How I survived being stranded by a flash flood while camping

I was on a road trip through the Southwest, driving along scenic highway 95 in southern Utah—a road carved from a sandstone canyon taking the driver off-guard with breathtaking views around each bend. The scene was so awe-inspiring that time slipped past much faster than I realized due to the countless stops for photographs.

Southern Utah aerial photo by MikesRoadTrip.com

The sun had set and I had but maybe an hour of twilight to find a good camping spot for the night. With my eyes peeled, I passed one, then another suitable turnoff as the windy road and downhill speed prevented me from reacting in time to make a turn. Yet again I saw what looked like a promising turnoff pass me by, but with no traffic behind me and waning light, I brought the truck to a rapid halt just short of the turn. With a check of the rear view mirror, I shifted into reverse and steered off the highway onto a dirt road that looked to meander to the other side of the highway, which seemed impossible since there was no bridge. I followed the rugged road around a few bends and soon discovered a concrete tunnel (perhaps for flooding) under the highway with just enough room for my Ford F-150 to squeeze through. The road sloped downward in dramatic fashion into a wash. As I crossed it, way back in my mind I thought, “If it rains, I’m stuck on the other side.” With little light left in the sky, I dismissed my concerns and proceeded onward.

I drove through the wash and soon up a very steep hill that required me to shift into four-wheel drive. Halfway up I saw a sign that read, “impassable when wet.” The sign and the steep road reminded me of a moment several years earlier while in Moab at Canyonlands National Park. There is a rugged and dramatically steep road that Jeeps and other 4x4s traverse switchbacks some 2000 feet to the bottom. I really wanted to drive it, but during my visit it was closed due to heavy rain a few days prior. I asked a ranger why the road was still closed since the weather was quite nice? He said, “After a heavy rain the road can be very slippery and takes a few days to dry out.”

Road down to the bottom of Canyonlands

A year later I found myself back in Canyonlands and was able to drive the trail to the bottom. During the descent I thought back to what the ranger had told me about the road being slippery…they were so right to have kept it closed. Experiencing it myself, I can say that even under perfect conditions it is a white knuckle drive.

As I crawled by the sign that read “impassible when wet” I looked to the east where dark clouds were forming and thought to myself, “I sure hope those are not heading my way.”

I soon found the perfect camping spot and promptly set up my tent. The views were stupendous. I was so excited to be out in nature amidst this stunning landscape before me.

Camping in southern Utah. Photo by MikesRoadTrip.com

Just as I had finished putting my bag, sleeping pad and pillow inside the tent, it began to sprinkle. Even with a slight drizzle It was a lovely evening, about 75 degrees. I changed into more appropriate clothing and left my shirt off to enjoy the coolness of the rain as I explored the area with the little light I had left. The sight before me was was so beautiful, so remote, that I could not wait to see it at first light in all its glory.

With the pitter patter of rain hitting my tent I heated some soup for dinner under the vestibule attached to my tent. After comforting my hunger, I readied for bed and broke out my iPad for a little reading. There was no cell service, hadn’t been for many, many miles. If I had service I might have posted a few things to social media, including a picture of my stellar camping site.

The rain was light, but steady and was a bit loud, so I put in some earplugs. I wasn’t able to get soundly asleep, but I did doze. I then woke to the sound of much heavier rain. My mind began to wander. I thought about the “impassible when wet” sign I saw. Then thought about the wash I had crossed.

I was beginning to worry. Really worry.

1:41am

Sleep eluded me. My mind roamed to unthinkable places. It was pitch dark out, there was nothing I could do but wait. And worry. It was nearly 2am, light would be several hours away. The nonstop sound of rain bouncing off the tent and trickling to the ground was no longer soothing, but now torture. I felt trapped and wondered how I would survive the night.

I had read several books about people making similar decisions that resulted in peril. I kept thinking… “Why did I not listen to the warning signs, they were right in front of me.” Literally and figuratively. How could I be so stupid to put myself in such a predicament. No one knew where I was! The highway was who knows how far away. No cell service. I laid awake pondering the situation the morning would bring.

The truth was, I could likely be stuck for days until the rugged road was dry enough to pass safely. By now I figured the wash would be a raging river. “Should I put some pots out to collect rain water in case I am stuck here for days?” I thought.

Since I couldn’t sleep, I began to pen this story, if not for my readers, for whomever might find me. Dramatic, perhaps. But these were the thoughts running through my head.

I sat up in my tent while the rain continued, as my imagination took a trip to some dark places that I could not bear to write in case they were my last words. “Idiot,” was the most appropriate thought of the moment.

2:34am

The rain continued. My hope of getting back to the highway at first light was washing down the hillside just like like the rain water. The road would be so incredibly muddy, and slippery that I might have to wait…a day, maybe more. That is, if the monsoon does not reappear again the following day/evening. Ugh. Lost in the horror of my own mistake. At least I was dry for the moment in the shelter of my tent.

2:51am

Flashes of light continue to illuminate the tent. The rain continued its steadiness—it hadn’t wavered in hours. It was a real soaker.

3:12am

Rain was letting up, so I attempted to go back to sleep.

It was difficult to hear sounds over the babble of the rain striking my tent, but I could hear something…like the sound of rushing water, perhaps wind.

Must have fallen asleep.

5:28am

I woke to the silence of rain and the deafening sound of rushing water. My initial thought was a waterfall (seasonal) near my campsite that I noticed when setting up the tent. While there was water running, it was not where the sound emanated. I walked to the edge of the cliff and saw the source of the sound and the sight of my fears…it was a ragging river with rapids of which a rafter would be envious.

5:48am

I proceeded to walk the road that I traveled the night before to assess its degree of slipperiness. While my footing found many soft spots, the road did not appear to be as bad as I had imagined, but I had not yet reached the steepest part.

Foot in mud

6:03am

Walking down the hill I almost lost my footing as one slid well past where I planted it. Thankfully, the hill was nowhere near as long as I recalled. Provided that it didn’t rain anymore, I was confident that I could get the truck down it safely. Crossing the wash (now a river), was another matter.

Sliding foot in mud

6:16am

I reached the part of the wash that I crossed the evening prior. What I saw was a raging river about 50’ across. Absolutely impassible. I threw rocks into what I suspected was the deepest part. My guess was that the water was nearly three feet deep. Worse, was the rate at which the water was traveling. I soon turned and began to walk away. A thought crossed my mind. “Perhaps I should put a marker at the rivers edge and come back in a couple hours to see if it receded.

Flash flood in southern Utah

6:53am

Back at the camp area, I hung a hammock and cooked some oatmeal for breakfast.
I relaxed for a while, read my book and tried to enjoy the sound of the water rushing through the canyon. After a while I began to explore the area on foot and discovered a series of road trails throughout the area. Despite my circumstances, I was enjoying the beauty that surrounded me.

8:47am

I walked back to the river crossing to examine the water level. I was delighted to find that it had, in fact, begun to recede, however in over two hours it was but merely a foot. After closer examination I saw that while it was only a foot away from my marker, it was also 8 inches are so lower. I made another marker at the current edge of the river and began my walk back to camp.

I was getting hungry again so I took stock of my supplies. I had only some dried fruit, a can of tuna, a Cliff Bar, a small package of beef jerky and a few other ancillary items. Not much to sustain me for what could be several days of strandedness. I also had very little water left, but did have a water purifying filter with me, although if I had to use the river water below I would need to figure out another filtration system first as my filter would get clogged with dirt in short order and be rendered useless.

By 10ish I was getting antsy. I made the pilgrimage back to the river crossing, which I estimated to be around half a mile each way. During this trip I decided I would bring the truck the next time to see how it handled going down the muddy hill. I assessed the water level again and was encouraged to see that it had dropped a bit more, but still no where near enough to safely cross.

Camping in southern Utah when a flash flood stranded me

12:15pm

I had decided to drive the truck to the water crossing, and this time I would strap a rope to myself and attached it to the truck and wade across the river to see how deep and swift it was.

Sufficiently secured I began walking across the muddy chocolate brown river. After my first step in, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that it was not that cold. I was cautious with each step and also had a large stick in one hand to help steady myself. I made it about three quarters of the way across and ran out of rope. I made my way back to the truck and attached a strap to give me another 6-8 feet. This time I was able to make it to the other side.

My objective was four-fold.

  1. Check the water level, which at its deepest part was just above my knees, perhaps around two feet.
  2. Check the swiftness of the current. I was confident that I could walk across the river without being tied off. This was a good thing.
  3. Check the footing of the river. Three quarters of it seemed relatively solid with a fair amount of cobble. Toward the other side however, it was 18” of sticky, almost molasses-like sand. My assessment was that even if I could get the truck across most of the river, I would without question get stuck in this muck.
  4. Lastly, I wanted to see if there was a place I could tie off a rope with a come-along cable just in case the truck got stuck or began to float down river. Unfortunately there was nothing sufficient.

I stood on the other bank of the river and and pondered my options. I was being particularly cautious because I was alone, and, I had no cell service to call for help or even notify anyone of my whereabouts.

I decided that I would dig out enough of the sand for my tires to pass through. I went back to my truck to retrieve my collapsible Army shovel, only to discover it was not there. I searched and searched through my two duffel bags of gear only to come up empty handed. I rifled through my stuff for an alternative tool, the only thing I could find was a camping plate.

I made my way back to the other side with plate in hand and began carving out the sand and throwing it down river. The scoops full of wet sand were very heavy. After just a few platefuls, I was attempting to discard some sand when I discovered my feet were suctioned to the river bottom and I could not move. My inability to pick up one foot to balance myself as my torso rotated to displace the sand, caused the plate to slip out of my hands and I saw in slow motion the plate fly through the air and disappear into the murky river. With all the effort I could muster, I pulled my feet free from the sand only to find one of my Keen sandals missing. I searched and searched and could not retrieve it. I could not believe it! What else could go wrong.

I took my remaining sandal and threw it to the river bank where my truck was and searched for my second and only remaining plate. I went back across the river barefoot and worked for nearly and hour, only to realize my efforts were futile as the river just washed sand into the voids that I had attempted to clear.

I then glanced up, looking to the east and was frightened by what I saw…dark skies. It was 2pm by now and I had to figure out what to do. If I did not get across this river soon, it would likely swell again and I could be stuck for days.

I decided that I would go back to my campsite and pack up. I still had to figure out how to get across the river, but first things first.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Half way back to the campsite a light bulb went off. I decided to collect some large flat rocks and make a ramp at the other side of the river. I would put the rocks into the sticky sand and make a solid surface to drive across. I was pretty confident that if I could fix this part of the problem, that my trusty F-150 in 4-wheel drive low would do the rest.

After getting my gear packed up I set off to find as many large and flat rocks as I could lift, and carry, across the river. One-by-one I placed the rocks in place. My confidence was building.

Unfortunately, time was not on my side as it began to sprinkle. I had no doubt the river would soon begin to swell. I worked as quickly as I humanly possible. Once I was satisfied I had enough rocks in place, I waded across the river back to the truck.

Filthy, dirty, and soaked to the bone, I got into the cab of my truck, turned the key and put it into 4-wheel drive low. I entered the river slowly and made sure my tires were lined up with the make-shift ramps I had built. I then gave the truck a fair amount of gas and roared across the river as if there were not even an impediment in my way. My front tires reached the other side of the river, hit the first set of rocks and climbed up and over…effortlessly. A moment later my entire truck was on dry land. I exited the truck, jumped in the air with a fist-bump in jubilation. I was thrilled to no longer be stranded. I hopped back in my truck and when I went to put the truck in gear I noticed that the dash light indicated I had my emergency brake on—even at that, the truck made it across with little effort!

Moments after getting on the highway the sprinkle turned to a torrential downpour. I have no doubt that had I not seized the moment when I did, I would have likely been stranded for days. While listening to the radio and hearing a weather report this notion was confirmed.

The moral of this story is to try and always listen to your intuition and pay attention to the signs, both literal and figurative. Had I not had the outdoor experience to draw from, and the mindset to think through my situation in great detail, this camping experience could have ended entirely different. Rushing water is no joke. Every year I see idiots on the news try and cross flooded areas with little success.

If you’ve ever been in a similar camping survival situation, please share your experience by leaving a comment below.

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