Hiking in the desert of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona can be an otherworldly experience. Its rugged landscapes, austere beauty, and tranquil atmosphere are just some of the things that make the desert so unique, drawing adventurers from all across the globe. While the Southwest desert is most definitely a magical place to explore, its extreme nature requires those who visit to learn to adapt. With a little extra planning and the right gear, however, you can relish in their beauty both comfortably and safely. Here are some of the best safety tips for hiking in desert terrain.
General Desert Hiking Safety Tips
Avoid Midday Heat
The midday desert heat can be intense and unforgiving, offering little shelter to seek refuge. It’s best to avoid long hikes during the hottest part of the day between 10am and 4pm, especially in the summer months, and venture out in the early morning. If you’re on an all-day hike take advantage of a shady spot under cliffs or vegetation to have a rest during the mid-day sun.
When hiking in high temperatures, it’s vital to ensure you stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Dehydration occurs when your body loses more water than it’s taking in, which prevents your body from functioning as it should. It’s important to drink water regularly during your hike, and not just when you’re thirsty. Thirst is a sign you’re already dehydrated.
While drinking water and staying hydrated is critical, you’ll also want to make sure you’re replenishing your electrolytes. When you sweat, you lose sodium and other essential minerals your body needs to perform at its best. Replenish these electrolytes by drinking sports drinks, adding electrolyte powder to your water, and eating salty snacks.
Dress Appropriately and Wear SPF
When hiking, you always want to dress for the climate you’re venturing into. The desert sun can burn skin easily so you’ll want to wear lightweight, breathable clothing, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, and lather on the SPF. Opt for loose-fitting attire that’s light in color to reflect the sunlight which in turn will keep you cooler. While it may seem like you should wear as little clothing as possible in the desert heat, the last thing you want is a sunburn, so it’s better to opt for layers with long sleeves as well. You might be surprised: wearing long sleeves in the form of a lightweight sun shirt can actually be cooler than wearing short sleeves! If you don’t believe us, just think about traditional Bedouin attire. Also remember that at night desert temperatures can drop drastically so don’t forget to bring warmer layers in case you’re out when the sun goes down.
Know the Signs of Heat-Related Illnesses
Strenuous physical activity combined with desert temperatures has the potential to trigger heat-related illnesses like dehydration, hyponatremia, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke. Before embarking on a desert hike, it’s essential to know how to recognize signs of these conditions and how to administer first aid effectively. Taking a Wilderness First Aid course like these offered by Global Emergency Medics may be beneficial to be fully prepared with the knowledge and skills to take on any kind of emergency situation while hiking.
Share Your Itinerary With Someone
Regardless of where you’re hiking, make sure to leave your itinerary with a family member or close friend to let them know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. While we hope for everything to go as planned, accidents are a real possibility. If you do happen to become lost or injured, it’s important someone knows where to look so you can get the help you need as quickly as possible.
Go With a Guide
Regardless of how seasoned of a hiker you are you should always have a hiking buddy; and if you’re venturing into a new area for the first time, going with a guide can be a tremendous benefit. A professional tour guide doesn’t just know the area like the back of their hand, they also know what to do in emergency situations. Here At Dreamland Safari Tours, all of our guides have medical training and most are certified Wilderness First Responders so that you can rest assured: they are fully prepared for any scenario that may arise.
Hiking “The Wave” in the Heat
There is a reason that we call it “the dead of summer.” The hot months of the year here in the Southwest are generally June, July and August though May and September also have excessively hot days on occasion. If you hold a Wave permit during the hot months, make sure to take your preparations seriously. Not only is the Wave a committing off-trail hike; it is also a 6.5 mile roundtrip with close to zero shade. The sun exposure for the Wave hike is real, and there is no relief. That’s why there are multiple search and rescue calls from distressed hikers at the Wave each summer, and why we here at Dreamland Safari Tours start our Wave tours at 6am (or even earlier) during the hot months. It’s why Dreamland Safari Tours guides carry cooling cloths and frozen water bottles for our guests during the summer, and why we all pay close attention to spotting early warning signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The Wave hike is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most visitors – if your permit is for the hot time of the year, don’t gamble with your life.
Desert Hiking Gear Checklist
If you do go hiking in the heat, the below list may come in handy: in addition to your routine hiking gear, here are some items you’ll want to bring specifically for hot desert environments.
- Sunscreen: Prevent sunburns by applying broad spectrum SPF30 or higher sunscreen to all exposed skin every couple of yours. Don’t forget about your ears and lips.
- Wide-brimmed hat: A wide-brimmed hat will protect your face, head, and eyes from the desert sun.
- Sunglasses: Polarized, UV-protectant sunglasses are best to reduce glare.
- Breathable clothing: Wear breathable clothing in layers. Opt for light colors which reflect the sun. A bandana is also useful to protect eyes and mouth from dust or sandstorms.
- Extra water: You can never bring too much water on a desert hike; budget at least a gallon per person per day.
- Sun umbrella: Don’t laugh, this can be a lifesaver in the desert. Amazon has several lightweight affordable options. Pro tip: use a few straps and your backpack to rig your umbrella for handsfree use.
First and foremost – stay safe, and have fun out there. Conditions in the desert can be extreme, but exploring far off the beaten path (when done safely!) is an incredible opportunity for rewarding adventure.