Backcountry Touring 101

Excerpts from the Backcountry Byways series (Wilderness Press)

Traveling in a heated or air-conditioned SUV or pickup truck makes weather conditions less of a factor than they are for muscle-powered travel. Still, the backcountry-driving season is pretty much the same as the hiking, backpacking and mountain-biking seasons. It depends on a variety of factors, including time of year, how heavy the preceding winter’s snowfall was, rainfall patterns, elevation and climatic zone.

High mountain roads, like those you can explore in California’s Sierra Nevada, Utah’s Wasatch Range and Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, will be closed in winter, perhaps from late fall well into spring. They can remain blocked by snow and mud as late as July in some places. Generally, I suggest July through October for high-elevation areas. Winter, on the other hand, turns lower deserts into landscapes of snow-veiled beauty and solitude. While some lower-elevation roads will be closed or impassable, others will not be and can provide a unique and rare backcountry-travel experience. Be careful, though, because night comes early in winter.

Desert areas are appealing in early spring, say March and April, although the weather can be unsettled, windy and cool, even wet. Streams can be running high and fast with runoff from melting snow and rain. Late spring is typically better. But anytime in spring, the desert will be green, fresh and splashed with the color of flowering cacti. Many find fall the ideal time to visit deserts.

Summer in desert highlands, even in places like mountainous Death Valley National Park and the Great Basin, can be quite tolerable. Lower-lying desert areas of the American Southwest, however, are unbearably hot in summer and can be quite buggy as well. Short, high-intensity storms, even storms that occur miles away, can quickly fill normally dry desert washes and narrow canyons with powerful torrents of water, rock, mud and debris. Everything from small but annoying ruts to catastrophic washouts often occur on roads then. So if you go in summer, pay attention to the sky, even the sky in the distance. Stay out of washes and narrow canyons. Also be aware that when it rains many unpaved roads, especially in Utah and Colorado, become dangerously greasy, slick and often impassable even with 4WD. Tire chains can be required at times.

The danger aside, avoid driving on muddy roads because it leaves tracks that erode into major ruts. If you do get caught in rain, it’s often best to pull over somewhere and wait until it stops and the road dries enough to be drivable again.

Fall is the best season just about anywhere. Temperatures are cooler, and the weather more stable. The leaves on deciduous trees are changing colors, and the sunlight takes on a brassy hue. Remember, however, that the days are growing shorter, and nightfall comes sooner. You may want to avoid the mountains during the general hunting season.

It can be helpful to inquire locally about road conditions, but not necessarily. I once listened while a store clerk and longtime resident seriously misrepresented the current status of Utah’s Cottonwood Canyon Road—which can experience major washouts—to a French tourist who wanted to drive it. I’d already driven it twice that day, and its condition was excellent. You can also check with local 4x4 rental shops, tour operators and visitor information centers. The most knowledgeable people with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management often are out in the field, so accurate and current information may not be readily available from those agencies. Their ability to monitor conditions along hundreds or even thousands of miles of backcountry roads and trails is limited anyway. So don’t be surprised if you find it difficult or impossible to obtain up-to-date information. Often, you will have to go see for yourself.

The waning of a day, when the low, angled sunlight and shadows reveal the textures of the land, can be something to behold. Still, don’t set out on a long drive late in the day because it’s best not to be caught out there after dark unless you’ve planned an overnight stay. Get an early start, and don’t drive at night.

Tony Huegel is the author of the acclaimed Backcountry Byways series of books, published by Wilderness Press. Find out more about his books at

Published: 3 Jul 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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