When it comes to hiking in the outdoors there are several diverse landscapes you may come across. Each of these landscapes pose differences in the way you safely adventure. This is especially true when it comes to hiking in the desert.
Desert landscapes may seem dismal at first sight but if you give them a chance they may surprise you. The desert isn’t just dirt and rocks. It is filled with delicate ecosystems where you can find historical sites and artifacts, unique plants, geological features, swimming holes, and even waterfalls!
While it all sounds fun, there is a level of preparation that is necessary before setting out. In this post I’ll cover 16 desert hiking tips that will help you be more prepared and have a safe and successful adventure. Lets get started!
about this desert hiking guide
In this guide we’ll cover a variety of topics that are essential for a safe adventure in the desert. Here is what you can expect:
- The best seasons for hiking in the desert
- Essential gear you’ll need for your desert hike
- Expert desert hiking tips for a safe adventure
- Wildlife you could encounter while hiking in the desert
New to hiking? Check out my Hiking for Beginners guide to learn more!
*Disclaimer: the below links may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive commissions if you choose to purchase through my links I provide (at no extra cost to you). Please see my disclosure for more info.
Best Seasons for Hiking in the Desert
Just like any other landscape, the desert has plenty of quirks. Summer is difficult for hiking in the desert. High temperatures, constant sun exposure, and strenuous climbing all equal a dangerous outing.
The only exception for hiking during the summer would be if you are already experienced with hiking in heat and begin before sunrise and end by late morning. Usually this is done on shorter, urban trails that take only 2-3 hours time.
My suggestion- save summer for alpine mountains and do your desert hiking during these seasons:
- Late Fall is a great time to hike in the desert since the temperatures begin to cool down. You’ll want to get an early start for midday temperatures can still get toasty.
- Winter is one of the best seasons for desert hiking if you can brave the cold. The mornings are chilly, then once the sun has risen you’ll begin warming up by late morning. Once the sun goes back down, though, it can get so cold it chills you to the bones. Always bring layers during the winter!
Certain areas in the desert may get dusted with snow too. Places such as the Superstition Mountains, Sedona, and Bryce Canyon National Park come alive during these rare times.
- Early Spring can be hard to determine for sometimes it feels like the desert skips it and sooner than you know the summer heat has arrived. But if you get a good spring bloom you’ll be able to witness some beautiful wildflowers and comfortable temperatures.
LOCAL TIP: For Phoenix, the best range of months for hiking in the desert is typically November-March.
Desert Hiking Tips
Now that you know which seasons are the best for your hike, we can dive into the desert hiking tips. These should cover everything you need to know about hiking in the desert safely, and hopefully introduce you to a new skill!
1. BEAT THE HEAT
One of the most important things about hiking in the desert is getting an early start and avoiding the hottest part of the day.
Temperatures can rise very quickly! When you pair that with constant sun exposure and physical activity it can be a dangerous combination. Hikers may face dehydration, heat stroke, or heat exhaustion if they’re not careful.
To avoid the extreme heat you can plan your hikes in fall, winter, and spring. If at all possible you want to avoid desert hiking trips in the summer.
Regardless of the season, temperatures can still get hot during the day so you’ll want to begin early. This might mean that you have to wake up at 4 a.m. and hike in the dark for the beginning of the hike. It also could mean you might not have enough time to hike 10+ miles.
Researching the weather and landscape beforehand can help you plan around the hot temperatures. Check to see if there will be shade, or a place to get out of the sun for a few hours, then continue hiking in the evening.
Note: Dogs should NOT be accompanying you on the trails during high temperatures. They overheat faster than we do and in some states it is illegal for them to be on trails beyond a certain temperature. Every dog is different, but best rule of thumb is to not take them out if it will be 85 or hotter.
2. PREPARE FOR THE COLD
If you didn’t grow up in the desert then you may be surprised to hear that it can get very cold. Once the sun goes down the temperatures can drastically drop during all seasons. Yes, even during summer depending on the area. This cold is considered dry and is often described as being so cold you can feel it in your bones.
If you haven’t experienced the dry, desert cold yet then just take my word for it- pack your layers! Hikers should always have a base layer, insulating layer, and protective layer with them. You’ll most likely shed these as you get into your hike, but it is essential for early mornings and after the sun goes down, or sunrise and sunset hikes.
Some desert landscapes also receive snowfall during the winter. Yes, snow in the desert! It is important to research the area you’ll be in and be prepared for any type of weather.
3. STAY HYDRATED
Rangers, local news stations, and fellow hikers will all urge you to pack plenty of water. If you’re going to listen to any of my desert hiking tips, this is the most important!
Good hydration begins the day before your hike. If you know you’ll be going on an all day hike, plan to drink more water than your usual intake the day before and morning of.
Desert hiking can be tricky due to the lack of water supply. The majority of your desert hikes won’t have water sources and can’t be guaranteed, so it is important you pack and carry all the water you’ll need.
No matter if it is cold or hot out you need at a minimum 3L of water with you and even up to 1 gallon during the summer.
It sounds like a lot, but if you use a hydration bladder it will help with the weight of it all. Hydration bladders also allow you to easily sip water while moving, which in return keeps you more hydrated. You want to sip water throughout your hike and not only when you are thirsty.
Along with a hydration bladder you should always make it a point to bring 1 insulated water bottle. You’ll want a water bottle of some sort for 2 reasons. 1 being that if for any reason your hydration bladder fails, you’ll still have some water left. And 2, on the off chance you find water that can be filtered with a filtration system, it is easier to fill up!
PRO TIP: Many maps in the desert will show springs and falls on the map, but most of them are seasonal and are dry for most of the year. Don’t plan on using these as water sources!
4. PACK salty snacks and ELECTROLYTES
During your hike you’ll be sweating out essential liquids including electrolytes, so these will need to be replenished! Luckily this is easy to do if you bring along salty snacks and electrolyte supplements.
Salty snacks will help your body retain and use water more efficiently, while electrolytes are key to proper hydration and help your body absorb water quicker. To replenish both of these think of small, lightweight snacks and supplements you can easily pack in your pack.
- Protein Bars- Rise Bars are my favorite!
- Trail Mix
- Nuts and Seeds
- Dried Fruits
- MiO drink mix
- Nuun Hydration Tabs
5. ALWAYS CARRY SUN PROTECTION
One thing is certain in the desert- the sun is brutal! You can count on it being out 95% of the time, so it is best practice to always bring sun protection along during any season.
To start, you should always pack sunscreen with you and apply it before setting out to hike. Coola is an organic sunscreen perfect for the outdoors. You’ll want to apply it to any exposed skin and your face. They have special facial lotion with SPF in it too if you’re particular about what you put on!
Next, consider wearing a hat to protect your scalp and face. Any ballcap will do, but in the desert a lot of hikers opt for a wide-brimmed sun hat for optimal coverage. Look for hats that are lightweight and have the ability to quick dry.
Lastly, sunglasses are super helpful at protecting your eyes from sun damage and the need to squint which can lead to headaches. Look for a pair that has UVA and/or UVB protection to protect your eyes from the sun and reflections coming from desert rocks and water.
6. HAVE A GPS DEVICE
Unlike other landscapes, the desert doesn’t have clear cut trails that are obvious by the trees lined on either side. Majority of the time you will find yourself hiking on exposed rock and dirt, and at times the path may not be so obvious.
Navigation and route finding skills are essential for hiking in the desert. You should always have a paper map of the area you plan on being in, but you also should have a GPS device that works offline.
Gaia GPS is a phone app that allows you to download maps and use them offline, track your route, and switch between their many map layers for additional information like weather and wildfire locations. It even connects to Apple CarPlay so when you’re driving the NFS roads you can follow a mapped route!
An inexpensive Premium Membership will unlock all features, but even with the free plan you can at the very least track yourself to help prevent getting lost.
PRO TIP: When using Gaia in the outdoors put your phone on airplane mode to help reserve battery life.
7. know how to use cairns
Cairns are man-made rock piles that are strategically placed along trails to help direct hikers. Usually cairns are 3-5 rocks high and are placed at turning points or along large, exposed rock sections where hikers can easily get turned around.
They are great when they actually work, but not so great when people irresponsibly build them and confuse hikers. When following cairns use your best judgement on if it makes sense or not. Don’t add any or build your own, and don’t knock any down for someone could be relying on it.
When it comes down to it you can’t rely on there always being cairns to guide you, so your own navigation skills are your best bet.
8. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF SHADED SPOTS
Shade can be hard to come by in the desert, but if you do find some along your way, why not take advantage of it? Often times you can find shade in a canyon, the silhouette of a large boulder, or tall brush.
If you are climbing a steep incline and need a breather, look for a shaded spot to catch your breath under. Or if you want to stop for a snack, try to seek cover out of the sun.
It may not be possible on every hike, but sitting in the shade will be more beneficial for you rather than directly under the sun.
9. COOL YOURSELF OFF
In the event you find a water source and need to cool off, soak a shirt or bandanna to put over your head or around your neck. It might not last for long, but it can be effective in lowering your body temperature. Never use your drinking water!
An example of this would be hiking to a swimming hole like The Crack at Wet Beaver Creek. It is a popular swimming hole in Arizona during high temperatures, and the hike there and back can be grueling in the heat.
Before leaving the creek to hike 3 miles back, my group and I soaked our towels in the water and put them over our heads and shoulders. This not only provided us coverage from the sun but it also helped keep us cool!
10. CHECK THE WEATHER AND BE AWARE OF FLASH FLOODS
A lot of people think that the desert is always dry and hot, but that isn’t always the case. Deserts and their surrounding areas do get rainstorms, causing natural disasters like flash floods to happen.
Flash floods are caused by rapid and excessive rainfall that can raise water levels almost instantly. They occur very quickly and move rapidly, taking people by surprise.
This desert hiking tip is one of the most important for your safety- check the weather of the area you plan on being in, and surrounding areas for chances of rain. You can be under sunny, blue skies and still have a rainstorm miles away creating a flash flood that flows into your area.
Areas you want to stay away from if rain is in the forecast are slot canyons, washes, and any known flood areas posted.
11. WATCH WHERE YOU STEP AND PUT YOUR HANDS
Easier said than done, but nothing is worse than brushing up against or falling into a cactus! Desert trails can be extremely rocky and if you slip and fall your natural instinct is to put your hand out to catch yourself. This happened to me once and I got more than a dozen spines lodged into my hand!
Besides watching your footing and surroundings there are a couple tools that may help prevent you from rolling an ankle or landing in a cactus.
- Hiking poles wouldn’t be a bad idea if you are prone to joint issues or rolling your ankles. They can help keep you balanced, take the pressure off your knees when descending, and help catch yourself from falling down.
- Tweezers also are an essential item for your first aid kit. You’ll want them so you can easily pull out cactus spines in the event you land some on you.
While we’re on the topic, if you’re climbing or scrambling rock you’ll definitely want to watch where you put your hands in the event of desert spiders or snakes around you! Which leads us to the next of desert hiking tips…
12. KEEP YOUR eyes and EARS OPEN for wildlife
There are many desert regions across the world, but this blog is geared toward hiking in the North American desert regions, more specifically in the Southwest.
In the Southwest you can find many species of lizards, birds, snakes, insects and mammals in the desert. Their resiliency for survival with lack of recourses is quite impressive!
What type of wildlife can I see while hiking in the desert?
To start, you may come across mammals such as horses, cattle, and sheep. Usually these are tagged by ranchers and aren’t considered wild, however they do roam free across large areas of land that a trail may pass through. As long as you keep your distance and don’t try to approach them you will be fine.
In arid mountain desert areas such as Salt Lake City you may come across Moose. It is common to spot them in the middle of a trail or just off the trail, laying down. Moose can be very aggressive so never approach them! It is best to pass quietly or be patient to let them move off the trail before proceeding.
Other mammals known to the desert are javelinas, coyotes, mountain lion, big horn sheep, and mule deer. The same principals apply to these as well- keep a respectable distance and don’t try to approach them. It is most likely they will want to avoid you too, so there is nothing to be scared of!
We can’t forget the spiders, scorpions, lizards, and snakes! Before placing your hands somewhere or sitting down, pause to take a look and make sure there aren’t any around.
PRO DESERT HIKING TIPS: When you set your bag down during breaks make sure to keep it zipped closed to keep bugs and the like from crawling inside. Always shake your bag off once you pick it up off the ground and before you put it back on!
The most common snake to keep eyes and ears open for is the rattlesnake. Typically they rattle loud enough to warn you to back off, but sometimes they don’t. You definitely don’t want to get bitten by one of these, and if you do, get to medical attention as soon as possible.
While most seem to be afraid of tarantulas due to their size, they are actually harmless to humans besides a painful bite. One spider you should actually be cautious of is the brown recluse. While their bites aren’t fatal, they are extremely damaging to the tissue and can quickly eat it away.
Overall, the likelihood of negative wildlife encounters are not common and shouldn’t deter you from getting out! It is all about being aware and giving them space.
13. PROTECT THOSE ANKLES AND LEGS
One thing you’ll quickly learn about the desert is that there are a lot of prickly things. Some trails have cacti sitting on the edge of them while others are very grown in and the vegetation will scratch your legs.
Having long pants will help protect your legs and ankles from getting scratched up. If you don’t care about a few scratches, shorts are absolutely acceptable too. When weather permits I choose to mainly hike in shorts because I can’t stand my legs being covered when I’m warm, and I accept whatever scratches I may get!
14. AIR OUT your FEET
When hiking in the heat and especially for long distances, our feet can sweat, therefore forming blisters. Having blisters on your feet when you still have miles to go can be irritating and painful! So to prevent this from happening, air out your feet.
It is never a bad idea to take a break in the shade and remove your shoes and socks and lay them out to dry. Some hikers even bring an extra pair of socks to change into!
15. don’t climb up where you can’t get down
The desert is full of rock formations to scramble and climb on, and a lot of trails even require you to do so! While it can be thrilling, always proceed with caution. Often times it is easier to climb up than back down and the last thing you want to do is get stuck.
When approaching a tough scramble always pause to ask yourself if you’re comfortable climbing up, then if you’d be comfortable coming back down it. Some scrambles are sketchy, and if you aren’t comfortable proceeding it is totally okay. Always air on the side of caution because it is better than getting stuck somewhere!
16. stock your car with extra supplies
The last of desert hiking tips I have to share with you is to stock your car with extra supplies! Nothing is worse than returning to your car and needing more liquids or food.
Since a lot of trailheads can be in remote places, it is a good idea to have extra water and snacks in your car for when you return. While you’re at it, throw in a pair of extra socks and comfortable shoes to change into for the drive home.
After every hike I take off my socks and shoes and slip into my Crocs to let my feet breath!
Final Thoughts on these Desert Hiking Tips
We’ve covered a lot of desert hiking tips in this guide and I hope it has helped you understand a safer way to recreate.
There is a lot of exciting adventures to be done in the desert. Many of which take us deep into the backcountry, in remote places, and to areas without many natural resources. The better equipped you are for the landscape, the better chances are for a safe and memorable adventure.
While I grew up in the forests I quickly fell in love with the desert. If you give it a chance, maybe you will too!
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