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7 Tips for Hiking in the Desert Southwest

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

Hiking in the desert doesn't have to be difficult. Here's some advice to get you started!

Hiking in the desert doesn't have to be difficult. Here's some advice to get you started!

What to Expect in the Desert

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.

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

1. Water Is Everything

The 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.

Bring a backup filtration device as well. Accidents do happen and people that find themselves lost in the desert won't last without clean water. A filtration pump or chemical treatment may work well for high-mineral content water that's found in dry deserts.

What About Electrolytes?

Electrolytes are dully important for staying healthy in the desert after a long hike. Electrolytes allow your cells to recover homeostasis after activity. If you're carrying a snack such as gummies or Gatorade with plenty of sugar and some salt, they will help you recover after a long walk.

What If I Start to Feel Sick?

It's important to recognize when you may have the beginnings of heat stroke or heat exhaustion. Exhaustion can occur when you're not drinking enough water or consuming enough electrolytes. Heatstroke happens when your body can't cool down quickly enough and your internal temperature is too high.

Heat Exhaustion Symptoms:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Weak, rapid pulse
  • Cramps
  • Low blood pressure
  • Headache

Heat Stroke Symptoms:

  • High body temperature
  • Altered mental state
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Red skin when your skin is protected from the sun
  • Fast breathing
  • Headache
  • Racing heart

The two conditions have similar but distinct symptoms and outcomes, so be aware and prepare accordingly.

Grand Canyon at Dawn: Early risers will be rewarded with views like this.

Grand Canyon at Dawn: Early risers will be rewarded with views like this.

2. 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.

Many people recommend hiking in the very early morning (think 4 am to 5 am) so that you're done with your hike well in advance of the heat of the day. Others recommend night hiking. This is an interesting option and likely only a good one on a familiar trail where you're not concerned about missing the view. Be extremely alert and look out for wildlife—animals know this is a good time to be awake, too.

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

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

3. Clothing: Beware the Relentless Sun

Dressing to provide protection from the ever-present Southwestern sun is essential. This means no short shorts and tank tops. The most important item for this is a wide-brimmed 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. Bring polarized sunglasses, too.

Many cowboy hats would work fine in these situations, as they were originally designed to provide protection from the elements. They can, however, be heavy. Opt for a lightweight safari-style hat with sun protection.

Besides a good hat, sunscreen is strongly advised. And if you're particularly sun-sensitive, you might consider wearing long khaki pants. In some cases, a lightweight long-sleeved shirt might be in order. I would wear an old lightweight dress shirt and khaki pants often. It's the best way to prevent a second-degree sunburn.

Wear Sunscreen and Lip Balm

Protect your lips; they will crack in the dry desert heat. Wear an SPF 50 or higher sunscreen of choice. No point in taking risks when you're trying to enjoy yourself.

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

A Note on Clothing In General

Pack layers that will allow you to stay cool and dry and then warm and dry as weather permits. If you see a storm rolling in, there's a chance things may get very chilly. Avoid cotton and be sure to carry a lightweight Gortex or similar waterproof jacket. Bring an extra pair of synthetic wool socks or something fast-wicking.

4. There May Be Thunderstorms, Too

Through the efforts of Ferde Grofé (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 or jacket. 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 half a mile. So have plenty of respect for Mother Nature.

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

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

5. 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 be turned around and lose your bearings, especially in the flat country.

So to avoid getting lost 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 idea of the 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.

Nowadays, there are some great GPS applications that work outside of service. TrailForks is one I'm particularly fond of. It's easily downloadable to your smartphone. I would not recommend relying on GPS solely; it's a great backup and easy-to-use method for navigating, but knowing how to read the land and use a map will be more helpful in a tricky situation.

Having a backup power bank is another good trick. Make your electronic devices last as long as you need so you can use your GPS and map simultaneously!

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

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

6. Know Your Limits

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.

If you see this guy on the trail, slowly back away.

If you see this guy on the trail, slowly back away.

7. Respect Desert Ecology

Few animals strike as much fear in hikers as the rattlesnake. Unfortunately, the western deserts have quite a few. Rattlesnakes are a variety of pit vipers and they mostly hunt at night. They're not as aggressive towards humans as some sources (like Hollywood) suggest. Still, if you step on one sleeping in the shade, they will strike back.

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. If the snake slithers across your path, seemingly without noticing you, stand very still. If you hear the infamous rattle of a snake's tail, listen carefully to identify where the rattle is coming from. Make no sudden movements, but do move in the opposite direction of the noise efficiently. If you see the snake and it sees you, be sure to always move away from it.

Then both parties will go their own way. Another element specific to the desert to watch out for are bio crusts.

What Are Biological Soil Crusts?

The Southwestern desert soil is made up of microbiomes just like other parts of the country. Specific to the Southwest are cryptogamic crusts or biological soil crusts. These small ecosystems are a combination of lichens, algae, and bacteria that all together maintain the integrity of the desert soil and prevent degradation. They are extremely delicate—do not step on them!

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. 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 about the more common plants of each life zone.

Whose Land Is It, Anyway?

Pay attention to who the land you're on belongs to! Native peoples (beginning with the Ancestral Puebloans) inhabited much of the Southwest until around 1200 AD. Ancestors of the ancients still live off the land. Respect cultural differences and values, and do a little reading about the land and people before you visit.

Happy and safe desert hiking!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.