Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Slip Sliding Away - Flash Floods: Info for Writers with Master Survival Instructor Tony Nester


Fiona - 
Hi Tony thank you so much for joining us today. Can you tell my readers about what you do for a living

Tony - 
Tony Nester, Ancient Pathways

It's real pleasure being here again. Thanks for having me. I am a fulltime survival instructor and run my own training school called Ancient Pathways. We teach 1-21 day courses in both modern survival and bushcraft for the general public as well as the military.

Fiona - 

And you do a lot of your teaching out in Arizona where flash floods are an issue. Can you explain to our readers who do not live in flash flood areas, what is a flash flood? How do they happen?

Tony - 
Yes, I am based in Flagstaff but teach throughout the desert Southwest. It has been said that here you can either die from not having enough water or from getting too much headed your way. 

Flash floods are the number-one weather related killer of people in the outdoors the world over and most cases occur in desert regions. 

Because the ground is largely bedrock or sandstone underneath the veneer of sand here, the water runs off quickly during a storm. When a flood hits, you are not only contending with the force of water but van-sized boulders, logs, and a few hundred years of debris that has accumulated.

Fiona -
If a person is out camping or on a fishing trip, picnic, what have you. Are there any signs that a flash flood is headed their way?

Tony -
As we have nearly 329 days of sunshine in Arizona, most of us go off what the clouds are telling us first. If it is going to be raining that day, I will stay out of the narrow canyons altogether and certainly the corkscrew slot-canyons as these just don't offer an escape route. So: 
* Watch the weather 
* ALWAYS camp off the canyon floor
* Make sure you have 2-3 egress routes out of the place you are in
   if you are camping in the desert. 

Ironically, 75% of flash flood fatalities happen in urban areas like Phoenix, Vegas, El Paso, etc... when motorists try to blast through a flooded wash only to get swept away. I had a geologist tell me that it only takes 2 feet of swift-moving water to whisk away an F-150.

Fiona -
A few years back I loaded the kids into my van, and we set off to drive around the U.S. and have an adventure. When I was in Arizona, I experienced my first brown out with a dirt storm. And I was lost in Phoenix (no real surprise there - I'm often lost) but let's say some east-coast gal is there and a flash flood occurs. I have no reference point for action/reaction - let's start with some basics. From what I've read a little water goes a long way in creating issues. At what point might I lose control of my car?

Tony -
Good question- our floods are different here because we just don't have the obstructions on the land here like you would in a forested region. So, when it happens, it happens lightning fast! 

I was camping above a small canyon once, and we had a storm roll in transforming the desert around us from a serene setting to sheer violence in thirty minutes. During that time, the formerly dry canyon below us filled with raging water that was twelve feet deep and twenty feet across. The noise was deafening. I had to shout just to communicate to my friends around me. We saw an entire old-growth cottonwood tree with its root system get ripped away from the canyon wall and float off like it was a toothpick. 

If you are in a vehicle and the wash before you is flooded, then back up your rig and stay put until the flood subsides. This might be a few hours or 8 hours, depending on the rainfall. You would only have to enter into such a soupy mess a few feet before you risked getting swept away. It happens out here all the time during our rainy season from July-August and it doesn't matter whether you have a Hummer or tricked out SUV. Mother Nature usually wins that one.

Fiona -
It sounds like a horrible thing to go through but wonderful plotting material.

Don't have your heroine grab onto a cottonwood thinking she'
ll survive.

Let's say your car did get swept up. Any chance of survival? What could our heroine do to increase those chances?

Tony -
Get to the roof and try to jump out onto a nearby branch of the embankment. Not much else unless you happen to have the Sherrif's Dept circling overhead in a helo! 

Seriously, these are things that happen out here with motorists who have unwisely chosen to cross a flooded wash - even though such areas are well-posted with signs saying "Do Not Cross When Flooded." 

The one thing I think people unfamiliar with the desert don't realize is the fact that you have so much sand, debris, rocks, and logs coming your way. One guy who was stuck in a flash-flood trying to rescue his hiking partners, had the skin abraded away below his knees from the scouring action of the sand. He was treated as a burn patient when he finally arrived at the hospital. That whole episode started out with the group hiking in a slot canyon under blue skies that morning. However 8 miles up canyon, there was a cloudburst that dumped. The guide was the only survivor out of around 13 people. When he emerged from the canyon, he only had a single boot left! So this canyon country that we all love so much is a place that was and is continually shaped by extremely violent forces.

Fiona - 

You have a series of books that help people pre-think, pre-organize, prepare for the things that can go awry in life. I have all of them because they are such great fodder for creating plot lines - things that can go wrong - what the heroine could do to make it out alive and conversely by not following the plan the things that could dig her even deeper into trouble. They are an excellent writer's resource. Of your books, which ones do you think would best prepare our eastern damsel for her upcoming rub with a new kind of nature - one very unfamiliar to her.
Amazon Link

Tony - 
Thanks so much, Fiona! That means a lot. Well, if the focus is on desert travel and know-how then my eBook, Grand Canyon Survival Gear & Garb would be a good fit. This covers the skills and gear to cope with the demands of arid regions, even outside of the Canyon. Everything from scorpions and rattlesnakes to dealing with heat stress is distilled into a short read. My book on living off the land, The Modern Hunter-Gatherer is another one that delves into what's realistic for procuring wild game in a long-term situation. This book was a labor of love and one of my favorite areas of study. The great thing about studying the natural world and our ancestral skills is that there's no shortage of fun activities to learn.

Amazon Link

Fiona - 
Some other titles that might prove helpful are:

A Vehicle Survival Kit and When the Grid Goes Down.

Tony -
Yes, that's right. Those focus more on urban situations and, again, cover practical skills that the beginner can use to get started.

Fiona - 

When the Grid Goes Down talks about preparing for not being able to get home. Ways to contact your family, where to go if you can't make it home, and cash available to get you there.
Amazon Link

Reading your book, I can imagine all of the ways that a family could get confused and scared about what's going on and maybe out of their confusion, make some bad decisions.

Tony - 
Right. I took that material from my 1-day Urban Survival Classes and it provides a place for people to get started on figuring out how to become more self-reliant. I kept it simple and it just focuses on the 6 key areas for getting your home prepped to handle a short or long-term crisis. 

Yes, when your heroine is getting started in all of this, it can be overwhelming for her. She should just start with a few things such as how much water should she have on hand? How will she purify it when the infrastructure in my city is damaged? Then the following week, she should work on her pantry and beefing up supplies there. Self-reliance as a lifestyle is a cumulative process. 

Fiona - 
Amazon Link

Please tell us a harrowing story about an adventure you've survived. 

Tony - 
Harrowing story- you mean other than the time when I made a wrong turn down a street in Detroit when I was younger...

Fiona - 
That is harrowing.

Tony -
I was once on a 21-day winter survival trek in southern Idaho, and we had an Arctic storm sweep down upon us dropping the temp 48 degrees in one hour to minus 35. I got hypothermia pretty bad and we still had an 8 mile hike to get to an old cowboy line-shack that we had to get our group to. 
Amazon Link

This was a wilderness therapy program for adjudicated youth that I worked for back in the 80s. Anyway, as the hike progressed and the wind bit through me, I had a very organic feeling that my life-force was withdrawing from my arms and legs. Soon, there was only this sensation that my entire being consisted of this little beacon of light in my chest that I had to keep going no matter how ugly things were getting. I pushed on and eventually made it to the line-shack. It took me weeks to recover from that and I had lost 18 pounds on that trip because we were existing on 1200 calories a day for three weeks. After that, I took a long trip to Florida!!

Fiona - 
My gosh, Tony! What an experience!

To end this article can you us 5 bullet points for flash flood survival? 

Tony - 
Amazon Link
Regarding flash flood, here are some pointers:
1. Watch the weather that day and see if anything of concern is

     headed your way. Situational awareness is key in the
     backcountry just like it is in our urban-suburban lives. 
2. Stay out of the narrow (slot)
    canyons during the height of the
    rainy season from July-September
    and in the spring time. 
3. Research from the Grand Canyon
    indicates that most flash floods
    happen between Noon and 8 p.m. So do your hiking in the
    early morning if possible during the rainy season. 
4. As you travel in canyon country, get in the habit of looking for
   "up-and-outs" or egress routes in case you have to quickly get
    out of that region. This becomes habit after a while with more
    time spent in the desert. 
5. Hike with a partner. This is true in most backcountry situations. 

Fiona - 
Thank you so much Tony!
You can reach Tony Nester here:
ANCIENT PATHWAYS - He has great resources available for you.

And if you really want to write it right - there is NOTHING like hands on experience. Tony's classes are high up on my writerly bucket list.

Nester Survival Kits - I carry the mini-urban survivor. After the first unusual taste/consistency of the emergency bars, I found them quite addictive. 

You'll find articles here that will help you prepare your intrepid heroine (and yourself when you see how cool they are.)

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


  1. Fascinating post! I had planned a photo shoot for that area of the country and had to cancel because of the flash flood warnings. Very challenging landscape and I'm glad the guide was cautious.

  2. Thanks, Patti. Yes, this landscape can be unpredictable. I've even had outings where it's 90 degrees during the day and then 20 degrees an hour after sunset. It is a land of extremes.

  3. Good info, as usual! Flash floods are one of the more lethal and surprising things a person can encounter. My family came through the Big Thompson Canyon in Colorado mere hours before the 1976 flood; we should have stayed the hell out, but we made it before the flood.

    In my safety classes, we've learned that because of the physics involved, as noted in this article, it only takes about two feet of water to float most passenger vehicles away, and it only takes 6 inches to knock a person off their feet. Once down, you can get hit by anything, and recovering your feet is difficult. I hadn't even considered the sand scouring effect; one more hazard! Great article!

    1. Thank you kindly, Andrea, both for your kind words but also for sharing your real-life experience and information.


  4. Thanks Fiona, great topic!
    Una Tiers