The Oregon Desert Trail is an unmarked route. Anyone aiming to hike a section or the entire route needs to be prepared to navigate a variety of terrain. We recommend this route for experienced backcountry travelers as over 30 percent of the ODT consists of cross-country travel. Know how to use your map and compass, and practice, practice, practice. The ODT resources (maps, guidebook, data book/water chart, recreation maps, compass, GPS, water cache guidelines, common sense) are all designed to be used together to successfully navigate the route.
Those wishing to develop their skills for a challenge like the ODT can look for map and compass workshops at your local REI or outdoor store, or try out an online navigation class.
ALWAYS carry paper maps, even if primarily using a GPS for navigation. Technology can fail, devices can break. Take a map and know how to use it.
GPS enabled smart phone apps have come a long way, and they are another tool hikers can use to navigate the unmarked route. There are plenty GPS enabled apps that will work on most smart phones, even while in airplane mode. Gaia GPS has been used by multiple ODT hikers with success; be sure to download your maps for off-line use.
Creeks, canals, springs, water troughs, water holes … the ODT depends on a variety of water sources. Water sources are indicated on maps with color-coding to match the data book/water chart and the reliability of the source.
Many wells and water facilities (cow tanks/troughs) on public land are maintained by private landowners; please respect all wells and facilities you may find along the trail. Use the data book/water chart to plan your water strategy; even sources listed as reliable are subject to the whims of nature since water in the desert is never a guarantee. Instead, these ratings should be weighed with your own judgment of conditions in a given year or season.
Many experienced desert hikers believe any water in the desert is good water, and expecting a wide range of sources is important.
The water sources in the data book/water chart are based on field observations of availability, but conditions may change every year. Your help in collecting data on water sources will help future hikers. Please see the data book/water chart for more information on collecting data. A “reliable” water source on the ODT is one that, based on field observations and assessment of the source, is sufficient for obtaining water. A “questionable” water source is one that had inconsistent available water during inventory. An “unreliable” water source was of either low quality or dry during inventory.
Naturally occurring water sources and water sources developed for use by livestock are not tested and may contain harmful pathogens, diseases, or chemicals. If you chose to drink from an untested water source the water should be boiled, passed through a water filtration system, or chemically treated as a minimum precaution.
Caching of supplies, including water containers, is prohibited within national wildlife refuges and national forests, please refer to our cache guidelines about proper caching technique, and plan accordingly.
(April to June)
Pros: mild to hot daytime temperatures, increased water availability, longer days.
Cons: weather inconsistent, snow may be present at highest elevations, mosquitoes in some marshy area, ticks more abundant.
(July to August)
Pros: mild to hot daytime temperatures at highest elevations.
Cons: scorching temperatures at lower elevations, decreased water availability, high fire danger.
(September to October)
Pros: mild to hot daytime temperatures, no mosquitoes.
Cons: weather inconsistent, decreased water availability, high fire danger, shorter days, cold nights, hunting season requires extra care.
(November to March)
Pros: mild/cold daytime temperatures in lowest elevations.
Cons: cold to freezing days/nights, heavy snow in higher elevations, weather inconsistent, decreased/frozen water availability.
Many access points for the Oregon Desert Trail are not suitable for regular passenger cars. In addition to being a high-clearance, 4wd vehicle, vehicles traveling in Oregon’s high desert should have the following:
- At least one full-size spare tire, with car jack, lug wrench, and a 1’x1’ square of plywood (or similar—something to set the jack base on in sandy soils). Practice putting on the spare tire in a nonemergency setting is very important!
- Extra key in a magnetic hide-a-key box. It’s no fun driving with a broken window because you had to break into your car to get your locked-in key.
- Extra fuel for the vehicle, extra engine coolant and extra engine oil.
- At least one gallon of extra drinking water.
- Jumper cables, Fix-A-Flat, tow-strap, and a flashlight. Consider a small DC-powered air compressor.
- After a significant rain event, desert soils/primitive roads may become too supersaturated to drive on, especially in the Owyhee and Alvord Desert region.
- Shovel and possibly a fire extinguisher. Check with local BLM, Forest Service, and National Wildlife Refuge offices for fire danger levels and whether these items are required.
Note that roads with vegetation may be closed during times of extreme fire danger due to the flammable nature of dried grasses.
Camping along the ODT can often be a challenge. In some areas flat ground may be in excess, but clear open ground may not. Be prepared for limited spaces for setting up a tent, and sandy soils that thwart your tent stakes.
Many sections along the Oregon Desert Trail do not have trees, and strong winds may make camping a challenge. Choosing to “cowboy” camp, use a free-standing tent, or use a bivy sack leaves the ODT hiker with more options for a night’s rest.
If backcountry camping within U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge boundaries you will need a permit to spend the night outside the established campgrounds.
On warmer summer days the western rattlesnake can be found sunning on rocky outcroppings. Take care when walking through tall grasses; wearing tall gaiters and beating the brush with a hiking stick can prevent unwanted close encounters with these desert creatures. Rattlesnakes do not always release venom during a defense bite, however, it is best to assume venom has been delivered and act with all haste and seek medical treatment. Read more here about treating rattlesnake bites.
Ticks can be prevalent in eastern Oregon, especially in the spring. Wearing long pants and socks can help prevent tick bites, especially when walking through tall grasses in cross country sections of the route. Read more here about tick removal guidelines.