Welcome to White Sands National Park, a place of wonder, inspiration, and beauty. With its glittering white backdrop against a vast glowing sky, White Sands offers unforgettable views and fun activities for all, but it is important to safely enjoy the park. Your tomorrow depends on the decisions that you make today. Each year, park rangers respond to dozens of search and rescue incidents in the park. These frequently involve heat exhaustion, dehydration, and injuries. To get the most out of your experience, please read and follow the safety guidelines below.
Bring plenty of food and water
You will need more water than you think. Sweat evaporates quickly. Your body loses water rapidly in the desert. Always carry extra water with you. When your water is half-gone, return to your car.
One gallon (4 Liters) of water per person per day is recommended, as well as high-energy snacks such as fruit, nuts, and energy bars. Fill up water containers at the visitor center. There is no water available in the dunefield.
In addition, it is important to balance food intake with fluid consumption, lest you run the risk of becoming dangerously debilitated and severely ill. Hyponatremia may occur when a person drinks too much water without replenishing electrolytes or eating salts. If a member of your party begins to experience nausea, muscle cramps, or disorientation, yet they are well hydrated, they may need salt. Crackers, pretzels, and sports drinks should be consumed to keep up sodium levels in the body.
Bring a fully charged cell phone
Start your day with a fully-charged cell phone. Bring a portable charger if you have one. There are no outlets for charging cell phones at the monument. Turn your cell phone off or put in airplane mode while walking in the dunes. Conserving your battery for emergencies could mean the difference between life or death.
In an Emergency Call 911
Data and cellular signal strength can vary drastically throughout the park. Sometimes you can text when you are unable to make a call. In an emergency situation with limited cell reception, text a friend and have him call 911 for you. You may not be able to call 911 if you are using a cell phone from outside the United Sates. Consult your mobile service provider for instructions on how to access emergency services with your device prior to venturing out into the dunes.
Have a Plan and Share It
Tell someone who is not in your party where you are going and when you will return. Know the weather forecast and what time the sun sets. Be prepared for the weather and ensure you have enough time to complete your hike.
Hike with Friends
It is not recommended to hike alone. Always keep your children in sight. Children can wander, and separating from your companions can mean getting lost.
Know Where You Are
It is easy to become disoriented in the dunefield. Wind moves sand and erases your tracks. GPS can be unreliable. While hiking, pay attention to and follow trail posts, each marked with a specific color and symbol. Knowing the trail markers is critical if you become lost. Look carefully for the next trail marker before continuing. If you cannot see the next marker, do not continue, turn around and return to your car. Plan your hike so that you are back at the trailhead before sunset.
Do Not Wander if Lost
Carry a park map and compass and keep landmarks, such as water towers, in view. If you become lost, stop and sit on top of a dune. Wandering can endanger your life and make finding you more difficult. Use a mirror or piece of aluminum foil to flash sunlight towards potential rescuers. Call 911.
The sun reflecting off the white sand is intense year round and can cause severe sunburns. Wear a hat, sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher, and sunglasses. Apply sunscreen to all exposed areas, even in winter. Wear clothing that is appropriate for the day’s weather: loose, light-colored clothing during warmer months, and warm clothing during cooler seasons. Remember that temperatures can drop drastically after sunset – anywhere from 20 to 30 degrees.
In addition, take the park map, a flashlight and extra batteries, a whistle, a signal mirror, a first-aid kit, and extra clothes that can be layered for varying weather.
Heat illness can occur fast. Take frequent breaks in the shade. There are picnic areas with sheltered tables along Dunes Drive. You can also bring your own sun shelter or sun umbrella. Exposure to full sunshine can increase heat index values by up to 15°F (9°C). The sun’s UV rays are the strongest at midday. Plan your visit for early morning or late afternoon when the sun is lower.
Know Your Limits
The elevation at White Sands is 4,235 feet (1,291 m). This may have an effect on those traveling from lower elevations. Allow time for your body to acclimate by adjusting your activity level. Take frequent breaks and drink water. Common symptoms of altitude sickness include headache and loss of appetite. Pace yourself and pay attention to how you are feeling.
Heat Exhaustion occurs when the body loses more fluid than it gains. Signs of heat exhaustion include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, headaches, pale appearance, stomach cramps, and cool, clammy skin. If a member of your party begins to experience any of these symptoms, stop. Rest in a shaded area if possible, drink water slowly, loosen tight clothing, and apply cool, wet cloths to the skin. If heat exhaustion symptoms persist, seek medical help.
Heat Stroke is an advanced stage of heat exhaustion. It is the body’s inability to cool itself. Symptoms include confusion, disorientation, behavioral changes, and seizures. If you believe that a member of your party is suffering from heat stroke; it is imperative that you lower their body temperature using any means available and obtain immediate medical assistance.
Hypothermia occurs when the body is cooled to dangerous levels. Bring extra clothes for layering and eat high-energy food. The signs of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering; stumbling and poor coordination; fatigue; and confusion or slurred speech.
Watch Out for Dangerous Weather
Weather in the Tularosa Basin can change quickly. Temperatures can drop very quickly once the sun sets or during storms. Visitors need to be prepared for a variety of weather conditions.
During our windy season, February through May, dust storms can move in quickly and reduce visibility, greatly increasing the chances of becoming disoriented. Do not hike during a windstorm, and do not rely on your footprints to return to your car as they may be erased by the wind in a matter of minutes. Dust storms can also cause eye injuries and damage to breathing passages.
During the summer months, May through August, daytime temperatures at White Sands can exceed 100°F (38°C) and drop to approximately 65°F (18°C) at night. It is recommended that you do NOT start a hike if the temperature is at or above 85°F (30°C).
July through September is monsoon season at White Sands. Storms can build quickly and lightning often occurs in the desert during thunderstorms, even if there is no rain. Avoiding a thunderstorm before it arrives is the best way to stay safe. If you see a gathering storm or hear thunder, take cover in a building or vehicle with your windows rolled up. Lightning often strikes the tallest object in the area. Avoid high points (top of a dune) and ground currents (tree roots).
If you are not near any shelters, find a low open space on solid ground. Make yourself a small target by crouching on your feet, hands covering your ears, and head between your knees. Remove all metal objects and electrical devices from your body. Space yourself at least 15 feet from your companions.
During the winter, November through February, early morning and nighttime temperatures are frequently below freezing. Daytime temperatures can range from 30°F to 60°F (-1°C to 15°C). Carry extra layers that can easily be removed or added as needed. Since days are shorter in the winter, be mindful of the time and make sure you are back to your vehicle before it gets dark.
Rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widows, and harvester ants are only a few of the venomous animals found here. To avoid a bite, be mindful of where you walk, put your hands, or sit. Follow established trails and open sand. Avoid walking through vegetation.
Never try to pick up, touch, or tease snakes or insects. If bitten, seek immediate medical attention. Bring a photo of the animal along for identification if possible.
Pick a safe place to go sledding. Choose a dune that does not lead into the road or the interdunal plant areas. Dunes freeze in the winter, making them much harder than during the summer. Frozen dunes make sledding faster, and increase your chances of more serious fall or injury.
Digging holes in the dunes is fun, but keep in mind that the dunes move and the sand is heavy. Holes can collapse on you and lead to suffocation.
We are surrounded by an active missile range. From time to time, debris from missile tests falls into the park and is buried by sand. If you see any strange objects, do not touch them as they may still be able to detonate. Make a note of their location and tell a ranger so that appropriate personnel may remove the object.
Pets are welcome in the park, but not in the buildings, such as the visitor center and restrooms. They must be on a six-foot (2 meters) leash and under physical control at all times. Carry plastic bags to clean up after your pet. Remember that your pet will also need water. Carry a bowl and extra water. Please do not leave your pet in the car during extreme temperatures.
Learn more by downloading one of our safety PDF brochures.
Last updated: January 3, 2020