Hiking in the desert is a magical experience. Found on every continent and covering over one-fifth of the world’s land surface, deserts are special places. Their stark beauty, abundant life, and serene stillness have been calling adventurers since time immemorial. Some of our favorites include the desert environments of Moab and Zion National Park in Utah and the Arizona Trail, which runs from Mexico to Utah.
For those drawn to these unique places, preparation is key. Although deserts are beautiful, their extreme nature requires proper planning and the right gear to safely and fully enjoy them. In this post, we’ll cover the essentials of hiking and backpacking in the desert, including what to wear in the desert, the right desert hiking boots and clothing, and other tips to keep you comfortable and safe on your journey.
How To Stay Safe in the Desert
The desert is a land of extremes. Hiking and backpacking in the desert require preparation to enjoy safely.
1. Pack in enough water
By definition, deserts are dry places that receive less than 10 inches of rainfall per year. Finding reliable water sources can be very unpredictable. Carrying in the water you’ll need is extremely important. Never assume you’ll find it en route. A general rule of thumb is to bring along 4 liters of water per person, per day. Extremely hot or strenuous hikes may require a number closer to 6 liters of water per person, per day. In addition, always carry a water filtration system in case there is a chance to fill up.
2. Salty snacks rule the day
In general, we’re conditioned to steer clear of salty foods because they may make us thirsty. But when hiking in the desert, eating salty foods actually helps your body retain water. The extremely dry air and heat suck water from your body quickly; consuming salts and other electrolytes helps retain water. So plan on packing plenty of dried fruits, candy bars, jerky, and trail mix. It is suggested on the hottest days to take a salt tab hourly.
3. Sunscreen with high SPF and moisturizer matter
The desert sun is intense, often with little to no shade. Protecting your skin is essential. Lather up exposed areas like your face, hands, and lips with a moisturizing high SPF sunscreen. Be sure to replenish it as directed for the level of sunscreen you choose. Remember, SPF numbers relate to the number of hours a sunscreen can protect you, so keep in mind how long you’ll be in the sun when deciding on your protection.
4. Avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day
Temperatures in the desert are a study in extremes. For example, desert temperatures can easily range from below 30°F at night to over 100°F during the day. Getting an early start on your hike can help you get the most out of the early morning coolness. If you’re not a morning person, setting off late in the day is another option that lets you skirt the high temperatures brought on by the mid-day sun. For all-day hikes, taking advantage of a shady spot under some vegetation or a cliff during the hottest part of the day can help you conserve energy and water. While you’re tucked away in the shade, enjoy a snack break or take a short nap to help you recharge.
5. Prepare for weather extremes like monsoons
Heat isn’t the only thing to keep an eye on while backpacking in the desert. Depending on where you are and what season, be aware monsoon rainstorms are capable of dumping massive amounts of water quickly. If rain is in the forecast on your route or nearby, avoid low-lying areas that could fill up with water quickly. Slot canyons are a prime example. These amazing features of the desert landscape act as drains during rainstorms, quickly filling with rushing torrents of rainwater that can quickly trap and overwhelm unsuspecting hikers.
6. Watch out for hazards
The desert is home to an amazing array of plants and animals that are well-adapted to living in extremes. Keeping an eye out for them can help avoid painful run-ins with these survivors. As you’re on the trail, be mindful of where you’re stepping. Snakes, scorpions, and cacti will do their part to defend themselves. Don’t put them in a position to deploy a nasty bite, sting, or a leg full of painful spines. Packing in a first aid kit and having basic desert first aid knowledge like how to remove cactus spines or treat a wound can minimize the damage until you get back to base.
7. Bring navigation aids and know how to use them
The desert can be a disorienting place where distances can be very deceiving, especially if you plan to hike or backpack off-trail. A map and compass are must-haves for any desert adventure. As you hike, take frequent mental notes of where you are, so you’re able to stay oriented. Satellite navigation apps can offer a high-tech way to keep your bearings when you’re in places without reliable (or any) cell service. But in our experience, a desert adventure free of electronics brings the best memories.
Choosing the Right Gear for Hiking in the Desert
It’s difficult to get the most out of your desert hiking or backpacking trip without the right clothing and footwear. Here’s what you’ll need to stay comfortable and safe on the trail.
8. Wear clothing that covers and breathes
The desert sun can burn exposed skin quickly. One of the best ways to protect your outer layer is to wear clothing that completely covers your arms and legs. Ideally, that clothing should be light colored, loose, and easily breathable. A wide-brimmed hat is a solid choice for protecting your head and face. And don’t forget your eyes — a good pair of UV sunglasses protects them from strain in the bright sunlight.
9. Bring hiking poles for longer hikes
A sturdy set of hiking poles can help keep you steady on uneven, rocky terrain. Having additional support can reduce fatigue and keep you feeling fresher for longer.
10. Carry a large reservoir hydration pack
Desert hiking requires lots of hydration. Sun, dry air, and lots of exertion is a recipe for dehydration for the unprepared. Hydration packs are basically a backpack with a large, built-in water reservoir. Using one can help to lighten the load of carrying large quantities of water on longer hikes or backpacking trips.
Learn more: 5 of the Best Hydration Packs
11. Pack a first aid kit stocked with essentials
Accidents happen. Being prepared to handle minor scrapes, bruises, and run-ins with desert plants can help keep you safe while on desert treks. Most first aid kits will contain the essentials. Add a good pair of tweezers for cactus spine removal and some antibiotic ointment if the kit you choose doesn’t include them.
12. Wear footwear made for the desert
Hiking in the desert requires footwear designed for the unique challenges this extremely varied landscape presents. Desert hiking boots protect your feet from cactus spines, and the abrasive effects of constant movement on rocky or sandy terrain. Breathability matters, too — damp feet not only create funky odors, but are a leading cause of blisters.
Learn more: 7 Best Hiking Socks for Hot Summer Hikes
13. Bring a headlamp
A headlamp is an absolute must-have in case you get lost. The night is especially dark in the desert, especially during the new moon. Most of the hikers on our team carry a few to ensure a working one is always available.
Check out our guide on how to choose the right hiking boot before your next desert adventure.
Erem Is Made for the Desert
We’re desert lovers. There’s no place on earth like it. At Erem, we design and manufacture desert hiking boots for all desert extremes. Our boots feature full-grain leather uppers, loose-lined with moisture-wicking, 100% Tencel™ Lyocell to regulate foot temperature and naturally prevent odor. We hold to the Biocircular standard for every product we sell, only using materials with proven paths back to nature. At the end of their useful life, Erem footwear can biodegrade completely back to nature. If you’re not ready to part with them yet, Erem’s Reboot program will restore them to good-as-new condition, so they are ready for many more miles of desert wanderings.
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