Recently I touched on hiking in deserts when looking at seasonal conditions to consider when planning a hiking trip. I thought it could be interesting to extend on that area some more and today I wanted to look at hiking in deserts in more detail.
Myself, I am a pasty white Western European from Ireland 🙂 . While I do tan, if I am careful and wise with my sun screen use, I am simply not genealogically built for the desert climate. I have experienced the desert a few times, once on a visit to Tunisia and more recently when in Death Valley.
While in Tunisia I got to see the Sahara in all it's punishing majesty and beauty. It is a sight to behold but has ‘don't mess with me' written all over it! Death Valley too was quite the experience and again, truly beautiful and majestic place.
In my first experience in the Sahara, when I was there I really only went for a short walk, not really a hike. I also rode a camel (I had to give a camel a go when I was there, when in Rome and all that) and a horse. It was mid April. Even though I only went for a short walk in, what the locals would consider, a milder time of year, I could immediately feel the impact of the searing sun on my body.
It's a tough place to be and how nomads eek a life out of the desert is just amazing. I saw some of them while there. They had very dark leathery skin which is no wonder if you spend all your days in that environment.
When in Death Valley, I did venture out onto the trail and did some short enough hikes, maybe 4 to 5 miles. Again, even though it was springtime, I found the heat tough as I hiked.
So, with the above in mind, let ‘s take a look at what you may need to consider if you're planning on hiking in a desert anytime soon. Deserts aren't typically places I seek out to hike in, however the experiences I have had, I have enjoyed so I will most likely be back in one at some point the future.
What is a desert?
I thought we could start off by taking a look at the definition of desert. There are several ways to classify a desert. One way is that a desert is defined as a place that receives less water by precipitation (through rainfall, snow, etc.) per year, than it loses in evapotranspiration (the loss of water through evaporation and plant transpiration). In short, water evaporates at a greater rate than it falls.
To try and give you some kind of a yardstick to do a comparison with, I am from Ireland. Ireland, which granted is a very wet country, gets between 75 and 125 centimeters (29.5 and 49.2 inches) of annual rain, depending where you are in the country, per year. Ireland's climate also means that it has a low evapotranspiration rate so it keeps a lot of the water it gets through rain etc. for much longer periods.
A desert will get, approximately, less than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of rainfall per year and loses that water at a much quicker rate than it falls. As a result deserts are naturally very arid and baron places where water is very hard to come by. There are also other classifications of deserts e.g. semi-deserts. However, in the context of hiking they are treated more or less in the same way.
Some very cold regions also meet the criteria for deserts, as even though there is water in the ice, there is no evapotranspiration going on. With that in mind let's look at the first key challenge of hiking in the desert.
As mentioned above, there is not a lot of water in a desert. Therefore, you need to carry lot's of it with you. The problem here is compounded by heat of the sun during the day so you're going to lose lot's of water by sweating more than you normally would. Add hiking on top of the heat and you've even more to contend with. You will dehydrate at a much faster rate.
Ideally you should carry as much drinking water with you as you think you will need, then double that estimate. Always better to have more than less. You can sometimes find water on the trail but you need to be careful with it as it will likely be filled with bacteria and viruses.
Filters and purification tablets, for example iodine, can help with that problem making water safe to drink, and it is good to have a back-up solution to the water supply you are carrying. We’ll look at filters in a bit more detail in the gear section below.
The sun is of course the main thing you have to contend with. You need specialized gear which we will look at next but you also need other common sense stuff like plenty of sun screen and after sun.
Due to the hot sun, a real threat in desert heat is heat exhaustion. This is caused by any strenuous physical activity in high temperatures. As you are constantly on the move while hiking, you could be a prime candidate for this. Heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke and onward to hyperthermia, hypothermia’s lesser known cousin, which are life threatening.
Another thing to consider is that as you are sweating so much, not only are you losing water but you’re also losing much more salt than you usually would which could lead to low sodium levels. As you drink more water to replenish your water levels you can also be flushing out more sodium in the process. To avoid this, bring salty snacks with you and eat them as you go.
If you can, avoid the hotter times of the year and travel when the temperatures are lower and as friendly as possible. If possible, also aim for places that have some known water spots as you pass through.
In summary, always respect the sun when you're out on the trail, never mind being in a desert. Of course however, a desert in terms of the power of the sun, is usually always significantly more intense.
Again, I think an experienced guide is a must for your initial hiking trips into the desert. A key reason for this is navigation. When navigating, a major part of it that you use in normal conditions is to identify land masses and marks you see on your map with what you see as you hike. This helps you orientate by establishing your position. Crucial to have any chance of knowing where you’re going!
I have never tried to navigate in a desert and can only assume it is very difficult as identifiable land masses or marks will be few and far between. In short, it’s a sea of sand so navigating will likely be very difficult. Technology should be a big help here but for those emergency situations if something breaks, it’s good to be able to rely on a map and compass which I assume would be much trickier in the desert.
It is possible there could be trails in the desert but be very careful if you’re any way unsure. Getting lost in a desert is not something you want to do!
We already looked at the sun but the weather in the desert can present other unique challenges. Many deserts have a rainy season which although brief is the main provider of the yearly rainfall.
At this time there can be dangers of flash floods in places like canyons and dry river beds. Hiking just after the rainy season should mean there is more chance of finding more water spots on the trail. Yes, it is possible that in an emergency you may need to consider drinking water you find on the trail.
Some deserts will also have thunderstorms and lightening as part of their normal weather patterns due to low pressure build up because of the heat. Try and get shelter if you get caught in one but be careful where you choose to take shelter i.e. any shelter in the desert will likely be made of rock so if there’s lightening be sure to insulate your feet from any rock or ground you may be standing on.
Standing on your pack or something else should keep you safe. In short avoid any direct connection with the ground as you are effectively a live and primed lightening rod!
If there was ever a place where you needed good gear, the desert is it. You will need lots of water bottles to carry water and you will need some filters and a water purification method for your bottles. As mentioned above, ideally you carry your water needs with you but it is possible that you may need to drink water on the trail.
Water in the desert will most likely be polluted with bacteria and viruses so you need to be very careful with it. A filter will help take care of dirt and such but you will also need some kind of purification chemical like iodine to kill off said bacteria, etc.
You can get filters that have purification means included. However, I am not an expert on water filters and purification methods best suited to the desert so I suggest you do a lot of research to find the best way of purifying water in that environment in an emergency. Water is critical so you need to use something that gives you the confidence to be comfortable drinking it.
For clothes, you will need full body protection so starting from the top, a wide brimmed hat that will protect your head and neck from the sun is a must. Next you will need a loose and breathable hiking tee. Long sleeved could be a good option too to protect your arms from the sun. Be sure to check your tee is suitable for the desert and that the sun can't get through. Light hiking pants with a high level of UPF protection are also a must.
You will need a rain jacket but not just to protect you from water! Most rain jackets are windproof which you'll need to protect from high winds which can be common in the desert. Depending on when you travel to the desert, rain may be a factor you'll need to protect yourself against too.
Next you'll need a good pair of hiking boots that are suitable for hiking in the desert. I would suggest looking for breathable boots with functional specifications like a gusseted tongue to help keep sand out of your boots.
Also, in general, you want to use light colored clothes that will reflect the heat of the sun. However, temperatures tank in the desert when the sun goes down so, ironically, you will need some clothes to keep you warm during the evening and night. A fleece or two should do the trick and you may want to pack a warmer pair of pants for the evenings too.
Finally, and I always feel this deserves a special mention, you will need good hiking socks that you've already broken in. I always say that hiking socks are as important as your hiking boots when it comes to the trail. The desert is no different. Feet sweat a lot in normal circumstances so you can imagine how much more they will sweat in a desert!
Finally, it is worth giving a mention to the sand storm. I have never been in one and I hope I never will be. In those kind of conditions I assume you just need to get down and completely cover up. An emergency shelter may be of use in that scenario should you be unlucky enough to get caught in one.
If you're not experienced at hiking in a desert then you should have an experienced guide with you. There is no debating this one. The desert will eat you up very quickly if you don't know what you're doing so experience is key. Guides will know when the best time to go is, where to camp out, if you're camping out, and how to read the weather and so on.
Wildlife and Plants
Deserts are home to some of the most beautiful and unique plant and wildlife on the planet. However, you need to be wary of some of them. For example, scorpions are a desert resident and the last thing you want to do is get stung by one as a scorpion sting, will at best be unpleasant and at worst potentially lethal.
Some scorpions are known to be fond of dark cool places like the inside of an empty hiking boot so be careful when you take your boots off and put them back on. Scorpions are not the only creature to consider, you will have others like snakes, lizards, etc. who can pack a nasty punch too.
Desert plants can also be tough characters. Many of them have barbed like parts, think of a nasty cactus plant, that can really cause difficulty if you’re unfortunate enough to get caught up in one. Some of these are like spears so keep clear.
The advice here is to again do significant research in advance of what you need to protect against and prepare for in the desert you will be hiking in. Again, this is another instance where experienced, and ideally local, guidance is invaluable and something I would not be without in my first ventures out into the desert hiking.
When you first think about hiking in a desert, the immediate thought is generally, ‘OK you're nuts! Why on earth would you want to go and hike in an environment as forbidding and potentially dangerous as that?‘
However, when I stood looking out across the Sahara the first time I ever encountered a desert, while on one side, as mentioned above, I was humbled by the punishing authority of the environment, I was also taken aback by the sheer majesty, beauty and feeling of limitlessness that it offered too.
There are many unique plants and animals to be, frankly, amazed at as well. How anything can survive there is a testament to the resilience of life. It is hard to put it all into words but it was something that I know I will like to experience again so I personally will plan desert hiking trips again in the future.
Finally, I feel I need to put a disclaimer of sorts on this post. I am not an experienced desert hiker and as such need to be clear that the above is only offered as general guidance on points to consider.
If you’re planning to hike in the desert sometime in the near future be sure to get the right guidance from experienced desert hikers and ideally have a professional, local and experienced hiking guide with you on your trek.
As mentioned several times above, the desert is an unforgiving place and will show little mercy if you do not respect it appropriately. In short, use common sense, research your destination well and get experienced local guidance.
Have you ever hiked in the desert? What was your experience like? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below.