Nevada is an enormous state with an area greater than the combined areas of nine Eastern states (CT, DE, MA, MD, NH, NJ, NY, RI, VT). There is only one major interstate crossing though Nevada (I-80) and a short section of I-15 (120 miles) crossing the southern tip of the state. The remainder of all-season travel routes within the state consist of about about six paved two-lane highways. Most other routes in Nevada are dirt or gravel roads that may only be navigable seasonally or since the last weather event washed-out or flooded and muddied the road surface. The extremely low population and resulting lack of economic resources in rural Nevada make it difficult for the Department of Transportation to maintain the paved highways of the state and nearly impossible for the counties to perform regular maintenance of gravel and dirt roads. The vast majority of dirt “roads” on GPS Navigation Layers and in atlases are not “maintained roads” at all and rarely, if ever, see any improvement or maintenance. Nevada Road Navigation can be divided into two categories: 1) Nevada Front-country Routes, relying on the major paved roads of the state, 2) Nevada Backcountry Routes, everything else. GPS Navigation Systems have limited functionality in Nevada and if solely depended on, may produce potentially fatal consequences (See “GPS Navigation: A Potentially Fatal Flaw” below).
Front-Country Route Navigation
The scale of the state of Nevada and the distances required for travel within and across the state make even front-country traveling in Nevada challenging. For example, the mileage on the paved roads is enormous: Reno to Las Vegas on US 95 = 439 miles; Las Vegas to the Idaho border on US 93 = 448 miles; from the CA border to the UT border on I-80 = 409 miles; from Las Vegas to the Oregon border on US 95 = 585 miles; South Lake Tahoe to the UT border on US 50 = 409 miles. Cell coverage in Nevada is spotty on all routes, and, except for the Interstates, traffic can be sparse and help could be hours coming even in emergency situations. No one ever expects to be in an accident or have a vehicle break down or get damaged. Planing for the improbable is always the best bet for traveling in Nevada. The following questions should be considered before beginning any crossing of Nevada:
*What highways do I take?
*Where are the services along my intended route of travel?
*How long will it take to drive each route section?
*What is the fuel range of my vehicle?
*What is the expected weather for the route? Will the roads be icy or snow covered?
* Is my vehicle up to the drive?
* Am I up to the drive? What limitations do I have that can become problematic for long distant driving? the drive?
*Do I have enough knowledge of the roads I intend to take that if I loose cell connection or my GPS Navigation system goes down, I can safely finish the next segment of my journey?
*Are the spare tire, lug wrench, and jack all in good condition and do I know to use them?
*Do I have enough water, food, and blankets to keep everyone in my car safe and warm if we break down, cannot get immediate help, and may have to spend the night in the vehicle?
How to Safely Navigate Nevada’s Backcountry Roads
Landscape Awareness and Orientation
What is the condition of the landscape you are about to venture into? When did it last snow or rain? Are the roads dry and free of snow? Does your road lead over mountains? Will there be late season snow banks at the top of the grade or in the shadows on the north side of the pass? What direction do you expect the route to follow? Is the route actually heading in the right direction? These are question Nevada backcountry explorers need to ask themselves on a regular basis while traveling. Most vehicles today have a built in compass. These can be useful in assuring that the direction you are traveling is what you are expecting.
Learn How to Read Maps
Reading maps creates the an added level of confidence for accurately planning and enjoying backcountry travel. Orientation of a map to the actual terrain is an acquired skill that requires patience and practice. A compass is useful to assure the directions you intend to travel coincide to the direction the roads you drive take you.
Know where you are going
Planning a trip is the most important part of exploring Nevada’s backcountry. Maps, guides, and internet research can provide insights and help plan your trip. Also consider the fuel you will require for your proposed trip and assure that you have enough to get you where you want to go and back to the nearest fuel station.
Let Others Know
Make sure others know where you intend to travel and when you plan to return. Local county sheriff offices welcome check-ins by backcountry travelers to assure they would know where to conduct search and rescue operations if your contact reports you overdue.
Cell Phones Do Not Work in the Nevada Backcountry
Relying on cell signal to route find or find the nearest services in Nevada will fail because cell connectivity and coverage is spotty throughout Nevada at best. Reliance on connectivity can have dire consequences. When and where you will find cell coverage along highways as well as across Nevada’s backcountry is up to tower location, terrain, and weather. At the best, it is a crap-shoot. If you don’t have unlimited data, roaming on your service and/or using phone Navigation will blow-through your data and can put you in a situation where you cannot interface with internet even when you regain cell service. Chances are that if you become lost, broken down, stuck, or delayed in the backcountry, you will not have cell service to let people know you are okay or to summon help or an emergency response. Weak cell and text messages my be truncated and/or delayed in being transmitted through out remote networks, sometimes for a matter of days. Make sure you have adapters and provisions to recharge your cell phone and electronics from your vehicle or secondary battery storage.
Invest in a Satellite Communication System
If you make backcountry travel part of your regular travel plans, systems such as Garmin provide the ability to text to family and friends through a satellite system that does not rely on cell phone coverage. Some of these systems interface with your phone through Bluetooth, allowing you to monitor, write, respond, and send messages through your phone without cell coverage. Satellite communication systems are all a little different, but they too are not perfect. Terrain, tree cover, and weather may block or delay messages sent and received by these devices. Often messages will loop somewhere in the system and may be sent and or received as multiple copies of the same message. The best practice is to put the date and time into the text of each message to assure the receiver is not responding to old or delayed messages. Also make sure that the GPS location is turned on for outgoing messages, so the people you contact will know where you are whenever you send a message. Satellite communication systems are moderately expensive and also require a service activation and a continuing subscription fee, without which they will not work. Service plans are scaled by the data used and all plans have data caps- The band-width for satellite communication is restricted and expensive and must be restricted to prevent overloading the systems. Finally, the GPS satellite communicators have an Emergency Transponder. Press this button and help will be sent to handle your emergency. Use this button only in a life threatening situation.
Do Not Believe Car and Truck Commercials
Today, nearly ever vehicle advertisement shows vehicles plowing through snow, splashing through rivers and stream, bouncing over rough and rocky roads, climbing to the top of impossible mountains, or racing through sand or a trackless desert. This is propaganda designed to sell vehicles and is a gross exaggeration as to what vehicles and drivers are capable of doing. In many cases, the vehicle artistically posed on a pristine mountain top or canyon rim was placed there by a helicopter. (FYI, extraction and recovery of a trapped or broken vehicle in the backcountry can run into thousands of dollars, and if it requires a helicopter- tens of thousands of dollars.)
Recognize how to “Read” Roads
Every backcountry road tells a story. Is the road regularly maintained? Has the road seen regular and continuous use? What kind of vehicles are using the road? Full size vehicles or ATVs? Answering these questions can help you decide if the road you are about to travel is safe and will actually lead to the destination you are expecting to achieve. Roads that become increasing rough and rocky and less traveled indicate a route that may no longer connect through to the destination. A recently improved road may only lead to a mining exploration drill site and a dead end for your purpose to traverse a landscape. Rough roads are slow going, consume more fuel and can create hours long detours that can have dangerous consequences. Backing down from a steep and/or side-hill road is extremely dangerous and can take hours to accomplish. Learn you limits, and when you gut says: "I don't think this is the right road," listen to it!
Backcountry Route Navigation
What is Navigation?
Navigation is getting to where we want to go and back safely. In this age of GPS and electronic Navigation system, it is very easy to over-rely on our electronics. Herein lies the problem, our electronic navigation systems can provide fairly good approximations as to where we are, but to provide directions, they are only as good as the map information available and stored within the system. Unfortunately, electronic navigation systems and Google map road layers are highly inaccurate beyond the paved road network within Nevada’s backcountry. This inaccuracy is not restricted to electronic maps, many paper maps, such as the Delorme and Benchmark atlases suffer from what is known as “red spaghetti.” Map making is very subjective. Some of the thin, red routes in the Nevada atlases may not be roads at all, but rather linear features such as livestock or wildlife trails, fence lines, political boundaries, or old mining scars. Unfortunately, many of these non-existing routes have been incorporated into the map layers of electronic navigation systems. Once you leave the paved road system in Nevada, the electronic navigation systems may incorporate imaginary routes into directions and can lead explorers into dead ends and/or extremely dangerous situations for vehicles and people alike. Relying solely on GPS Navigation while exploring backcountry Nevada can produce potentially fatal consequences. See “GPS Navigation: A Potentially Fatal Flaw” below.
“Smart” is Not Smart.
As our phones and cars get smarter, the smart money is on the fact that more and more often we rely on these systems to get us where we are going. It is worth remembering, however, that GPS navigation systems are not smart, but only artificial intelligence and are subject to the same foibles of all machines: Garbage In = Garbage Out. These navigation systems are only as good as the GPS road layers provided to them and the algorithms that recommend routes of travel. Many of us were familiar with the first GPS navigation systems that use to “scream” and tell drivers to stop and immediately turn around when we missed their off-ramp on a freeway. This was extremely disturbing to drivers and potentially fatal advice from our electronic copilots. The solution to this problem was creation of algorithms for reconfiguring and recalculating routes so that the GPS Navigation could provide us with a safer option than stopping, backing-up, or turning around on a freeway.
GPS Navigation: A Potentially Fatal Flaw.
While route reconfiguration by a GPS Navigation system can be frustrating and annoying in urban environments, route reconfiguration in the Nevada backcountry can be fatal. If a traveler diverts from the main highway route of travel, the route reconfiguration may include options that include questionable dirt roads. These dirt roads are often a shorter distance to our planned destination and may look like a short-cut over the option of turning around and back-tracking to the paved road. Dirt road options are often shorter, distance-wise, however, they are never shorter in driving time because of the reduced speeds necessary to travel the routes with tight radius turns and rough surfaces. The initial reconfigured route may often include a branch of a dirt road that is in very poor condition. GPS Navigation in the backcountry on the micro-scale is not very accurate and can be off by hundreds of feet and may result in taking a wrong turn. The GPS Navigation System may keep reconfiguring routes until the vehicle becomes damaged by poor road conditions or the driver becomes completely lost.
Case in Point:
In March of 2022 an elderly couple were traveling from Oregon to Arizona through western Nevada in an RV towing a small car. According to the couple's nephew: "the GPS was to blame for getting them into the pickle they found themselves in. The 'highway' switch was not turned on in the GPS settings... it found the shortest route to their destination and that's the way they went." Most likely, they had difficulty finding the exact location of the fork the GPS indicated in the maze of mining exploration routes they found themselves in. The GPS Navigation System sequentially reconfigured their route until it led them to one of the most remote places in Nevada at over 8,000 feet in elevation and far beyond the cell coverage. The road the RV followed was steep, eroded, and had a fairly steep side-hill slant. The road reached a hairpin-switchback, which was impossible for the RV to negotiate. Attempts to turn the rig around resulted in the RV becoming hopelessly stuck in the steep, uneven terrain. The couple attempted to drive the towed car out to find help. Confused by the maze of roads, the car became mired in mud two miles from the RV on a steep, eroded road where the couple were stranded for more than a week. The wife survived, but the husband died. The Sheriff’s office said the incident was the result of a series of bad decisions. How many of these bad decisions were prompted by the GPS Navigation system?