Five Tips for Safe Desert Hiking

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The desert is extremely beautiful and complex place. When many people think of the desert they think of places like the Sahara, the Gobi and the Mojave. Each desert is unique and distinctly different. They are marvelous places to explore, but hikers need to be aware of extreme temperature fluctuations, desert-specific logistics, and more to pull off a successful desert trek. Here are five tips to help.

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Spring is an ideal time to explore the desert. All images: Adam Nutting

1. Plan – Planning is essential, regardless of the length of your trip. Knowing where water might be along the trail, the quality of the water and knowing how much water fell during the wet season can help you know how much water to pack. It can also help you refill if needed. Having an idea of the types of elevation changes you will experience will help you pack the proper clothing for the temperature differences as well as help forecast the temperatures and weather.

2. Take the proper gear – Desert temperatures fluctuate wildly. At night it can get bitter cold and days can be extremely hot. Popup windstorms can cause sand storms that hinder visibility and flash flooding due to rain storms that appear out of nowhere can also occur. The right gear can help eliminate (or at least mitigate) eliminate some of the hazards. Always carry a first aid kit, warm layers, rain protection, emergency communication device like your cell phone, and lots of water. Snacks, proper footwear, sunglasses and protective clothing like hats will also help.

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3. Stay Alert —Watch for signs of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Common symptoms include headaches, thirst and a lack of sweat. Watching your feet is also important to make sure you do not step or walk into cacti. Also watch out for rattlesnakes and other animals that might threaten you. Shake out your boots and clothing really well before putting them on if they are taken off for any periods of time. Also make sure to look for desert flowers, birds, and rock formations.

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4. Inform friends and family — Let the folks at home know where you are going, how long you will be gone for and when you expect to be back. Also provide information such as the make and model of vehicle you left at the trailhead, the color and types of clothing you are wearing as well as backpack color etc. All of this information can help if something happens to you while on your hike. Whether you’re going for an hour or for days, anything can happen in the desert.

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5. Stay hydrated — Staying hydrated is critical in the desert. Drinking plenty of water before, during and after will help you enjoy the trip. I aim to down a liter of water before I start out on my desert hikes. Carry a half-liter for each mile you plan to hike. (Bring a minimum of two liters always…to safeguard against dehydration.) Water will add a considerable amount of weight to your pack, but it’s important. The best way to keep track on your water intake is to watch how often you urinate and the color. Use the old saying “clear and copious” to measure that if you are urinating often and the color is clear you are staying hydrated. The opposite is that you are not urinating often and the color is a yellow to golden color. The color is a good sign for dehydration, heat stroke, and heat exhaustion. Also watch out for headaches, dizziness, and you stop sweating. Any of these symptoms are cause for you to stop hiking, hydrate and in severe cases find help.

If you follow these rules for hiking in the desert you will have fun and see an amazing beautiful landscape that compares to no place else. How do you prepare for your desert adventures?

Adam Nutting launched Hiking The Trail to chronicle his Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2013; the trip was sidelined 200 miles in, but the award-winning journal lives on. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. Follow him on Twitter at @hikingthetrail.


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