Exploring the desert can be an unparalleled experience for hiking and backpacking. But these beautiful landscapes of extremes require special planning to enjoy. Your desert hiking gear list will need to contain some strategic items to ensure you have a safe and comfortable journey. Here’s our list of must-have desert hiking and backpacking gear.
Desert Hiking Gear List
Depending on location and season, desert temperatures have a wide range. For example, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon can range from below freezing at night to over 100°F during the day. Combine these temperature variations with rugged terrain and an arid climate, and you’ll definitely need to take some specialized gear and supplies with you on your desert hike.
Your feet are arguably your greatest asset when hiking. Sore, blistered feet can take the enjoyment out of even the most amazing desert hiking or backpacking adventures. Protecting them from fatigue, brushing on sharp rocks, and encounters with prickly desert plants is very important. That’s why a solid pair of hiking boots specially designed for use in arid climates is one of your most valuable pieces of desert hiking gear.
- Day hiking boots — Choose boots with thick, supportive soles to provide ample protection from cactus spines, sharp rocks, and the endlessly abrasive effects of walking on sandy, rocky terrain. Also, look for ventilated mesh panels at the toes and tops of the feet and a moisture-wicking interior lining to keep feet cool and dry.
- Backpacking boots — Backpacking boots need all the features of day hiking boots plus a high cut that provides substantial ankle support. Also consider an option with a more rigid sole to prevent feet from tiring quickly.
Wearing loose-fitting, light-colored clothing is a great way to combat the heat of the desert, making it possible to stay cool, dry, and comfortable while you’re peeling off the miles. Moisture-wicking or quick-drying fabric that has SPF-rated sun protection is a big bonus too. But remember, packing clothing like jackets and pullovers that can be easily layered on and removed as needed is also really important when traveling in the desert. Although it may be warm when you start out on your adventure, remember it can dip below freezing at night, even in famously hot places like Death Valley.
- Jacket — A jacket in the desert? Trust us, absolutely yes. Hypothermia in the desert is a real risk and. Packing a lightweight but warm jacket can make all the difference.
- Long and short sleeve shirts — Deserts tend to cool off and heat up quickly, so strategic layering is important. Packing both long and short sleeve shirts to wear underneath your jacket will insulate you from the cold.
- Pants — Wearing long pants will keep your legs better protected against sharp rocks and spiny desert vegetation than shorts. Convertible pants let you unzip the bottoms turning them into shorts.
- Shorts — If you are hiking on trails that are generally free from the hazards noted above, shorts are often the best way to go during the daytime.
- Hat and gloves — Of course these are important items in the winter season, but they’re often overlooked in the spring and fall as must-haves.
- Socks – Your socks should not be an afterthought. A pair of tencel or merino wool socks will help regulate temperature and your feet will thank you for it. Your foot health needs to be a high priority while hiking. Socks that keep your feet cool and dry in the heat of the day and warm in the chill of the evening are essential. Here are some of our favorite summer hiking socks for warm weather hiking.
The sun can do damage to unprotected skin in the desert, and few things ruin a great hike more than a bad sunburn. Make sure these items are stowed away to shield you from the effects of our nearest star.
- Sunscreen — A general lack of shade and the reflective nature of the sand and rocks make wearing sunscreen a must. Pack sunscreen with a high SPF rating for maximum protection.
- Lip balm — A lip balm with SPF protection prevents your lips from burning and keeps them moisturized. If you’re new to desert adventuring you might be shocked at how dry your lips can become, and how quickly it happens.
- Sunglasses — The intensity of the desert sun can quickly strain your eyes, leading to headaches or making it difficult to see. Shades capable of blocking UVA and UVB rays are best.
- Head protection — A broad-brimmed hat does double duty, protecting your head and neck while reducing the sun’s glare on your eyes. Some desert hiking hats also come with a special flap of fabric in the rear designed to cover your neck.
Along with creating shade for your body, proper hydration is THE top priority when hiking in the desert. Especially when you’re actively moving in the open sun, your body loses moisture way faster than you might expect. Always plan to bring the amount you need rather than trying to find sources of water in the desert. A good rule of thumb is to make sure you’re drinking 0.5 liters to 1 liter of water per hour when you’re exerting yourself.
- Water containers — If you’ll be using a static campsite while ranging into the desert on day trips, large 5-gallon containers are a convenient way to pack in larger quantities of water on hand for drinking, cleaning, and hygiene.
- Water bottles — Stowed into the side of a daypack or backpack, water bottles are a convenient way to carry water for shorter excursions. Given how hot it can get during the day, insulated bottles that can keep fluids cool are highly recommended. Remember to look for durable recycled materials.
- Hydration packs — Hydration packs are best as they allow you to carry a large amount of water. Taking small, frequent sips from a hydration pack can help keep you from becoming dehydrated during longer forays. Add ice cubes or leave your hydration bladder in the refrigerator over night to keep your water nice and cool. Here are some of our top picks for hydration packs.
- Hydration supplements – When hiking in the extreme heat of the desert sometimes you'll need more than just water. Adding electrolyte powders and hydration supplements to your water helps aid the rehydration process by providing extra electrolytes to replenish the ones you've lost while sweating.
Hiking in the desert is an amazing experience. Here’s what you’ll need to hit the trail with confidence.
- Daypack — For short hikes, a day pack to stash your water, food, and an emergency first aid kit will do the trick.
- Backpack — For longer trips, pick up a full-size backpack that leaves some space between your back and the pack. Some modern backpacks sport a special mesh layer that creates space between your back and the pack itself to allow moisture to wick away. This style of pack will also help with load management over time. Learn more: 6 Best Backpacks for Desert Hiking.
- Snacks — Hiking burns a lot of calories. Pack snacks high in protein and complex carbs. While it might be surprising, eating salty snacks is also important for replenishing salts and fluids lost through excessive sweating.
- First aid kit — Being prepared for accidents can help reduce the severity of missteps while traveling in the desert. There are a number of great general-purpose hiking first aid kits on the market. Be sure the one you choose includes tweezers for cactus spine extraction, an over-the-counter pain killer, bandages, and an emergency foil blanket.
- Maps — The desert can be a disorienting place. Detailed topo maps can help you keep your bearings while you’re hiking on or off-trail. These can be downloaded to your mobile devices ahead of time if you don’t like carrying paper.
- GPS transponder — Most deserts are sparse on cell service, so having access to a satellite-activated emergency response system like the Garmin InReach Mini could be a literal lifesaver. Even if you think it’s overkill, remember that even the most experienced Grand Canyon guides carry them for emergencies.
- Headlamp — A headlamp can help make the camping experience more comfortable and keep you out of danger if you get lost. Desert nights can be very dark, especially during a new moon. Most of the hikers on our team carry a few headlamps to ensure a working one is always available.
- Hiking poles — Desert terrain is uneven and rocky. Sturdy hiking poles on a lengthier trek are helpful to provide additional support and can reduce fatigue to keep you feeling fresher, longer.
- Bug repellant — When going to the desert, it’s natural not to think too much about bugs. After all, it’s a dry place, right? But there are plenty of insects that have adapted to living quite happily in these landscapes . Especially in more moist, low-lying areas such as river canyons, mosquitos, chiggers, and ticks are perfectly at home, making toting in a good, solid bug repellant an important tool when traveling in the desert.
After a long day of exploring there’s nothing like coming back to a well-equipped campsite.
- Tent — A light-colored, well-ventilated tent is ideal. There are a few tent producers committed to utilizing recycled materials in their production. We highly recommend keeping this in mind when finding your next tent. Here are five of our top choices for backpacking tents.
- Food — High protein meals with lots of complex carbs help you recover quickly from high-intensity hiking. Dehydrated meals can help keep your backpack light. Check out our 3, 5, and 7 day backpacking meal plans.
- Toilet Paper — Just make sure you dispose of it using Leave No Trace principles.
- Hand sanitizer — Without easy access to running water, hand sanitizer can help keep hands germ-free.
- Fire starter — A fire starting kit with easy light kindling can make starting a fire quick and simple. However, fire safety is essential in the desert. Always refer to local regulations before assuming that fires are safe and permitted.
- Sandals or Camp Shoes — After spending a day in your boots, walking around the campsite in sandals or camp shoes sure does feel nice.
Learn more: How to Plan a Desert Camping Trip
Got Everything You Need To Hit the Trail with Confidence?
At Erem, we have a passion for the desert. We’re dedicated to protecting what we love. Our desert hiking boots are created using sustainable, eco-friendly practices designed to tread lightly on the Earth’s resources. Every pair of Erem Xerocole™ boots is Biocircular, which means they are made only with materials that have a proven path back to nature and can be renewed through our Reboot program or upcycled safely back to nature. We craft men’s and women’s hiking boots designed for rugged adventures in some of the harshest landscapes in the world. Whether your idea of adventure means following the trails or venturing off them, our boots keep your feet comfortable and protected, providing superior breathability, unrivaled durability, and the comfort you need to keep you moving longer.
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