Arizona Hiking Safety Tips
Arizona is busy year-round, but there is a huge uptick in visitors during the winter months due to the fantastic weather. This also means people who have no idea what the climate and wildlife are like.
Arizona attracts people from around the world because it has some of the best hiking trails. In Phoenix, Camelback Mountain alone attracts more than 700,000 hikers annually. Every year Arizonans hear news stories of people being rescued, near death, or who have died on the area trails and mountains. In 2016, there were 279 rescues in the Phoenix area alone. Locals, like me, often shake our heads wishing hikers understood basic Arizona facts that could genuinely save their lives. With that in mind, I will address some of the nuances of Arizona and then address some things you can do to safely hike in Arizona.
Late spring, summer, and early autumn are a challenge in Arizona as the temperatures can become stifling. On the desert floor, it gets hot! Temperatures can range from the 80s in the mornings to a sizzling 100º to 120º Fahrenheit in the afternoons. The desert has a dry heat until monsoon season which runs from July through mid-September. This raises the dew point and the danger factor. People are often unprepared and are quickly overcome by the heat. Mountain temperatures range from the 20s to the upper 90s depending on altitude.
Late autumn, winter, and early spring are cooler. The humidity wains and refreshing temperatures follow. Temperatures range from the tolerable 90s down to 30s (usually at night). Mountain temperatures range from below zero up into the lower 80s in the cooler areas.
Never head out for a hike without having the essentials. Too often hikers head out on a cool morning only to find an hour later the temperature is 10 degrees hotter. It can happen that fast. Or they may take a hike after a big rain when suddenly they are caught up in a flash flood. There are some simple things you can do to keep you and your loved ones safe.
- Always have plenty of water! I cannot stress this enough. Arizona is very dry even a simple stroll can dehydrate a person quickly. Use this water chart to gauge the water you will need. A back containing a water bladder can be very helpful for carrying larger amounts of water on your hike.
- Wear appropriate clothing. The sun is hot and you can burn quickly. Although it sounds counter intuitive it is best to wear a lightly colored long sleeve shirt. This will not only reflect the sun but allow for your body to retain more moisture as you hike and keep you from burning.
- Proper hiking boots or shoes not only give you better footing on the trails, but could potentially save you from injury. The desert is full of creatures and an array of cacti.
- A hat is also important. It will not protect your scalp from a bad burn and help keep your face shaded.
- Many people like to have a bandana or scarf to keep cooler. Sunglasses will also protect eyes from blowing dirt and sun.
- For longer hikes bring along a flashlight, matches, a cell phone, and some basic first aid items in case of an emergency.
- Stay out of dry river beds. Even when the weather does not look frightening. Earlier or current rain events occurring in the mountains or a higher elevation can create flash flood conditions and can quickly consume an area.
- A walking stick can help you keep steady on rocky trails and allows you to check bushy areas ahead of you for wildlife.
Arizona Wildlife Safety
There are several animals, insects, and reptiles to watch out for in Arizona, however with proper care and respect you can avoid having any real problems with them. This may seem like basic information, but it is easy to disregard it when you feel comfortable in a situation.
- Rattlesnake - Arizona has 13 species of rattlesnake which is more than any other state – Poisonous bite. Although there are a lot of snakes in Arizona I have seen only 1 or 2 in the decade and a half I have lived here. I have been here. But if you do see one just give it a wide berth and allow it to go on its way. Usually if you get too close they will rattle which will give you a heads up to where they are so you can move away. Also, stay on the trails and avoid rocky areas or bushes where they might hide or move out of the sun.
- Gila Monster – A protected species – Poisonous bite. Again, I have not seen one. They spend most of their time in burrows and are not very fast creatures. In other words, leave them alone and you will be fine.
- Africanized honey bee – AKA “killer bee” – A hybrid of African and domestic bees – Can cause anaphylactic shock. If swarmed stay calm. It is best to get indoors if possible but if not run straight and for about 200 yards or until safely away.
- Bark scorpion – Poisonous sting. Bark scorpions are one of 40 known species in Arizona. They like to hide under rocks or crawl into small spaces. At night, they hunt and may be found near water areas where bugs (their dinner) like to dwell. There have been no deaths in over 20 years according to the University of Arizona and a scorpion’s sting is easily treated with antivenin.
- Western coral snake – Blunt nose, black, yellow or white, and red encircling stripes –venomous. This small snake (13-24”) likes to stay hidden under leaves and sticks. It is not an aggressive snake and it is very reclusive.
- Banded desert and giant desert centipede – Painful bite that you may want to seek medical treatment for. Avoid if seen.
- Brown spiders – 5 species in AZ – Venom can cause aches and swelling, but can also cause a necrotic ulcer. These spiders are reclusive. Keep hands out of covered areas.
- Black widow – Red marks on back –Venomous. They like to sit on their webs or hide in crevices. They generally set up near a water source. Most bites happen because someone is messing with them, so leave them alone.
- Sonoran Desert toad – glands produce poison. Do not pick up a toad in the desert nor let your pet near them. Dogs and cats like to lick and mouth, it can make them very ill.
- Blister Beetle – excretes poison from joints that causes blistering. The general rule is to leave bugs alone. The blisters you receive from handling this bug are like that of poison ivy.
- Black Bear – The only Arizona bear. Do not feed bears, do not have open containers of food near bears. Do not run from a bear. Generally, these bears will stay away from humans.
- Kissing bug – AKA Assassin bug and conenose bug – Attracted by light and carbon dioxide – Can cause anaphylactic shock in some people and can transmit Chagas disease from an internal parasite.
- Mountain lion – AKA cougar or puma. Stay in groups if possible. Cougars like to pick out prey that is alone. Keep pets on a leash. Usually in wooded areas.
- Tarantula hawk – Sting is about equivalent to that of a bullet ant but only lasts about 3 minutes. These flying creatures are not aggressive but do not swat at them. If stung wait it out.
- Coyotes – Again, small animals should be left at home or leashed and keep children nearby. Coyotes generally are afraid of humans but have been known to bite when cornered.
- Wolves – generally only near the New Mexico border. Keep your distance and they will probably keep theirs.
Too many people do not consider all they will confront in Arizona. Consider these tips before heading out on that hike.
- Know your body. If you do not walk a lot at home, you probably will not be able to handle a long hike.
- As I said, if you walk down a trail you also have to come back. Think realistically about how far you can hike. If it is a mile than only walk half a mile in and then turn back.
- Arizona is full both beautiful and potentially painful things. Cactus are not plants to mess around with. Not only can they cause you pain, but they can also be hiding places or shade for some animals you may not want to run into. The jumping Cholla cactus will also make sure you are aware of its presence if you get too close. Why? Because they break off easily if touched and can be set adrift by the wind. It's not really scary in the desert, but be prepared for any scenario and you can enjoy hiking Arizona without worry. Mishaps can happen but they are less likely if you go into a hike both prepared and knowledgeable about your surroundings.