When Trouble Hits Off-Road or Off Trail

Group Travel

The benefits of caravanning or driving with a group fall apart if one is left behind. A trip leader may feel pressure to keep a group going to its destination, even if a member breaks down. That driver must then fix the problem themselves, if they can, and then navigate back to pavement. Or, they must get help from the outside. This leads into a discussion about vehicle recovery, communications, and personal survival.

First Things First

Traveling in a caravan off-road is often a high speed race into the wilderness. The group leader, familiar with the road, may blaze ahead with the group struggling to keep up. In so doing, it is nearly impossible to keep track of every turn and fork in the road, especially if one is driving solo. That’s a problem. A real problem. Because if you have to turn back without the group, you may not be able to find your way back. You are guided in, can you guide yourself out?

At the very least try to set a waypoint when you leave pavement. I take a photo with my Garmin Montana 650 handheld. It assigns a GPS coordinate to each photo it takes, eliminating manual entry of waypoints. I can later call up the photo and the Garmin will ask if I want to navigate back to that point. Taking more photos along the way at each fork and bend is impossible for me while driving but I will at least have one point I can dead reckon back to.


With A Cell Phone

Communicating with a road service is no problem if cell phone coverage exists. Even when connected, however, a traditional group like AAA may refuse to dispatch a tow truck down an unmaintained BLM or USFS road. If you are in the Jeep community, a Jeep club member, you will probably have friends and contacts that will come from incredible distances to help. For the rest of us, an off-road recovery service plan is needed, along with a way to get in touch with that towing company without cell phone coverage. A good solution is a satellite messaging device paired with an off-road vehicle recovery plan.

Without a Cell Phone

— Satellite Text Messaging Devices

The SpotX is a satellite text messaging device (internal link). It requires a subscription along with buying the device. Options are personal recovery services and vehicle recovery services. Spot X competes with Garmin inReach products.

SpotX provides personal recovery through GEOS, a worldwide group that facilitates search and rescue. With the GEOS option subscribed to, a rockhound can summon help through the SpotX by simply pushing the device’s dedicated SOS button. GPS coordinates are automatically sent with any SOS message.

This service is keyed to the subscriber but is unthinkable an emergency team would refuse aid to anyone in a life-threatening situation. That person, though, will probably have to pay the cost of this uncovered rescue. GEOS stand-alone plans are available for individuals, no device needed. Many backpackers use GEOS while wilderness traveling. Garmin’s inReach products also offer GEOS.

A vehicle option is the S.O.V. or Save Our Vehicle service. This summons a company called Nation Safe Drivers to recover or make road worthy any broken down or bogged vehicle. That includes SUVs, ATVs, or motorcycles. Unlike AAA, this service is tied to a particular vehicle. Nation Safe promises that their partners will recover a vehicle on any kind of road regardless of location. That said, towing services are far and few between in the rural southwest and a rockhound should be prepared to wait a very long time for recovery.

Search and Rescue teams are frequently summoned to help people stranded in the wilderness due to vehicle breakdowns. This is a terrible use of trained, needed people. A rockhound or prospector should have a vehicle recovery plan, use that, and only if no assistance is available, then ask SAR for help.

This writer has both SpotX options and has had the good luck not to need them. Yet.

The SpotX is challenging to set up. The device requires a Mac or Windows desktop or laptop machine to first configure the device and then for later updates and changes. You can’t use a mobile OS to set up the SpotX but a phone app provides some features after the device has been configured with a non-mobile OS.

Download the SpotX program, enter the required information, sync the SpotX to a desktop or a laptop over a cable. When updating the device, download the latest updater program first, run that, and then again sync the device over cable. Check for updates before going into the field as the device may not work without the latest software.

The SpotX operates best when stationary and with a clear view of the sky. Run several test messages before going out. Text messages are delivered more quickly and more dependably than e-mail messages. Coordinates can be sent with every message. The keyboard is frustrating to use with its tiny keys. Really frustrating.

–A Satellite Phone

Satellite phones provide direct voice communications. One still needs a personal and vehicle recovery plan, of course, after connecting to the terrestrial telephone network. Sat phones themselves are reasonably priced but air time is phenomenally expensive. They can be rented for short periods but air time will still cost dearly.

–Amateur Radio

Ham radio is excellent for emergencies when other services fail. Coverage is likely over much of the Southwest with what are called repeaters, small radio stations that are on the tops of the most remote and unlikely mountains and even on the roofs of casinos. Emergency traffic is relayed between a ham with a telephone connection and a person in the field seeking help. If a repeater has an accessible autopatch feature then things proceed more smoothly.

Ideally, the caller initiating the emergency call must have an amateur radio license, obtained by passing an FCC test. In reality, anyone in a life or death situation will be listened to, in fact, most of the nearby ham community will likely tune in when another ham declares an emergency. All other traffic will then get voluntarilly suspended from the particular channel being used. A Technician class license takes 15 to 20 hours of study to prepare. All manner of people and resources will assist a future ham with passing. I hold a General Class license, my call sign is KD6NSP.


The Family Radio Service or FRS is normally used to communicate between vehicles or between people on a hike. A walled garden system, FRS cannot be depended on to communicate with the outside world. GMRS or General Mobile Radio Service transmits further and, in some areas, employs a network of repeaters to get messages through. GMRS requires an FCC license but no testing. Of the two, GMRS offers the best chance for getting help.

–Citizen’s Band Radio

C.B. is still with us although less so. On a hill or in open country, a five-watt C.B. radio signal can travel a fair distance. Channel 9 is supposed to be used in emergencies, although Channel 19 has the most traffic. C.B. allows a chance of communicating with the outside world. Find a C.B. shop near truck stops or travel plazas to professionally install a unit. Installers can tweak a radio for better performance if asked discretely. Handhelds are nearly worthless. A vehicle mounted C.B. radio is not that expensive, except for so called SSB units which are very desireable. As with everything radio, the magic is in the antenna.

First aid

Pre-made first aid kits come in many styles which all need modifying. Every kit lacks an inadequate number and variety of bandages. Bring more, big ones. Cuts in the field are much worse than those in the city. A bigger bandage can be cut to size by sharp, sturdy scissors that must be in every kit. Canvas backed bandages stick, plastic doesn’t. Secure plastic bandages with tape if nothing else is available.

Mandatory bandages are knuckle bandages and wound closure strips. Knuckle bandages look like an “H”, with four finger-like strips extending from a central square. They conform to nearly every cut and can be bought at all well stocked pharmacies. Purchase knuckle bandages for home, the truck, the field. Buy bandages in quantity as they need frequent changing. Consider partially unwrapping bandages before a trip. Especially with a finger cut, opening a bandage package and removing the backing is extremely difficult while bleeding.

Wound closure strips are essential. These are called butterfly closures or steri-strips. These bandages, a series of fabric tabs, attempt to bring the two sides of a shallow wound together. Normal bandages, by comparison, simply cover a wound. Any injury requiring butterfly closures should be looked at as soon as possible by a medical professional.

Bandage tape is essential, the better to keep a big bandage secure after applying it over a wound. Such tape can wrap toes prone to blistering before hiking. Bring nail clippers or scissors to trim toe nails which can bother or go bloody on a long downhill.

Sore or blistering feet must be addressed immediately, even when a large group wants to move on. A sock change may eliminate a hot spot, in other cases baby powder may help. If a hot spot does develop, cover it with a bandage or mole skin, even duct tape if nothing else. Too often a newcomer lets a foot problem get serious, not wanting to slow their fellow travelers. The result, further injury, bloody socks, discouragement and perhaps impairment.

Antiseptic swabs are good as well as a hemostat, a lightweight surgical plier. These or conventional needle-nose pliers help pull out thorns. A snakebite kit is of dubious merit, especially the old-fashioned ones that require self-surgery. Noted herpetologist W.C. Fields advised people to always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite. And to always carry a small snake.

Most importantly, carry all items in a waterproof case or at the very least in double wrapped Zip-Lock bags. Water always finds a first aid kit. Always. Kayakers and rafters use waterproof cases and these are good. Throw a few matchbooks in any first aid kit. Someone will need them.

Some of my kit

Survival at a vehicle is usually assured provided adequate water and food exists. As they should since the rockhound went out for the day or overnight to collect. Less assured is the situation when the rockhound is away from the vehicle and disoriented. Desert washes confuse easily as they meander back and forth, don’t look the same going as they did coming, and provide no elevation to get one’s bearings. Heavily wooded areas confuse with a lack of landmarks and spotty GPS coverage.

Let’s discuss being lost.

Self-Recovery And Survival

Summoning aid over radio was discussed under Communications Section. Navigating with GPS devices and by hardcopy maps were discussed under the Map and GPS Essentials Chapter.

We assume here that the rockhound is unable find a way back to the vehicle. A GPS device has failed, a hardcopy map has gone missing, water is running low, night is approaching. If separated from a group, use a whistle to blow three times in a row. Do this often.

If there is a group, a fellow member will be known as lost rather quickly. People will often wait at their vehicles overnight for a hiker to appear before calling in search and rescue. They will repeatedly honk every vehicle’s horn. Listen for that. Know that people are waiting and that more are coming.

If there is no group, at least a vehicle is on a road. Correct? Unless no one was notified of the prospectors’ trip, a bad thing indeed, search and rescue will be gathering soon. Within a full day, certainly two, probably assembling at the vehicle. A vehicle is far easier to find than a person and that is what they will locate first.

Settle in for an uncomfortable night of little sleep. Fight panic. The situation is not out of control. A rockhound is still within walking distance of a vehicle, perhaps not too far, as most of us carry heavy tools or rocks. Night travel needs thought. One misstep may produce a twisted ankle, pain, incapacity. Cactus are everywhere in the desert, as well as mesquite, which will savagely wound on a brush-by. Save energy for the next day. Hang on.

With dawn, try to get oriented again. Look at the sun and the mountains; try to picture where the vehicle is. If totally confused, it may be best to stay in place, rather than flounder through brush and cactus or go further down a wash or canyon. If one decides to move, leave a litter trail behind and start breaking branches now and then, giving the SAR team clues.

If in the mountains, never loose elevation unnecessarily. In theory, a mountain stream will eventually lead one back to more level ground and then recovery. In reality, many streams are absolutely choked with vegetation, making even walking downhill difficult as one thrashes through brush and over large, uneven boulders.

It is a new, unsettling and distressing experience to be lost and without water. More effort creates a desire for water one doesn’t have. Another argument for staying in place. People will be coming. Some SAR groups have aircraft support. Make a signal for them. Seek any shade. Sit. Think on better times.

Not Getting Lost

1. Carry a good map and know how to use it. An old-fashioned compass is lightweight, takes up little room in a pack and almost always works. They are best used with a hardcopy map to get oriented to one’s surroundings. Navigating by compass alone means taking a bearing at the trailhead and that takes instruction and practice. Without setting a bearing, the compass may turn useless when trying to return.

2. Take a GPS device when walking a good distance from a vehicle. Record way points from leaving the vehicle on. Handhelds like the Garmin Montana enable breadcrumbing, allowing the retracing of a path. For GPS units with cameras, a set of photographs will provide a set of effortlessly recorded waypoints. These devices create actionable photographs, assigning coordinates to each image, allowing navigating to any photographed location by simply pressing “Go.”

3. Note prominent landmarks while prospecting, especially power lines, fences, and other man-made objects. A trail never looks the same going in as coming back. Look backwards from time to time. If you get uneasy about navigating back, claw an arrow in the dirt with your boot at trail junctions. Or set a group of rocks at a fork to indicate the way back. In densely wooded areas of the California foothills, I have tied yellow survey tape from Home Depot to trees and shrubs every few hundred yards to lead back to a trailhead. It is easily removed upon return.

4. Carry more water. Food is important but water more so. Lack of water directly impacts strength. More water.

5. Think about a survival plan before any upcoming trip.

6. Remember that whistle. Blow three times in a row each time. A good whistle is heard from a decent distance.

6. As common sense dictates, always tell someone about any off-pavement plans. Provide a trip leader’s telephone number to your friend as well.


Follow me on Instagram: tgfarley


Traveling Off-Road In The Southwest

Vehicle Tips

An Introduction

None of this post involves rock crawling. That is for well modified vehicles and their drivers who anticipate and plan for equipment and body damage. Think Moab or the Rubicon Trail. Also, perhaps confusingly, horsepower isn’t usually as important as gearing.

A Rockhounding Vehicle

Most rockhounds end up with a purpose-built four-wheel drive vehicle. They may start with a passenger car for rock shop trips or for paved roads to some collecting sites, but as the hobby takes hold they wind up with 4WD. Some drive crossovers and SUVs to remote off-pavement collecting sites but they risk their tires, their vehicles, and sometimes themselves. What follows is not a criticism of any vehicle a rockhound may have now, but a review of practicalities.

Four-wheel drive means differently applied power to all four wheels at the same time. Think about a vehicle making a complete circle or a turn on dry pavement. The inside wheels travel a shorter distance than the outside ones. 4WD vehicles adjust for this difference, operating all wheels with the correct power and play. Without this adjustment, a vehicle would stagger around the circle, perhaps leaving chunks of tire behind. That’s because all tires would be locked together, all turning the same rate over the different distance of the circle. Many vehicles, though, have locking differentials which force the wheels to turn together. They’re used when a vehicle threatens to bog under extremely loose or slippery conditions. More on lockers later.

What to Choose?

Every vehicle is a compromise. A stock jeep offers great maneuverability but carries fewer people and less gear than a full-size pickup. A pickup holds more gear but needs a tonneau cover, a tool box, or a camper shell to protect bed items. A camper shell in turn reduces visibility to the rear and sides. Work arounds are possible. Jeep accessories allow more gear by hanging items off the rear bumper or on top of the rig. A truck with a camper shell can have better side mirrors fitted to reduce blinds spots and a rearview camera to help with reversing.

A short wheelbase Jeep takes turns other vehicles can’t or with effort. Imagine a hard-left turn at the bottom of a steep hill. The Jeep may make that turn without backing up. A truck, on the other hand, may be forced to back up the hill to make the turn with another try. As mentioned before, larger trucks offer greater carrying capacity and a driver may wish to sacrifice some nimbleness for that virtue. Every vehicle is a compromise.

What Should a 4WD Vehicle Include?

Two-speed transfer case

All four wheel or all-wheel drive vehicles are not created equal. At a minimum, a rockhounding vehicle needs a two-speed transfer case providing what’s called high range four-wheel drive (4H) and low range four-wheel drive (4L). This drivetrain component operates off the vehicle’s transmission. The 4L setting increases torque or pulling power tremendously, keeping a vehicle going through thick mud or sand that would bog a rig operating in normal four-wheel drive or 4H.

Engage four-wheel drive only when needed, preferably, just before needed. That includes steep hills, snowy roads, deep sand, or mud. Anytime a road surface is loose or slippery. Which is often off pavement. Don’t underestimate the need for 4WD. A slight hill with wet grass defeats most 2WD vehicles. Engaging 4L means conditions have deteriorated substantially. Reduce speed to no more than fifteen to twenty-five miles an hour and let gearing do the work. A reminder. Ice defeats everything including 4WD. And some silt hills like those above Bakersfield, CA, will fill the treads of any tire, making even 4WD useless. Still, get a 4WD, exceptions or not.

Vehicles lacking a two-speed transfer case

Many crossovers and SUVs feature all-wheel drive (AWD) but lack a two-speed transfer case, the defining element of 4WD. The Honda Ridgeline, the Ford Escape, the Hyundai Tucson, the Subaru Forester and others send power to all four wheels but they cannot gear down the same way as 4WD.

Skid Plates

Skid plates cover some or all of a vehicle’s underbody. Especially important is a skid plate protecting the oil pan. These must be metal. Some vehicles have plastic plates underneath their frames for better air flow. These are not skid plates. Factory skid plates are better than none. Aftermarket companies like Hefty Fabworks manufacture 3/16” thick steel skid plates, which can armor a vehicle’s entire underbody. They are heavy, expensive, and require a lift to install. Most rockhounds can happily do with factory plates.

Tow Hooks

A vehicle needs frame mounted tow hook at front and back. These hooks permit a cable or tow strap to recover the vehicle once bogged. Without a hook there must be some other point on the frame to pull from. Consult the vehicle’s owner’s manual. A bumper or its facia will be torn off if used instead of a frame mounted hook. Lacking a tow hook at the back, a recovery point can be had using a D-ring shackle attached to a frame mounted hitch receiver. Never put a tow strap around a hitch ball. The ball may break loose and fly like a cannon ball into the window of the pulling vehicle. Never use chains. Never.


Picture above shows a D-ring shackle which fits into the truck’s frame mounted receiver tube. Also shown by the red arrow is a lockable hitch pin which deters would be accessory and trailer thieves. The pin goes through the hole in the receiver tube to secure the accessory. The yellow arrow marks this hole location.

Picture above shows a standard trailer ball which for most trucks is 2″ in diameter. Avoid non-standard hitches and accessories. Shown again is the locking hitch pin along with a standard pin.

A Locking Differential (or two)

Many 4WD vehicles have a locking differential on the rear axle. Some have a locker on the front axle as well. As the name suggests, a locking differential forces both tires on an axle to move at the same speed. The lockers are engaged only when 4L no longer helps and the vehicle is at risk of getting bogged. Locked up, the vehicle will want to travel straight ahead, as there is no longer play between tires. Only the most treacherous, slippery conditions warrant engaging lockers and they must be disengaged as soon as firmer ground is reached.

Fire Extinguisher

Every vehicle needs a fire extinguisher fixed to a secure mounting bracket. Every vehicle.

Towing Package

A factory installed tow package is worth the cost, even with no towing is contemplated. A truck so fitted gets a greater capacity engine radiator and a larger transmission radiator. Possibly an oil radiator. The battery, suspension, alternator and charging system are all upgraded to handle towing’s greater demands. A truck with a tow package should run cooler under all conditions.


Batteries die quickly from heat and off-roading, expect no more than two years from a conventional battery.

Before going off-pavement with a conventional battery, make sure the battery top shows no undue discharge. Remove any discharge with diluted baking soda and a stiff brush.

Positive and negative cable terminals must be corrosion free and secure. If not, brush and clean the inside of a wire’s terminal lug and the post. A vehicle may not start simply due to corrosion buildup. Start by removing the negative terminal. Use a proper wrench and not a pliers. Once rounded over by a bad tool, the nut securing the lug will continue to break down when taken off again.

Go slowly if the lug resists removal. Pry if necessary but do not break the battery’s plastic top. Use a thin piece of wood on top of the battery to pry down on rather than the top of the battery itself. After cleaning the inside of the lug, clean or scrape the entire battery post. Make bright and shiny. Do not scrape so much that you distort the shape of the post, making the connection to the lug forever less certain.

Add distilled water to low battery cells. A turkey baster helps as well as a small flashlight.

Replace a battery cable if corrosion extends well into the wire, a job for a mechanic.

A battery must fit its battery tray exactly and be extremely secure. Check it. Never buy a battery that cannot be mounted correctly. A battery mustn’t thrash about the engine compartment.

Many off-roader’s favor spiral wound absorbed glass mat batteries or AGMs. Optima makes them as well as others. AGMS are made in a radically different way than a conventional battery. AGMs are sealed and require no maintenance. No filling, no leaking, no corrosion build-up. Upgrade to an AGM once an old battery fails.

Learn to jump start a vehicle and bring heavy duty jumper cables. Black goes to ground on the vehicle being jumped. Locate a good grounding point on the frame or find the vehicle’s approved connecting point. A vehicle won’t start without a solid connection for black.

Some vehicles go into an anti-theft mode when their battery dies, this may prevent jump starting without following a certain procedure. Check the owner’s manual. Replacing the battery or removing the cables will impact a vehicle’s electronics.

A spare battery or a handheld portable car jumper is mandatory when traveling solo. Or bring a lithium-ion smart battery like the kinds Goal Zero, Midland, or Suaoki produces. These can charge a dead battery as well as a rockhound’s electronics. Those smart batteries charge, not jump.

Automatic Transmission or Manual?

Most off-roaders favor manual shifting. Manual shifting offers better flexibility over changing conditions than an automatic. Stick shift vehicles get better mileage. It’s easier for recovery services to tow manual transmission vehicles. Automatics, though, are easier to drive. If a driver becomes incapacitated, it’s important that any person in the party can drive back to pavement. Every driver can manage an automatic. But many people don’t know how to drive a stick.

What is High Clearance?

Rock clubs will advise or require a high clearance vehicle on certain field trips. But what does high clearance mean?

A vehicle’s lowest point is usually measured at the rear differential or what off-roaders call the pumpkin. The distance from the bottom of the rear diff to the ground is the clearance. A base Jeep, the Wrangler Sport edition, has 8.4” of ground clearance. A Subaru Outback has 8.7” and a base Ford 150 has 8.8”. These are minimums for rockhounding vehicles.

Larger tires and a lift kit increase clearance and void any vehicle warranty unless modifications are factory approved. They pose other problems as well. Unless fording creeks, increasing a vehicle’s height with a lift kit or tires does little if the rear differential remains at or about the same height.

Tough Talk on Tires

The National Park Service, in discussing Death Valley driving, puts the problem well, “Flat tires are a common problem for backcountry visitors due to rough road conditions or from having unsuitable tires. Make sure your vehicle is equipped with ‘off-road’ tires rather than highway or street tires. Carry at least one inflated spare tire (preferably two), a can of fix-a-flat or tire plug kit, a 12-volt air-compressor, a lug wrench, and be sure all parts of your jack are on hand. Know how to use your equipment before you head out.”

The only useful off-road tires are light truck tires, designated on the sidewall as “LT.” These tires are much thicker than passenger tires and have stronger sidewall construction. Using obsolete but familiar terminology, a passenger tire may have four plies, an LT tire six to ten. It doesn’t matter what the rugged sounding name a tire may have, only the designation LT counts. Within the world of LT tires is a huge selection. But, first, recognize “P” tires and avoid them.

Mark of The Beast

Some new 4WD pickups come with passenger tires. Reject them when buying a vehicle or get credit for LT tires. Most Crossovers or SUVs cannot be fitted with LT tires. Reconsider the vehicle purchase. No vehicle with passenger tires should leave pavement unless driving well graded, rock-free roads. Subaru rally vehicles on TV do not represent how their passenger cars are built.

Any driver using passenger tires on sketchy roads should anticipate flats and have a plan to recover from them. Do not count on assistance, even on a club outing. Members coming a long distance for a special outing may be unwilling to cancel their day ahead by helping you out. Don’t blame them, blame you.

A donut spare or a temporary tire must be substituted for a full-size spare before going off-road. Many rockhounds carry two full size spares.

If a small leak is discovered, take the easiest approach to recovery first.

A can of Fix-a-Flat for large tires should be carried in any vehicle. Once Fix-a-Flat has been used, a decent size air compressor should fill the tire back to its normal operating pressure after a few miles of travel. (A compressor also helps with airing down and airing up tires in extremely sandy conditions.) In case of a flat, any rockhound with only one spare or those making a Fix-a-Flat repair must immediately return to pavement. Tire shops don’t like Fix-a-Flat but that is their problem.

Quick Note on Air Compressors

VIAIR and others make excellent air compressors for off-road use. Any compressor must run off the vehicle’s battery. Air compressors using a cigarette lighter adaptor are totally unacceptable. They are painfully slow and will burn out or overheat long before they can air up four off-road tires. Even when filling a single tire, small compressors will overheat and shut down, refusing to start again until cool.

Power must be drawn from the battery with the cables provided and the vehicle must be running the entire time of airing up. If not, the battery will drain immediately and die. The sliding hose couplers VIAIR uses demands great hand strength, look at other options if you have any disability. Or get a teenager in your group to connect the hoses for you. Expect to pay at least $200. Someone owning a quality air compressor and good LT tires won’t often need their expensive purchase. But someone in their group will. Count on it.

Picture above shows a VIAR air compressor that runs off of a vehicle’s battery. Note the arrows pointing to the sliding hose couplers. A more elegant and expensive solution is to have onboard air, in which an air compressor is fitted into the engine bay. It is then switched on by a switch mounted to the dash or by a remote control.

Back to Tires

Off-road tires and wheels are big and heavy. A complete tire and rim may be a yard wide and weigh 40 pounds. No rockhound should drive off-pavement by themselves without being able to change a tire on their own.

Sidewall flats are the worst. Tire dealers never fix a sidewall flat. Instead, they replace the entire tire. Tire repair kits exist for field repairs but not for sidewall flats. Repair as best as one can. Driving on a flat gets one further down the road but risks damage to the wheel. Driving on a flat is warranted, though, when getting a vehicle to a level spot for changing a tire.  Drive slow. Better to do this than attempt a tire change on badly uneven ground that might cause the vehicle to slide off a jack. And on to you.

Avoid hazards one controls. Keep from cactus, of course, but creosote branches broken at the right angle can puncture quality off-road tires. Stay fully on the route being driven. Avoid camping spots with fire rings where scrap wood may have been burned. Scrap wood leaves nails that are never picked up. A ten year old camp site like that will have nails everywhere. And stay on road in old mining districts, with hidden iron trash over every foot of ground.

Reduce speed. A rocky road at 15 MPH may not puncture tires but it may easily do so at 30 MPH. Some roads are so rocky the driver may not realize a flat has occurred for some time. Unfortunately, too many trip leaders drive too fast, leading group members racing to keep up with break downs resulting. Other than getting the leader to slow down, be prepared with a vehicle that can take an extra pounding from time to time.

AWD vehicles like Subarus have a special tire problem. All four tires must have equal tread wear or the AWD system will not work correctly or will break down. If a non-repairable flat is suffered when the vehicle is under warranty, it may be necessary to replace all four tires. If out of warranty, a used tire might be bought or a new tire shaved down to the right depth. Any of these steps means delaying or cancelling an adventure. Especially when broken down in a rural community without a tire store.

Many vehicles carry spares underneath their rigs, especially SUVs. A driver must know how to release them while on their back in mud or rain. A better solution is a swing-out carrier above the back bumper. Or a spare stowed inside the vehicle. This writer’s truck came with a spare mounted underneath. That is now the second spare. The first spare is carried in the truck bed, easily rolled out.

Take advice from a tire dealer familiar with off-roading. Develop a relation with this expert and their store. They will advise on tread depth and design, mileage expected, road noise, and a dozen other details.


–The Hi Lift Jack

The Hi Lift Jack is everywhere in the Jeep Community but of limited use for most vehicles. It’s mainly used to get a rig going that has high centered, one stuck on a rock or a ledge that puts a wheel or two off the ground. This jack utilizes lifting points close to the frame which most rigs do not have. It needs a base plate when in sand or mud. A Hi Lift can injure if used improperly. Before practicing, ask someone who knows the jack for one- on-one instructions. The Hi Lift isn’t meant for changing tires but if one does, chock the wheels and use jack stands.

–Off Highway Vehicle Jack

Pro Eagle sells off-pavement jacks that operate like conventional floor jacks. These are for high clearance vehicles, though not necessarily lifted. Check underbody height for compatibility before buying. These jacks may weigh fifty pounds. Despite weight, bulk, and cost, they make a good investment because they work in sand and can go under a vehicle to hit a variety of lifting points. There is a joy in using a jack that is dead simple, needs little instruction, and can be counted to work on every time. Again, chock at least one opposite wheel.

–The Bushranger X-Jack

Far lighter than any jack is this Bushranger product. It is a balloon like device that lifts a vehicle for chores like changing a tire. Jack stands must be placed before a spare is installed but that’s good practice with any repair. The X-Jack weighs less than twenty pounds and is inflated by the vehicle’s exhaust pipe or by the air compressor every rockhound must have in their rig. Many inexpensive copies exist. Avoid them.

Self-recovery Techniques

Solo drivers must have self-recovery plans. A long-handled shovel is mandatory as well as a tow strap should another vehicle come along. Maxtrax recovery boards are excellent. They permit a 4WD vehicle with off-road tires to get moving by first driving onto the boards, enabling momentum which is the key to getting unstuck. You’ll have to shovel first, however, when in sand or mud to place the boards. Recovery boards are far better than sticks or rocks shoved under a tire to give it traction.

A Last Note

A liberating force of a 4WD with heavy duty tires is to splash into pullouts one would never attempt with a passenger car. Every rockhound sees fascinating things on paved roads at 50 MPH, the question is, where can one pull over? Too many things are passed by because there is no where to turn out. After having a passenger car, it is a delight to bounce into pullouts that are within walking distance of a find. The world opens up as you confidently go off the road despite a drop a good drop in grade or surface. Try it.

Follow me on Instagram: tgfarley


The Oceanview and Pala Chief Mine in Pala, California

Click on photos TWICE to call up the largest image

The Ocean View Mine and the Pala Chief Mine
37304 Magee Rd, Pala, CA 92059
Jeff Swanger, Owner, Chief Operator, and Hero to Small Scale Miners


$75 a person

Special instructions to reach the mine at their website and also discussed below.

Oceanview Mines, LLC offers two fee/dig experiences in the Pala Mining District. Commonly found are tourmalines, kunzites, and morganites, along with other sparkly things like pink lepidolite. The Pala area, a pegmatite mining district, has been actively worked for gemstones since the turn of the 19th century.

A screen and wash activity is held three times a week in season throughout much of the year. Online videos produced by Jeff Swanger and crew show the entire process. This easy-to-do activity will return attractive stones.

The second experience is held twice a month for part of the year. Bring your own tools. The Pala Chief fee/dig allows rockhounds to search through old tailings and mine dumps, along with hacking at the side of Chief Mountain itself. At some point the mine operator might work an excavator, digging a six-foot deep trench to bring up fresh dirt and rock for searching. Anything found can be kept.

Follow website directions with care. Their directions start in Pala and go east. First, get to Magee Road using Highway 76; the mine’s entrance road is a few miles from there. Only Magee’s south entrance from Highway 76 should be attempted. Do not take Magee Road if you are driving south from Temecula. In Pala there is a Magee Place that is not Magee Road. If Magee Road is not in one’s navigation device, try looking for the Pala Raceway. Magee Road is further east on 76.

If you have the time, locate Magee Road the day before so you won’t worry about finding it on the day of your dig. The countryside is beautiful and the Mission San Antonio de Pala in Pala itself is a Kodak moment. The California Mission chain is well known but their extension churches like this one are not. On this day before you can also try visiting The Collector or the Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Museum.

The mine property road is rough but I saw a Mini Cooper negotiate its entire length. Staff will happily load people and gear into a buggy if a driver does not wish to drive the road. Bring sunscreen even if it is overcast, snacks, and tools if you are doing the Pala Chief. Full details at their website. Driest weather month may be May if you are planning a trip from across the country.

Resist taking too many photographs, instead, dive into digging or screening as long as you can and as hard as you can. You are going to find something wonderful. Oh, and if you can’t go, you can order a bag of pay dirt if they are still offering it. I found enough nice things in what they sent to convince me to go in person.

Magee Road and Highway 76 coordinates:
33°21.830′ N 117°03.440′ W

Google map link to Magee Road and Highway 76:


For further adventures, read my file on Places to Collect and Visit in the Southwest:


I am ashamed that I took vertical video but here it is.

Pala Chief Mine in Early March, 2019 from Thomas Farley on Vimeo.

Version Five of Southwest Places to Visit and Collect is Out

I’ve made a substantial revision to Version 4. The interactive table of contents continues to be built out. More clubs, more Google Map links to make for easier driving. Discard all previous versions.

1. The Acrobat .pdf file is essentially bulletproof. Great for printing and desktop work. Download here:





2. The Kinndle .mobi file is for mobile use. Anyone with a Kindle app or reader on their phone or tablet _should_ be able to use it when downloaded from here but I can’t guarantee it.

SW Places To Visit Or Collect 05 – Tom Farley

Follow me on Instagram: tgfarley


Back To The Nopah Range

Back to the Nopah Range. I was at Emigrant Pass on the Old Spanish Trail in Inyo County, California. Flew my drone for the first time in two years. Forgot the controls. Soft crash landing. Military controlled air space? It might be due to China Lake in Riverside County. That’s a Naval Air Station. But at least fity miles away. I spent some time later trying to read this map:

I thought land maps were complicated! Here are two versions of my doomed flight.

The first is video that Dji did automatically with their online editing footage. They added sound as well. Which means they probably compressed the file and then Youtube compressed it some more.

The second video is the original raw footage, looking dark on a dreary day.

Both videos are pixelated but the original shows well on my monitor. I bought some video editing software yesterday to see how it might lighten the darkness in the film. Some other stills from the North Nopah WA also below.

Watch for NOTAMs. Notice to Airmen. Real pilots and us drone operators.

A thin granite marker from the early 1920’s stands watch over the Old Spanish Trail in the background, now paved and not marked by the ruts of wagon wheels.

Broken yet intact. Why I don’t have to find gemstones or gold to love rockhounding. As my geologist friend RC said, “This is where sand comes from!”

Thought this was chert but it is not. More like deeply stained shale. Leached out from the soil mound uphill. Two hundred yards from here is shale in road cuts which yield partial trilobite specimens. That shale cleaves into shingle like pieces with a brick hammer. The stuff here simply falls apart into powder.

Just because it is black and craggy doesn’t mean that it is volcanic. These mountains fooled me when I first came here. These are actually limestone boulders, the entire area is made up of marine rocks. Check Macrostrat.org for the geology in any given area. Here’s a screenshot from their app.

How do you know if something is igneous? Generally, nothing igneous or volcanic will react to a bit of acid. Unless the rock has calcite encrusted on it. Which is everywhere in the southwest. Test different parts of a rock to be sure. Never approach a geologist with an ID question if you haven’t done an acid test. That’s the first test they will expect you to have done.

Here’s a photo of some acid bottles I made up for field work. 10% hydrochloric acid although you can use toilet bowl cleaning fluid in a pinch if it has HCI. That will probably be blue and not clear. A dropper bottle contained inside another bottle is a great way to carry an acid bottle anywhere.

Here’s the overall collecting area. This is about twenty minutes from Tecopa, California which has a must stop, the China Ranch Date Farm. They let you wander through their commercial palm tree orchard. And they serve date shakes. Really. Be prepared to wait in line for those.

You have arrived at the ranch.

And a view of the ranch in the distance. Most vehicles will have no problem with this road.


Follow me on Instagram: tgfarley


What is Twenty Acres?

Twenty acres is a common mining claim size. But any large area is hard to visualize.

Look at the photo below.  That rectangle is approximately 20 acres. The north/south direction, or long way, is about .25 miles. The east/west direction, or narrow way, is about .13 miles wide.

These are two individual properties, both once horse ranches, the dividing line running down the middle the long way. Each half ten acres.

Consider the southeast quarter. That area could comfortably fit a professional soccer pitch, those around two acres or so, no official size established.

That quarter could also easily fit any professional American football field. It could accommodate most high school football fields AND any stadium around them.

The house in the northeast corner is about 3,000 square feet. The buildings in the southwest corner are large, too, a house and barns and such.

Google Earth lets you measure areas in acres by drawing a line around an area. That’s how I confirmed these measurements, although I knew first hand the acreage involved.

I was an estate gardener on the property on the right. Although “only” ten acres, I can assure you that it took forever to walk the grounds. I was usually lucky to have what’s called a Gator, a working ATV, or one of two tractors.

This was a good job for me until the owners decided to move to another ranch fifty miles away. 100 acres!



Follow me on Instagram: tgfarley




Mapping It Out

I’ve moved from organizing my rocks and minerals to getting my maps and pamphlets together. Thought of this solution last night.

The black fiber-backed over the door organizers were $4.88 each at WalMart. The individual pockets normally hold shoes so multiple maps will not be a problem. The garment rack was $14.88. It has wheels!

The three door organizers span four feet and the top bar is at six feet.

Follow me on Instagram: tgfarley


Latest Spot X Firmware Update Available

Time for all Spot X users to update their firmware. Let’s make certain you know how to do this.

1. Download the device updater  to your computer and then install it. By computer I mean a desktop OS, not a mobile OS. Run the program. Do this first. THEN

2. Connect your Spot X and follow the instructions presented.

Again, download the latest version of the updater program first, then connect your device. DO NOT USE an old updater. You must download the newest updater first.

My device appears to be working well after the update.

This is what Spot X says in their latest e-mail:

In our continued effort to ensure the best possible SPOT X user experience, we have made some updates to the device firmware V1.7.14 and the device updater 1.12.8 to improve usability and overall intuitiveness. You need to first download the latest SPOT X device updater. Next, connect and update your SPOT X firmware to start benefiting from these upgrades on your next adventure. Below are some of the update highlights.