June 28, 2017

11 Tips for Hiking in the Desert

Hiking in the desert can be a rewarding experience if you’re prepared for the journey. Get ready for a desert adventure with this guide.

I could write love letters to the desert, waxing poetic about the smell of it, the sound of it, the way the sunlight toasts my skin. I could talk for hours about the different shapes and colors of the desert, recalling my adventures there and the life I’ve seen within its landscapes that stretch as far as the eye can see. If you haven’t spent much time in the desert, you might think it’s a brown and barren wasteland that isn’t worthy of attention. The reality is just the opposite.

Deserts of the world are diverse. They defy stereotype. With its iconic saguaro cactuses, the Sonoran Desert in Arizona is different than other deserts within the same state, let alone those across the planet. Compare photos of the Sahara Desert with the Mojave Desert, and you’ll be glimpsing two unique scenes. The only thing all deserts share by definition is that they receive less than 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain a year.

To me, the desert is an impressive place because of the beauty and life that can be found there, despite meager precipitation and often high temperatures. The plant and animal life that does survive in arid conditions is highly adapted—just as you will have to be if you hike there.

How to adapt yourself for a desert hike: 11 safety tips

To enjoy a successful desert excursion, you must prepare yourself for the likelihood of extreme conditions and the absence of water. Not all deserts are hot, but many are, with cool or even downright cold nights. For example, in Zion National Park—the United States’ fifth most visited national park in 2016—summer daytime temperatures easily reach 100°F (38°C) and dip 30 degrees colder at night.  tips for desert hiking

The following tips will help you stay safe on a desert hike. For general hiking tips, check out my guide to hiking for beginners.

1. Avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day.

Especially in the summer months, it’s important to think like a desert animal: Retreat during the hottest part of the day and make your moves in the morning, evening, or night. Typically, the hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. bring the most intense desert heat, so try to avoid long hikes during those times.

As long as you have a hiking buddy, a headlamp, a compass and map, and plenty of food and water, night hiking in the desert on an easy or familiar trail can be an awe-inspiring option. Just be extra alert for wild animals that are taking advantage of the cooler temperatures, too.

2. Stay hydrated. Seriously—Drink a lot of water.

Hydrate before your hike and plan to drink one quart (approximately one liter) of water for each hour of hiking on hot, dry summer days. On cooler desert days, about a gallon per day (3-5 quarts, depending on the person) is recommended. Bring a water filter if you plan to drink from known sources along the trail.

Don’t wait until you feel thirsty to take a sip. Many people only begin to feel thirsty when they are already dehydrated. Dehydration is a result of losing more water than your body takes in, preventing your body from carrying out its routine functions. Avoid sugary beverages and alcohol, as these substances cause your body to lose more fluid.

3. Replenish electrolytes.

When you sweat, you lose sodium and other important minerals (electrolytes) that your body needs to function properly. If your body loses too many electrolytes due to physical activity and high desert temperatures, or if you are drinking adequate water but are not also consuming electrolytes, you could be susceptible to hyponatremia (low sodium in the blood).

Be sure to replenish your body’s electrolytes by drinking sports beverages (such as Gatorade and Powerade), munching on Clif Shot Bloks, or adding an electrolyte powder/tablet to your water.

4. Learn to recognize signs of heat-related illnesses.

Spending time in desert temperatures coupled with the high activity level that comes with hiking can be a recipe for heat-related illnesses. Before embarking on a desert hike, it’s imperative that you know how to recognize signs of these conditions and how to provide first aid treatment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Hiking Society provide online resources to start with.

Besides dehydration and hyponatremia, here are two major heat-related illnesses you should be familiar with:

Heat exhaustion occurs when a person is exposed to high temperatures and does not properly replace the water and electrolytes that the body needs. During strenuous activity, the body is especially susceptible to heat exhaustion. Typically this illness is not life-threatening, but it can turn into heat stroke if untreated.

Heat stroke is a result of the body being unable to regulate its internal temperature. Body temperatures can quickly rise to 104°F or higher. Heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency, so it’s important to take preventive measures and know how to provide first aid immediately if it does occur.

5. Be aware of monsoons and flash floods.

Expect heat waves, but also anticipate torrential rain and lightning if you’re hiking in a desert that experiences monsoon season. No matter where you’re hiking, always check the weather forecast and understand weather patterns so you don’t get stuck in a dangerous storm or a flash flood. Avoid open areas, low-lying areas, and slot canyons during thunderstorms, even if the storm clouds are not directly overhead.

Be prepared to wrap up your excursion early or abandon your plan altogether if conditions are concerning. Monsoons are gorgeous and exciting storms, but never forget the powerful forces they bring—powerful enough to bring serious injury or death if you are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

6. Dress appropriately and pack layers.

Wear breathable, lightweight, light-colored and loose-fitting clothing when hiking in the desert. Long sleeves and pants are recommended in order to shield your skin from the sun more effectively, so fight the urge to wear as little clothing as possible. Getting sunburned is not fun. Plus, long layers protect from unfriendly bugs or spindly plants you could encounter on the trail.

Don’t pack just for warm, dry weather—be prepared for the weather to change suddenly, and bring layers. See the gear list below for a breakdown on what to wear and pack for a desert hike.

7. Watch for wildlife and keep your distance.

Attune your senses to your surroundings. Look as well as listen for critters and creatures such as bees and rattlesnakes. Animals are fighting to survive in the desert, and the last thing they want is you coming across their path and appearing as a threat. Know what to do if you encounter wildlife in your area, and keep your distance if you come across any desert dwellers.

8. Know your limits and rest often.

When hiking in the heat, don’t push yourself too hard. Know your physical limits and stay well within them. Rest often, and take advantage of shade along your route. Taking these precautions can mean the difference between a pleasant desert adventure and a heat-related illness.

9. Use the buddy system.

The buddy system is always recommended when hiking, but in the desert, it can be especially important. On the hottest desert days, a friend can help you recognize and treat signs of heat-related illnesses and get help if needed. If you’re hiking with kids, ask them often how they are feeling.  

10. Leave your itinerary with a friend or relative.

No matter where you’re hiking, make sure to leave your itinerary with someone you’re close with. Let them know where you’re going and when you plan to be back. If you become lost or injured, you’ll want somebody to know where to look for you or call for emergency help.

11. Stock your car with extra supplies.  

Leave extra food, water, electrolyte boosters and medical supplies in your vehicle in case you’re feeling a little rough when you return from your hike, or if your car breaks down in the desert. Desert heat is no joke, and it’s always better to be over-prepared than to run out of something you really need.

Desert hiking gear list

You’ll need all of the routine hiking gear, plus a few things specifically for the desert:

  • Sunscreen: Prevent sunburn by lathering on sunscreen frequently (broad spectrum, SPF 15 or higher) and cover all exposed skin, including your ears.
  • Lip balm with SPF: Keep those lips protected, too!
  • Wide-brimmed hat: The more sun protection you have, the better.  A wide-brimmed hat will keep those harsh rays out of your eyes and off your face.
  • Sunglasses: Opt for polarized sunglasses to reduce glare.
  • Water, water, and more water: Because you can never mention water too many times when talking about desert hiking.
  • Water filter: Get in the habit of carrying a water filter when hiking, even if you don’t think there will be water along the trail.
  • Clothing layers: Look for breathable materials that will aid airflow around your body. Light colors reflect sunlight and will keep you cooler.
    • Shirt: A lightweight, loose-fitting, and long-sleeved shirt is best for desert hikes. REI’s Sahara shirt comes in sizes for men, women, and children and is a great option for warm weather.
    • Pants: Lightweight pants will protect you from the sun as well as bugs and prickly plants. REI’s Sahara pants make a great counterpart to the shirt.
    • Long underwear: Pack a set of long underwear for cooler desert days or nights.
    • Jacket: Don’t forgo a jacket just because it’s hot when you set out. Always be prepared for the weather to change. Fleece or wool will keep you warm.
    • Rain jacket: Remember, it does rain in the desert. Carry a lightweight rain jacket in case you get caught in a storm. There are many options for waterproof and breathable rain jackets, so take your pick.
    • Socks: Avoid cotton, which holds on to moisture and dries slowly. Choose synthetic materials and opt for lightweight socks.
    • Buff or bandana: The desert can get awfully dusty or windy at times. Cover your face and neck with a UV-protection Buff or a simple bandana. You can even wet this and keep it around your neck to stay cooler.
  • Hiking boots: Your desert hiking boots should be light, durable and breathable. GORE-TEX® footwear with SURROUND® product technology is a great choice for the desert, because these boots are designed for moderate or warm conditions and offer all-around breathability. Plus, they’ll keep your feet dry when the occasional desert rain comes along. (Read Michael Lanza’s review of his La Sportiva’s Primer GORE-TEX® SURROUND® Shoes here.)
  • Headlamp: Harsh sunlight throughout the day can give you a false sense of security. Bring a headlamp in case you stay out a little longer than you planned, or if you want to hike in cooler evening/nighttime temperatures.
  • Tweezers/multi-tool: These are helpful in removing cactus spines in case of a stumble in the wrong direction. Many desert plants have evolved to keep creatures away.

Want more specific suggestions? Check out adventure photographer Forest Woodward’s nine essentials for a desert hike.

Suggested desert hiking trails  

Being from the southwestern United States, I’m a little biased with my trail choices. There is a lot of desert in the Southwest, though. Here’s a quick list of some spectacular desert hikes (or hiking areas) in the western U.S.:

Arizona: 9 Best Hikes Near Phoenix, West Clear Creek trail, Saguaro National Park, Petrified Forest National Park

California: Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Nevada: Cathedral Gorge State Park, Valley of Fire State Park

New Mexico: White Sands National Monument, Dripping Springs Trail

Utah: Goblin Valley State Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Arches National Park, Zion National Park

Oregon: Smith Rock State Park, Painted Hills

Hiking in the desert can be a beautiful experience. No matter where you go, you’ll have a great adventure as long as you set yourself up for success.

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