Hiking in the desert

Hiking in the desert takes effort and preparation but the scenery and the whole experience can be amazing.

The main issue for hiking in the desert is the lack of water, but heat exhaustion, hypothermia, sun glare, local wildlife, wind and flash flooding can also be a problem.

Be prepared

Know what you’re getting in to.  Find out what type of desert you’re exploring and suss out the water situation. There may be springs along the way, but they can run dry.  If it does rain anywhere in the catchment area, there are likely to be floods. Camp well away from dry river beds.

Expect heat during the day and, if camping, be prepared for freezing temperatures at night.

Register your walk and/or let someone else know where you’re going and when you’re back.

Take a good map, compass or GPS, consider an EPIRB or similar.  Take your mobile phone. Don’t expect it to work everywhere, but it may be possible to pick up reception in higher areas in an emergency.

Walk with others so you have support if someone is injured. Four is the ideal number.  Someone can stay with an injured person while the others go for help.

Carry your water

Carry all the water you’ll need for shorter walks.  As a general guide, take at least a gallon (4 liters) per person per day but more if it’s hot. Collapsible water containers are great as they take up little room once they are emptied.  Most camping stores have them.

For longer walks, check there are reliable water sources to restock. Remember most “rivers” in deserts are usually just a dry river bed.

Take water, just water.  It’s the best thing for dehydration.  Alcohol might be attractive at the end of the day, but does add to dehydration.  Look forward to it post-walk.

If you are using local water sources, take sterilization tablets or a filter with iodine resin.  The tablets are lighter and quicker to work, but some can leave the water tasting like a swimming pool.  Still, it’s better than catching giardia or worse.  Desert water can also include less than tasty minerals and perhaps be slightly salty. While water is the best, you might consider some powdered dry flavoring.

High protein and salty food

As you are carrying water anyway, there’s no point in worrying too much about taking dry or dehydrated food unless you’re restocking on water along the way.  Take salty foods to replace salt lost through sweating.  There are salt tablets but, seriously, what’s the point?  Here’s a chance to indulge in salty snack foods.  Instant soups are great, especially for those cold evenings. Try to take food that needs minimal cooking on longer trips: carry drinkable liquid rather than fuel.

Most walkers crave protein-rich food.  Nuts, salami or meat jerky, most seeds and legumes are great.  Some people take just protein bars to sustain them. If the trip is for fun and you like protein bars, fine.  Otherwise take food you will enjoy.

Dress for the heat, and cold

Arabs had the right idea: cover up with light colored and light weight clothes to block the sun and reduce evaporation.  There are many options that don’t involve a head to toe gown.  Light long sleeved shirts and trousers can provide sun protection during the day as well as some warmth at night.

Remember sunglasses and tape to repair them if broken.  Often strong medical tape from a first aid kit will do the job. You don’t want to do without them. As well as reducing the sun’s glare, sunglasses can help protect eyes from the wind and any sand or grit in it.

Both heat exhaustion and hyperthermia can be a problem in the desert.  The early symptoms are similar: exhaustion and confusion.  In the case of heat exhaustion, find a shady place, rest for a while and drink plenty of water.  Make sure not to leave the person alone: they may be confused.  For hyperthermia, try and warm the person up in whatever way you can.

Avoid the heat

It’s best to hike during the cooler months only.  If the days are hot, consider resting around midday day in a shady area, and walk early in the morning, later in the afternoon and evening, perhaps even in to the night. This is a great chance to relax and take in your surroundings.  Enjoy it!

Links and further information