If you’re thinking of hiking in the desert, you need to take certain precautions before hitting the trail. There are lots of potentially dangerous elements, if you’re not prepared, will put your life in jeopardy as well as your rescuers. Knowing what to expect on the trail in the desert is key to enjoying your hike and coming out alive to tell about it.
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Desert Hiking Survival Tips to LIVE By
Know your personal limitations
The most important thing to realize before even contemplating hiking in the desert is knowing your own personal limitations; albeit physical, mental and even psychological.
If you’re not already aware, the desert is an exceptionally unforgiving environment. There are a lot of things out there that can hurt and even kill you on your hike.
The terrain is rough and the temperatures, can either cause you heat stroke or hypothermia. In the summer, temperatures can reach as high as 130° F. And in the cooler months, the temperatures can plummet to freezing. And of course, there are unfamiliar animals in the desert that you don’t see elsewhere.
Your mental health is as important as being physically fit. Should you become overheated or hypothermic, your mind can play tricks on you.
If you’re not in the best physical health or prone to illness from sudden fluctuations in temperatures, then desert hiking isn’t for you.
Tell where you’re hiking in the desert
If you’ve read any of our other outdoor safety articles, we always strongly urge you to leave important information with a loved one back at your home base anytime you go out for adventure.
Similar to a float plan for boaters, a hike plan is for those heading out to hike or camp on a groomed trail or roughing it in the backcountry.
Your Hike Plan should include the following information:
- What time you left home
- When you expect to arrive at the trailhead
- The trailhead name and coordinates
- Vehicle info – color, make, model & license plate #
- What you’re wearing
- How much food & water you’re taking
- Your return ETA
It’s also wise to leave a copy of your hike plan in the dashboard of your car. Place it so it’s visible through the windshield.
Start out with a well-maintained vehicle
Regardless if you’re going desert hiking on a well-known trail or the backcountry, you best have a capable vehicle that’s well maintained and won’t leave you stranded in the desert.
Prior to starting your trip, make certain your gas tank is as full as possible. Also, make sure your vehicle has clean antifreeze, oil and fluids. Don’t forget to inspect your lights, windshield wipers and make sure your tires have substantial tread and wear left in them. As well, make sure your spare is not dry rotted and all tires are properly inflated.
And before taking off for the trailhead, always check the weather and road conditions at the park visitor center and/or website before heading for your desert hiking destination.
Watch the weather
Before you even step foot into your vehicle or onto the hiking trail, you need to tune into your local weather and the desert region you’ll be hiking in. Deserts are known for drastic weather changes from scorching heat warnings to monsoons and sudden storms. And let’s not forget those blinding dust storms, also called Haboobs.
You don’t want to get caught in the desert during the rainy season; especially if you’re in low lying areas like washes.
But also, know how to read the sky. While clouds are not common over the desert, still keep an eye for threatening looking clouds. The desert is the last place you want to be during a storm where lighting is present. There is little to no shelter available.
Time your hike
As if you need to be reminded, the worst time to hike in the desert is during the hottest part of the day. So, when planning your desert hike, leave early; even before the sun rises. And try to be back to your car by late morning.
Or, plan your hike in the desert hike for late afternoon to early evening to avoid the heat. Do keep in mind though, before sunrise and after sunset, the temperature in the desert differs drastically from the heat of the day. So, plan accordingly by wearing or taking another layer of clothing as the desert during dark hours can get pretty chilly.
Carry plenty of water
As we’ve just discussed above, the desert environment isn’t exactly a Mecca of waterfalls and streams. Coupled with the excruciating temperatures and aridity, it’s a combination that can kill you.
That’s why it’s important to hydrate regularly. But, you should really hydrate your body even a day or two before hiking in the desert. This helps to lubricate your body and keep all of your bodily functions working correctly even before your hike.
And before getting to the trailhead, make certain you drink plenty of water. Even if it’s not hot outside or you don’t sweat, you’re still losing moisture from your body through breathing and eliminating.
The best way to ensure you’re properly hydrating is get to a hydro pack that allows you to sip water instead of gulping it. Gulping water can cause cramping because you’re also putting air into your digestive system.
A good rule of thumb is to carry at least 1 gallon of water each. So, I recommend getting a hiking backpack that will carry two water bladders equaling that 1 gallon or even more.
And if you’re taking your children with you on your hike in the desert, make sure they either carry their own water or plan to pack extra for them as well. Don’t sacrifice each other’s water for another. It’s important for all of the hikers in your party to have ample water for their own consumption. And especially, you don’t want to become a liability yourself when hiking with your children.
Pack some trail snacks
Making certain you’re well nourished and have ample energy to keep up the pace is important as is satisfying. Hunger sucks on the trail. The last thing you want is a grumbling tummy.
So, it’s a good idea to pack high protein snacks. That said, I can’t iterate loud enough to be sensible about what kind of snacks you’re carrying. Some wildlife like bears and big cats can smell goodies miles away.
In other words, when hiking in their environments, it’s wise to leave the meat sticks and tuna packs at home. Stick with plant protein snacks like Clif bars, Protein Puck, and Mezcla. Nut packs are always a good choice also.
That said, as a hiker myself who learned a valuable lesson, try new protein snacks at home before taking them on the trail. That way, you’ll know how your body will react to certain protein snacks. Trust me on this one!
Take a few basic hiking essentials
Regardless if you’re going for a few hour hike in the desert or a backcountry weekend hike, there’s a few hiking essentials you should take in your pack. Of course, water will be your number one as well, taking enough snacks to sustain you through your hike.
But, it’s also wise to take a first aid kit, biodegradable toilet paper, a few body wipes, and a battery bank and charging cable for your phone and other electronic devices you may be wearing or carrying. If you’re going for a few days, consider taking a solar power battery bank that allows a few more charges. And even if you’re going on a day hike, don’t rule out taking a pocket flashlight, compass, signal mirror and safety whistle for just in case.
Wear appropriate hiking clothes
Hiking in the desert requires proper hiking clothes. First and foremost, you should wear sturdy footwear. The desert environment is no place for flip flops, sandals or Crocs. You need to protect your feet from cactus, scorpions, spiders and whatever else your feet may find on the trail. And if you’re going to be doing any rock scrambling, you’ll need good hiking shoes or boots with good tread and toe protection. If you have weak ankles, think more into getting a hiking boot over a trail shoe. I personally recommend the Keen brand (I love their wide toe box) and Salomon brand hiking shoes.
Don’t forget good hiking socks. Skip the cotton sweat socks because, well, they make your feet sweat and the moisture stays on your feet. So, opt for hiking socks made of merino wool or a wick-away fabric blend. They will help keep your feet dry.
For clothing on hot days, loose, lightweight clothing is best. I always recommend wearing a UPF 50+ fabric shirt that’s for protection against harmful rays as well. As well, it’s breathable, lightweight, wicking fabric pulls moisture away to keep you cool and dry.
While it’s nice to get a little Vitamin D and some sun on your arms, long sleeves are best to protect your arms and torso from sunburn. But also, in case you brush up against things that may cause abrasions or allergic reactions.
Also, when you’re going hiking in the desert, it’s a good idea to wear high visibility, bright color for both, women and men.
And while shorts may offer better maneuverability, your legs will be exposed to the sun and anything you may brush against. So, a pair of lightweight, quick dry hiking trousers are a good fit for desert hiking.
Also, the sun in the desert is exceptionally bright. It’s not like there’s a shade trees to take refuge under either.
So, it’s a smart idea to wear a wide brim hat to protect your head but also to shield your face and eyes from the sun. And ladies, if you have long hair that you wear into a pony tail, there’s special ladies hiking hats just for you.
Polarized sunglasses with UV protection are always a good idea to wear when hiking in the desert as well. They will help prevent constant squinting and eyestrain that could lead to a nasty headache. And, they help cut down glare that can help you see more clearly on the hiking trail.
And lastly, make certain you apply (and reapply) good quality sunscreen to protect your skin from dangerous ultraviolet rays. A word of caution, make certain you wipe your hands off thoroughly so you don’t get any residue in your eyes.
Leave your pets at home
We get that you want to include you dog on your hike in the desert. However, there are many different things that can harm your dog or cat such as rattlesnakes, big cats, scorpions, toxic toads and lizards. Also, especially in the desert heat, the rocks and ground surfaces become excruciating to your pet’s paws.
Also, dog owners need to think about their need for hydration which requires you to carry more in your own pack.
Should your pet become injured or suffer heat exhaustion, they become a liability. This is why many places don’t permit dogs on the hiking trails in the desert. Don’t worry, your pup will still love you, if not even more, for leaving him home to guard the house.
Never hike in the desert alone
It’s totally understandable to want to hike on your own for solace and peace. However, hiking in the desert alone is never a good idea. Should you get ill, injure yourself or need some sort of assistance, being alone in the desert alone could land you in a heap of trouble.
So, take a hiking buddy with you. That way you both can pay attention to each other’s health and wellness on the trail. As well, to pace each other, watch for unexpected dangers and wildlife, keep an eye on the clock and to keep each other company. That said, it’s important that you and your hiking buddy have the same hiking experience and fitness level.
Stay on the trail
It’s important to stay on the trail. While it’s easy to wander to get that perfect photo or get that picture perfect view, it’s easy to get disoriented in the desert.
Also, as part of recreating responsibly, by staying on the trail, you’re not traipsing on or disturbing the desert flora and fauna. Plus, staying on the trail lessens your chances of meeting something you really don’t want to.
Use maps & PLB
It’s important to carry on your person a detailed topographic map of the entire Park or backcountry map of where you’re hiking to.
If you’re hiking a National Park or State Park trail, you can pick up a trail map at the Visitor Center. I suggest getting two; keep one in your hiking pants pocket and the other in your backpack.
Personally, I’m a big fan of the National Geographic maps because they’re waterproof and very detailed for hiking and orienteering. They have day hikes, topographic map guides, trails illustrated maps as well as local map guides for popular hiking areas. Don’t forget your compass in case you lose your bearings and direction.
Also, it’s wise to carry a fully-charged personal location beacon (PLB). We recommend either the Zoleo satellite communicator or the Garmin InReach.
Stay with your vehicle
If you’ve finished your hike and come back to a dead battery or your vehicle won’t start, never wander from your vehicle. Also, never leave your vehicle if it breaks down. It’s much easier for search and rescue authorities to locate a vehicle than a wandering person in the backcountry. Also, your vehicle will provide you ample shelter from the weather and wild animals.
Raise your hood should you be on the side of the road to alert others that you need assistance.
Also, this is one of those reasons to keep a good roadside safety kit and why you should keep an emergency bug out bag in your vehicle at all times.
Do not panic
And lastly, when you go out for a hike in the desert, it’s important for you to educate yourself on anything and everything that has the potential of hurting you. Also, know how to handle certain emergencies such as rattlesnake bites, dangerous wildlife encounters, basic first aid, and most of all, how to keep your composure in case of an emergency.
If you find yourself in trouble or lost, it’s imperative that you keep your wits about you and never panic. Panic only creates confusion and chaos. Think rationally and use common sense when hiking in the desert.
The desert is a beautiful environment to hike in, learn and see things 99% of the population may never get to experience. But, as we all know, there is potential for things to happen. Just be prepared and follow the above precautions.
And when you get back home from your desert hike, you’ll look back and appreciate the experience. You’ll feel exhilaration to the point of wanting to plan another hike in the desert.
As you’ve just read, there’s a lot that goes into desert hiking. It’s not to be taken lightly as there is a lot out there that can either make your hike miserable or leave you vulnerable if you don’t have the proper skills and hiking gear. But, if you’re prepared and cautious, hiking in the desert will make one of the best memories to take back home.
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