6 Things to Know Before You Climb in the Desert

Categories: Tips

Bouldering in the desert - tips on how to rock climb in the desert responsibly Indian Creek. Hueco Tanks. Joshua Tree. Red Rocks. Joe’s Valley. The desert environment is home to iconic desert rock climbing destinations. These are not only the best desert climbing areas, but some of the best climbing destinations in the world. Characterized by little precipitation and sparse populations, the stark landscape of the desert is uniquely fragile and full of life. As such, the desert environment demands some specific minimum- impact practices to protect its sensitive and historically significant terrain. With the huge popularity of desert rock climbing, it's up to us climbers to help protect our favorite desert areas.

As you are planning your next desert adventure to climb splitter cracks and towers or wrestle beautifully shaped and colored boulders, keep these six things in mind.

  1. Cryptobiotic soil, or living biological crust, can be destroyed with a single step. This dark, crumbly looking soil is a living crust that plays an important ecological role in many desert environments by drawing nutrients into the soil while protecting it from erosion by wind and rain. Stay on established trails and durable, low-impact corridors to avoid crushing this delicate crust, which can take decades to regenerate.
  2. Desert soil lacks the microorganisms to biodegrade human waste. Use facilities where available or pack out your poop. We recommend the RESTOP bag, which is easy to use and seals the stink.
  3. The desert is home to sites of cultural and historical significance. Look, but don’t touch. Not only does the Archaeological Resources Protection Act make it a federal crime to steal or destroy artifacts, but the oils on our fingers, the chalk on our hands, and the rubber on our shoes can ruin these resources. Access Fund works with land management agencies to ensure a balanced approach to protecting culturally significant resources, such as petroglyphs and Native American sacred sites, and maintaining desert climbing access. Respect all closures.
  4. Climbing on wet sandstone can forever alter the rock and cause gear placements to fail. Always wait 24–48 hours after a rain to climb on sandstone to avoid damaging the rock and risking weak gear placements. Desert rock can be damaged forever to be absolutely sure the rock is dry before climbing.
  5. Plant communities are highly sensitive and stressed. Searing heat, low water, and high winds regularly abuse desert plants. Pay careful attention to gear sprawl, pad placement, and off-trail travel to avoid additional challenges for these special plants.
  6. Horsehair brushes are best for cleaning chalk and debris from desert rock. Use one to avoid damaging the porous rock surface.

Photo courtesy of ©Whit Richardson