Most desert landscapes consist of dispersed islands of life and fertility in an ocean of barren rock and mineral soil. Because of the general scarcity of water, vegetation and organic soils, desert lands are particularly susceptible to damage by backcountry visitors.

Water is the key to patterns of life in the desert. Water may be permanent, as found in perennial streams, or it may be temporary or low-volume, as found in springs, seeps or potholes. Riparian zones—areas influenced by natural watercourses— are critical to the survival of many forms of desert life. Travelers seeking water and shade in these areas should take special care, recognizing the importance of riparian zones to the productivity and health of the desert environment.

The desert’s sparse vegetation is the result of slow growth and competition for water. Many of the characteristics that allow desert plants to survive, such as thick leaves and sharp spines, make them seem relatively hard to damage. For this reason, we think of most desert plants as quite resistant. However, their toughness is more of an adaptation to conserve water than a durability factor. They are not capable of tolerating considerable abuse and, once damaged, desert plants have little ability to recover.