From dealing with extreme heat to the muddy Rio Grande and desert hiking, safety is paramount in Big Bend National Park. Plan a successful trip with Outsider tips and NPS’s guidelines before your next trip right here.
Ah, Far West Texas. The end of the road, as the cowboys of old called it. Out here, night skies are dark as coal and rivers carve temple-like canyons in ancient limestone. Thousands of animals take refuge in solitary mountain ranges surrounded by dry, wickedly hot desert. And hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to experience everything in-between each year.
Enjoying the magnificent open spaces of Big Bend, however, requires keeping safety a priority. Otherwise, this desert can claim a soul faster than nearly any other place on Earth.
Below, you’ll find crucial safety guidelines and tips from Big Bend National Park. Heed these and you’ll no doubt have a successful, fantastic adventure through this incredible desert landscape.
Big Bend’s Big Tip: Dress for the Weather
These two may look dressed for desert weather, but there’s a few critical mistakes they’ve made:
As the park cites, a wide-brimmed hat, comfortable clothing and sturdy walking shoes or boots are necessary for anyone planning to explore in Big Bend. A wide-brim hat is recommended to protect you from the sun regardless of the time of year.
Sunscreen is also a must. In addition, visitors should:
- Wear clothing that protects from the sun, then avoid activity during midday
- In winter, prepare for any weather with their clothing, as temperatures vary from below freezing to above 80 degrees Fahrenheit
*EXTREME HEAT* Warning for Big Bend National Park
Crucially: Big Bend is a desert park. May through September temperatures over most of the park reach 100+ degrees by late morning, and reach exceedingly dangerous levels until long after sunset. Hikers should stay OFF trails in the afternoon.
Additional Heat Safety:
- Always carry plenty of water! (at least one gallon per person, per day)
- springs are unreliable despite what maps indicate
- Wear a hat, long pants, long-sleeved shirt, and sun screen when hiking
- A packable shade umbrella can provide welcome shade during the day
- Avoid hiking during mid-day heat in summer
Once you’re prepared for the heat in Big Bend, it’s time to make sure you’re ready to hike safely, as well.
Hiking Safety in Big Bend National Park
As the park cites, “Exploring desert and mountain country on foot requires both mental and physical preparation. Trails vary from well maintained in the Chisos Mountains to primitive and barely visible in the desert. Plan hikes within your ability.”
- Let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return
- Take along a map and compass and know how to use them
- Carry a flashlight, first aid kit, and signaling device (mirror and whistle)
- Avoid narrow canyons or dry washes; flash floods may occur during thunderstorms
- Stay low and avoid ridges during lightning
- If you get hurt or lost, stay in one place to conserve water and energy
- Signal for help (using whistle or mirror)
- In remote areas, mark a large “X” on the ground that could be visible from the air
Yet as the NPS video below cites, the most common cause of injury or death in the national park is, in fact, driving a vehicle.
Vehicle Safety is Paramount in Big Bend National Park
- Drive within the speed limit: 45 mph maximum in the park
- Watch carefully for javelina, deer, and rabbits grazing along road shoulders, especially at night
- Park roadways were designed for relaxed and scenic exploration, NOT to provide the fastest route between two places.
Slow down and enjoy your park
- Always pull completely off the road to take pictures and/or enjoy the view — do NOT stop or pause on roadways
- Park roads have limited shoulders and some are steep and winding and require extra caution
In addition, Big Bend National Park also requires a lot of thought when it comes to different vehicle types:
- The road to the Chisos Basin is not recommended for RVs over 24 feet or trailers over 20 feet
- Share the road with bicyclists and pedestrians
- Driving Backcountry Roads requires an extra level of preparedness. Backcountry roads require vehicles with good tires, including a spare at a minimum and a working jack; some roads require a high clearance or 4-wheel drive vehicle. Take extra water, food, and sleeping bags just in case. If your vehicle breaks down or gets stuck, stay with it. It is much easier for rangers to find a car on a road than a person walking through the desert.
Campfires, Bonfires, and Ground Fires of Any Time are Prohibited in Big Bend National Park
And remember, the dry desert can ignite with even the smallest source. Fire safety is paramount in Big Bend National Park as a result.
- Wood or ground fires are not permitted in the park
- Exercise caution when using gas stoves, charcoal grills, or smoking cigarettes
- Restrictions may apply to the use of these heat sources during drought conditions
Swimming and Water Safety in Big Bend
Hot weather may make the Rio Grande look very inviting, but swimming in this unpredictable, muddy river is not recommended. The river can be hazardous, even in calm-looking spots. Strong undercurrents, deep holes, and shallow areas with sharp rocks and large tree limbs are common. If you do choose to swim, however, please follow the park’s advice:
- Wear a lifejacket at all times
- Never drink alcohol and use waterways for swimming, boating, etc
In addition, park visitors should be aware that water-borne micro-organisms and other waste materials can occur in the river and cause serious illness.
If you’d like to swim, consider visiting Balmorhea State Park 3 hours north of Big Bend. Balmorhea provides crystal clear water in the world’s largest spring fed swimming pool.
Crucial Wildlife Safety for Big Bend National Park
In Big Bend National Park, black bears, javelinas, coyotes and skunks frequent campgrounds. Each species is often spotted on trails, too.
Remember, all animals in national parks are wild. Even if they appear tame, they are not and remain potentially dangerous. Big Bend is also mountain lion country, so it is imperative to be alert at all times.
- If you encounter a bear or mountain lion, do not run, but back away to get out of range. If you feel threatened by a bear or lion, hold your ground, wave your arms, throw stones, and shout; never run. Keep groups together, look large.
Smaller creatures pose an equal threat in the desert, however:
And in general:
- Never feed wildlife
- Watch children closely; never let them run ahead or lag behind
- Store all food, coolers, cooking utensils, and toiletries in a hard-sided vehicle, preferably in the trunk of your car. Use available food storage lockers in campsites
- Dispose of garbage properly. Throw garbage in the bear-proof dumpsters and trash cans provided
Big Bend National Park places emphasis on specific bear safety for their park, as well. For more on how to navigate this unique bear country safely, please see the park’s Bear Safety page here.