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This is your complete guide to hiking in the desert! One of the reasons I live in Utah is because there’s some incredible desert hiking and backpacking! I love everything about desert hiking – the sunshine, the cacti, the red rock… I could go on and on. But it’s also a place with limited water and shade, and flash floods. You need to plan your trip with that in mind. In this post, we’ll go over my top desert hiking tips, so you can hit the trails prepared!
Tips for Hiking in the Desert
1. Don’t assume it’s going to be hot
Temperatures drop quickly once the sun goes down, and things can get cold at night, even in the desert.
I love taking friends and family into the backcountry, and a few years ago I finally got my brother to come on a trip with me in Southern Utah.
I sent him a packing list and warned him that since it was October, it would get cold at night in the desert.
He heard the word “desert”, and then didn’t listen any further. (Typical brother behavior, right?)
He showed up with nothing but Summer clothing and a pair of sweatpants. No jacket. No warm layers.
Obviously, he was cold! Learn from his mistakes. Don’t assume it will be hot the whole time and make sure you’re prepared with layers, which leads us to my next tip…
2. Bring Clothes to Layer With
As I mentioned above, the desert can be brutally hot during the day when the sun’s out.
Hiking in the desert heat all day will likely make you exhausted and super sweaty.
But if the weather or temperature suddenly changes, that can leave you wet and cold.
In the desert, there’s not a lot of moisture in the air, so temperatures change quickly, as I mentioned above.
All of the sudden, if clouds roll in and block the sun, you might want a dry shirt to change into so that you don’t get cold, or at least some layers to stay warm.
RELATED >> 5 Ways to Stay Cool While Hiking in the Heat
3. Stay hydrated!!
Of course, you want to make sure you’re carrying enough water for your hike.
In addition to water, packing salty snacks and/or electrolytes will help you stay hydrated, and can even be essential if you sweat a lot.
Electrolytes are lost through sweat, but they’re important in helping your body retain fluid.
If you’re going on a long desert hike, it’s a good idea to have some. I really like these electrolyte tablets by Nuun.
The other thing to consider when planning your desert trip is that water sources are often limited and not year-round.
When backpacking, make sure you know where the water sources are before your trip, and try to get some info beforehand on whether or not they’re dried up.
A lot of water sources in the desert are only available as certain times of the year.
For example, Nick and I went on a backpacking trip in Canyonlands National Park last Fall. We had to pack in a lot of extra water because we didn’t know if there would be any on the trip.
Turns out, it rained a few days prior to our trip, so we found a few good puddles to filter from.
I know it sucks having to carry so much extra water weight, but that’s just what you have to do.
Don’t just hope you’ll find water while you hike. Do research and plan it out before you leave.
4. Be prepared to filter murky water
Because the water sources in the desert are limited, you might have to filter from murky stagnate puddles of water.
Make sure you know how to work your filter and how to back-flush it, if needed.
Since desert water can be dirty and gritty, your filter might get clogged a lot faster than you’re used to, so make sure you know how to unclog it.
If you’re just doing a day hike in the desert, I still recommend that you carry a small filter for emergencies.
These Sawyer filters are my favorite and they’re so small and light that there’s no reason not to carry one just incase you need more water.
RELATED >> What Gear I Pack on a Day Hike
5. Bring sun protection
Shade is very limited in the desert. It’s not enough to just put sunscreen on before your hike.
You also need to pack sunscreen and SPF chapstick to continue protecting yourself throughout the day.
Sunscreen needs to be reapplied every couple of hours, especially if you’re sweating a lot! Sunglasses and hats are other great ways to protect yourself from the sun.
The following are hiking shirts that I have for hot weather hiking:
Not only does it have built-in sun protection, but it’s also designed to keep you cool. Highly recommend!
6. Check the weather and flash flood warnings
Really pay attention to the weather forecast. High winds can kick up sand and lead to low visibility.
Thunderstorms can cause flash floods and lightning strikes. Remember, desert hiking is often very exposed hiking.
Flash flood potential is high in the desert and you need to be prepared to cancel or change your trip if there’s any flash flood warning.
Be proactive about getting the most accurate weather forecast before you head out on a trip. Then, while you’re out on the trails hiking, be aware of your surroundings and any potential weather rolling in that maybe the forecast didn’t report.
Local BLM offices, national forest offices, or welcome centers should be able to provide you with good weather information.
Take flash flood warnings seriously. It’s hard to understand how a deadly flood can rip through a seemingly dry area all of the sudden, but it happens and you definitely don’t want to be anywhere near it.
7. Watch out for harmful plants and animals native to the desert
Did you see the scorpion in the video above?! I saw that next to my tent on a desert backpacking trip in Arizona.
The desert is home to plants and animals that can be harmful such as cacti, rattlesnakes, and scorpions, to name a few.
Do some additional research on the plants and animals that are native to the area you will be hiking in. That way you know what to expect and how to avoid them. Knowledge is power!
More Day Hiking Resources:
There we go! Hopefully, these desert hiking tips will empower you to explore the desert this year.
Check out some of the other hiking resources and desert trip guides on the blog:
- 6 Tips for Beginner Hikers
- 11 Easy Hiking Snack Ideas
- 7 Best Hikes in Arches National Park (from a Utah local)
If you have any questions, just ask me in the comments below!