Water in the Desert

Trail Tales
Sand Dunes Near Barstow

Cover image: Sand Dunes near Barstow. All images: Sage Clegg. 

Walking in the desert can be incredibly rewarding, but comes with a unique set of challenges. The desert hiking learning curve has been rough on me, but thankfully I have never made a mistake that has made me piss blood or die. 


Hiking, camping, and traveling through deserts can be intimidating if you realize you realize how fragile a human is in a dry oven. Water planning is the most crucial part of a desert hike, and it can be tricky. Here are a few pointers to help you figure out your water needs during your next stroll in the desert.

1.     Know where water sources are. What can be expected from that source (is it reliable, machine operated, unreliable, or unknown?), and the distance between sources? Are there alternate sources nearby, but off your route?


Stay hydrated or die.

2.     Distance between sources. Distance in the desert can be quite relative. 20 miles of flat road walking takes my body less water than 10 miles of going straight up a summit (like Telescope Peak on the Low to High route in Death Valley). Take terrain into consideration when planning your water.


Cow pond on the Oregon Desert Trail.

3.     Pace. What is your expected pace between sources? Be realistic. If 20 miles in the mountains usually takes you 2 days, plan for 2 days. If 20 miles in the mountains takes you a day, plan for a day. What you don't want to do is plan for 3 days when you normally hike the 20 miles in 2 days. This means you will be carrying an entire extra day of water, which will crush you. Water is SO heavy!! It weighs 2.2 lbs per liter. Cary enough for your situation, and if you need more than you can carry, consider caching water (please research responsible cacheing techniques!! Don't trash our beautiful deserts!!!! Always carry your trash out with you & retrieve unused caches).


Gross water is still water. Just sayin'.

4.     Weather.  What kind of temperatures and weather are expected? Remember to check the WIND forecast too! Desert wind can dry you out just as quickly as an extra 10 degrees on the thermometer. Be ready for anything by considering the possibilities of what Mother Nature might throw across the desert during your trip. Even a 5-degree bump in temperature can increase your water demand, so take note of the daily highs for your trip duration.


Cache water when you can.

5.     Acclimation. Knowing the weather is only part of the prediction battle. The other part is your body's reaction to that weather. Is your body used to being outside all day in 104-degree dry heat? Is your body used to being in an air-conditioned office most of the day? Is your body used to 90 degrees, but not yet adjusted to 100? Do you take medications or have any health issues that effect your water consumption or affect your risk of heat related illness? Are you planning on night hiking & having a siesta schedule (don't forget to plan water for during your siesta)? How much water do you need during the day to keep yourself happy in your current state of acclimation? This can be a very hard question to answer! Observing how much you drink will help you figure out your personal water budget.


6.     Timing. If at all possible, plan your trip to have the biggest waterless stretches towards the end of your hike in order to give yourself time to adjust. Measure your water intake during your hike, and let that information inform how much you should carry for your waterless stretches. Be sure to keep track of the water you use in camp too. It's very helpful to know how much water your body is wanting during a 24-hour period.


Desert tortoise waiting at a drinking depression.

So, what's the bottom line? 

I'm sorry to say that there is no easy answer to how much water a person should carry in the desert. There is a fine line between carrying so much that it slows you down, and not having enough to get to the next source. I wish I could give out a magic number of liters to carry per day, but that number can vary wildly. Use your best judgment, start with small trips, and keep track of how much water you use. Best of luck with your travels into the dry & wonderful deserts!

For more advice on desert travel, or for help planning your next adventure, contact Sage. She offers adventure consulting for reasonable prices, with the goal of helping you increase your safety and happiness while you are out enjoying wild places.

Sage Clegg is a desert lover who often finds herself walking or working in dry places. She works with Mojave Desert Tortoises as a wildlife biologist, and spends much of her free time hiking. Sage has thru-hiked over 10,000 miles, and is no stranger to solo travel. Visit sageclegg.com to learn more.

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