OHV recreation occurs all over the country on all sorts of terrains. Many lucky OHV recreationists will have the opportunity to experience riding on trails in heavily wooded areas, areas with serious exposure in mountainous areas or in open plains. Others yet will have the opportunity to ride on dunes or through the desert. Each type of area has its unique safety concerns – this article focuses on desert safety.

NOHVCC recently spoke with Brian Puckett who is a paramedic and leads search and rescue operations for the Bureau of Land Management’s El Centro Field Office in California, which manages the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area. Brian leads a team of five permanent staff who are bolstered with seasonal help during the busy winter season. The team responds to 400 calls a year and deal with a vast range of injuries. Brian said, “Everything from splinter removal to serious traumatic injuries – we see it all.”

Given the nature of recreation in the area, the overwhelming majority of calls are OHV-related with the remainder related to hiking and other trail uses. “More than 90% of our calls are for incidents involving OHVs or OHVers at the campsite or engaged in other related activities.” Not all calls are injury related. “We get quite a few calls for lost or overdue parties.”

Like many who visit the Imperial Sand Dunes to recreate, Brian and his team use sand rails on search and rescue missions. In addition to the side by sides, dirt bikes, and ATV’s, visitors bring sand rails to the Dunes. These sand rails are highly capable machines which are tube-framed, powered by large engines, and equipped with long travel suspension. Brian and his crew have similar machines, but they have been modified to carry all the same gear as a highway-going ambulance. Brian believes that he and his team have the tools to “provide up to, or even beyond the same level of care as one could expect from a team of paramedics in the city.” The search and rescue vehicles even include a “litter,” which is a stretcher designed to make safe evacuation of a patient possible.

While all OHV enthusiasts owe Brian and his team a debt of gratitude for the tremendous service they provide – there are some precautions that can help prevent interacting with Brian on a search and rescue mission, or at least make the interaction a lot quicker and more comfortable. NOHVCC’s ethic is that OHV enthusiasts should wear all appropriate safety gear on every ride and Brian believes that “helmets are essential pieces of equipment to wear in ATV’s and side by sides to reduce head injuries.” Brian also stressed the need for drivers and passengers to wear seatbelts in all seatbelt-equipped vehicles, “too often people let their guard down and don’t wear their seatbelts 100% of the time. Please wear your seatbelt – even in flat areas, even if you are just riding to the dumpster. Incidents can happen at any time.”

Gear, and seatbelt use in ROVs or similar vehicles, are universal in OHV recreation, but there are some precautions unique to recreating in the desert. Imperial Sand Dunes require vehicles to affix a safety flag that flies above the eight-foot mark. Brian notes, “these flags help provide visibility in an open environment much different than trails that may be found in other parts of the Country.” Also, heat is always a factor in the desert. “A general rule is that everyone should have at least a gallon of water per person for a short day trip – say less than six hours. But everyone is different and different vehicles have different capacity for carrying water. It may be difficult to secure enough water to an ATV on a multi-day trip, for example.”

Despite the open nature of the Dunes, Brian notes that “it is a huge area and it can be very difficult to find those in need of help. Keep in mind, even a flat tire or a broken belt can become serious if we can’t locate the lost party.” As a result, Brian encourages the use of GPS devices, “a GPS or even most cell phones equipped with GPS are one of the most essential tools for safe recreation in the desert. Even if we have an idea of where a lost party is located, we may have to grid out a couple miles of desert in our search. Those seeking help can provide us with exact coordinates using GPS devices or GPS-equipped phones. This allows us to come right to where we need to be and, if necessary, provide immediate care.” Less high-tech solutions also still work. “Bright colors and reflective material are very effective in the desert. Blaze orange gear or clothing can help us locate lost parties. Marine-style smoke flares can also help in certain situations.”

Brian also cautions that the terrain in the Dunes is ever-changing, “Dunes are wind-driven and there are different wind patterns by season. Just because the terrain was one way the last time you visited, that doesn’t mean it will be the same way the next time you come. Sand can pile up and make a compressed edge and the backside can be soft with a drop-off of a couple inches or 80-100 feet. Anytime you go over something you can’t see the bottom of – slowly approach the top at an angle and make sure it is safe before going over.”

Finally, Brian espouses the “know before you go” approach. “Research the rules and regulations of the area you plan to visit before you leave home. Call the land mangers of the area. That is what we are here for and we can tell you what to expect, areas to recreate in, and areas to avoid.”

Please keep all these safety tips in mind if you ever head to the desert or dunes for a ride. Taking the right precautions can make all the difference.

For more information about the Imperial Sand Dunes visit: https://www.blm.gov/visit/imperial-sand-dunes

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