Tips for Hiking in the Desert

Paul and I recently got back from a short trip along the Arizona Trail.  Although only February, we still had to contend with heat, exposure, and lack of water.  We may have gone in slightly overconfident, but the desert quickly humbled us.  Despite having spent much of my life in the desert and hiking through 700 miles of desert on the PCT, even just a short desert hike can be a reminder to never underestimate this harsh climate and never overestimate myself.  

Hiking in the desert is all about water.  Not only is water more scarce, but the climate demands that you consume more of it than you might usually.  Here are a few tips for staying safe while hiking in the desert.  



Start Hydrated/Camel Up

The best thing you can do before you start your desert hike is drink plenty of water beforehand so you start out well hydrated.  That means the day before you start, make sure you are drinking plenty.  You don’t have to chug massive amounts of water, but bear in mind that most people don’t drink enough on a day to day basis.  

I also never pass up the opportunity to “camel up.”  If I pass a water source I wasn’t expecting and still have enough water to get to the next source, I’ll still stop and drink a liter from the source.  I get to rehydrate without adding weight to my pack, and I have to worry a little less about conserving water to make it to the next source.  If I am camping near a water source, I make sure to drink plenty before bed and before we leave in the morning.

Don’t Forget the Salt

Have you heard that drinking too much water can be bad for you?  That’s because drinking massive amounts of water can dilute the levels of salt in your body, a condition known as hyponatremia, which can be very dangerous.  Sodium is further depleted through sweat.  There are simple solutions for this.  Eat salty snacks if you find yourself sweating a lot and drinking a lot of water.  Alternatively, you could add some gatorade powder to your water.  This has the added benefit of masking any off tastes present in those less than desirable water sources.  




Monitor Your Pee

We’ve all heard the guidelines for hydration: drink if you are thirsty.  Sometimes in the desert that just isn’t enough.  You might be well hydrated but feel thirsty simply because it is so hot out.  You might not feel particularly thirsty but in fact are not consuming enough water.  In the desert, the best way to monitor your hydration is by monitoring your pee. You should be peeing 4-10 times per day.  Your pee should be light in color.  Dark yellow urine or the absence of urination means you need more water.  Drink up.  On our most recent hike, despite drinking 4 liters of water and not feeling thirsty, I got to camp and realized I was peeing for the first time all day.  That’s not good.  Fortunately we camped near a water source so I was able to camel up through the night and get adequately hydrated for the next day.  I consumed 6 liters the next day and peed every couple hours.  


Monitor Body Heat

Heat exhaustion is a very real threat while hiking in the heat and can easily lead to heat stroke, a life-threatening condition.  Dehydration can exacerbate this because water is an important part of regulating body temperature.  Because exercise increases the body temperature, it is important to slow down when hiking in the heat.  If you or someone in your party is becoming weak, nauseous, has muscle cramps, a headache or a rapid pulse, it is important to act immediately.  Seek shade.  Large boulders and even small shrubs can provide tremendous relief.  An umbrella or a tarp can be rigged up to provide some artificial shade.  Stop moving and rest.  Rehydrate with water and snacks.  Rest some more.  Wait out the worst heat and start moving when the sun is no longer directly overhead.  Wait until dusk if need be.  Walking at night drains a lot less water from your body than walking under the sun.  If the person becomes confused, loses consciousness, or is unable to drink water, this is a medical emergency and help should be sought immediately.  




Carry a Little Extra

Water is heavy.  It sucks to carry a lot of it.  Typically, distance hikers prefer to carry just enough water to get to the next source.  Unfortunately, in the desert, when there are often 10-20+ mile stretches without water, this strategy can turn dangerous quickly.  If you get injured, or lost, or move slower than planned, or the source has dried up, you can find yourself in a dangerous situation very quickly.  An extra liter or two weighs 2-4 pounds, but it can mean the difference between life and death.  


Have a Backup Plan

I always try to have a plan if the next source is dry or something goes wrong.  That might include turning back and returning to the previous source.  It might mean heading to the nearest road.  Or, it might mean waiting in the shade until dark and hiking at night to get to the next water.  Same goes for getting lost.  I would never wander around in the heat of the day, depleting my water, getting overheated and dehydrated.  I’d wait in the shade, make a plan, and execute once the heat subsides.  




Bring a Partner

It’s totally possible to have a safe and fun solo trip in the desert.  But, having a partner around definitely increases your level of safety.  My husband tends to overheat a lot more easily than I do, so I make sure to remind him to drink or slow down when he might not remember.  The one time he did get heat exhaustion, he rested in the shade while I monitored his condition.  If things get really bad, your partner can seek help for you.  


Hiking through the desert is a beautiful but harsh endeavor.  With the proper precautions it is totally safe, but remember never to underestimate the desert.  Happy Hiking.