20 Tips for Hiking in the Desert

day hikes desert hiking Jun 24, 2022
Hiking in the desert for sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park.

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20 Tips for Hiking in the Desert

The Southwest has some of the best hiking you can find in the United States. From slickrock trails, to towering sandstone walls and spires, to deep canyons that require precarious scrambling to descend, the desert has a little adventure for everyone. While hiking in the desert is a fun experience, it can also be dangerous and there are some unique considerations to be aware of before you hit the trail.

 

After moving to Colorado I quickly learned that hiking in an arid, desert environment is radically different from the temperate forest environment I was accustomed to back East. I definitely made my fair share of blunders in the beginning (like running out of water while hiking to Jeep Arch), but I learned from my mistakes and sought out credible information to ensure I stayed safe while hiking in the desert. These tips come from my personal experience hiking in the desert, in addition to recommendations from land management agencies and organizations like the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.

Here are the top 20 tips for hiking in the desert so you can fully enjoy your next Southwest adventure!

1. Carry enough water.

Water in the desert can kill you in two ways. The first, dehydration. Do not underestimate how much water you may need while hiking in the desert (or how difficult it could be to find more if you run out). 

The general recommendation is to carry at least 3L per person, per day, but that amount should be adjusted based on the temperature, time of year, and how long you’ll be out. If you’re heading out for a short hike in the winter 1L may be plenty, but if you’re heading out on a long hike during the summer carrying 5-6L may be more appropriate.

2. Wear sun protection.

The sun in the desert can be ruthless, so proper sun protection is crucial for everyone. This includes wearing and/or carrying sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat, at a minimum. I also highly recommend wearing a hooded, long-sleeve, sun shirt with UV protection, particularly during warmer months.

3. Beware of flash floods.

The second way that water can kill you in the desert? When there’s too much of if- i.e. flash floods. Because the soil in the desert is extremely arid, stormwater runs off quickly instead of getting absorbed into the ground, which causes powerful flash floods that can overtake a wash or canyon in seconds.

You should always check the weather before heading out on a hike, but it’s important to pay extra attention to the forecast if you’re looking to explore slot canyons, which are carved and created by flash floods. Even if it’s not raining in your immediate vicinity, rain storms can trigger dangerous flash floods from miles away, so always err on the side of caution and avoid slot canyons if inclement weather is in the forecast.

4. Wear sturdy shoes.

Most hikes in the desert involve navigating over varied terrain like sand or rock, so wearing a pair of sturdy hiking shoes is essential.

I personally prefer hiking in trail runners instead of traditional hiking boots because they’re light, flexible, and have excellent traction, but ultimately you want the hiking shoe that’s most comfortable for you. Some folks prefer wearing sandals like Chacos or Tevas, especially if a hike involves multiple stream crossings. Traditional hiking boots will also do the trick. The only type of shoe I would caution against are big leather hiking boots that don’t breathe well because they’re going to be hot and heavy (unless you’re hiking in the winter). The most important thing to look for is a shoe with good traction to help you stay safe while navigating across slickrock. 

5. Bring salty snacks or electrolytes.

Drinking a lot of water isn’t enough to keep you properly hydrated while hiking in the desert, especially if you’re sweating heavily. If you want to stay properly hydrated you also need to make sure you’re replenishing your electrolytes. This can be from salty snacks or electrolyte packets like Liquid IV or Nuun tablets. The hotter it is, and the longer you’re out, the more important it is to take in electrolytes along with your water.

 

6. Don’t bust the crust.

The desert consists of a variety of ecosystems, with large swaths covered in biological soil crust, aka cryptobiotic soil. Cryptobiotic soil provides stability and helps prevent erosion in the desert. It’s characterized by its black, crusty appearance on the earth, and it is extremely fragile. Once damaged it can take years to recover, so it’s incredibly important to tread carefully and stay on designated trails or durable surfaces, like slickrock while hiking in the desert.

7. Pack out all waste.

We all know to pack out our trash when hiking, but when it comes to packing out waste in the desert you have to prepare for more than just granola bar wrappers and orange peels.

The soil in the desert is incredibly arid and does not easily break down human waste, so the best practice is to pack out your poop instead of burying it in a cathole. Try to use the bathroom before hitting the trail and carry a WAG bag in case of emergencies. If you need to use your WAG bag, it’s super easy. Open the package; set the outer bag to the side; unroll the larger, inner bag and place the toilet paper and hand sanitizer to the side; open the large bag and do your business; make sure to pack everything out, including your toilet paper! Be sure to pack out pet waste as well!

8. Look out for lightning.

If you think that you can avoid potentially getting caught in a flash flood during a storm by hiking on top of a mesa instead of in a canyon, think again. Storms that trigger flash floods often come with lightning, especially during summer monsoon season. Lightning is one of the top weather related killers in the United States, and choosing to hike on an open and exposed desert trail during a storm can be incredibly risky.

If thunderstorms are in the forecast your best bet is to just stay home. If you insist on hiking and are confident that any storms will be isolated, opt for a short loop trail and keep an eye on the sky so you can get back to your vehicle quickly in the event a storm rolls in.

9. Wear proper layers.

Getting dressed to go hiking in the desert is going to look very different depending on the time of year that you go. The winter can be bone chillingly cold, so you’re going to want to wear traditional hiking layers- a baselayer, midlayer, and outer layer/jacket. Even if you’re able to easily shed a layer or two on a sunny day, it’s still a good idea to carry everything in case it gets cloudy or you find yourself out after dark when days are short. You’ll also want to carry or wear a hat and gloves, along with some sort of traction device like microspikes in case you encounter icy trails.

During the summer protecting yourself from the sun and staying cool is the name of the game. Look for light-colored, lightweight fabrics that breathe well and have SPF protection. This is also the time and place to toss the old adage “cotton kills” to the side. Keeping a cotton shirt or bandana wet can actually help your body stay cool on the trail during a hot day!

10. Carry a topographic map.

I’ve been guilty of overly relying on my phone for navigation during hikes, but phone batteries die and routes downloaded from popular apps that rely on user generated data (ahem, AllTrails) aren’t always reliable, so carrying a topographic map, and knowing how to read it, helps ensure that you won’t get lost while hiking in the desert.

National Geographic maps are my personal favorite because they highlight trails and natural features in a particular area in addition to providing the contour lines you need to safely navigate.

11. Be prepared for route finding and/or scrambling on difficult hikes.

Difficult desert hikes often traverse different types of terrain, which means route finding may not be as easy as following a well defined trail. In addition to carrying a topographic map, having a keen sense of direction and being prepared to route find or scramble in challenging terrain will help you navigate difficult hikes. Make sure to do adequate research on the trail before you head out so you know what to encounter and whether it’s within your skill level, and remember that while hiking down into a canyon is easy, hiking back out is a very different story!

12. Know the signs of heat exhaustion & heat stroke.

Recognizing the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke can save your life while hiking in the desert. If you start experiencing a headache, dizziness, heavy sweating, nausea, clammy skin, muscle cramps, and/or a fast, weak pulse, seek shade, hydrate, and cool off in a creek if possible. If you begin experiencing confusion, lose consciousness, stop sweating, continuously vomit, and/or develop a rapid heart rate you may be experiencing heat stroke which requires immediate medical attention.

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can be avoided by not hiking in the middle of the day, checking the forecast before you go (and rethinking your plans if you’ll be out when it’s 90-100°+ out), and seeking shade or water when possible.

13. Respect archaeological sites.

Indigenous people have been occupying the Southwest since time immemorial and signs of this can be seen across the region from petroglyphs and pictographs, to well preserved archaeological sites.

Not only are archaeological sites protected by federal law under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, and other federal statutes, they’re also sacred to the Indigenous people of the area who are still here today.

Here are some rules of thumb to follow when exploring archaeological sites:

  • Never sit, touch, lean, or stand on walls of archaeological sites.
  • Don’t touch petroglyphs and pictographs (the oils from your fingers can break them down faster).
  • Leave all artifacts where you find them.
  • Don’t allow pets or small children in archaeological sites. 

14. Wear a buff to protect from the wind.

Spring winds in the desert can be relentless and there are few things that are quite as miserable as getting pummeled with sand in your face while hiking. Wearing a buff will not only protect your neck from the sun, but also provide relief for your nose and mouth if you find yourself caught in a windstorm. 

15. Watch for wildlife.

Are rattlesnakes your biggest fear about hiking in the desert? Don’t fret! 

Rattlesnakes (and other creepy crawlers) are out there. They exist. The desert is their home. You should remain alert to their existence, but you don’t have to worry about encountering one around every turn.

The easiest way to avoid a rattlesnake encounter is to hike during the winter when they’re hibernating. If you’re hiking during a time of year when they’re out and about, try to hike closer to the middle of the day (of course keep the temperature in mind), because rattlesnakes are most active at dawn and dusk. Check under rocks before sitting down and try to avoid putting your hand somewhere you can’t see. The vibrations from hiking poles can also help alert snakes and small critters that you’re coming before your footsteps would, giving them more time to avoid you.

Remember to respect any wildlife that you do encounter. Never pick up or feed wildlife, and be sure to keep dogs under control.

16. Remember water is life.

If you’re hiking during warmer months don’t discount the value and abundance of water that the desert provides if you know where to look. Avoid hikes that will keep you exposed on slickrock and opt for canyons with natural creeks and springs. Springs can be perennial, so if you’re planning on relying on one, do plenty of research to make sure it will be available during the time of year that you’re hiking. AllTrails reviews can be a great source of information on recent conditions.

17. Put your dog first.

There are a ton of great hikes in the desert to do with your dog, but if you are going to bring them along it’s really important to make sure that you put their needs first. This means making sure that you carry enough water for them if you aren’t going to be able to find any on the trail, and keeping the temperature in mind. If you wouldn’t hike in a coat, don’t make your dog do it!

18. Consider using hiking poles.

Hiking in the desert can be challenging, especially if you’re hiking a trail that descends into a canyon. Hiking poles are a personal must for any hike that involves a steep descent to help protect my knees and give me some extra power on the hike back out. Hiking poles can also help you maintain better balance and stability, which is important on rocky trails.

19. Don’t stack rocks.

While stacking rocks may seem like no big deal, it actually violates Leave No Trace and can lead to negative ecological impacts. Removing rocks from where they’re found naturally can lead to erosion or the disruption of wildlife habitat. Stacking rocks near the edge of a drop-off can also be potentially dangerous if those rock piles topple over onto hikers below.

Rock stacks aren’t to be confused with cairns, which are important route finding tools that you’ll encounter on many trails in the desert. An official cairn is typically going to be very obvious, especially if you’re hiking in a National Park or near a popular area like Sedona. There’s no need to build your own, in fact doing so may lead other hikers astray.

20. Start early.

The last tip is quick and simple. If you want to beat the heat while hiking in the desert you need to hit the trail bright and early. It might be tough getting out of bed early, but I promise that catching the sunrise while hiking in the desert is totally worth it!

BONUS TIP:

As always, be sure to recreate responsibly & follow the seven Leave No Trace principles on the trail!

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