It was several months into our world bike tour before we learned what is arguably the most important rule of wild camping. Had we known it, we would never have put our tent here.
At first glance, it looks like the perfect spot – flat and hidden from the road by a ridge. This second photo gives you a clue as to why this is in fact a very bad place to camp.
Have you guessed yet? Here’s your answer: it’s a dry riverbed and it’s prone to dangerous flash floods.
The rain that triggers the flood might be miles away. You might never hear a drop of rain on the tent, but a few minutes or hours later the whole river channel can fill with water and sweep you and your stuff away.
Thankfully, we were warned about this danger a few weeks after this picture was taken. We were never swept away, though we did camp next to a dry river once (up on the bank) and watched later that night as it filled with water within seconds. Recently, a Dutch touring cyclist was not so lucky. He lost his leg, and nearly his life, to a flash flood in South America.
The lesson is a simple one: don’t camp in dry river beds, no matter how tempting they seem!
28th April 2013 at 3:38 pm #
Good advice fo those venturing far afield when they haven’t come across such places.
28th April 2013 at 4:37 pm #
We had a moment of thinking we might have had a stupid beach camping spot the other night in Baja California… wondering if we had pitched our tents far enough from the high tide line! We had decided there was enough vegetation for it to be far enough but as we watched the water level rise as the moon rose, we wondered. Luckily, we were right!
28th April 2013 at 6:32 pm #
Also bad idea: camp where the beevers live. We spent a night surrounded by trees that could have fallen onto our tent after a bit of wind!
28th April 2013 at 8:08 pm #
I was raised in the US state of Arizona; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen flash floods kill. I’m glad you didn’t succumb to that fate!
29th April 2013 at 8:29 am #
We’re glad it didn’t happen to us as well!
We grew up in Canada, where the rivers are always full 🙂 If you come from an area where there are no flash floods, then it’s easy to be ignorant of the dangers.
29th April 2013 at 12:08 pm #
Guilty of this too on a couple of occasions…
2nd May 2013 at 4:20 pm #
Yeah, coming from Canada I’m not entirely sure I would even recognize a dry riverbed if I saw it!
8th May 2013 at 10:15 am #
I agree with Tammy. How do you recognise it? I come from Colombia and the rivers near me are always full, furtunately
8th May 2013 at 10:44 am #
Others may be able to share tips on how to recognise a river but for us the key giveaway is a relatively narrow, flat spot that is bordered by a ridge on each side. Look at the landscape and ask yourself, if a flood were to appear out of nowhere, where would the water go? Where is the low spot? Then make sure you place your tent a fair distance away from that location!
27th April 2014 at 12:51 pm #
I’ve known of this danger since I was a child. That goes to show how influential and educational Disney documentaries were. I always remembered seeing the dry wash turn into a raging torrent in the 1953 documentary called The Living Desert.
I know what you mean about it looking like the perfect campsite though. Dry washes, arroyos and wadis look like terrific places to pitch your tent. They would be too if weren’t for the possibility of a sudden rush of water, which can sometimes have the consistency of wet cement. All I can say is, if you were laying inside a tent it would be an awful way to go…
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