Beware Flash Floods

Four wheelers who drive throughout the desert southwest are quite accustomed to tough conditions. Not just terrain, either: The heat can be brutal. Encountering a flash flood is probably the last thing on your mind. But it can happen, and the results can be tragic.

A deadly flood in Zion National Park, Utah, last month is a sobering reminder of that hazard. The flood, which tore through Keyhole Canyon, claimed the lives of seven. Granted, those individuals were on foot, but flash floods affect vehicles, too, even 4,000 – 5,000 lb. four wheelers.

Forecasters are saying that the El Niño phenomenon will be particularly strong this winter. That heightens the chance for moisture throughout the West, including the desert areas.

You’re probably thinking: “A flash flood in a desert? C’mon, Tom!” Yes, they are possible, in the right areas. But also in mountainous terrain, which should be apparent.

Four wheelers, accustomed to driving in tough conditions, figure they can just plow through that water. Not a chance. Don’t even think about it. Water only two feet deep can float your vehicle. Your wheels may still be touching, but you won’t have good traction.

Be careful while hiking, too. Six inches of fast-moving water can knock you off your feet. If you can’t wade through, don’t try driving through. Remember this maxim:

Of course, flash floods aren’t confined to remote areas. Urban communities across the country suffer floods frequently. One big difference off road is that the threat isn’t always very apparent. Turnaround. Don’t Drown.

You could be camping, driving or hiking on a bright sunny day. Unbeknownst to you, a storm is raging in the mountains several miles away. Eventually a trickle shows up on that nearby wash. You think nothing of it. Minutes later, the water is cascading down, getting deeper by the moment. You may have only minutes to find an escape route.

This is why I always recommend moving out when water appears in a wash or a nearby stream. That stream could gain new life and momentum. Soon, a flood is roaring down on you.

Video of a flash flood

As with any trip, preparation helps you avoid disaster. Check the weather forecast before and, if possible, during your trip. If the park has a website and Facebook page, monitor those, too. Zion National Park posts weather advisories on its Facebook page when appropriate.

Pack a weather radio and, if you’re a ham radio operator, your radio gear. Cell phones are OK, but coverage is spotty in the wild. Consider buying a satellite phone. You can learn more about communications options in Communications equipment is critical for off-road driving.

It’s also good to know the various warnings that the weather service issues, including flood advisory and flash flood warning. Read more about those here .

If near a wash, stream or river, always take a moment to plan an escape route. Don’t wait for disaster to strike. You won’t be able to think clearly, and you may end up downstream. If a trickle of water appears, move to higher ground. That might mean simply climbing up on a rock or hiking away. Leave your vehicle and your gear. Those can be replaced.

Rapidly changing weather is nothing new to seasoned 4WD enthusiasts. Flash flooding in normally dry areas may be hard to imagine, but it does happen. Don’t try to fight it. Odds are the water will win, which means you’ll lose.

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