Dry but delightful: Hiking in the desert

Hiking in the desert

By Lynley Joyce

Deserts are dry, dangerous and often barren. So why would anyone go hiking in the desert?

It’s because deserts can also be stunningly beautiful with a wide range of plants and wildlife tenaciously hanging on to the rugged and sometimes dramatic landscape.

Desert trails

Hiking in the desert 2If you are considering hiking in the desert, the United States hosts some of the world’s best desert walking trails, and there are plenty to choose from. Most are in the Southern and Western states. Popular spots include Big Bend’s Outer Mountain Trail in Texas, just about anywhere around the Grand Canyon and national parks such as Canyonlands, Arches and Zion in Utah.

The United States haven’t cornered the market on desert walks, though. Australia boasts some scenic routes through its red centre. There is the Larapinta trail in the Northern Territory, the McDonnell Ranges and Kings Canyon, to name a few.

For adventurous travelers to Africa, the Namibian desert offers many hiking in the desert options ranging from gentle strolls to challenging treks. South America’s deserts also include some desert hiking trails.

Water

Water, or rather the lack of it, is obviously the biggest issue when walking in desert or semi-arid areas. Hikers usually need to carry all their own water. There’s no way to get around it: it’s heavy, so most people only do shorter desert hikes. Each person needs at least a gallon/ 4 litres every day, or up to 1 ½ gallons / 6 litres if it’s hot. Most people could only carry enough for a two day hike at most. Many people stick with day walks or shorter walks. For longer walks with no reliable water sources along the way, hikers have to organise water caches to collect every second day or so.

Check with locals such as national park rangers if there are local water sources that can be used for drinking. Some deserts may have springs, oases or other water sources but they can dry out. Just about all water in the desert should be purified by tablets and/or filtering. Take sterilisation tablets or a filter with an iodine resin. Desert rivers, such as the Colorado River, can be silty and so difficult to purify. Some water sources may also have contaminants which filtering cannot remove.

Ironically, when it does rain in deserts it can lead to dangerous flash flooding. Dry river beds are not the place to pitch a tent. They can flood if there is rain anywhere in the catchment.

Hiking in the desert: Be prepared

As well as having enough water, desert hikers must know a bit about the area they are going in to. They need to take good topographical maps, a compass and maybe an EPIRB or similar. It can be easy to get lost in the big wide world, and the lack of water makes this super dangerous. Most of us can last a while as long as we keep warm and have water. People can die from dehydration in just days.

It’s important to be prepared even if just planning a quick foray in to the desert. Just about every day the rangers in the Grand Canyon National Park have to rescue people who have taken on more than they bargained for.

Time it

Avoid deserts in summer as they are way too hot. Many deserts and semi-arid areas can be delightful in spring when wildflowers bloom. It’s worth researching the best time for hiking for specific areas.

If it is hot, consider walking early in the morning, resting during the middle of the day in the shade, and walking again in the late afternoon and evening. As well as escaping the worst of the heat and glare from the sun, the sideways sunlight and shadows can add to the landscape.

Some places are good for moonlit walks, if the tracks are clear. For example, some of the shorter hikes in Utah’s Arches National Park can be amazing by moonlight.

Keep the energy up

Most hikers crave salty and protein rich food. There are salt tablets but most people use a hot hike as an excuse to get stuck in to the salty snacks we should avoid most of the time. Too much salt though can lead to extra thirst and the need to carry more water. Nuts, most seeds or legumes, salami or meat jerky are great protein rich foods.

Sun and heat

When you go hiking in the desert, expect heat and glaring sunlight during the day but it can get extremely cold at night in deserts due to the lack of cloud cover. Campers may be able to skimp on wet weather gear and a full tent in a desert, but they should be prepared for cold.

Cover up with light weight and light coloured clothes to both block the sun and to reduce evaporation. Light long sleeved shorts and trousers are probably the best way to go. They provide protection during the day and can help with warmth at night.

Sunglasses are essential. Take tape to repair them if needed – usually medical tape from a first aid kit will do the job. Deserts tend to be windy places, and sunglasses can help prevent grit and dust in eyes.

Sun screen is another must. Even when wearing a hat, it can help protect skin from wind burn and the dryness. It’s also a good idea to take a decent moisturiser – maybe the end of a tube so as to not carry too much extra.

If someone does overheat, find a shady sport, rest and drink plenty of water.

Further Information:

The following are links to some additional information available online:

http://www.desert-survivors.org/des_hike.html

http://www.desertusa.com/

http://www.outdoorgearlab.com/Backpacking-Water-Filter-Reviews

http://www.epirb.com/

Multiple Contributor at | Website

Lynley Joyce lives on the outskirts of Hobart, Tasmania, Australia with her family and a variety of other wildlife. She loves to camp and hike in her home territory of Tasmania, though she has been sighted on walks in other parts of Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Europe. Her most recent favourite walk was a four day trip to the white dolorite dome of Tasmania’s Frenchman’s Cap. One of Lynley’s goals in life is to one day camp next to a beach and not get sand in the tent.

20 thoughts on “Dry but delightful: Hiking in the desert

  • January 22, 2019 at 3:36 pm
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    I haven’t tried hiking in the desert. As far as my friends told me, you really need to train prior to hiking. Also, make sure you have a reliable compass and a good sturdy water bottle. It’s hard to get water in the desert so make sure you have adequate amounts.

    Reply
  • January 22, 2019 at 1:55 pm
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    This is a great resource. I live in Utah and we see fatalities every year because people aren’t prepared (in all seasons). It’s okay to be in the desert, but it’s not okay to underestimate what its capable of. This is a great roundup of some practical ways of preparing without being hyperbolic. Thanks for putting this together!

    Reply
  • January 21, 2019 at 7:16 pm
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    We are in California and deserts are very familiar to us. Last one we visited was Death Valley, but we have also been hiking at Mojave, Joshua Tree NP and others. I agree with you, being prepared is the key. Plenty of water, sun hat and sun screen etc. Deserts can be beautiful but also dangerous. But we love nature and finding out about desert plants and animals. Zion, Canyonlands and Arches which you mentioned were AMAZING!

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  • January 21, 2019 at 6:26 pm
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    I have never been to a desert although there is this great Thar desert right here in India. The landscapes just allure me- it is so much cinematic. I love your tips on hiking in the desert. Water will be a problem for sure, also walking in the sand is difficult. Very practical tips. Inspires me to go for it.

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  • January 21, 2019 at 2:35 pm
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    Yet another great idea and a place of hiking which you would normally think about , the desert. Like you have mentioned you need to prepare well specially timing and weather. Guess only sensible to trek early hours and not when the sun is at its brightest. There can be some great visuals thus the price you pay will be certainly worth it. Thanks for sharing

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  • January 21, 2019 at 3:53 am
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    This is some great advice for hiking in the desert. The desert can indeed be very beautiful. We sometimes hike in Arizona in winter, when the weather is cooler. I’d love to try some of the scenic routes in Australia.

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  • January 21, 2019 at 1:28 am
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    You have shared some really good tips to consider in mind if you are planning to hike in desert. Timing it up and keeping yourself hydrated are really important. You are so brave to have done this. I am not sure if I could do this.

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  • January 20, 2019 at 10:09 pm
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    I felt tired just from reading this post Lynley! As a newbie hiker, I don’t think I can do a desert walk just yet! Great tips however on using tablets to purify desert water; this was so new to me. Also, I’ve never heard of salt tablets, but can imagine I’d need more water to quench my thirst! Definitely a useful post for experienced hikers.

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  • January 20, 2019 at 8:56 pm
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    I have never hiked in a desert. There are excellent tips in this article for all hikers in the desert from newbies to regulars. I did not realise that amount of water that needed to be carried. Thanks for the information.

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  • June 8, 2017 at 11:05 am
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    You are so brave that you hike in the desert. I always think it’s so dangerous because you may have so many problems there. This post has so many useful tips that I will consider putting this activity in my bucket list.

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  • June 8, 2017 at 10:41 am
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    These are great tips and useful advice for those who are new to hiking in the desert! I have never done it myself, and would love to do it one day, and it’s important to be prepared for whatever situation may happen. And obviously bring lots of water!

    Reply
  • June 8, 2017 at 9:46 am
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    I am a huge fan of hiking and go as much as we can but we usually do day hikes. Love your tips and I can relate to a few, especially about the water. That is a good point about checking with locals if there are local water sources

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  • June 7, 2017 at 4:08 pm
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    These are some awesome tips for what you need on a desert hike. I would find it hard to carry so much water for a 2 day hike. I would love doing a shorter walk though. Will have to check out where I can do something like this on my next trips

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  • June 7, 2017 at 3:05 pm
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    We love hiking but have never had the opportunity to hike in the desert, you’ve listed some awesome tips in this post. I bet it’s quite a different experience hiking in such a dry climate, and a gallon of water a day! wow! must be heavy to carry but as you say, it’s absolutely vital.

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  • June 7, 2017 at 1:04 pm
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    Good tips about hiking in the dessert. I could totally see people doing this unprepared and ending up in big trouble. As I drink immense amounts of water on a normal day I think I would need a camel LOL but I would love to try the tablets one day.

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  • June 7, 2017 at 9:40 am
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    You are very brave as you survived the heat and dry climate of desert. Hiking in desert is really very sportive and enduring. Having lots of water is most important here as you cannot find rivers flowing or streams from where we can drink. I also live very close to the desert but never been for hiking there because of the heat.

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  • June 7, 2017 at 4:13 am
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    Wow! A gallon of water a day? Hauling that around would be such a workout in addition to the desert hike! I’m not much of a hiker, but I’m glad to read these tips in case I’m ever in the desert traveling.

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  • March 19, 2017 at 11:43 am
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    I’ve never hiked in the desert, maybe I can do that this fall. Great article with good points.

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  • December 27, 2016 at 4:52 am
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    What a helpful article especially since I have never hiked in such a dry climate ! Great tips as we are hoping to put in some miles in the desert in the near future hopefully!

    Reply
  • December 27, 2016 at 1:01 am
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    This is a great resource. I live in Utah and we see fatalities every year because people aren’t prepared (in all seasons). It’s okay to be in the desert, but it’s not okay to underestimate what its capable of. This is a great roundup of some practical ways of preparing without being hyperbolic. Thanks for putting this together!

    Reply

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