Professional lunatic Bill Caswell was still trying to finish his Mad Maxian BMW E30 when I wrote this, less than 24 hours from the start of the 2016 Baja 1000. That’s why I wasn’t expecting to make it over the border with him, but there I was, preparing to do just that. Here’s how to be ready if you get the same phone call.
Caswell’s racing history is unique. He likes to do things his own way (whatever nobody else is doing), on his own schedule (late). The guy’s got heart—if you know his name at all, you probably already know he pitted a $500 Craigslist car against factory teams in Mexico’s 2010 World Rally Championship race, and attempted the Baja that same year.
His last Baja effort ended with a long night in the desert after realizing his BMW’s wee little steering rack was no match for 800-plus miles of desert punishment. Now he’s making a hilariously half-assed attempt for redemption and I guess we’re along for the ride!
I say “along” because, with a few hours left in the race, we’re not currently racing. We didn’t make it to Mexico for a variety of reasons, but that’s a story for another time. Regardless, I did have a chance to tweak my ultimate Baja load-out list.
I’ll skip over the obvious stuff like your phone, underwear and socks (though you should bring more socks than you think you need! Don’t sleep in sweaty ones) and of course race-specific things you might need like a legitimate helmet and fire suit. Hopefully whoever owns the race team you’re tagging along with has those things, too.
This is just my list of essentials, in the order of how desperately you’ll want them.
Passport, International Driver’s Permit
“Oh, I forgot to ask, do you have a passport?” Caswell said a few hours before I was supposed to meet him and co-drive his race car in another country. I answered in the affirmative.
“Oh, cool,” he said. “No problem. If not we could have just thrown you in the trunk.”
The more I get to know this guy, the more I realize he isn’t kidding. Don’t take his line here—bring your passport and avoid an awkward conversation with your parents on the phone from a U.S. Customs detention facility.
And as silly as an IDP looks, I’m consistently amazed that it appeases authorities south of the U.S. border. No need to relinquish your real driver’s license if local cops are satisfied to see you got a stamp from AAA.
Cold weather, heavy duty clothing
It makes sense to figure “desert racing” means “it’s hot out,” but when the sun goes down it’s like a growling dog ripping your bedsheets off you in the middle of a cold winter sleep.
Oh, yeah, wearing thick jeans while you’re standing around on the side of a dusty race course is going to be warm. Way too warm. Don’t worry, as soon as it gets dark and you’re getting blasted with 30 MPH wind in a no-glass race car you’ll be clinging to that memory of being uncomfortably warm as your life flashes before your eyes.
I know some desert dudes who fabricate, prerun and basically do everything but actually race in flip-flops. I’ve also looked down at my composite-toe work boots and seen cactus limbs stuck to them.
Either get good at knowing where to step, or wear comfortable boots and have one less thing to worry about.
I bought a pair of Chinese-made Timberland Pro high-ankles in a pinch when I was late for the Dakar Rally in 2015, and these babies have now done South America, Moab twice, Mexico like six times, and pretty much all of the American southwest. Get the right pair and they’ll only get comfier until they finally fall apart.
Don’t plan on taking your phone out in the middle of a dust storm to see what’s making that weird noise under your truck. Carry a dedicated flashlight, preferably a headlamp-style one so you can have your hands free while you’re using it. Make sure you pack enough batteries!
Never go to Baja without stickers—these are the steadiest currency going! For some reason kids, adults, and even the stray goats are crazy for stickers. The people running taco stands will be stoked if you put one on their door (ask first) and the children will treat you like a superhero if you hand a few out.
They’ve also been known to entice soldiers to lift gates for you. All I’m saying is, they come in handy one way or another.
Lip balm, sunscreen and hand sanitizer
On top of a toothbrush and toothpaste, these items will complete your toiletry kit and help you avoid turning into Spongebob when he comes on land. It hurts, get ahead of it.
Sanitizer is key because you’re apt to go from wrenching to meal time, and there’s not always soap readily available after you take a dump.
If you have all that stuff, you’ll survive. The rest of this stuff will just make your life a lot easier.
Sturdy luggage and a satellite bag
Somehow the knockoff North Face duffle bag my buddy brought me from Thailand is still soldiering on. That’s where I cram my big stuff: sleeping bag, backup clothes and so fourth.
But it’s easy to get your little items lost in something like that, so the smart play is to bring a little backpack to keep your passport, some snacks, flashlight, and maybe a computer. Basically, pack the stuff that you could get by with if you got left behind somewhere wacky.
You’ll probably have cars to plug your phone into, but nothing’s worse than running empty. You wouldn’t be on this trip if it wasn’t going to net you an epic Instagram feed, right?
A safety vest is one of the most under-rated items in off-road racing. The sport is dangerous when you’re driving fast, but far more so when you’re out of the car and at risk of being hit.
I actually got this idea from off-road champ and my good personal friend Ron Stobaugh, who insisted we wear bright red fire suits for improved visibility instead of the usual sexy black. “Why not go bright-orange with reflectors,” I thought. So, I rolled up one of these and stuck it in my bag.
Plastic bags, zip-ties, tape and a multi-tool.
I call this the adventure traveler’s tool box. It’s rare that I finish a whole trip without wanting zip-ties, tough tape and a plier or little knife at a pivotal moment. You don’t need to spend $500 on the best blade out there, the $10 Wal-Mart one works.
Plastic bags are just great to have any time you’re going someplace dirty. Use small ones for gear organization, bigger ones for keeping your boot mud off the rest of your bag. Decent ones can even waterproof your electronics, though I have a “purpose-made” water bag for my phone to be safe. And of course, bed bugs hate ’em. Which brings me to the last thing I never hit Baja without:
The best (and somehow also the worst) trips usually involve sleeping under the stars, where you’re probably safe from the nasty little insects that live in cheap hotel mattresses. But sometimes, when you’re just that tired or somebody else is paying, a bed is worth the risk.
Waking up with bites is icky, but what really sucks about bed bugs is how hard they are to kill. Once you see their signature mark, usually clusters of little red dots grouped closely together on your skin, you’ve got to purge them from your gear before coming home or they’ll infest your entire house.
Bed bugs can be murdered with extreme heat or hardcore chemical cleaners like Simple Green or Clorox wipes. They thrive in anything cloth—clothes, bags, bandanas or anything else. Banish them by throwing all your soft gear into a commercial dryer at a laundromat and hosing off your hard stuff with something like those chemicals I just listed.
“What am I supposed to do, stand in the laundromat naked?”
In a perfect world, sure. In real life you need my “bed-bug kit.” It’s literally just a pair of hard plastic flip-flops, t-shirt, and gym shorts in a high-quality gallon-sized zip-locking bag. Get clear of where you think you contracted the bugs, put this on, and blast everything else away!