Guides Gear Corner #3: Emergency Gear for Desert Hiking and Driving

If you’re heading out on your own desert adventure, there are some things you can bring along to help keep you safe. While we like to stress the importance of a light pack, experienced desert hikers have probably learned to add certain emergency essentials to their packs or cars. 

Hiking emergency gear

Most emergencies revolve around a few simple problems: Suffering an injury or not keeping your body hydrated, fed, or at the right temperature. Most emergency situations can be avoided with proper planning and common sense. Don’t start a hike late in the day in the winter when the sun sets early and the temperatures plummet quickly. Don’t be caught out in the heat of the day in the summer. Don’t wander into the desert without a good map, GPS navigation or without telling someone where you’re going. But even when you follow these common sense tactics, the unexpected can still happen. So what items can we bring that might help out? 

Winter weather – stay warm

Winter days are short and desert temperatures can fluctuate 40 degrees from the sunny afternoon to the frigid evenings. Even if you start a hike in warm, sunny weather, carry a jacket and a flashlight or headlamp for later. Realize that a twisted ankle or slow friend might keep you out past dark. Bring tools to start a fire to keep you warm and calm in case you’re stuck overnight. In winter, some of our guides carry cotton balls coated in Vaseline. They make great fire starters, even in windy, wet weather. We’ve also used a product called Pyro Putty which works fine too. 

In order to stay warm, you need to stay dry. Bring a rain jacket, brimmed hat and perhaps even rain pants if snow or rain is possible. In certain circumstances, you might carry a lightweight backpacking tarp for emergency shelter. It can be tied to trees or set up using trekking poles. The Hyperlite Flat Tarp is a high-end, super light and durable option. Or consider the Gossamer Gear Twinn Tarp. 

Your body can’t generate heat without fuel. Bring some extra snacks, especially foods that are easy to eat and high in calories. There are a billion snack bar options. We like GU Energy Chews for quick energy. Another amazing snack bar is the Rx Bar. They are high in protein and not too high in sugar and seem to sustain for a long time. 

Summer weather – stay cool

If you suffer heat illness in the desert, rapid, extreme cooling or evacuation may be the only solution. Since you can’t carry a bathtub of ice water on your back to facilitate rapid, emergency cooling, this section will focus more on prevention than emergency gear. Start your hike at dawn, wear a hat to keep the sun off your face, and mostly, drink plenty of water. Wear a cooling cloth. The cheap, microfiber options sold on Amazon work wonders. We also like to carry frozen water bottles that thaw to provide cold water while you’re hiking. You can even hide these in the bushes or bury them in the sand so you don’t have to carry them the entire time. Just don’t stash them in designated wilderness and remember to retrieve them later. Last summer, a guest apologetically carried an umbrella on tour. She stopped feeling embarrassed when the rest of us started negotiating over who should get to borrow it next.The summer sun is not your friend and lightweight hiking umbrellas, or any umbrellas, shield the blazing sun. Check out the ZPacks Lotus UV umbrella or the Essential Umbrella by Hyperlite. Gossamer Gear also makes a sun umbrella and also a system to clip it to your backpack for hands-free hiking. 

First Aid Kit

Our favorite first aid kits are made by Adventure Medical Kits. We find the Mountain Explorer contains the tools you’ll need most often for a small group hike. The pockets are organized so you can find everything you need quickly without having to scatter the kit’s contents all over the ground. Above all, you’ll want to carry tools for stopping bleeding, cleaning and covering wounds, medicines for pain and allergy relief, and long compression bandages for wrapping around a sprain. 


If you plan to spend considerable time in the backcountry where phone service is limited, consider a satellite communicator such as the Garmin InReach (We recently spotted a good deal in the InReach Mini at Costco). Let someone know where you’re going, when you plan to be back, and have them on standby so they are ready to receive your messages. The device also has an emergency button which will initiate a search and rescue by a local SAR team, but don’t use this unless it’s really warranted. 

Emergency gear to keep in your car 

Rangers often warn Wave orientation attendees to carry extra food, water and blankets in their car. Some believe this to be a scare tactic, we think it’s just good practice. Road conditions change fast. Cars break down. Be prepared to survive a cold night in the car. We also think a set of dry clothes is a good idea in case you’ve been caught out in the rain or snow. Even paved roads can become impassable in the snow. 

4X4 specific gear

Each Dreamland truck is stocked with an “adventure kit” to equip us for common problems in the field. If you’re heading off onto any road that requires a real four-wheel drive vehicle we strongly advise you bring:

  • Tire pressure gauge
  • Air compressor. We use something similar to this model.
  • Shovel
  • Map, yes, a real map made out of paper
  • Tow strap
  • Tire plug kit. Know how to use it. Flat tires are more common on gravel roads because of rock punctures. My husband bought me this fantastic made-in-USA plug kit for my birthday. The tools are beefy and the fibrous plugs work better to fill a hole than the cheaper kits sold at Napa. The less expensive kits are inferior but they DO work and are probably the best option for casual off-roaders who don’t plan on getting enough flat tires that they’re willing to splurge to make the repeated process of fixing tires a bit more convenient.

Have fun out there!

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