The desert is a harsh environment, receiving less than 10 inches of rainfall per year and temperatures reaching well into the triple digits in the summer months. Believe it or not, despite these obstacles, hiking in the desert can be enjoyable and rewarding if you plan ahead and prepare for the environment beforehand. These ten desert hiking safety tips will set you up for a successful and safe desert trek.
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It’s no secret that I love the desert. ALL deserts.
The cacti lined hills of the Sonoran Desert. The never-ending orange dunes in the Arabian Desert. The rugged and otherworldly landscapes of Joshua Tree National Park. I am completely “at home” in the vastness, and in the silence I always feel most connected to the earth.
I’ve lived in both California and Arizona in my lifetime and, in both states, one of my favorite outdoor activities has been hiking in the deserts of the American Southwest. The rock formations, the cacti, the orange and brown earth is simply breathtaking!
However, the desert can be a harsh environment for hiking, receiving less than 10 inches of rainfall in an entire year. How well you prepare for the heat and terrain can make or break your hike – particularly in summer months.
Starting your journey with the correct equipment is half of the battle of staying safe in the desert. First and foremost, I highly recommend reading up on exactly what desert hiking essentials you will need.
Additionally, there are some very specific desert safety precautions that every hiker should take before trekking the desert to ensure that they stay safe and healthy. Below I will list the techniques I’ve found most helpful while living in these regions and hiking in extreme weather conditions successfully.
10 Desert Hiking Safety Tips
1. Begin your hike early and avoid the hottest time of day.
This is probably the #1 rule for safety while hiking the desert.
Typically, the hours between 10am to 3pm are the hottest and harshest times of the day, especially in the summer months. Avoiding this timeframe is key, which means hiking either early or late in the day – both of which will offer much cooler temperatures that you can take advantage of.
It is wise to get started as early as sunrise (or even before!) whenever possible.
Watching a sunrise in the desert is a pretty magical experience – seeing the light bounce off of mountains or simply stretch endlessly into the distance. It is completely worth losing a few hours of sleep to witness this.
2. Hydration is key for safety in the desert.
If you have hiked on any terrain, you know that strenuous climbs and heavy activity can really make you thirsty. Desert hiking takes that to the next level.
You should hydrate before you even begin, whether you feel thirsty or not. Consider the amount of water you think you’ll need on your hike and then double it for the desert.
Dehydration is serious business, and occurs when your body is losing more water through sweating than it is taking in. Because our bodies sweat much more in hotter temperatures, dehydration is a real safety concern in the desert.
What I personally do to plan ahead for safety is to always bring my Camelbak backpack for desert treks, ensuring mega – hydration when hiking long trails. I also typically bring a flavored drink in my pack for when I need a little boost, or the electrolyte tabs I’ve mentioned in prior posts.
Lastly, always turn back once you are halfway through your water supply, whether you have completed the hike or not. Better safe than sorry in the desert.
3. Listen to your body and recognize heat related issues.
In places where temperatures routinely hit the triple digits, you are more in danger of heat related illnesses than in any other terrain. Safety in the desert is no joke, and dehydration is just the beginning.
Recognizing signs of heat related issues early is key. The CDC has a great online resource highlighting what symptoms to look for that indicate heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and other serious health concerns that you or someone you’re hiking with could face.
Keep yourself safe while you hike in the desert! Familiarize yourself with these before you go.
4. Dress in layers.
While the desert can literally be the hottest place on earth, the evenings and mornings can be surprisingly cool depending on the time of year and the elevation. Wearing and bringing layers along with you will keep you comfortable on your hike.
Typically I wear a lightweight or breathable tank top, a long sleeve shirt, long pants, closed toe shoes, hat, and sunglasses. The specifics of each of my items can be found here in detail.
As the sun gets higher in the sky, your first instinct might be to shed some layers. However, wearing long sleeves will protect your shoulders and prevent sunburn better than your tank top. Long pants and closed toe shoes protect against cactus spikes and rocks.
5. Monsoons are a real phenomenon in the desert.
Yes – the heat is the most important element to prepare for to hike the desert safely. However, in the rainy season, monsoons can be a real threat and should be taken seriously.
Always check the weather report before you head out, and be prepared to turn around quickly should you be caught in a storm or a flash flood.
6. Bring a friend – AND a first aid kit.
Hiking solo can raise a few safety concerns in the desert – what if you get lost, or injured? While I personally value my solo hikes greatly, I can certainly understand why one could make you nervous.
No matter where you’re hiking, a small first aid kit is an excellent resource to have on hand at all times. Hiking with a friend is another great option. If you can do both, even better!
Alternatively, before you head out, let a friend know your exact plans. In case you have an unexpected emergency, a trusted person knows your whereabouts.
I am so used to solo travel that it doesn’t always cross my mind to let anyone know where I will be, so I could admittedly be better about this myself.
7. Rest as often as you need.
There is no shame in taking a long break under whatever meager shade you can find, or stopping to take photographs and enjoy the scenery. Rests like this might make or break your hike.
I remember hiking in California a couple of years ago when an unexpected heat wave hit. It was the first and only time I’ve ever seen literally every hiker I passed sitting down under whatever small patch of shade they could find, typically from the scraggly desert brush.
Honestly, I did the same myself. It was HOT.
Take breaks, take them often, and know when to call it a day.
8. Keep your distance from wild animals.
When I lived in Arizona, the hiking trails would frequently feature scorpions, rattlesnakes, and even sometimes killer bees (!!!).
Keep watch for any movement in the brush and be sure to keep yourself and your pets on the trail as much as possible. Luckily, these creatures aren’t aggressive and won’t attack unless they feel threatened.
I love to see and even interact with animals as much as anyone else, but out in the middle of the desert these venomous creatures can be very dangerous and help can be out of reach.
9. Download maps of your hike beforehand.
Cell signal can be weak or nonexistent in many of the deserts I’ve been to. It’s always extremely helpful to download an offline map before you leave home, bring a paper map, or even a compass if you know how to properly use one.
Check out my recommended travel apps for some useful suggestions.
Oftentimes, the flat terrain can all begin to look alike and it’s very smart to have a backup for desert safety.
10. Leave extra water and food in your car.
After you complete your hike, there is nothing quite like the reward of a pre-packed lunch and an ice cold beverage.
Pack a cooler before you leave home and tuck it in a shaded corner of your car. Be sure to stock it with a lot of ice to keep your reward as refreshing as possible.
Some great ideas are sandwiches (my go to is either a hummus and vegetable or PB&J on whole grain bread), fruit, and a flavored drink of some sort.
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Hiking in the desert is an unforgettable experience. The vast and different landscapes are so beautiful and rewarding!
But as you see, it can also be a harsh environment, and pre-planning is key. As long as you follow these 10 tips for hiking safety in the desert, you will be comfortable, hydrated, and successful on your journey! Enjoy!
Are you a fan of hiking the desert? Do you have any additional questions? Let me know below!