Desert hiking is rewarding, enjoyable, and not that different from your regular hike. As with any other hiking trip, you simply have to be more attentive to the specific needs of the local climate and geography.
When visualizing deserts, people often imagine vast landscapes full of sand dunes. Deserts of the world are a lot more diverse than that mental picture. Just look at a few images of the Sonoran Desert and the Mojave Desert, and you’ll see the vibrance these places offer.
Given the diversity of deserts, it is understandable that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Yet, there are common underlying ideas that can come in handy for desert hiking.
Here are 13 tips to get you in tune with desert hiking.
1. Drink Water, And Then Drink Some More!
Staying well-hydrated is the key to good health. And it’s all the more important when you’re hiking in a desert. When you are at a source of water, drink as much as you can. Never leave a water source while you’re still thirsty.
After this, fill up your water bottle. Know how much water for desert hiking is necessary, and always carry more than what you think you’ll need. It’s a good idea to use insulated water bottles like a Hydro Flask, since they’ll prevent the water from getting warm to match the ambient temperature.
If Hydro Flask seems too expensive, consider cheaper Hydro Flask alternatives. They can be more economical while fulfilling our need for insulated water bottles.
We also always recommend bringing water filtration systems so that you can refill water at nearly any source. Gravity filters, tablets, or straws are fantastic options. Know where your water sources are ahead of time if you are on a long distance or overnight hike.
2. Start Early, Stop Late, Rest In Between
Start your hike as early as you can. Starting in the morning when the weather is cooler is the way to go. As the sun rises further up, walking can get quite unpleasant. It isn’t a smart idea to continue the hike with the midday sun bearing down on you.
By late morning, the heat will show its effects and continuing onwards will get rather tiring. At this point, it’s a good idea to stop, set up camp, and rest for a while. Hikers have their own ideas on what to do with this time, but it usually involves having lunch and catching an hour or two of sleep.
After the siesta, and as the afternoon moves towards the evening, the temperature will go down a bit. Now’s your time to start hiking again, and make the best of it while daylight’s still available.
3. Look For Shade When You Can
When you’re looking for rest on your hike, always choose areas with shade. It doesn’t matter if it’s provided by a rock or a bush. Take the shade even if it’s a tree with thin foliage. This is a welcome respite from the direct sun and can feel very pleasing.
If no natural shade is available, create some by setting up your tent. Putting up a bivy with the rainfly is better than no shade at all. Some hikers include umbrellas in their desert hiking gear to stay out of the direct sun.
4. Replenish Electrolytes And Salts
When you sweat, you lose not just water, but also some salts. Drinking water alone won’t replenish those salts and electrolytes. So find a way to get some salts and electrolytes into your body during the hike.
Replacing drinking water with something like Gatorade could do the trick, but that only works for short hikes. For longer trips, consider jerky, trail mix, and dried fruits. All of these provide quick nutrition, salts, and are delicious snacks. Take a look at our best hiking foods guide.
5. Carry An Extra Water Filter
Some hikes might demand the use of portable water filters that can ensure that the water is potable. Check that the filter you intend to use is suitable for your hiking area. The quality of available water sources and the filtration you need will be the guiding principles.
Water sources in deserts are sparse and their quality can vary depending on the time of the year. So it’s always a good idea to study the available sources and set reasonable expectations. Given their scarcity, water pools can often be muddy or stagnated.
A water filter is an essential item in these situations – and it will be working overtime. So, carry an extra filter that you can fall back on, in case the first filter gives up. Many will choose filtration tablets as a backup in case something happens to your main water filter.
6. Respect The Water Sources And Be Careful Around Them
As we said, water sources in deserts can be muddy and stagnated. Hikers definitely don’t need to add more to the problem. Avoid putting your sweaty or dirty hands and feet in the water. Don’t litter. And if you have to relieve yourself, be at least 200 feet away from a water source. In fact, go further still!
The same principle applies to setting up a tent near a water source. Keep a distance of at least 200 feet. This is better for the environment, and we firmly believe you should follow leave no trace principles.
7. Know The Signs Of Heat-Related Illnesses
Hot temperatures and physical exhaustion can easily turn into more serious conditions. Since hikers will often find themselves away from civilization and possibly hours away from help, it makes sense to be better prepared and more careful.
Recognizing signs of heat-related illnesses and problems is essential. Getting a hold of these symptoms might allow you to take preventive measures, or call for help before the problem gets any worse.
8. Use Sunscreen And/Or Sunblock
When going out in the desert, it makes sense to use sunblock or sunscreen. Use a broad-spectrum sunblock, which is at least SPF15. Apply it liberally, but avoid having it so greasy that dust sticks to you. The sunscreen should be applied to every part of the body exposed to the sun, including the ears.
You should check out our complete guide to the best sunscreens for hiking before heading into the desert!
9. Use Proper Desert Hiking Clothes And Layer Up
We’ve been talking of how hot deserts get, but they can get pretty cold and do that rather rapidly. The temperature shifts between day and night can be huge, so expect hot sweltering days and chilly nights. You should be prepared for both extremities.
Avoid wearing light cotton clothes. Go for synthetic, sweat-wicking materials instead. They’ll do a much better job of keeping you dry and comfortable. The same principle applies to socks. While you’re at it, choose socks that provide good ankle and arch support, so the long walks can be more comfortable.
Desert hiking boots are largely similar to conventional hiking boots. You might be able to forego the waterproofing, but you’ll want something comfortable and capable of handling the rugged terrain.
Change out of your sweaty clothes at night, and wear fresh and clean clothes. Remember, it’s likely to get cold, so layer up to stay warm and comfy.
10. Be Mindful Of Your Surroundings And Stay Alert
While walking through the day, it’s quite natural to think of putting on some headphones and listening to some songs or a podcast while you hike. It’s understandable but never cover both your ears. You must remain aware of your surroundings, and sometimes, audible cues can be lifesavers.
While wildlife is scant in deserts, there’s still plenty of creatures living there. For example, you definitely don’t want to miss a rattlesnake warning you to stay away. Generally speaking, snakes avoid humans and aren’t a huge threat. Yet, it wouldn’t be advisable to cluelessly wander somewhere you’re not supposed to be.
11. Leave Your Itinerary With Someone Else
As with any hiking you do, you should always let a friend or relative know where you’ll be, your scheduled route, and when they should expect to hear from you again. While this is a simple item, it could save your life in the event of an emergency. This is applicable to all hiking and backpacking situations.
12. Bring Eye Protection
You’ll be in the sun a lot. In the desert, you often experience a lack of shade like few other places have. This makes it extra important to have sunglasses to protect your eyes, and make your hiking more enjoyable. Not only are sunglasses necessary for the sun, but desert hiking brings dry climates, where wind can bring up and throw a lot of sand and debris. You’ll want eye protection in these scenarios.
13. Make A Gear Checklist
This also applies to all types of hiking, but here are some essential items and very helpful items for desert hikes.
Desert Hiking Gear Checklist:
- Sunscreen & Lip balm with SPF
- Wide-brimmed hat for sun protection
- Proper Amount of Water & Water Storage
- Water Filtration System
- Wicking Clothing Layers: Shirt, Pants, Underwear, Jacket, Rain Jacket, Socks, Buff/Bandana, Hiking Boots, Gaiters, Extra Socks, Extra Underwear, Extra Shirt, Gloves
- First Aid Kit & Knowledge on First Aid
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about