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Desert/canyon sleeping advice
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Michael Fisher
(mfisher) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Desert/canyon sleeping advice on 01/31/2011 17:09:35 MST Print View

I'm planning to do a couple of backpacking trips in southeastern Utah this fall (Dark Canyon, Grand Gulch). It'll be my first experience sleeping in canyons, so I wanted to see if I could get some advice on the right gear to use for sleeping.

My initial plan was to use a BPL Vapr bivy, light sleeping bag, GG polycryo/NiteLite below, and a cuben fiber or sil-nylon tarp draped above (maybe staked/tied off against wind). After reading more about the bugs, mice, and other creatures that come out at night, though, I started to question if I needed to go with a tent so I could stow everything away and avoid having bugs between my layers and in my gear.

Any advice about sleeping with the creepy-crawlies in the desert?

Martha S.
(kitfox) - F
Desert nights on 01/31/2011 17:53:50 MST Print View

Hi Michael -- I've spent countless nights in the desert, generally with several members of my hiking club. We've been to Dark Canyon and other canyons in the vicinity, as well as locations throughout CA, NV, AZ, and OR. The vast majority of those nights were spent outside a tent and under the stars, which are absolutely incredible in the desert.

I don't know of anyone who's ever had a problem with creepy crawlies in 25 years, apart for myself. I was stung -- exactly once -- by a scorpion in Grand Canyon -- but it was obviously not fatal and not painful enough to keep me from stargazing. It was a hot night and I was lying on top of my sleeping bag at the time, so perhaps you could take an ultralight liner instead of a tent and use it when it's too hot for your regular bag. Other than that I've never even SEEN a scorpion and, if you don't go turning over rocks and putting your hands in places you can't see, you shouldn't either.

I've never had anything crawl into my gear, though I've gone on day hikes and returned to find that ravens had opened the zipper on my backpack and stolen my cookies!

On the other hand, it can get VERY windy in the desert at times, but if you're happy with your tarp skills, I don't see a need for a tent.

Whatever you decide, best of luck!

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Desert/canyon sleeping advice on 01/31/2011 18:10:33 MST Print View

Michael, the bugs don't eat much.


Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Desert nights on 01/31/2011 18:44:24 MST Print View

My experience has been similar to Martha's. Over 20 years camping in the deserts, and no bites. Cholla on the other hand...

Michael Fisher
(mfisher) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Desert nights on 01/31/2011 18:52:54 MST Print View

Thanks for the advice. The opening pages of "Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Glen Canyon Region," as well as the discussion on the Dark Canyon area, had me a little concerned about bugs and mice, but my concerns are probably unfounded.

In AK, we're blessed with so few bugs that about the only animal concern I have is being a bivy sack burrito for any hungry bears that happen to be passing by.

BG - that's true, and they probably add a few grams of protein, too.

Hk Newman
(hknewman) - MLife

Locale: Western US
Scorpions and other creepy crawlies on 01/31/2011 18:57:50 MST Print View

15 years in the Southwest and TX, I've been stung by scorpions 3 times (twice in the Chiricuahuas - AZ and once at Ft. Hood - TX), plus a couple sightings in some apartments rented in Southwestern cities (one floating in a bowl of Apple Jacks and milk). Still around, so I am not one of the allergic ones. Maybe my trailname should've been "scorpio" but that's just tempting fate.

Each time I've been stung has been handling a rolled up tent door from outside the tent, as scorpions love rolled up fabric (tent doors, rolled drapes, and other "snuggly" spots, like under rocks and logs). Didn't matter if it was a backpacking tent door or canvas tent, watch rolled doors. Also zip everything up if not in use; chances are nothing will happen but there's always the possibility. I still camp in the area and do not consider them, or any creepy crawly, a threat, just take some precautions.

You can see scorpions at night on the desert floor by black light - learned by collecting scorpions with some Biology grad students toting a black light over desert trails at night (FWIW: reflects off the scorpions exoskeleton - BTW diamondback skin does NOT reflect if you try this at home, so watch your feet if you try this). So scorpions are out there doing their thing but humans are too big to eat.

My 2cents: zip up everything not in use and don't sweat it.

Edited by hknewman on 01/31/2011 20:13:25 MST.

Michael Fisher
(mfisher) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Avoid rolled fabric - good advice! on 01/31/2011 19:28:02 MST Print View

Thanks for the advice about scorpions and rolled fabric. Good stuff. I was a little concerned about a loose tarp resting directly on my bivy. Sounds like I need to avoid that.

R. Lo.
(rloeh) - F

Locale: northern Rockies
Canyons and flash floods on 01/31/2011 19:34:24 MST Print View

You may know this already - but flash floods are a real hazard of canyon country. There have been several deaths, mainly in slot canyons, in the past few years as the result of flooding. So, just another factor to be aware of - look for high-water marks and avoid wash bottoms in picking campsites, and know that storms on the mesas, miles away, can result in flows far downcanyon. Wonderful country, though...

Hk Newman
(hknewman) - MLife

Locale: Western US
Re: Avoid rolled fabric - good advice! on 01/31/2011 19:40:23 MST Print View

Thanks for the advice about scorpions and rolled fabric. Good stuff. I was a little concerned about a loose tarp resting directly on my bivy. Sounds like I need to avoid that.


I do not think that a tarp on a bivy would matter too much, just shake it. Rolls of tarp fabric resting on the ground might.

Another thing to remember, a scorpion encounter is relatively rare (I lived, played, and worked in the desert for 15 years, partly doing field biology work in the Ft. Bliss/White Sands area, partly hiking/backpacking, and can still count the surprise encounters on one hand - not including scorpion "hunting"- really collecting for scientific collections).

Ditto for other creepy crawly types.

Edited by hknewman on 01/31/2011 20:10:18 MST.

John Nausieda
(Meander) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Desert/canyon sleeping advice on 01/31/2011 19:48:08 MST Print View

I can remember the sand fleas in Arches and Canyonlands-very nasty near anything damp. And in Big Bend coming in a month after tarantulas had been crossing the roads en masse by the reports. For a guilty pleasure try to watch The Black Scorpion. It is a classic SF film set in Mexico and right up there with Them! or The Deadly Mantis. Best viewed after you come back.

Mark Mendell
(mmendell) - M

Locale: Midwest
re:desert sleeping advice on 01/31/2011 20:00:52 MST Print View

Took my first trip with my 2 girls to Canyonlands a couple springs ago. We agreed that we'd try just tarping it. Our first site, my youngest daughter (10 at the time) immediately spots a small scorpion right under our tarp. I thought I'd lose them both right there!

4 nights with no tent, not another bug. Had a great time. I was most concerned with mice getting into our food, so we all packed food in plastic Costco pretzel containers. No problems!

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
bugs in canyons on 01/31/2011 20:41:04 MST Print View

You'll have no problems with critters cowboy camping. Grand Gulch and Dark Canyon are highish altitude by desert standards, not prime scorpion country.

Larry Dyer
(veriest1) - F

Locale: Texas
I've been stung on 02/01/2011 02:46:54 MST Print View

The only time I've ever been stung by a scorpion was in my bed at home.

The problem with shelters in the desert is that some desert areas are really dry (who'd a thunk it?) and the ground is hard so stakes don't go in well and you may have to tie off to rocks instead since it's easier than trying to drive a bunch of pilot holes figuring out where the rocks are under the soil.

Larry Dyer
(veriest1) - F

Locale: Texas
Disregard on 02/01/2011 02:46:54 MST Print View

I goofed.

Edited by veriest1 on 02/01/2011 02:51:59 MST.

Larry Dyer
(veriest1) - F

Locale: Texas
Disregard on 02/01/2011 02:46:55 MST Print View

I goofed.

Edited by veriest1 on 02/01/2011 02:52:52 MST.

Brendan S
(brendans) - MLife

Locale: Fruita CO
desert sleeping on 02/01/2011 07:11:45 MST Print View

Like others i rarely use shelter in the desert. I've spent hundreds of nights with no problems. Cedar Mesa's one of my favorite areas by the way. Dark Canyon is incredible.

Joe Clement
(skinewmexico) - MLife

Locale: Southwest
Desert/canyon sleeping advice on 02/01/2011 08:33:08 MST Print View

I've never seen a scorpion in the wild. Sure seen a bunch in my house.

te - wa
(mikeinfhaz) - F

Locale: Phoenix
Re: Desert/canyon sleeping advice on 02/01/2011 09:08:15 MST Print View

mike, the combination of your bivy and nightlite may be a great spot for scorpions to gather. the few times ive seen them in person was under my tent or footprint. they may be drawn to the humid conditions of condensation
however, no ill effects have come from scorpion contact. its those pesky mice in Grand Canyon that keep me off the ground. the high use areas are full of them.. sloppy campers to blame. one of the reasons i started hanging was the mouse than ran across my face and stopped for a sec to sniff around my nose.. i had already done away with tents (low bug issues here) so the next logical step was to remain using a tarp, but this time Above the Ground.

i dont much care for curious skunks, either.

Edited by mikeinfhaz on 02/01/2011 09:12:33 MST.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Desert/canyon sleeping advice on 02/01/2011 09:33:08 MST Print View

"I've never seen a scorpion in the wild. Sure seen a bunch in my house."

Get a well-powered (2 or 3 D-cells) UV flashlight. When they are plentiful, the return glow is pretty intimidating.

Troy Ammons
(tammons) - F - MLife
Desert/canyon sleeping advice on 02/01/2011 09:42:33 MST Print View

First off I would say dont sleep on the canyon floor.
If you do check out flash floods in that area with the locals.

Shake out your boots or shoes, cloths or anything else outside every morning.

I always though well yeah not a big deal. Back in the 70's the first time I spent the night in the Ariz desert, I figured, well better shake out my boots, and there he was. Mister scorpion.

Personally I would take an UL freestanding tent with a lot of mesh in it.