Desert Hiking can be quite different from hiking through other terrains.
On this page you'll find some of the tricks and tools that we've discovered to
enhance our experience.
The Unique Rewards of Hiking in the Desert
If you aren't familiar with it, you may think of the desert as hot, dry, harsh,
hazardous and not very appealing. To the contrary, we find desert hiking to be
extremely rewarding and pleasurable for several reasons:
. The desert isn't always hot. Avoid the summer months. The winter offers great
hiking temperatures. On the warmest days you can plan your hikes to avoid the
hottest part of the day.
The lack of biting flying insects
is especially appreciated by those from northern states and provinces where we
are plagued by mosquitoes and black flies for most of our hiking season.
The desert terrain allows you to see for miles and therefore invites hiking
even in areas without trails. Without trees and less vegetation, it's easier
to manage crossing the desert keeping a distant destination in sight.
Diversity of terrain.
We sometimes refer to our tours of the American Southwest as "Erosion Tours."
Every area has been affected differently and carved by years of water, wind and
The resulting variations in land formation include: canyons, natural bridges,
arches, windows, pinnacles, tuffas, slot canyons, hoodoos, badlands and sand
dunes to name a few. An amazing diversity of unique forms all waiting to be
explored and photographed.
You'll find plenty of that in the vastness of the desert landscape.
Desert hiking offers countless opportunities to climb rock mountains to gain
vantage points for a great view.
Plants and animals.
The desert is home to an amazing variety of life forms that don't exist
Overcoming Desert Hiking Obstacles
Besides the heat, there are other reasons to limit desert hiking to the winter
You still need to carry plenty of drinking water although not nearly as much as
in hotter temperatures, but it doesn't have to weigh you down. We've discovered
that using waist packs lets us carry enough water for a day-hike of perhaps 6 hours (2 full 1-liter Nalgenes per person). With the weight directly over
our hips, we barely notice we're carrying any weight at all. If our destination is an oasis or waterfall (yes, even in the desert they do exist) our Water-to-Go special water bottles are a great benefit; they let us easily filter water from any source, making it safe to drink.
Most people are afraid of snakes but the poisonous variety, rattlesnakes, are
almost never seen in the winter months when we do most of our desert hiking.
They only appear when the days get hotter and spring moves into summer. Even
then, common sense and caution can help you avoid an encounter.
Since most of the rain falls in the summer monsoon season, the danger for flash
floods is not very high in the winter months. Even so, it's important to check
the weather forecast for the entire area if you're hiking through a slot
canyon. A flash flood is caused by water gathering from rains that can fall in
areas far away. Don't camp in washes and remember that just because it's not
raining where you are, doesn't mean you're safe from a flash flood unless
you're on high ground.
Most vegetation in the desert has thorns or cactus barbs attached, but because
the vegetation is also sparse (except for in the washes) it's easily visible
and usually avoidable even when you're hiking off-trail.
Essential Desert Hiking Tools
As with any activity, the right tools make a big difference. Fortunately hiking
isn't an expensive sport and you don't have to spend a lot of money. We've
found excellent deals on barely used, almost new hiking, backpacking, and
Here are some of the great items we've discovered and would not be without when
desert hiking. As with any recommendation I make on this website, the costs
fall into the frugal (great value for the money) category.
Randy wearing his "cool collar" while hiking
in Natural Bridges National Park.
An inexpensive way to stay cool that really works. Just soak this special
silicone-crystal-filled bandana in water for about ½ hour before you start
your hike and it will cool you for the entire day. It works especially well in
arid desert conditions. As you hike just give the bandana a twist every so
often to expose your neck to the cool side.
I'm carrying my purple Misty Mate over my shoulder in this photo
taken on a hot hike at Lee's Ferry.
Misty Mate Pump
Another tool we love that keeps us cool on a hot day. It requires carrying
another item, but we never regret it because it's lightweight,uses regular tap
water, requires no batteries and can be strapped across your shoulder or
waist. We have the 10 oz pump and it keeps us cooled for a full day-hike. (For
extra hot days, add ice to the water.) It also serves as an emergency back-up
Misty Mate makes a personal, portable air cooler that can lower temperatures by
30+ degrees and no battery or power source is required.
Randy trusts his hiking poles will help him as he sizes up the entry to
the Fiery Furnace Hike at Arches National Park.
Collapsible Hiking Poles
(Also called trekking poles.) You can spend a lot on these, but we've
discovered a great find made by Swiss Gear and sold in the sporting section at
Wal-Mart stores. They're shock absorbent and work great for a fraction of the
cost. Only $10.00 compared to other poles, which run $80.00 to $100.00 at most
outfitters. Truly a frugal find. Here's some
from other users.
Some people use only one hiking pole. We use two and highly recommend it. The
poles allow us to hike faster, assist in the uphill, give us confidence in our
footing, provide stability for stream crossings, and we can use them to bang
the rocks and make enough noise to warn snakes when desert hiking, or other
animals (bears in bear country) of our arrival.
A Waist Pack:
The Best Pack For Day Hikes
We are animals. As such, our hips are built to carry weight...our backs are
not. If you do use a backpack, make sure it is built to rest on your hips.
For day hikes, we prefer a waist pack for several reasons:
This gives you an idea of the size of the waist pack (and Randy's best side)
as we hike through Chiricahua National Monument.
Prevents strain on your back and neck.
Allows air circulation on your back so you stay cooler.
Distributes the main weight you're carrying (your water) evenly over your two
Holds all the essentials you need for a day-hike.
Keeps your water bottles within easy reach on the outside of the pack,
preventing any leaking onto items in the pack
A waist pack that can hold a liter of water on each side, and has enough space
inside for your lunch and the clothes and items suggested below is a better
choice than a small fanny-style pack which holds almost nothing but the water
bottles. Buy a mid-size (8 to 10 L) pack. The difference in cost is minimal,
yet it will allow you the room to bring the items you need.
The larger size waist pack is still very light when empty. Even on the
shortest day hikes we find that it's the easiest way to carry just 1 bottle of
water, have our hands free, and not have to remember to bring our essential
first aid-supplies since they're always in the pack. In this case we take just
one waist pack between the two of us.
For desert hiking, I suggest always keeping the following items in your pack
(See the tips below as to why): Lightweight nylon wind jacket, nylon wind
pants, a knife, lighter, comb, sunscreen, needle and thread, string, small
mirror, compass, colored chalk, band-aids and alcohol wipes. If you always keep
these items in the pack you only have to add your lunch and water and you're
always ready to go.
Off-Trail Desert Hiking Tips
Here are some practical alternate uses we've come up with for items we're
already carrying on our hikes.
Nylon wind jacket and pants.
Wear these to protect your clothes and skin as you find your way past the
thorny bushes that often grow in a wash. The nylon won't catch on thorns the
way normal clothes do.
will help you remove an imbedded cactus barb.
Use your camera to record your route. At key points along the way, we take
photos of the landscape behind us. When we're coming back we can call up the
photos on the screen if we've got any doubts as to which direction we came
from. (Be sure to have back-up charged batteries with you if you're going to
count on this as a navigation tool.)
Another off-trail hiking tool. Leave your mark on rocks at key points. It'll
wash off with the next rain; so if you expect rain today, don't rely on this
method. Building rock cairns (also called ducks) at strategic points is another
Compass and Topographical Maps
Getting lost in the desert is a life-threatening serious situation. Although
the above methods may help you, you should not rely solely on them to keep you
from getting lost. All off-trail hiking poses extra hazards and even an
experienced desert hiker also needs to carry a
compass, and topo map of the area
with built in tracking features for hiking. And carrying them is not enough.
You need to know how to use them!
Here are some basic beginner's tips for
using a compass
and reading a
Even for women, hiking alone in the desert doesn't have to be intimidating. Check out
for some useful hiking tips.
Properly equipped, everyone can enjoy a desert hiking experience!
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