Desert Hiking Tips
Suggestions & Equipment
Travel in the desert can be an adventure. It can also be a disaster if a breakdown or a sudden change in weather catches you unprepared. Be aware of the hazards of desert travel both in winter and summer. Be aware of the limitations of GPS devices. Harsh weather conditions can turn a desert outing into a tragedy. Acquire a knowledge of desert survival skills. Travel in pairs for safety in backcountry areas.
Carry Plenty of Water -- 1 gallon per day, per person
There are no dependable sources of water in the desert regions. One gallon of water per person, per day is the absolute minimum that should be carried. When planning a hike, remember that water weighs approximately 8 pounds per gallon. When the water is half gone, it is time to turn back. Don't forget extra water for your vehicle. DO NOT RATION YOUR WATER. It will only do you good if you drink it.
Plan Your Trip Carefully
Always tell someone where you are going and when you will return. Stick with your itinerary, and let them know when you return. Do not travel in the desert backcountry without taking along appropriate maps such as USGS topographic maps, which show land contours and specific features. Learn how to use a topographic map and a compass before you hike cross-country or on trails that are not well defined. It is easy to become disoriented in the desert where many landmarks and rock formations look similar.
In summer, layered clothing slows dehydration and minimizes exposure. Good hiking shoes, loose fitting natural-fiber clothing, a wide brimmed hat, sunglasses and sunscreen are a must. Desert temperatures can reach over 90° F. and drop below 50° F. in one day. Summer temperatures can reach 125° F. in some locations. In winter, temperatures can often drop below freezing. Bring extra warm clothing.
Minimum Impact Hiking
Desert soils are fragile and take a long time to recover if disturbed. Darker soil surfaces that crumble easily indicate cryptogamic soils. Mosses, lichens and bacteria bind together to form a crust that prevents wind and water erosion and protects seeds that fall into the soil. Take special care to avoid these areas.
Know Your Limits
Hiking in the desert often means traveling over rough, steep terrain with frequent elevation changes. Never hike alone and be sure to tell someone where you're going and when you plan to return. Carry plenty of water; at least 1 gallon of water per person per day and remember to drink often!
Essential Hiking & Walking Equipment
Sturdy walking/hiking shoes and proper clothing. Wear long pants to protect yourself from rocks and cactus. Carry a small waist or back pack to carry water, food, first aid kit, sunscreen, jacket, and a flash light.
Make sure you carry a map of the trail and surrounding areas. It is also a good idea to carry waterproof matches, a pocket knife, and a fine-tooth plastic comb for removing cactus needles.
What Causes Flash Floods?
When a violent thunderstorm breaks over the mountains and deserts of the southwest, runoff from the torrential rains cascades into the steep canyons in a matter of minutes. Walls of water sometimes 10 to 30 feet high swirl through the canyons and arroyos, picking up mud, boulders, trees and other debris. Plants, animals and sometimes people are caught, swept along and battered in the onrushing torrent of the flash flood. Flash floods can result from thunderstorms centered over mountains many miles away.
Flash Flood Seasons
Flash floods can occur in the southwestern United States at any time of the year, but the predominant seasons are summer and early fall. They can occur as the result of isolated thunderstorms in late June to mid-September or tropical storms or other general storms mostly from August to October.
A thunderstorm cloud, called cumulonimbus, is a large towering cloud, frequently spreading out on top into the shape of an anvil. It usually appears dark and threatening when viewed from below, but very bright and white when seen from the side at some distance.
Protect Your Life
- Keep an eye and ear to the sky. Be alert for thunder or lightning in your vicinity and over nearby hills.
- Listen frequently to weather reports on radio.
- Camp on high ground but not on top of exposed peaks or ridges.
- Avoid deep canyons and dry washes during stormy or threatening weather.
If heavy rains occur, move to high ground immediately (at least 30 to 40 feet above the canyon floor or bottom of the dry wash).
If you can't move your vehicle, abandon it. Take your survival gear with you. Don't attempt to return to your vehicle until the sky clears or officials give you the OK.
Don't try to drive through flooded areas. Abandon your car if water begins to rise over the road. Move to high ground immediately.
Follow instructions of local authorities. Leave immediately when warned. Many lives have been lost because people have not heeded warnings of police officers, park rangers and other officials.
Before you leave home, inform someone of your destination and when you expect to return. Police should be notified immediately if you do not return on time.
Take survival supplies for several days, including food, water, first aid equipment and necessary medication. In desert areas during hot weather, allow 3 to 4 gallons of water per day, per person.
For Flash Flood and Thunderstorm Information:
- National Weather service
- Local Police, Sheriff's Office, Highway Patrol
- Automobile associations -- AAA, etc.
- County Flood Control District Office
- US Army Corps of Engineers Local Office
- State Disaster Office
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The Desert Environment
The North American Deserts
Desert Geological Terms