the effort of hunting for water against the risk of being unsuccessful. The additional energy and dehydration involved could create a more serious situation. This balancing game is one of the great gambles of advanced desert travel.
Finding water usually is a celebratory moment. It is also, off course, of practical importance. Never shrug it off as trivial and casually move on to potential later finds.
At a water source top off all containers typically in use. If the next stretch is truly unknown, also fill the collapsible back-up jugs one should always carry.
Sit down and slowly drink up a healthy dose, possibly with added electrolytes. A protracted hydration is healthier and more effective than quickly downing a liter or two. Fill those bottles again before leaving.
Consider an early camp, or cook dinner on the spot and move on to a dry camp. Or take any meal, and hydrate along with it.
Water up the dog!
Dry and hot on Dome Plateau. How this well hidden pothole still hung around was a mystery.