Desert Hiking: Seven Essentials Safety Tips
Hiking in the desert makes for an entirely unique experience, a far cry from the usual mountainous terrains. There are some guidelines and safety tips:
Hiking in the desert can offer a completely unique experience, but one that must be approached with due caution and a little prior safety knowledge. One rule about a desert is that it’s always unpredictable. Water and shelter are scarce, and temperatures may swing widely from one part of the day or night to the next. There’s also a very good chance that you won’t see anyone else on your hike, and no one will stumble across your path by chance. Understand your limitations and plan accordingly.
Hiking, as all other adventure sports, should never be taken lightly, especially when you consider the harshness of the desert. There are certain safety measures and precautions that you need to keep in mind, every step of the way.
First Aid Kit
A basic first aid kit can be your best friend if minor cuts, scraps or other injuries occur. In the event of a major emergency, your first aid kit can be your lifeline. A basic kit may include: elastic bandages, Ace wraps, first aid tape, a pocket knife, itch relief stick, band aids, moleskin, over the counter anti-inflammatory or pain medications, antibiotic wipes, fire-starter (matches or a lighter), a small headlamp or flashlight, a whistle and a small roll of duct tape.
Extra Clothing and Rain Gear
When it comes to packing extra clothing, think layers. The weather up on a mountain is not always the same as it is down at the trailhead. You could ascend up to a windy ridge, or get stuck in an unexpected downpour. Avoid cotton, and opt for wool or polypropylene fabrics instead–I love Patagonia Capilene Expedition layers. And always keep a raincoat in your pack, even in sun-drenched August
Learn Hot Weather Exercise Safety
Hiking in the desert may make you more susceptible to a variety of heat-related illness including dehydration, heat exhaustion, sun stroke and heat stroke. If you know the warning signs of early heat illness and take quick action, you can often avoid a serious or life-threatening situation. Be a responsible desert hiker and learn the warning signs and basic treatments for the most common heat-related emergencies before you go.
Purchase a detailed topographic map of the region you’ll be hiking in. Study your route before your hike, then carry the relevant map(s) in your backpack, preferably in a large, waterproof ziplock (just fold it up to make it fit, or roll it into a tube). My favorite maps for Pacific Northwest trails are Green Trails Maps.
Water & Food
The most critical factor for survival in a desert environment is access to water. Desert heat can quickly lead to dehydration. Always carry extra water with you when driving, biking, or hiking. At least one gallon of water per day is recommended, especially in the summer. Food is important to boost both your morale and your energy. Keep emergency food, such as granola or energy bars, with you at all times.
If you linger too long over lunch at the viewpoint, you might find yourself hiking in the darkness back to your car. Always have a good light source in your pack, just in case. A simple Maglite will do, just remember to test it frequently and pack extra batteries.
While you may be tempted to wear sport sandals while hiking in the desert, sturdy hiking shoes or boots are recommended. Loose rock and gravel fills most of the side canyons and washes, and the ridge trails along the mountains are equally loose and rocky.