The harsh conditions of the American West should be taken seriously.
By Trent Jonas
Whether you're a lifelong resident or you're planning a visit in the near future, hiking in the desert environment of the western United States requires much consideration and preparation. The American West offers everything from stunning red rock vistas to towering sandstone arches, but the conditions are no joke. From proper hydration to avoiding peak heat, here are a few tips on how to hike safely in the desert.
A desert environment is defined by water—or rather, its lack thereof—which makes it imperative that you bring sufficient water to stay hydrated while you’re hiking. You will need a minimum of one gallon of water per person per day, and on hotter summer days, expect to consume about a liter per hour to stay hydrated. Don’t plan to hike beyond your ability to carry water—if you can only carry a gallon or so of water, plan to return before the end of the day. Always drink before you start to feel thirsty.
Also, try and carry more water than you think you will need. In the event your return is delayed, or the day is hotter than you planned, doing so will help you avoid dehydration. Be sure to leave a reserve of water in your vehicle, so you’ll have water available when you’ve finished your hike. Finally, if you plan on hiking in an area where there is a known water source, bring a water filter so you can use the source to top off your water bottles or reservoir.
Whenever possible, hike before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m., this will help you to avoid the desert’s most extreme conditions and direct sun beating down on you in its open environment. In turn, avoiding the worst of the day’s heat will also help you to consume less water and stay better hydrated. Be sure not to push yourself beyond your limits, and rest when you feel like you need to.
While hiking with a friend or a group is recommended for any type of hiking, it’s especially important when you’re hiking in the desert. When you’re with another, you can help each other watch out for signs of heat exhaustion and other heat-related conditions, and you’ll have another set of eyes to scan the trail for desert critters—which tend to be spiky, toothy, or venomous—and another brain for problem solving in case of trouble.
The desert is no joke. When you head out for a desert hike, the potential exists for you to develop any number of heat-related conditions that range from sunburn and dehydration to hyperthermia and heat stroke. Learn what the danger signs are for such maladies and pay attention for them in yourself and others while you hike.
Use sunscreen. Wear light, sun-protective clothing that will allow you to stay cool while protecting your skin from the sun, as well as a hat and sunglasses. Sturdy footwear is also a good idea if you’ll be hiking in a particularly rugged area. Although daytime temperatures in the desert can be extremely hot, the often-clear skies and lack of humidity means the temps can fall rapidly (and far) once the sun goes down (or before it comes up), so put some extra layers in your pack before you head out.
Although desert weather tends to be fairly consistent, there are times when it’s anything but hot and dry. Watch for forecasts of rain near where you’re going or high winds before you head out. During monsoon season, flash flooding is common and rain miles away from your location can turn a slot canyon into a death trap. High winds, on the other hand, can kick up sand and particles, making it difficult to see and breathe while you’re hiking. So, although such phenomena are uncommon, they do happen—just don’t plan a hike at such times.
Tell someone where you’re planning to hike and when you plan to be back. Charge your cell phone, and bring a map and compass, as well as a headlamp or flashlight, a multitool, a whistle, an emergency blanket, and something to make a fire with. Bring salty snacks and electrolyte-replenishing bars or tablets for your water. These things won’t take up much room in your pack, but you’ll be glad to have them if you need them.