Desert Hiking: Tips for Hiking and Backpacking in Arid Environments

Desert Hiking
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Deserts are full of incredible natural beauty, ranging from endless sand dunes to slot canyons to otherworldly rock formations. Hiking is one of the best ways to experience these stunning landscapes, but desert hiking comes with some additional challenges compared to hiking in more forgiving environments. While these demands require extra planning and preparation, they can make your journey even more rewarding.

Knowing what to expect and coming prepared will help make your time on desert trails safer and more enjoyable. This guide to desert hiking covers essential things you should know ahead of your trip, including risks and dangers to be aware of, tips for staying safe, and recommended gear. We’ll also share some of the best desert hikes in the United States to inspire your next adventure.

Challenges, Risks, and Dangers of Desert Hiking

Deserts are breathtaking places to visit and explore on foot, but hiking in these unforgiving environments comes with unique challenges, risks, and dangers. Those planning a hike through the desert should make sure they are aware of these hazards and take steps to mitigate them through careful planning, preparation, and awareness on the trail.

Below are some of the major risks and dangers to consider when preparing for a hike in the desert.

Antelope Canyon

Dehydration and Hyponatremia

Dehydration is always a risk when recreating outdoors, but it is of particular concern when hiking in hot, dry conditions that often occur in deserts. Dehydration increases your risk of heat-related illnesses and can cause various ailments, including headaches, nausea, dizziness, and disorientation.

To reduce your risk of dehydration, drink plenty of fluids, including water and sports drinks containing electrolytes, before and during your hike. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink – if you’re feeling thirsty, there’s a good chance you’re already dehydrated.

Hyponatremia, a condition marked by low sodium in the blood, is another risk when hiking in high temperatures. This can occur from drinking too much water or not getting enough salt to replace what is lost when you sweat. The condition’s severity can range from mild to life-threatening. Seek medical attention if anyone in your group develops symptoms like nausea and vomiting, seizures, lost consciousness, or confusion.

See our tips section below for more advice about staying hydrated and fueled.

Heat-related Illnesses

Strenuous activity in hot weather can lead to conditions like heat exhaustion and heatstroke (also called sunstroke). To stay safe while hiking in the desert, it’s crucial to learn the signs and symptoms of these conditions and how to treat them.

Heat exhaustion occurs when your body overheats and struggles to cool itself down. The condition typically results from physical activity in high temperatures and is worsened by dehydration. Symptoms can develop suddenly or over time and include headache, dizziness, muscle cramps, nausea, heavy sweating, cool skin, rapid pulse, and fatigue. Symptoms are generally relieved by getting out of the heat, finding ways to cool down, resting, and drinking fluids.

If left untreated, heat exhaustion can result in a more serious condition called heatstroke. Without emergency treatment, heatstroke can damage your muscles and organs, leading to severe complications and even death. Symptoms include nausea and vomiting, flushed skin, elevated body temperature, slurred speech, confusion, irritability, rapid breathing, fast heart rate, and a change in sweating or dry skin. Heatstroke requires emergency medical attention.

If someone in your group is showing signs of heat exhaustion, seek shade, rest, cool the body with a wet cloth, and get them some fluids and electrolytes and a high-energy snack. If symptoms worsen or do not improve within an hour, seek medical attention. You should also get immediate help if the person loses consciousness, is unable to drink, or becomes agitated.

Muscat desert sunset

Sunburn

With little natural shade available in the desert, sunburn is a common ailment. Severe sunburn can affect your body’s ability to regulate its temperature, which increases your risk of heat-related illnesses. It’s important to protect your skin from excessive sun exposure while hiking and ahead of your trip.

Wear plenty of sun protection, including clothing with a UPF of at least 30, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunscreen. More information about sun protection is available in the gear list below.

Extreme Heat and Temperature Swings

Desert climates experience extremely high temperatures, but they also are subject to significant temperature swings. Since sand does not retain heat, the temperature in sandy areas like the desert drops quickly when the sun goes down. It can get very cold overnight in high elevation deserts, and snowfall is common during parts of the year.

For example, the average daytime high in the Sahara Desert is 100°F (38°C), but the average nighttime low drops to 25°F (-4°C). At White Sands National Park in New Mexico, temperatures can change from -19°F (-28°C) overnight to 95°F (35°C) during a single day.

These large temperature swings and extreme heat require strategic planning when packing for a backpacking or hiking trip in the desert. We’ll go over some tips and advice in the gear list section below.

Dust Storms

Also called haboobs, dust storms can make conditions on the trail unpleasant. Bring a mask, bandana, or buff to cover your face and avoid breathing in the dust. If the area you’re hiking in has a particularly high risk of dust storms, you may also want to bring ski goggles to protect your eyes.

Monsoons, Flash Floods, Thunderstorms, and Lightning Strikes

Deserts are commonly associated with hot, dry weather, but heavy rainstorms and flash floods are potential dangers in many desert areas. In the Southwestern US, for example, July through mid-September is known as “monsoon season.” During this time, afternoon thunderstorms are common in popular desert hiking areas, such as the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree National Park.

Monitor the forecast, keep an eye on the sky to watch for approaching storms, and use caution when hiking in canyons or low elevations prone to flooding. You can view our post about Tips for Backpacking and Hiking in the Rain for more information and advice about dealing with severe weather.

lightning strike in the desert

Sudden Weather Changes

Desert temperatures fluctuate wildly, and so do the weather conditions. Calm, sunny weather may quickly give way to thunder, rain, lightning, and hail. When you are preparing for your trip, make sure to pack for a range of conditions and temperatures.

Navigation Challenges

Many hikes in the desert traverse relatively flat, featureless areas with few landmarks and little vegetation. This can make navigating and trail finding challenging, especially in remote parts of the backcountry.

No matter where you’re hiking, you’ll want some kind of navigation system, such as a GPS hiking app that works offline or a map and compass. If you’re planning to hike a remote trail or go on a longer backpacking trip, it’s crucial to bring a map and compass and have solid outdoor navigation skills, in addition to using digital tools to help you on your journey.

Desert Hiking Safety Tips

Prevention is the best way to stay safe and avoid danger when in the wilderness. Desert hiking is no different. Through careful planning, hikers can take steps to reduce their risk of running into problems on the trail. Here are our top tips for a safe hiking outing in the desert.

Avoid Peak Heat

The timing of your hike is one of the most important factors when it comes to hiking through the desert safely. Avoid hiking during the hottest parts of the day when the sun is strongest, usually between 10 am and 4 pm. You can also schedule your hike in the spring, fall, or winter to avoid the summer heat.

If you’re doing a shorter hike, you can hit the trail at or before dawn and finish before it gets too hot. If you’re setting out on a longer trail, start early, then take a break near shade and water, if possible, during the hottest part of the day. You can start back up in the afternoon and finish after dark if needed. Make sure to always carry a headlamp or flashlight and extra batteries so that you have this option.

Desert Landscape in Death Valley

Stay Hydrated and Properly Fueled

It’s crucial to consume enough fluids and foods to support the strenuous activity of desert hiking. Even if you’re just going on a short day hike, you’ll want to bring high-energy, salty snacks and electrolyte drinks or powders to replace the fluids, salts, and minerals your body loses as you sweat.

As a general rule, you should drink around one quart (one liter) of water each hour when hiking on hot, dry days. On cooler days in the desert, you should plan to consume about a gallon (around 4 liters) of water a day. To ensure you are drinking enough water, you can divide your water bottles or hydration system into sections using a permanent marker or tape. That way, you’ll know exactly how much to drink at different intervals.

You should also be staying hydrated and well-nourished the day before and the morning of your hike. Drink plenty of fluids and eat nutritious, carb-rich foods. Make sure to have some potassium-rich snacks like bananas and add an extra pinch of salt to some of your meals to start your hiking adventure with enough salts and electrolytes in your system.

It’s also a good idea to avoid alcohol and excessive caffeine. These substances are diuretics and cause your body to excrete more water. This further dehydrates you and can impact your body’s ability to regulate its temperature.

Dress in Layers

Bringing plenty of layers will allow you to adjust your attire according to the weather and temperature. When it’s hot out, wear loose-fitting, light-colored, and breathable clothing to stay cooler. Long sleeves and pants are best even in sweltering conditions to help shield your skin from the sun’s rays and protect you from cactus spines and other spiky desert vegetation.

Even if the forecast is predicting hot, sunny weather, bring some extra layers and a lightweight rain jacket. That way, you’ll be prepared if you end up finishing your hike after dark, encounter sudden weather changes, or get caught in an afternoon thunderstorm.

Use Water Sources to Cool Off

When you have access to water, wet a buff, bandana, or even your t-shirt. Put it back on while it’s wet to help keep your body cool.

Know Your Limits

If you’re not used to hiking in the desert or in high temperatures, you may not be able to hike as long or as far as you normally would. It’s important to know and respect your limits (both physical and mental) and avoid pushing yourself too hard.

Stop and take a break when you need to and make use of shady areas along the trail. If you have any doubts about making it back to the trailhead or your destination safely, shorten your trip by setting up camp or turning around early.

Air Out During Your Breaks

Take advantage of your breaks along the trail to air your feet out. Take off your hiking boots or trail running shoes, let your socks dry, check for blisters and hot spots, and empty sand and debris that found its way into your shoes.

Keep an Eye out for Wildlife

Before you set out, familiarize yourself with wildlife you may encounter in the area. Many deserts are home to potentially dangerous species like rattlesnakes, scorpions, spiky plants and cactuses, and poisonous spiders. Ensure you know what these animals look like, and keep an eye out for them along your route. If you do see an animal, keep a safe distance to avoid appearing as a threat.

You can view our Wildlife Safety article for more tips about dealing with animal encounters on the trail.

Snake in the Desert

Hike with a Buddy

Hiking with a friend or small group is an excellent way to improve your safety while on the trail, especially when hiking in the desert. If it’s hot out, make sure everyone in the group knows the early warning signs of heat-related illnesses. You should also check in with each other often to monitor for symptoms.

Inform Others of Your Plans

It’s always smart to keep friends and family informed of your plans, especially if you’re hiking alone. You can manually send them your itinerary and notify them of your progress or use safety features in various hiking apps. These features will automatically keep them updated on your whereabouts and alert them if you do not return in your estimated time frame. You can see which hiking apps we recommend here.

Give Yourself Time to Adjust

Just like when hiking in high elevations, desert hiking often requires a day or two to let your body acclimate to the new and extreme environment. You’re more susceptible to heat-related illnesses when your body isn’t used to the heat. If you don’t live in a hot climate or are traveling from an area where it’s currently cooler, give yourself a couple of days to adjust to the higher temperatures. Doing so will reduce your risk of heat exhaustion and make your hike more comfortable.

Check the Forecast and Monitor the Weather

Checking the weather forecast and remaining aware while you’re on the trail are important when hiking in any environment. These precautions are even more critical in exposed environments like deserts that frequently experience sudden weather changes.

Watch for storm clouds and avoid hiking in slot canyons or other low-lying areas prone to flooding if there is rain in the forecast. Keep in mind that flooding can occur due to rainfall in a different area nearby. Just because it’s sunny where you are doesn’t mean the conditions in the canyon are safe. Before you head out, it’s a good idea to check with a ranger, local land manager, or another local expert to make sure it’s safe to hike there.

Consider Hiring a Guide

Depending on your previous hiking experience, budget, time constraints, and familiarity with the region you’re visiting, you may want to consider hiring a guide for your hike. Booking a guided hiking tour with a reputable company is an excellent way to have a more relaxed desert hiking trip. Experienced guides are familiar with the risks and dangers in their area and will help you have a safe and positive experience without the stress of planning and preparing for a trip on your own.

Leave No Trace

It’s always important to minimize your impact outdoors, but this is crucial in fragile desert ecosystems. In many desert areas, the top few centimeters of soil form a biocrust home to lichen, moss, and cyanobacteria. These organisms play an essential role in the ecosystem, stabilize the soil, reduce the chance of sandstorms, and prevent erosion due to wind and water. This biological layer is extremely delicate, and walking on it can cause substantial harm. As a result, going off-trail in the desert can devastate the environment and cause irreparable damage.

Before embarking on a desert hike, make sure you’re familiar with the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace and use them as a guide while you’re outdoors:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Hiking in the Desert

Desert Hiking Gear List

Packing for a desert hike is similar to packing for any other hiking trip, with a few adjustments. If you’re planning a day hike in the spring, summer, or fall, you should be all set with the items on our gear list below. Depending on the area you’re hiking in, you may not need all of these items. Alternatively, you may need additional cold-weather gear if you’re planning a winter hike in the desert. You can adjust your personal packing list according to your destination and the time of year you’re visiting.

If you’re planning a multi-day hike or longer backpacking trip, you can view our Backpacking Checklist and Ultralight Backpacking Guide for more packing tips and advice.

Here are some essential pieces of gear you’ll want to bring when hiking in the desert.

  • Sun protection: Sunglasses with polarized lenses, sunscreen, lip balm with SPF, wide-brimmed hat, lightweight, breathable clothing with a UPF of 30+, an umbrella for shade.
  • Water and a hydration system: You can use water bottles and/or a hydration reservoir.
  • Electrolyte drinks or rehydration powders
  • Salty snacks with plenty of carbs and protein
  • Good water filtration and purification system: If you’re doing a longer hike or you’ll be in a remote area, you may have to use water sources along the trail rather than designated refill stations with potable water.
  • Gaiters: These will help protect you from prickly plants and cactus spines and reduce the amount of sand and debris that gets into your boots or trail running shoes.
  • First aid kit: Make sure your kit includes tweezers, a multi-tool, and a fine-toothed comb to help remove cactus spines in case of an unwanted encounter with one of these plants.
  • Lightweight rain jacket: Rain and thunderstorms are common in many deserts during the summer. Make sure to always have a rain jacket with you.
  • Warmer layers for nighttime: Depending on when and where you’re going, you may need long underwear, insulating layers like a fleece or down jacket, gloves, and a hat.
  • High-quality hiking socks: These are crucial for preventing blisters, which can be a big nuisance in the desert heat. Good hiking socks will also wick away sweat that could otherwise easily make your socks wet during a hot day.
  • Buff or bandana: This item protects you from the sun as well as dust and sand when it’s windy. You can also use it to stay cool by dipping it in water before wearing it around your head or neck.
  • Ski goggles or other goggles for dust storms: These are not necessary for all desert areas. Check to see if the location you’re visiting is prone to dust storms or haboobs.
  • Headlamp and extra batteries
  • Breathable hiking boots or trail running shoes: Lightweight, durable shoes that dry quickly are ideal for desert hiking.
  • Moisturizer and blister kit: Dry environments are rough on the skin. Bring a good moisturizer and skin lubricant to prevent chafing, burning, cracking, and blistering.
  • Navigation system: You can use a map and compass or a GPS device.

Exploring the desert of Monument Valley

The 10 Best Desert Hikes in the US

The western US has some of the most iconic and beautiful desert landscapes in the world. Here are 10 of the US’s best desert hikes to add to your desert hiking bucket list.

1. South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails – Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most scenic and popular destinations in the American West and is an ideal location to go for a hike in the desert. There are tons of bucket-list-worthy hikes in the park, but the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails are first-rate. This point-to-point route is strenuous – it covers 19.2 miles (30.9km) and has 5,124 ft (1,589m) of elevation gain. The trail takes you from the South Rim down to the bottom of the canyon at Phantom Ranch, then back up via the Bright Angel Trail. It’s possible to do it in a single day, but many hikers prefer to spend the night at Phantom Ranch and hike back out of the canyon the following day. It’s not recommended to hike it in a single day during the summer when temperatures in the Grand Canyon soar.

2. Ryan Mountain Trail – Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park is a phenomenal desert hiking destination. With 191 miles (307km) of trails, the park is full of exciting hiking routes to explore. One of the best is Ryan Mountain Trail. The 3-mile (4.8-km) out-and-back hike is rated as moderate but should not be underestimated. The trail packs in more than 1,000 feet (305m) of elevation gain and leads to some of the park’s most gorgeous views. The hike is very popular, so get to the trailhead early to beat the crowds and midday heat.

3. Chesler Park Loop Trail – Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Located in the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, the Chesler Park Loop Trail will take you through the park’s otherworldly red rock formations. The trail is 10.4 miles (16.7km) long and is considered moderate to strenuous. In addition to seeing the park’s sandstone rock spires, you’ll get the chance to do some easy rock scrambling, go through a slot canyon, see a cave, and take in views of the La Sal Mountains.

4. Devil’s Bridge Trail – Sedona, Arizona

This moderate 4-mile (86.4-km) trail will take you to Devil’s Bridge, one of Sedona’s most popular and most photographed destinations. This beautiful natural sight is a 54-foot (16.4-meter) tall sandstone bridge that you can walk across if you’re not afraid of heights. You’ll be able to enjoy the stunning scenery in the Coconino National Forest, including red cliffs and wildflowers.

5. Alkali Flat Trail – White Sands National Park, New Mexico

This 5-mile (8-km) loop trail is a fantastic way to experience the surreal dunes in White Sands National Park in the state of New Mexico. The trail traverses the expansive dunefield with unforgettable views of this unique desert landscape. You’ll also see the Alkali Flat, the dry lakebed of Lake Otero. Make sure to navigate carefully here using the marker posts, as there is no vegetation.

6. The Narrows Trail – Zion National Park, Utah

The Narrows hike is one of the top things to do in Zion National Park and one of the top slot canyon hikes in the world. This gorge features the lovely Virgin River and canyon walls towering 1,000 feet (305m) above you. You’ll need to wade or swim to cross certain areas, making this a refreshing hike in the hot summer months. In the spring, the trail is sometimes closed due to unsafe water levels. The trail is about 9 miles (14.5km) from Bottom Up to Big Springs and is considered challenging. Make sure to check flash flood potential before your trip, as this trail becomes very dangerous during floods.

7. Wasson Peak via King Canyon and High Norris Trail – Saguaro National Park, Arizona

This moderate loop trail takes you to the top of Wasson Peak, the tallest summit in the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park. You’ll hike along ridgelines and enjoy stunning desert vistas, followed by views of Tucson and the Santa Catalina Mountains at the top. The trail is 7.9 miles (12.7km) long and considered moderate in difficulty.

8. Calico Hills Trail – Red Rock Canyon, Nevada

Calico Hills Trail is an amazing way for desert hiking enthusiasts to explore Nevada’s incredible Red Rock Canyon. You’ll have the chance to see the area’s towering red rock formations and enjoy a gorgeous view of the city of Las Vegas. The 6.4-mile (10.3-km) trail is challenging and requires some rock scrambling along a ridgeline. As a result, it’s only recommended for those comfortable with heights and exposure.

9. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes Trail – Death Valley National Park, California

This classic hike in Death Valley National Park is an easy way to begin desert hiking and experience some of the park’s most beautiful natural features. The 2.8-mile (4.8-km) trail offers views of expansive sand dunes and rugged mountains in the distance. Death Valley holds the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded on earth. Avoid hiking this trail after 10 am in the summer, and try to go in the winter months if possible.

10. The Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop Trail – Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

This easy 2.9-mile (4.6-km) trail is the most popular hike in Bryce Canyon National Park. Hikers on the Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop Trail can enjoy breathtaking views of the Bryce Amphitheater from the canyon rim. The trail also winds through surreal rock formations known as hoodoos, allowing hikers to get a closer look. Parts of the trail are closed in winter due to icy conditions, so head to Bryce Canyon in the spring, summer, or fall if you want to hike the whole length of this beautiful trail.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Conclusion

Desert hiking is a difficult but highly rewarding way to experience the world’s arid landscapes. Although it comes with a unique set of challenges, hiking and backpacking in the desert can be safe activities with the right preparation and knowledge. Planning your trip carefully, following the tips in this post, and remaining aware while you’re on the trail can go a long way in contributing to a safe and enjoyable desert hiking adventure.

 


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