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I planned to drive through Death Valley with a rental car during end of May or beginning of June. Now a friend of mine told me that this is a little bit dangerous, and that a lot of rental companies as well as other organization advise against driving through the Death Valley.

Furthermore, he said that it is dangerous because you can't use the air condition in your car because it is too hot and if your car breaks down, you could get into real problem.

So my question is: How dangerous is it really to drive trough the Death Valley, and what precautions should I take as a tourist (who has no clue about cars)?

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Could you please provide a link to make it clear where death valley is? It is too localized and vague! –  Persian Cat Apr 20 '13 at 13:13
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@PersianCat Sorry, I thought that Death Valley is widely known and world famous. I added a link. –  RoflcoptrException Apr 20 '13 at 13:24
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There are many world famous national parks and deserts but maybe there are also users who are not familiar with each other countries' world famous national parks! For example do you know where "Khojir Naional Park" is without Googling? Thanks for the link. ;) –  Persian Cat Apr 20 '13 at 13:30
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The most important thing I can tell you after touring some VERY remote places like the Namib and Taklamakan desert is: Never, Ever, leave your car in case it breaks down. Always stay with it. It provides shadow and makes you much easier to find. –  uncovery Apr 20 '13 at 14:37
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In 1996, a group of german tourists driving through Death Valley had to leave their car, got lost and disappeared until their remains were found a couple of years ago. Take from that what you will. –  Christoffer Hammarström Apr 21 '13 at 10:17

6 Answers 6

up vote 19 down vote accepted

I think Death Valley is not more dangerous than other landscapes with some precautions, so some advices with addition from the offical link

  • Drive carefully. The monotonous landscape can easily lull you into being unresponsive and the lack of visual cues means that you are in danger to drive much too fast without recognizing it. This leads to sudden crashes or collisions (!) because you (or the other driver) did not anticipate it.

  • Plenty of water. This may seem exaggerated, but on desert tours I store 50 liters (12 gallons) in my car if I am alone and if there are more persons 20 liters per person. People constantly underestimate the amount of water they will use in the desert. Drink in sips (a cup every half an hour), not plenty, because the last one one causes you to sweat more. In the best case (under shadows, not working) people will still use 2 liters per day. In the worst case (working under the sun) you will lose more than 20 (!) liters per day.

  • Buy a tarp. Your car will heat up to incredible temperatures during the sun without air condition. So if your car breaks down, you can build up your tarp next to your car to protect you from sunlight and give you some shadow. Do not forget your sunglasses and sun lotion.

  • DO NOT LEAVE THE VICINITY OF YOUR CAR ASIDE FROM THE STREET. A car is widely visible from above and will attract attention while a human body is nearly completely invisible.

  • Be aware that cell phones may not function. So take a map with you and perhaps a GPS device to know where you are and what your next station is. Book your accommodation before and tell them when you expect to arrive so people know if you are missing.

Enjoy your drive !

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I am not sure of that comment on air-conditioning, as when i have been in Vegas looking at trips like this all the rental companies said i would need to use air-conditioning in and around Death Valley!

You definitely want a well maintained car, so use a reputable hire company, and you should let your contacts know your route and expected time of arrival at your next destination so that help can be raised quickly. Take lots of water, and drink it frequently - you can get disoriented easily if dehydrated.

From the nps.gov website on Death Valley:

Yes, but you must be prepared and use common sense. With an air conditioned vehicle you can safely tour many of the main sites in Death Valley. Stay on paved roads in summer, and if your car breaks down, stay with it until help arrives. Always bring plenty of water in your car in case of emergency and drink at least 2 to 4 liters per day, more if you are active in the heat. Summer hiking is not recommended except in the early morning hours and in the mountains.

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I used to live in a very hot climate, and in summer we would take a daily salt tablet (not table salt!). They made a huge difference to a person's ability to cope with the heat. You can ask a pharmacist for advice. Rory Alsop's comments about water are correct — be sure to take much more than you expect to use. –  Paddy Landau Apr 20 '13 at 15:53
    
One more point to add here--the heat + no water kills QUICKLY. In climates not as harsh as this a person in good shape might get only a few miles before collapsing. Even if you know where you're walking out to you very well might not make it. –  Loren Pechtel Apr 20 '13 at 16:50

Death Valley is one of my favorite National Parks, but I always take a few extra precautions when driving through there.

  • Stop at the first Target or supermarket you see and buy a case (24 bottles) of water for each person. It only costs a few dollars and may save your life. You'll end up drinking it once you've left the park anyway.
  • If you have a choice then pick a white car at the rental office.
  • Your sense of speed gets warped by having few references and driving at the same speed for hours. Use the cruise control to prevent speeding.
  • When you stop to take pictures, come to a full stop on the road (ensuring there is no one behind you!) before rolling onto the gravel at the side of the road. It often has rocks that could take out both tires if you hit them at 20 mph you'd be in a lot of trouble. You'll be amazed how slow 20 mph feels after 3 hours at 65 mph.

Enjoy it. It's an amazing place.

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Like anywhere you travel, it pays to be prepared. When in an area with extreme temperatures, this is even more important.

Travelling in any desert, you want to check some things on the car:

  • make sure you have enough gas to get to where you want to go. Confirm where the next gas station is.
  • check the tyre pressure and make sure the spare is in good condition.
  • check the oil levels.

As for yourselves, you'll want to: - ensure you have accurate maps, and up to date information on weather conditions. - if possible, drive in the morning or evening, when it's not too hot. For safety and your own comfort - if you want to get out to look at stuff, it's hard to do so in extreme weather. - make sure to carry spare water, in case you do get stuck. Make sure to have plenty of it. - have a way to contact emergency support. If you have a cellphone, great, but be aware it may not always work. If you're using cellphone maps, I suggest downloading an app with off-line maps, like NavDroyd or equivalent. - let people know when you are expected at your destination. - take frequent breaks, to make sure you're staying fresh, alert and are having enough to drink and eat.

In terms of how well the air conditioner operates - modern ones are pretty good. Even the 1953 Chrysler airconditioner could reduce temperatures from 120F to 85F in about 2 minutes, and that's pretty darn hot. Modern ones are used all over the world, in the desert in Australia, Africa, and work just fine.

Indeed, modern systems are designed to handle the hottest summer days. Be aware though, that using it will affect your fuel consumption as well, so take that into account if the system is working hard and you have a long way to go.

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Side-remark on the app: Google Maps for Android-phones already has the functionality to download maps. I think it is even a default app. –  Bernhard Apr 20 '13 at 21:39
    
Indeed, but it's rather timeconsuming and you are restricted in the detail you can get. I run both and both serve a purpose, I guess. –  Mark Mayo Apr 20 '13 at 23:02
    
Google Maps for Android doesn't allow you to navigate without internet connection, which the app you suggest probably does. I'll have to try it, but then you are right. –  Bernhard Apr 21 '13 at 6:49
    
Yep, I found it highly useful especially east of Ukraine where Google Maps is lacking. NavDroyd and other apps use OpenStreetMaps and include navigation, so that was pretty useful. –  Mark Mayo Apr 21 '13 at 16:02
    
I see it is a €5,- app. Bit too much to 'just try it' for me. –  Bernhard Apr 21 '13 at 16:58

It's extremely difficult to give one-size-fits-all advice about this sort of thing, because it depends on your personal level of experience, skill, judgment, confidence, and physical fitness. These personal attributes are all things you can improve over time; they're not immutable.

Not only do you not need to be afraid to drive a car in Death Valley, but you don't need to be afraid to get out of your car and look at things up close. You're going into a unique environment that you may never get a chance to visit again. Don't limit yourself to experiencing it through a car window.

Use common sense. Take into account the conditions. It will be unpleasantly hot at noon in summer, but might be fine in the early morning. Once out of sight of your car, you may have trouble finding your way back, because the desert may all look the same. A simple precaution is to stay within eyesight of your car. However, if you know that the road runs east-west and is to your south, then you know that walking south will take you back to the road.

If you're worried about getting lost while driving, obtain a high-quality map such as a USGS topo, http://libremaps.org/ , and/or get a mapping GPS. Learn how to use a compass, and bring one. (It may not work inside the car, due to the car's magnetic field.)

Sun exposure is a much higher probability than dying from the heat. Wear a broad-brimmed hat, long sleeves, and long pants. (This will also protect you from cactus.) Bring a small backpack or fanny pack so that you won't be tempted to leave all your water behind in the car because it would be inconvenient to carry it.

Summer temperatures may sometimes be extremely high, over 115 F (45 C). This is not what it's like every day, but it may sometimes get that hot at mid-day. Check the forecast. If the forecast is for temperatures that high, you're simply not going to enjoy going outside in the middle of the day, so don't. Consider exploring at night or in the early morning. At temperatures above about this point, you can die very quickly if caught in the open without shade, and you may die without warning because you don't realize you have heat stroke. Water or lack of water won't necessarily be the deciding factor in these conditions; it's simply too hot for anything to survive.

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  • Lots of good advice here from others.
    I like Ben's 'don't be too scared' advice.
    Being sensibly cautious is wise.

  • Question: Furthermore, he said that it is dangerous because you can't use the air condition in your car because it is too hot

  • We used air conditioning for several hours on as hot a Death Valley day as you are likely to ever get. It worked very well and was most welcome indeed.
    Without it the trip would have been far far less bearable - you would want windows open and to keep moving when in the car.

  • Danger is minimal if you are sensible and do not drive or wander into places which are not well thought out. There appears to be enough traffic to make it likely you'd be discovered 'promptly enough' in any place that you'd sensible drive. This is not the Australian Outback - stay with the car if it dies (but it wont).

    People ride bicycles and hike through it. Others (admittedly of questionable sanity :-)) run through the valley,

  • We received no advice about Death Valley being unsafe to drive in. The name suggests that you may want to take a little more care than in, say, Paradise Valley, but it's not especially risky if you are sensible. That word keeps cropping up. Do something really stupid there on one of it's hottest days and you'd find it easier to die than in many other places. Otherwise, it's safe enough.

  • Standard precautions apply: Fuel / Oil / Water in car checked. Good amount of spare water for you and car. Spare tyre in good order. Tow rope & jumper cables would be sensible to have (that word again) but I'd be sure to have them anywhere. A means of making shade would be exceedingly welcome if you did have to 'camp' for some hours. A standard plastic tarpaulin would do. Size to suit the amount of shade you'd like to have.

  • It's fine. It's fun. It's safe. Do it !!!


We spent a few hours there in midsummer around early to late afternoon on the then hottest year on record (2003). Temperature at the Furnace Creek store in mid to late afternoon was just over 50 C on what LOOKED to be an accurate and expensive circular thermometer outside the store.) An hour or so earlier we wandered around Bad Water and local weather station (then by cliff side - since moved) said 50+ AFAIR.

It's great!!!

Stick to the roads when driving - gravel roads up to lookouts etc are fine. There is no great reason to not do so unless you have something specific in mind. You can see most of the core sites in a relatively straight forward path in a few hours. I imagine there will always be a steady trickle of cars on the mainer roads. A web search does not provide much hard evidence of a substantial death rate of sensible tourists Here is an incredibly extreme example where a child died after his mother drove far off road in obviously dangerous circumstances. You are not going to come near to doing this sort of thing.

Dante's view (an absolute must!) with one mile+ crop to Bad Water on what LOOKS like an easy down slope. Do not try it!!!. (I (stupidly) considered it.) Look at map. Work out mean fall angle. Wow. Must be cliffs down there somewhere. One mile+ view to Valley floor an views far into distance. . Impressive. Dante's view images

Zabriski Point (unrelated to the movie, it seems). DO NOT use the toilets by yourself. Do not shut the door. Really! :-). My wife did both - the arriving bikies persuaded her that shutting the door was wise. It wasn't. She thought she might die before she got the door open again.

DO NOT follow any apparent walking tracks. Odds are you can do so with ease and relative safety if you know what you are doing. You can even run ultramarathons up the valley if you know what you are doing! People do. Run on white lines when available. Keep N sets of shoes in freezer in support vehicle and swap them often. BUT people really have died just crossing the immensely interesting ridged mini hills near Zabriski point. "Take the car round and I'll see you over there in half an hour ...". Male. Young. Fit. Dead. Really. Probably an underlying medical condition to help it happen. But YMMnV.

Can stay out of car indefinitely up on top of ridge - 5500 feet above valley floor.

Badwater. MUST see Badwater. Take a big water bottle. Wear WIDE brimmed hat. Take a towel.
You do not sweat. Apparently. In practice you do. But the seat dries off the skin faster than it leaves your body leaving nice salty tasting skin. This is called dying. You can do it happily (if you are us) long enough to have fun, take photos, wander a few hundred metres out on the salt pan and feel like you are a hero. Ofdds are there will be advice that tells you how to manage day hikes there, but just being sensible seems to work fine for modest looking around.

Why the towel? ... Fancy that. Pools of water here in mid summer. Dips toes. Hey, that's hot. Dips finger. Licks. Ugh. Wow - that IS alkaline isn't it. Funny that, my foot is itching! Wet towel. Rapidly wipe foot to remove Alkalai. Retreat.

Lie on salt flats in turn and take pictures. Lots of fun.

Officially the hottest place on earth on a good day. A place in Algeria was in 1954? but since disqualified.

Badwater images


Dante's View view. Badwater about 5300 vertical feet below Carpark and met station hidden to left. Road along valley floor going right leads to Stove Pipe Wells, Amargosa, Lone Pine, sand-dunes etc.

enter image description here

Dante's View view from Dante's View page - Wikipedia - the full size version a superb 6400 x 18090 panorama view. Other excellent images on that page.

Image page here


Bonus:

Drive up highway from Vegas. Air Force base on right is where they control the Predator Drones from worldwide. Really. Nothing to see here. Move along.

As you come in from the road from Vegas, turning off somewhat before Area 51 (you'll see the signs) you find several interesting things.

Indian casino on left. Drive on by.

Amargosa Baptist Church (on left) just after Casino.
Stop and look briefly.
Photograph the sign, and the church, and both together.
If they are as they were 10 years ago then you will see why.

Proceed to Amargosa Opera House (!!!!) on right. Stop. Marvel. You may be lucky and get to see the inside.
Look it up. Fun.

Drive on very short distance to Amargosa hotel on right. Marvel. Big!. Web will tell you why. Same reason as Opera house existing. SPOILER FOR BOTH HERE When we arrived there was an immense puddle - really huge. And no people. At 45C or so. A mystery. Turns out they had had a water main break and hotel was evacuated due to lack of water. More fun not knowing why :-).

Drive on.
Signs says
... Stovepipe Wells xxx miles
... Shoeshone xxx miles
Wow!!!
John Wayne is gone. But you can feel the history - even if no Indians are in sight.
(See Casino, above).

Look for "Flash Floods" signs on creeks, and smile. At other seasons take care.

As you cross the Valley towards Stovepipe Wells you will see the famous sand dunes. Take photos. All angles. They look great afterwards. You will always regret not taking enough.

If you head for Lone Pine note the LARGE steel "radiator water' tanks every xx miles as you grind up the long long hill.

If you go to Lone Pine (next stop Mono Lake, then turn left to Yosemite) consider staying at "The Dow". Very run down hotel. Seen much better days. If you do not stay, see if they will let you go and see the "John Wayne slept here" plaque. Apparently his preferred staying place on many filming visits long ago. Or, so they say.

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Nice post with a lot of useful information. Only not an answer to question. –  Bernhard Apr 21 '13 at 14:54
    
@Bernhard - Thanks - I've moved some points up front and added a few more. The information was largely there but well buried :-). –  Russell McMahon Apr 21 '13 at 21:46

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