Hiking in a desert landscape with its sweeping, wide open views, iconic rock formations and unique foliage is an experience not to be missed, as evidenced by the numbers of travelers visiting the south western United States to hike in such places as the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, and Arches National Parks to name a few.
However, there are dangers associated with the desert environment, and an exhilarating experience can turn bad in a very short time if something goes wrong. I have experienced the surprise of a sudden turn of events, and – remember that guy we chuckled with on the trailhead for carrying so much in his backpack? Well, he came in handy. I would say that I have been lucky so far; but while luck may play some part in whatever we encounter, we can do a lot to prevent and mitigate negative experiences. Every year people are rescued from desert trails both urban and remote, and in the majority of cases it is because the hiker was lacking in preparation in some way. The truth is that being seemingly over-prepared is always better than being under prepared, even if it means carrying more gear.
There’s a lot to be said about safety in the desert, so here’s the skinny on the topics covered:
Bring the Right Amount of Water
It goes without saying that you should never embark on a desert hike without bringing water. The difficult question is always – how much should I bring?
The quantity of water you will need varies with a number of factors:
- Distance of your hike;
- Remoteness and accessibility of water;
- Challenge of the terrain and likelihood of making a mistaken turn that could increase your exposure time;
- Temperature (more is required when it’s warm out);
- Individual sweat rate – influenced not only by environmental conditions, but also by individual body size, and intensity of your workout.
The following table has been adapted from a Walking Water Calculator from verywell.com, and provides a rough guide as a starting point to figuring out the quantity of water you should consider bringing on any hike. Take into account the factors listed above when determining how much you will bring.
Water is heavy, and so if you’re not specifically wanting to train with weight for an extended backpacking expedition, careful planning can help reduce the load.
- If your hike takes you to points with potable water, plan the route so you’ll be able to refill part way. For example, Early Rise Hikers frequently hikes between two major trailheads in the McDowell Mountains for a total of 9 miles. We always start at the trailhead with no water (and our packs full) so that when we reach the trailhead at which we turn around (after 4.5 miles) we can refill our bottles and/or reservoirs.
- If there will be no potable water along your route, you can cache water as you go. If the temperatures are very high, it might be worth bringing frozen gallon sized water bottles to store along the trail for retrieval on your return.
- If you are hiking a long distance and there are natural water sources, take along a water purifying device.
Camelbak also has a nifty Hydration Calculator that asks you a few questions about your self and your activity, and kicks out a recommendation for total water needed, amount to be consumed per hour, and type of Camelbak product that will work for you.
For a more personalized idea of the amount of water you’ll need, you can calculate your sweat rate (though environmental conditions will influence this as well). This Korey Stringer Institute video is a great guide to hydration for athletes.
During the warmer months, hike early
Of course which months are hottest will vary by area, but in the northern hemisphere desert regions can begin heating up as early in the year as April and stay hot through October. If temperatures are reaching 90-100F, avoid hiking during the heat of the day, especially between 11:00 AM and 7:00 PM.
The coolest point of the day is around 6:00 AM, and the hottest hour of the day is around 4:00 PM. There are several advantages to early hiking:
- the air has cooled;
- the ground has had time to cool, and is therefore not reflecting heat upwards;
- the sun is low in the sky, therefore not heating up your skin and causing dehydration so quickly.
If you are unable to hike early, then hike late. Although air temperatures only really begin to become appreciably lower after 7:00 PM, and the ground has not had time to cool, you can limit sun exposure by hiking at dusk or even going on a night hike.
I would say it’s no fashion show, but who am I kidding – the bewildering array of clothing marketed for outdoor adventure is gorgeous enough to get you wearing it out to dinner (oh – and we do). But on that hike – the best choice will always reflect function.
- Hat. Large floppy hats of a lightweight material and mesh vents are great to keep your entire face and neck in shade while allowing your head to get some air.
- Hiking pants or shorts. Good hiking pants are flexible and tough to allow for climbing over boulders and stomping through washes. If you’re likely to experience wet weather, water resistance is also useful.
- Hiking shoes or boots, appropriate for the terrain, length of hike, and level of support you need. On a level path with minimal loose rock, running shoes might do it. If the terrain is rocky, has scree, and/or is very steep, a more gripping hiking shoe is better. If you’re hiking for a long distance and are carrying weight, a hiking shoe with an sturdy midsole is preferable. Finally, over the ankle support can be very helpful for longer hikes involving variable rocky terrain and steep slopes.
- Good socks are crucial for comfortable hiking. Socks that wick will help against sweating. Socks that don’t fit well, or tend to bunch, can cause blisters. Some people double their socks or wear sock liners to prevent blisters.
- Bring a bandana/handkerchief. You can tie it on to your backpack or belt loop for easy access. And if you don’t want it for blowing your nose (for which, over tissues, it is remarkably handy!) you can use it for a variety of other purposes from warming your neck to holding your hair back.
In cooler weather:
- Wear layers. You’ll warm up as you hike, but if you get into higher elevation areas, on top of a ridge, or in a canyon area channeling wind, you can find that you cool down quickly and you’ll want to keep your body from losing temperature quickly. A light weight spray jacket is always a good addition to the backpack.
In warmer weather:
- Long sleeves: covering your skin can help to limit sun damage and dehydration.
Plan your trip carefully
Know where you’re going, and even if you’re pretty sure of yourself, bring backup in the form of a map or GPS device to ensure the right choice at a crossroad.
There are many resources available for planning a trip. National and state parks have dedicated websites, and cities and counties usually have “Parks and Recreation” or similar sections on their websites providing information on recreation opportunities in parks that they manage. These websites will usually provide information about facilities at the trailheads, and maps of the trails. Many have trail ratings. There are also several hiking websites and blogs (such as this one!) that provide detailed information about specific trails.
With the name or discrete location of a particular hike, you may find it on google maps. If you download the map area to your phone you can follow where you are on the map even if you’re out of reception. If you’re a bit of a geek, you can also create a route on a GPS program so that you know the exact distance and elevation gain of the hike, and use that route to keep you on track while hiking. It’s a good idea to learn how to do this if you are completely unfamiliar with the area, or if you are taking a longer hike.
When planning your route you might want to take into account:
- Location of potable water sources. If you’re taking a long hike, you might want to plan a route (if possible) which will take you by potable water part way along.
- Angle of the sun relative to surrounding mountains. During the summer in Arizona, I like to start at 5:30 AM hiking on the west side of the McDowells into a canyon with a high ridge to the south. This way we stay in shade as long as possible.
- Distance and elevation gain relative to your level of fitness. If you can walk a mile or two easily you might be surprised to find that your hips ache after 10. And somehow it’s also always surprising what difference a hill can make. If you are unsure whether you are up to a particular distance, test yourself on shorter hikes. If you have your sights set on a particular challenge, work up to it.
- If you’re hiking a loop, consider the grade of the terrain in each direction. You might be able to add or subtract some of the challenge depending on your direction.
- Altitude. This is a very real consideration we have to make in Arizona, where we might be hiking anywhere from close to sea level at the Colorado river to above 10,000 feet around Tucson or Flagstaff. If you can hike 10 miles easily at 1,800 feet, bear in mind that the trail to Mount Humphreys peak (topping out at 12,635 feet) will add extra challenge.
- Weather. We love a little rain, but it’s never a good idea to hike when there is any possibility of lightning. Always check the forecast, and consider how you will deal with a quick change in environmental conditions.
Hike with a friend or group
Hiking can be a wonderfully social activity. But even if you enjoy solitude more than a chat with a fellow hiker, it’s worth considering finding a companion or group to hike with. Hiking, (like anything worthwhile!) is not without risks, and hiking with others can minimize the risk or at least mitigate the consequences of something going wrong. No one ever expects something to go wrong, but when it does (and I have personally experienced encounters with animals and cacti; falls resulting in scrapes and breaks; and dehydration resulting in heat stroke 5 miles from any trailhead) having a companion can make a big difference to how it all ends.
If you absolutely must hike alone, let someone know where you’re going, and the route you’re planning to take.
Bring your cell phone
It’s a good idea to be able to make a phone call if you find you’re in trouble. In many urban and even some more remote locations, it is possible that your cell phone will have reception.
However, if it doesn’t, be aware that texting may go through even if you can’t make a call.
Finally, if you leave your cell phone on, emergency services may be able to use your device to track your location.
Make sure you conserve your battery for longer hikes by adjusting settings on the phone. You can also take a portable charger with you in case your phone runs out of juice. I use my phone as a GPS device with the app Gaia GPS, and so have purchased a charging case that I use when on long hikes to ensure longer life. I also bring a spare charger for backup.
Bring a first aid kit
A first aid kit is a must on any hike. At a minimum, the first aid kit should contain:
- bandages of various sizes/shapes;
- a roll of gauze;
- small roll of adhesive tape;
- a multi use took or knife;
- a topical antibiotic ointment;
- pain relievers – including ibuprofen and acetaminophen;
- antiseptic towlettes;
- cleansing pads with lidocaine.
- In case you need to save your feet: mole skin is strongly recommended.
The best way to limit your exposure to rattlesnakes is to stay on the trail, and keep your eyes on where you’re putting your feet. If you hear the rattle of a rattlesnake, you should stop immediately and determine where the noise is coming from so that you can slowly move to put some distance between yourself and the snake.
High top hiking boots and loose long pants offer the most protection against snake bites. However, if you are bitten, seek medical attention immediately.
For more detailed information, I recommend reading an excellent article on How to Hike in Rattlesnake Country by the Washington Trails Association.