Hiking in the desert can offer a completely unique experience, but one that must be approached with due caution and a little prior safety knowledge. One rule about a desert is that it’s always unpredictable. Water and shelter are scarce, and temperatures may swing widely from one part of the day or night to the next. There’s also a very good chance that you won’t see anyone else on your hike, and no one will stumble across your path by chance. Understand your limitations and plan accordingly. These are tips I learned from growing up in the Big Horn Basin in Wyoming, with plenty of forays into the Gooseberry Badlands and the area around McCoullough Peaks.
Dress appropriately for desert hiking
Depending on the desert, time of year and time of day you’re planning to hike, remember that temperatures can swing by as much as 100 degrees between day and night. Wear multiple thin layers so that you can customize the protection according to the current temperature.
Cover as much of your skin as possible, especially on very hot days. While it may be tempting to grab your favorite T-shirt and cutoffs, you’ll be fighting the heat every step of the way. Look for loose, light fabric that breathes, such as light cotton or silk. Natural fabrics are the most likely to allow sufficient airflow to stay dry and cool. Wear a hat with a brim to protect your head and face.
Sturdy, supportive hiking boots and thick socks will help carry you through everything the desert wilderness has to offer. These boots will support your feet and ankles for better endurance, and the thick materials protect against cactus and other such hazards. Pack extra socks so you can change as needed to keep your feet dry.
Bring plenty of food and water, even for short hikes
Even if you only plan to hike for an hour or two, bring along something to eat as well as plenty of fluids. Water is essential, but so is food or electrolyte fluids that replace other essentials you lose as you hike. Jerky, nuts and dried fruits are desert hiking favorites. The jerky and nuts deliver protein and fats for energy, as well as salt. Dried fruit such as raisins are lightweight, nutritious, and carry many essential electrolytes. Always pack more than you think you’ll need, and remember that you can live a lot longer without food than without water.
Bring appropriate desert safety equipment
A basic wilderness survival kit should always be part of your desert hiking gear. These should include a “space blanket,” a sheet of reflective foil-type material that helps hold heat, a plastic bag or raincoat, and first aid kit. A small shovel and the basic components of a solar still are always prudent additions, as well as a water purifier in case there are natural bodies of water that can provide additional emergency fluids.
Know your destination, and make sure someone else does too
It’s always a good idea to hike with a buddy, as well as have someone to check in with before and after the hike. This person is not going on the hike, but knows where you’re going, when you left, and when you expect to return. When possible, provide your check-in person with the map or designated trail you intend to follow. Should you fail to return when expected, this is the person who will initiate the search that could save your life. Make sure you don’t stray outside of this plan, and bring along a compass and/or GPS unit with extra batteries to ensure that you stay on course.
Check weather reports regularly
Weather in most desert areas can change dramatically from one day to the next. Though they don’t get much moisture, it does still rain. What’s worse is that some get the entire year’s precipitation at once. With little vegetation to serve as anchors, mudslides are common. At the same time, make sure that you’re not walking into a furnace. While the middle of summer may be the most convenient time for you to hike, be mindful of just how hot it can be. You will have little or no cover, and an 80-degree day may actually mean much higher temperatures reflecting off the rocks, clay-heavy dirt or sand.
Don’t assume that any phase of preparation is trivial or unnecessary because it’s a short hike. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and it’s always better to have more than you need than to need something and not have it. Prepare for the worst, and always note any other people you see along the way in case you or they need help over the course of the hike.