Hiking in the desert is often seen as drab when compared to majestic alpine meadows. However, we have fallen deeply in love with the vast beauty and intriguing surprises found in these often-overlooked places. Deserts are not all sand and cracked earth, they are dynamic ecosystems full of unique plants, wildlife, and geological features (cool rocks). These places are also more accessible to those looking for trip options during winter, early spring, and late fall when snow covers most mountainous areas.
For history buffs or anyone who loves to find bones, old cabins, and artifacts of the old wild west, the desert can be an absolute paradise. However, desert hiking is not for the faint of heart. Backpacking in the badlands can be dangerous and uncomfortable, but for those who enjoy a challenge (and are willing to share water with cows), the desert holds true, rugged adventures. These expert tips can help you avoid miserable or potentially deadly situations and get you traveling safely and happily through these awe-inspiring landscapes.
Beat the Heat
Hiking in the desert can be very HOT and it is important to do what you can to avoid overheating and getting into a scary situation. Learn the signs of heat stroke/exhaustion and be confident that you’ll know what to do if things go to hell in a handbasket.
1. Start Early
Carrying a good headlamp is essential for desert hiking because it is important to get hiking as early as you can to cover some ground in the cool of the morning. Plan to break camp as close to dawn as possible, even if that means you must wake up before the sun rises and pack up in the dark. If you plan to travel any significant distance that day, try to hike about half of your miles before the heat of the day becomes oppressive. The desert is usually hottest between the hours of 10am and 4pm.
2. Hike Late
The same logic applies later in the day. Hiking into the evening or even at night can be a fun and productive way to get miles in while temperatures are more tolerable, and your body doesn’t have to work as hard or require as much water. Night hiking can be especially enchanting if the moon is bright. Be safe and use common sense. If you are alone, are uncomfortable navigating in the dark, or do not have proper illumination, we do not recommend hiking off into the night.
3. Take “Siestas”
A siesta—an afternoon rest or nap— is taken during the hottest hours of the day in a hot climate. As the angle of the sun increases and the temperature soars, you may notice that your energy is dwindling by late morning or early afternoon. This is normal. Instead of pushing on into the sweltering heat, it’s a smart idea to take a long break during the hottest part of the day to conserve your energy and let your body recover for one or more hours. It is important to find (or create) a shady place where you can relax and take shelter from the direct sun. Many backpackers like to use this time to eat lunch, nap, read maps, air out their feet, and luxuriate. While it is ideal to take this break close to a water source, it may not always be possible.
4. Get Wet
When you get a chance, soak your shirt and bandana with water and put them back on. Even if the water isn’t cold, the latent heat in your skin will cool through the process of vaporization. Tying a wet bandana around your neck is an effective way to help lower your temperature, as your blood passes through a major artery.
It is best to do this at a water source instead of using your drinking water to douse your clothes - just make sure you are following LNT protocol. Always be mindful of other hikers who may be following in your footsteps and be careful not to contaminate water sources with your sweat and foot funk.
In the same vein of thought, it is effective to immerse your feet, head, or entire body in a body of water to aggressively cool yourself. These opportunities to wade into a river or lake in the desert are limited, but they do exist!
5. Take Advantage of Shade
If you’re stopping for more than just a moment, seek shade. This may not always look like a nice spot under a tree; it may be just a silhouette from a large rock, the deep crevice of an arroyo, or dappled shade created by tall brush. However slight, taking shelter in the shadows will prevent you from absorbing extra heat while you read your map, get into your pack, or eat a snack.
It is popular with some long-distance hikers to use a lightweight, “windproof” umbrella like the Liteflex Hiking Chrome Umbrella as a portable shade for desert hiking. They are an easy "layer" to add or subtract for more sun/rain protection while on the move and claim to make you feel up to 15 degrees cooler. It should be said that these umbrellas do not work in extremely windy conditions and should not replace proper clothing, but they can make hiking in direct sun or pouring rain more comfortable. Some hikers love them, while others find them too fussy and would rather not deal with an additional item. Whether to carry an umbrella or not is a personal choice. We recommend giving it a try to see if it works for you.
6. Plan Ahead and Prepare
An arid desert can suck the water right out of your body and dehydrate you extremely quickly. To survive in a harsh environment like this it is critical to drink a lot more water than you likely would at home. Our general recommendation is to drink at least 4L per person per day, but on a very hot day you might drink as much as 6L. Study your maps and water reports to determine how much you will need, then carry a little extra. Remember to factor in how much additional water you will need to carry for preparing meals, dry camping, etc.
Plan ahead to determine where you will replenish your water supply and prepare for the worst since sources can dry up. Pay attention to your surroundings as you hike. If you have seen lots of surface water, there is a better chance that your planned sources will be good. If you see no surface water and some sources have been dry, take whatever you can get, however unappealing it may be.
7. Have a Backup Water Filter
Desert water sources vary widely from desert to desert and change drastically based on what time of year it is when you visit. Most backpackers prefer to plan these trips when the prospects of finding plentiful and reliable water is best, such as spring and fall, but even then, water can be sparse.
Before your trip, study all of the information you can find about the water sources along your route and choose your water filtration method accordingly. Your decision should be based on the potential quality of the sources, and by the volume you will likely be filtering in one sitting.
For those hiking as a couple or a group who expect to need to filter 4 or more liters at each source, a larger capacity filter that requires less pumping like the Platypus GravityWorks is a good option. For a single hiker who only needs to carry a liter or two at a time, something smaller and lighter like the Sawyer Micro should be sufficient. If you’re unsure how you want to purify your water, see our 6 Best backpacking Water Filter of 2019 list to see what we liked best.
Water sources are often stagnant, dirty, and contaminated by livestock in the desert. Therefore, we advise always carrying a backup water treatment, like Chlorine Dioxide pills as filters are likely to become clogged and slow with hard use.
Generally, in deserts of the West at least, stock tanks and ponds are the most common watering holes for both backpackers and animals. Be prepared for water to be nasty and bring what you need to prefilter (bandana or pantyhose) and, on long trips, backflush to restore slowing flow rates in filters. We also recommend carrying some flavored drink packets to make even the foulest water palatable. It is not uncommon to find dead mice and lizards in tanks. Just remember, this is an adventure!
8. Chug a Liter at the Source
When you come to a stream crossing, spring, tank, cattle trough, or any good source of water, use the opportunity to drink up. Never dump or waste any partial bottles of water you have before refilling them and treating the water. Drink every drop. You should never leave a water source thirsty. Water weighs a lot and it’s much easier to carry it in your stomach than on your back. Especially when you are starting or finishing a long dry stretch of trail, never pass up an opportunity to hydrate. It is too risky to skip opportunities in conditions where some sources may be dry.
9. Bring Salty Snacks
It may not be obvious when you are sweating bullets in the desert as they are evaporating rapidly due to the low humidity, but your body is constantly losing valuable liquid as you hike. Ingesting a healthy amount of salt will allow your body to retain and use water more efficiently and slow the process of elimination through urination.
Bars, trail mix, nuts and seeds, dried fruits and veggies, jerky, crackers, and candy are all good sources of quick energy and sodium. Snacking continuously will help to replenish vital electrolytes lost through sweat and keep your systems running strong.
Remember to drink extra water if you are consuming a lot of dried foods, as they will soak up liquid from your stomach as they are digested and can cause dehydration and gut problems if eaten in excess. Try soaking dried fruit in a small amount of water overnight and eating them for a quick breakfast. The vitamins and minerals present on the outer skin of the fruit get dissolved in the water and the amount of nutrients that will be absorbed by the body increases. Who knew?!
10. Cover Your Skin
Wear breathable, lightweight, light-colored, and loose-fitting clothing when hiking in the desert. Long sleeves and pants are recommended to shield your skin from the sun more effectively, however, many hikers prefer the breathability of running shorts or skirts. If you do enjoy wearing clothes that leave skin exposed, make sure to bring plenty of SPF sunscreen and be committed to applying it regularly. Watch out for areas such as your face, lips, ears, hands, and neck. It is important to be mindful of the angle of the sun and to monitor your skin throughout the day. If you are starting to feel hot, tender, or are experiencing a burning sensation check for possible sunburn and cover up. Getting sunburned can ruin your trip quickly and render your body unable to thermoregulate.
11. Go Easy on the Eyes
Protecting your peepers from the harsh desert environment will save you in both the long term and the short. Too much exposure to bright sun, heat, dryness, and dust can cause irritation, headaches, temporary blindness, and permanent damage like sun spots.
Wearing both sunglasses and a hat is an easy fix. The hat will come in handy for times when the angle of the sun is low and intense, but your surroundings are still in relatively low light, like at sunrise and sunset. Choose one that is breathable, quick-drying, and has a wide brim or long bill that will cut the sun out of your view.
Consider sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection that are comfortable enough to wear all day. Polarized lenses are great for cutting glare and increasing visibility around water, sand, and desert rocks which tend to be highly reflective due to crystalline quartz content. Polarized lenses will direct some of that light away from your eyes, however they may make it difficult to see your cell phone or GPS device. Keeping your sunglasses on a strap or retainer around your neck will make it more convenient to take them on and off, help you keep track of them, and prevent damage and scratches from falling in the dirt or getting crushed.
12. Get Some Air Time
Get barefoot and air your feet out during breaks and meals whenever possible. Doing this will not only make you feel cooler, it will give your shoes and socks a chance to dry out. This is also an excellent opportunity to dump out any debris that got into your shoes and to inspect your feet for hot spots. Blisters are caused by heat and friction and can often be prevented if you pay close attention and have a solid self-care routine on your backpacking trips.
Furthermore, elevating your legs and feet can reduce swelling and speed the recovery of your lower body. Use your pack to prop your feet up and get the most out of your R&R.
The desert is tough on skin, just look at the creatures that live there. Keeping your skin hydrated, happy, and healthy will make a world of difference on your hike. If you notice your skin chafing anywhere, take the time to check and make sure there are no folds in the fabric of your clothing under your hip belt or a seam isn’t in the wrong place. Smoothing these small details out will often prevent painful problems down the trail. If you are experiencing chafing or rawness, apply lotion or a sports lubricant to the area before it gets bad.
It’s a fantastic idea to clean yourself up at the end of each day with a quick wipe-down or trail shower. It’s common to develop heat rash and irritation from all the salts left on your skin after sweating. Change out of your sweat-encrusted hiking clothes and into your sleep clothes or base layers once you’re settled for the day. Using coconut oil or another moisturizer on your face, hands, and feet will help maintain healthy skin, and prevent cracking, burning, and blistering. We suggest the coconut oil because if you don’t use it on your skin, you can always eat it too!
Living Among Pokey Things
14. Be On-Point
A hiker needs only to experience kicking a cactus once to realize it’s worth slowing down and being more aware of their surroundings. There are many species of cacti and spiny plants that can make your life difficult if you tangle with them. Always wear your shoes while walking around in camp. And take care in where you step, sit, and set up your sleeping area in the desert.
Try to select a campsite that gives a wide berth to any cholla, prickly pears, yucca, or agave and look closely at the ground where you plan to set up camp, clearing away any loose spines.
Being diligent will save you from pain a frustration. That being said, deflated sleeping pads can happen no matter how careful you are and wherever you travel. Always carry a small patch kit (or Tenacious Tape) if you use an inflatable sleeping pad and use a ground cloth (or Tyvek) under your tent or pad to help protect it.
15. How to Remove Cactus Spines
The spines of most cacti species don’t produce any liquid irritants that would require professional treatment, however, a scrape with a cactus is painful and can be debilitating depending on the location.
Some folks resort to using duct tape to try to remove these, but a better method is to use tweezers. A small pair of tweezers like those on the Swiss Army Classic Knife are worth their weight in gold when traversing the desert. If you have a medium or large spine lodged in your skin, grasp the spine close to the skin to avoid breaking it further up its length -- you do not want to break the spine, because your tweezers will not have a good grasping point to pull on. Using a slow and firm motion, pull the spine out with the tweezers.
Small spines densely packed into globules on certain cacti species are called glochids. If you bump into these spines, dozens and even hundreds of spines enter your skin. Although you can use a pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass to remove some of the spines, it is a painstaking process. To make this process fast and easy, use tape to pull the glochids from your skin. You may have to repeat this process multiple times to get ‘em all.
16. Keep One Ear Open
Rattlesnakes are common in the southern U.S. and are a classic component to any desert adventure. It is normal to be a little nervous about hiking in places where poisonous snakes live, and it is good to have a healthy fear of them; however, the likelihood of having a deadly encounter is extremely low. The possibility of seeing rattlesnakes in the wild can be thrilling and exciting and should not deter anyone from hiking in the desert.
Rattlesnakes do not want to bite you and will almost always give you a fair warning when you surprise them. Remember, you are much bigger than they are, and they are nervous about your presence too. Snakes will only strike if they feel cornered or threatened. Give them space, leave them alone, and you can both relax and get back to business.
Know when you are in snake country and don’t wear headphones in both ears. While it is very popular with some hikers to wear headphones to listen to music or podcasts to help pass the miles, it is important that you can listen for warnings given by snakes to avoid potential bites. Learn all you need to know to hike confidently in snake country here.
Pack Light, But Not Too Light
17. Go Ultralight
Water is heavy. 1L of water weighs about 2.2 lbs., and it may be necessary to carry many liters at times. Pack as light as possible to account for extra water weight while backpacking in the desert.
Bring a minimal shelter, minimal sleeping bag/quilt, a minimal sleeping pad, a minimal backpack, and minimal clothing. Every ounce counts. Work to lower your base pack weight as much as possible and then test to make sure you have adequate capacity and support for your food and water load.
We have a ton of resources on this subject if you need help, including a video series on the basics of ultralight backpacking gear and a full backpacking gear guide with all our favorite ultralight products.
18. Expect changing weather conditions
While it is important to get your pack weight as low as possible for ease and comfort, it is equally as important to be prepared for extreme weather conditions.
Desert temperatures can fluctuate by as much as 60 degrees from daytime to nighttime during the driest parts of the year. The lack of humidity and cloud cover allows the warmer air to rise into the atmosphere while cooler air settles in its place very quickly.
Bring layers including a lightweight puffy coat, pair of fleece or wool gloves, and lightweight warm hat for cold mornings and evenings. The coat will make an excellent pillow when stuffed into the right size stuff sack as well.
In spring and summer, desert storms called monsoons happen almost daily. Thunderheads move in quickly, dumping heavy rain and hail for several hours before moving on. Always be ready for rain, high winds, and lightning even if the forecast calls for good weather. Having lightweight rain gear and a pack liner to protect your dry sleeping bag and clothes could save your life.
Due to the extreme temperature swings and possibility of fierce storms in the desert, you should know the signs of both heat stroke and hypothermia. Do not sacrifice your safety by going out underprepared. Know yourself, do your research and practice hiking in different environments. Being prepared for all these weather variables can be a challenge, but, with a little experimentation, you will find what works for you.
19. Master the Map and Compass
Finding your way in the desert can be difficult, but with the proper tools and skills, it can be a lot of fun and very rewarding.
Due to the remoteness of many desert areas, there are few trail crews to establish trails, and visual footpaths cannot always be expected. Therefore, it’s important to have a good grasp on basic map and compass navigation before setting out into these often trail less landscapes.
Since many desert hikes traverse vast, featureless plains, it is useful to use a compass to shoot a bearing in the direction that you want to go and keep checking it as you advance. Continuously be aware of the topography around you and make a mental map of where you’ve been and where you are headed.
Wear a watch or something to keep track of the time with, as it will play a role in helping you accurately estimate how far you’ve traveled. The average hiker walks between 2 and 3 miles per hour. Time yourself hiking for an hour at an average pace and keep that number in mind. This will allow you to follow along and keep a rough idea of how far you’ve traveled. If navigation is especially difficult, it is wise to log your decisions, directions, and time in a small notebook, in your phone, or on the map.
Cross-country navigation is easy to learn and will give you the freedom to explore and create your own routes. Once you master the basics of shooting a bearing, triangulating, and reading a map, you will feel empowered to make your own tracks and choose any course you find appealing, which is why desert hiking is truly and adventure. Just remember, this is only appropriate in some places where the surfaces are durable and you are not trampling plants or trespassing. As always, please follow LNT rules.
20. Download a GPS App
These apps are very accurate and add yet another tool to your arsenal without adding any extra weight, (assuming you’ll be carrying your phone already).
Keep track of how far you’ve come, how far you’ve got to go, elevation profiles, and route options at a glance. Some GPS apps even help keep you updated on water source information, allowing other hikers to add comments in real time.
It’s a good idea to still carry paper maps in case batteries fail or you drop your phone in the drink, but this combo should have you 100% covered and totally geeking-out on all that fun trail data for hours.
Get out there and Have fun!
In closing, the desert can be a harsh and inhospitable place. Backpackers are forced to face adversity, make decisions, and adapt in these often remote and desolate wilds. But that’s also why these journeys are so special and impactful. Dealing with these challenges allows us to reflect on the humility imposed by the ruggedness of nature, leaving us with an enhanced perspective. It’s hard work and it takes endurance to backpack in the desert, but being rewarded with mystery, excitement, surprising beauty, and the feeling of intense gratitude make it worth the hardship. There is no better feeling than a long, hot shower after a week in the desert.
Go lightly. Be prepared. Be safe. And be ready to make some memories. The desert has something for you. It’s waiting.
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