Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Visitor's View – Desert Survival Handbook


Last updated 9/14/2023 at 11:33am

An old desert sourdough once warned me, "everything you encounter out here either pokes, bites, scratches or stings."

With more than 50 years of sand in my boots, I can truthfully say that's an accurate statement.

From the ubiquitous patches of spiny cactus to the thickets of catclaw mesquite, the painful fangs of the rattlesnake or the sting of a scorpion, the careless desert traveler must be constantly on guard to avoid unpleasant encounters.

So, as we approach another desert recreation season, let's consider this the first chapter of a desert user's manual for newbie visitors to one of California's most beautiful and interesting places.

First, this article is not meant to alarm you. Rather, the goal is to raise awareness of the things that might not be fun to encounter and how to avoid them. A little awareness can prevent a mishap that could spoil your visit.

Unlike a stroll along a beautiful forest path, a walk in the desert requires visitors to be aware of their surroundings.

Stepping back to get a better picture in that field of spring wildflowers might result in an intimate meeting with a cholla cactus, and it will be one you won't forget.

There's a good reason that Native Americans used the needles of cactus to sew with. They are stout and will poke through heavy cloth, even tennis shoes.

Some species, such as cholla cactus, also known as teddy bear cactus because they look so cuddly from a distance, have spiny balls that break off.

If you back into this cactus, or happen to step on one of the balls, your next step may embed the cactus spines on the ball into your other leg.

If you do get a cactus ball stuck in your hand, don't try to flick it off. It will usually land someplace worse.

The spines of the cholla also have hooks at the end, making them difficult to remove.

Here's a hint. Always carry a small plastic comb in your pocket. If you do get a cholla ball or several cactus spines in your hand, arm or leg, use the comb to remove them. Small tweezers are also a good way to pluck out the stragglers.

A better idea is to pay attention to where you are walking and stay clear of these prickly plants.

Other plants, such as ocotillo or mesquite have spikes or claws often hidden by leaves. If you reach into the plant or try to push through, you may be in for a surprise.

Trying to pass through a thicket of catclaw mesquite will result in lots of tiny scratches on bare skin. You will look like you lost a fight with an angry feline.

Flip flops, light shoes or heaven forbid, bare feet in the desert should always be avoided.

Even a well-used trail may have a cactus ball, sharp rocks, rattlesnake or a tiny scorpion, especially at night.

While scorpions in Anza-Borrego are not dangerous, their sting can still be like that of a bee.

Fortunately, encounters with rattlesnakes are not common. Snakes generally don't like midday sun, especially if it's warm, and they are not aggressive. They prefer to be left alone and will let you know if you get too close.

If you do hear that unmistakable rattling sound, just back away.

The experienced desert traveler knows to check areas around rocks or in the shade of shrubbery to make sure a rattler is not hanging around.

So here are the takeaways.

If you are hiking cross country or through brushy areas, wear long sleeves, long pants and sturdy hiking shoes or boots. Even the rocks can be sharp and are hard on boots.

Be aware of your location. Know where the cactus is around you, and always look before backing up or reaching into an area you can't clearly see.

You will encounter cactus. Everyone does.

Carry the small comb to take out the cactus ball and small tweezers to pull the remaining individual spines.

Do not step or reach into areas you cannot see. Carry a walking stick to push into shadows or rock pockets to check for lurking creatures or even cactus that has been blown in by the wind.

Be even more careful at night. It's hard to see when it's dark and you may not notice a nearby cactus.

Also, especially on warm nights, snakes and scorpions are more active. This is why you never go barefoot at night in the desert.

Oh, and there are the tarantulas, those big, black, fuzzy spiders. You may not like spiders, but Anza-Borrego tarantulas are harmless, so just watch and enjoy.

Our last reminder is to wear a hat and always carry water with you, especially if the weather is warm.

A little awareness and some common sense can keep you safe and make your visit to Anza-Borrego an enjoyable experience.

You can reach the author at Ernie at

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