Desert Hiking: Tips for Staying Safe and Comfortable

desert hikeFrom exploring the Southwest’s arid trails to trekking overseas, you’re likely to traverse desert terrain at some juncture in your hiking career.

Planning a long-distance desert hike requires a different mindset from prepping for a typical traipse through the forest. Be prepared with these desert hiking safety tips:

Hydrate
Always keep in mind that in the desert, planned water sources aren’t reliable. If you do come across a spring or pond, always replenish your supply. To minimize bacteria, first treat water with a pre-filter then with a reliable filtering system.

Study the Bushes
Know how to spot a potential water source! While many hiking maps highlight water sources, it’s important to be able to find water unaided.

Make sure you can identify deciduous trees and bushes native to the area, as they grow near water sources. However, sometimes that source is a spring too deep in the ground to reach.

Prioritize Your Time
Desert hiking is all about maximizing daylight mileage while minimizing sun exposure. Since midday is the hottest time of day, you’ll want to accomplish most of your mileage in the early morning and evening. Be careful about hiking at night as it’s easy to accidentally get off trail in the desert.

Stay Cool and Comfortable
Take every opportunity to cool down. Lower your body temperature by taking breaks in the shade of a boulder or Joshua tree. Practice breathing through your nose to conserve moisture in your mouth. Wear light-colored and lightweight clothing, and stick to long sleeves. Don’t forget to reapply sunscreen!

Conversely, temperatures can drop at night, so pack merino wool layers to wear after the sun sets.

Slow Down
Plan to spend more time hiking than you would on a cooler trail of equal distance. Stick to roughly seventy percent of your typical speed to help reduce sweating and exertion. If you find yourself breathing hard, slow down.

Don’t Eat Cacti
Though some cacti contain enough water to drink, cacti juice is often acidic and can contain dangerous alkaloids. Drinking cactus water can cause diarrhea, further exacerbating dehydration. However, eating cactus fruit is generally safe.