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Desert Hiking Advice

Updated on July 15, 2017
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I have enjoyed hiking for many years, so I enjoy sharing what I know and tips about places to hike.

A red sand desert near Monument Valley, AZ, photo by author
A red sand desert near Monument Valley, AZ, photo by author

What To Expect

Though hot, dry and prone to sudden, turbulent weather, the American Southwest attracts millions of visitors every summer. In fact, two of the five most visited national parks can be found not far from the Arizona-Utah state line, just a few hundred miles apart. In case you're interested they are Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks.

Hiking trails of all varieties of difficulty abound in this region and so every summer large number of hikers head out into the wilds for fun and adventure. To avoid coming back with more adventure than you planned for, here are a few things you might want to be aware of.

Cooling Waters

The Virgin River near Rockville, UT is great for a cool dip, but not for drinking, photo by author
The Virgin River near Rockville, UT is great for a cool dip, but not for drinking, photo by author

Water Is Everything

Number one thing you need to be concerned with is water, especially in the super-hot summer months. Don't depend on fresh-water springs, as they are undependable and can carry unfriendly micro-organisms such as Giardia. Bring your own water in a spill-proof and puncture-proof container and make sure you have at least a half gallon for a half-day hike.

Grand Canyon at Dawn

Early risers will be rewarded with views like this,
Early risers will be rewarded with views like this, | Source

Get An Early Start

The first hours of daylight are the coolest time of the day, so you want to take advantage of this and hit the trail as early as possible. And another good rule of thumb, don't tackle the impossible. Limit your period of physical activity to six hours or less, so you can finish your hike by early afternoon. Then you can spend the hottest part of the day doing something different, like relaxing in a cool river or even an air-conditioned restaurant, reminiscing about your successful day's outing.

Sun Protection Can Still Be Stylish (but you gonna need a better shirt and boots.....and the pants are not advised)

Even a Crocodile Dundee hat can provide good protection against the elements
Even a Crocodile Dundee hat can provide good protection against the elements | Source

Beware The Relentless Sun

Though not as important as staying hydrated, dressing to provide protection from the ever-present Southwestern sun is still essential. The most important item for this is your hat, for you are definitely going to need one. Baseball caps and such are better than nothing, but even better are the broad full-rimmed "desert hats" that have a brim that goes all the way around the head.

Many Cowboys hats would work fine in these situations, as they were originally designed to provide protection from the elements. Beside a good hat, sunscreen is strongly advised. And if you are particularly sun sensitive, you might consider wearing long khaki pants. In some cases, a lightweight long-sleeved shirt might be in order.

Thunderheads Building

This Maynard Dixon painting depicts the prevalence of thunderheads in the Southwest desert
This Maynard Dixon painting depicts the prevalence of thunderheads in the Southwest desert

There May Be Thunderstorms, Too

Through the efforts of Ferde Grofe' (composer for Grand Canyon Suite) and other creative artists, the world is aware of the beauty of a Southwestern cloudburst. Witnessed from a safe place these displays of nature are an awesome thing to watch. And then again, if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, events could turn out much worse, for flash flooding claims scores of lives every year across the nation. Many of these occur in the narrow canyons of the Southwest.

First of all, be prepared for rain and bring along a lightweight poncho. Some experienced desert hikers even back a small, durable umbrella. Though thunderstorms can occur anytime time during the warmer months, mid to late summer is the busiest season. If it rains, you want to stay dry, so it is best to seek shelter during the thunderstorm.

Flash flooding is a special concern if you are hiking along canyon bottoms. Watch the weather and seek higher ground, if a hear a distance rumbling that sounds like a far-off train. Once in Northern New Mexico I witnessed a flash flood that came down a dry arroyo and backed up the Rio Grande for a half a mile. So have plenty of respect for Mother Nature.

Map and Compass

A map and compass should always be carried, just in case,
A map and compass should always be carried, just in case, | Source

Trail Maps Are Essential

One nice thing about hiking in the desert country is that due to a lack of heavy tree cover, your view of the country is quite extensive. Don't let this lull you into a state of complicity, for you can still turned around and lose your bearings, especially in flat country.

So to avoid getting loss and eventually having a personal survival story that makes the pages of Reader's Digest, bring along a good trail map and compass. And by good trail map, I mean one that has not only the trail locations, but also contour lines, which can give you a rough ideal of topography. And then during the course of your little stroll, stop every now and then and check your location on the map. If contour maps are a foreign language to you, it might be a good investment of your time to take a map reading and orientation class.

Know Your Limitations

Some of the most rewarding hikes are those that climb several thousand feet to mountain peaks or canyon rims, where miles and miles of pristine desert landscape are visible in all directions. Make sure you are in shape before attempting a climb like this. If have done a lot of hiking in recent years, you will have a pretty good idea of how much your body can manage. This is done by comparing distance in miles to elevation gain in feet. For example, climbing 1,000 feet in four miles might be rated a moderate hike, while gaining 2,000 feet in three miles is definitely a strenuous hike.

Don't tackle more than you can handle. If you are visiting one specific place, you might start off with some shorter walks, then work your way up to the bigger hikes.

Though ominous in appearance, this is the non-venomous Ground Snake
Though ominous in appearance, this is the non-venomous Ground Snake | Source

Know Thy Poisonous Reptiles

Few animals strike as much fear in hikers, as the rattlesnake. and unfortunately the western deserts have quite a few. On the other hand these reptiles, also known as pit vipers, mostly hunt at night and are not as aggressive towards the human race as some sources (like Hollywood) suggest. Still, if you step on one sleeping in the shade, they will strike back.

And if you happen to encounter one on the trail, the most common scenario is that the rattler will coil and rattle and you will get out of the way as fast as possible. Then both parties will go their own way.

Tips for Hiking in the Desert

The Desert Life Zones

The American deserts run along the Mexican-U.S. border from Texas to California, stretching northwards to include parts of Colorado, Nevada and Utah. A desert is usually defined by rainfall. In the Southwest, there are many places that receive less than 10 inches of rain. These are the true deserts. A biologists might refer to these places as the Lower Sonoran Life Zone and then sub-divide all this area into the Sonoran, Mojave and Chihuahuan deserts.

Intermixed with these places are Upper Sonoran Life Zones, where a distinct forest cover of juniper, pinyon pine and sometimes Ponderosa pine can be found. These forest areas dominate the higher mesas and ridges. Hikers, who spend a lot of time hiking in the Southwest, might enjoy learning the more common plants of each life zone.

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