Are you thinking of going hiking in the desert? If so, you need to take certain precautions before hitting the trail. There are lots of potentially dangerous elements that, if you’re not prepared, will put your life in jeopardy as well as your rescuers. Here’s some lifesaving desert hiking tips that will help make your outdoor experience amazing. But also, to live to tell about it.
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Desert Hiking Tips to Keep You from Dying
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.
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 your 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 an avid hiker myself who learned a valuable lesson, you’ll need to try new protein snacks at home days before taking them on the trail.
That way, you’ll know how your body will react to high protein and different ingredients that could cause you gastric distress.
Know basic first aid
Anytime you go hiking in the desert, you’ll need to bring a a basic first aid kit and know how to render proper medical triage. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to know CPR and how to recognize and treat heat exhaustion and hypothermia.
Pack basic hiking essentials
Regardless if you’re going to hike in the desert for a few hours or backpack in the desert’s backcountry to camp, there’s a few hiking essentials you need to take in your pack.
Obviously water will be your number one as well as enough snacks to sustain you throughout your desert hike.
But, it’s also wise to take a first aid kit, eco-friendly, camping toilet paper, refreshing 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.
Also, a satellite communicator can mean the difference between life and death in the desert where cell signals may be nonexistent.
In fact, it’s a must have for any outdoor enthusiast. Just pair it with an app on her compatible smartphone to text via satellite or cellular networks.
Should you need emergency assistance, all you have to do is send an interactive SOS to their coordination center.
Wear proper desert hiking clothes
Hiking in the desert requires proper hiking clothes and properly fitting hiking footwear.
The desert environment is no place for hiking in flip flops, sandals or Crocs. You need to protect your feet from cactus spines, venomous spiders and scorpions 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 that has good grippy tread and toe protection.
Also, don’t forget good hiking socks. Skip the cotton sweat socks. They will make your feet sweat and may cause chafing and blisters. Merino wool hiking socks or a wick-away fabric blend will help keep your feet dry.
In regards to clothing when hiking on hot days, it’s best to wear loose, lightweight, breathable fabrics. A UPF 50+ fabric shirt will help protect your skin from harmful rays. These moisture wicking fabric pulls moisture away to keep you dry and cool.
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.
Now, 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.
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 good idea to wear a wide brim hat to protect your head. But also, a head covering will help shield your face and eyes from the sun.
For you ladies with long hair, pull it back into a pony tail and wear a specific ladies hiking hat to keep your hair off of your neck.
Polarized sunglasses with UV protection will help prevent constant squinting and eyestrain that could lead to a nasty headache. They also help cut down glare that can help you see more clearly while hiking in the desert.
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.
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Taking your pets hiking?
We get that you may want to take dog with you on your desert hike. However, there’s lots of dangerous things in the desert that can harm your dog (or cat).
Your pet can get injured, bit, stung, or suffer heat exhaustion. This is why many places don’t permit dogs, even leashed dogs on the hiking trails, especially in desert environments.
From venomous rattlesnakes and scorpions, toxic toads and lizards to hungry big cats and coyotes, your pet may become a liability instead of a hiking buddy.
But let’s not forget hiking in the desert heat, the rocks and ground surfaces can become excruciatingly hot for your pet’s feet. So, if you’re insisting on taking your dog, ensure they wear good dog boots to protect their paws.
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 to keep you company. But also, to pay attention to each other’s health and well-being on the trail.
As well, to pace each other, watch for unexpected dangers and wildlife and keep an eye on the clock. Most importantly, make certain 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 that 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.
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.
It will provide you shelter from the weather, sun and wild hungry animals.
In the event that this happens, raise your hood and tie a bright color reflective cloth on an outside mirror, antenna or even your roof rack to alert others that you may need assistance.
Remember, it’s much easier for search and rescue authorities to locate a vehicle than a wandering person on the barren desert landscape.
Do not panic
And lastly, regardless if you’re hiking in the desert or in the mountains, it’s important to educate yourself on the location and environment in which you’ll be hiking. Know what to do in the event of dangerous wildlife encounters. And, anticipate them.
Know how to handle certain emergencies such as rattlesnake bites, 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. In other words, do not panic. Panic and heightened anxiety only creates confusion and chaos. Think rationally and use common sense when hiking in the desert.
The desert is a beautiful environment to hike, learn and see things 99% of the population may never get to experience. But, as we all know, there is potential for things to go wrong. Just be prepared and follow the above precautions.
Seriously, there’s a lot of planning 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, leave you vulnerable and become a victim to the environment.
But, if you’re prepared and cautious, hiking in the desert will make one of the best memories to take back home. 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.
Plan your trip to take your RV to the desert
If you’re planning on taking your RV to the desert region of the U.S., it’s important to plan ahead so your experience will be less stressful.
Anytime we plan our RV destinations, we start our research using RV LIFE Trip Wizard. RV Trip Wizard gets you to your camping destinations utilizing RV-friendly routes specific to your RV and travel preferences. You can try it FREE for 7-Days!