15 Tips to Stay Alive While Hiking in the Desert

Hiking in the heat can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be deadly—as long as you’re prepared

Jo Piazza—Hiking in the desert is not for the faint of heart, or for the inexperienced hiker.

The desert heat recently claimed the lives of a French couple hiking in the dunes of White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. The pair collapsed and died from heat-related illness at different points during their journey. Their 9-year old son survived. On the day the couple died the temperature was 101 degrees, which is typical for the summer months. 

Hiking in the heat can be difficult, but it isn’t impossible and it doesn’t have to be deadly—as long as you’re prepared. 

For some advice we turned to Joe Impecoven. Impecoven is in charge of outdoor programs and outreach for REI. He spent 25 years growing up and hiking in the Sonoran Desert around Phoenix and led hikes as an Outdoor School Instructor for REI.  

Here are some of his suggestions for staying safe in the dessert.

Desert hikes require plenty of water. Make sure to drink at least a liter every hour you’re out in the sun. (Photo: Erik Isakson/Tetra Images/Corbis)

1. Water. Do we really have to list this one? Impecoven recommends bringing two liters of water minimum (more if than 2 hours+). “Whether you’re taking a 10 minute trail run or a two hour hike up Camelback Mountain a twisted ankle can leave you stranded for hours and a 12 ounce plastic bottle won’t suffice,” he says.  Expert tip: Chug as much water as you can at the trail head - at least a liter. Then top off your bottle so it’s completely full when you hit the trail. 

If you’re feeling the heat, try to find some shade near a rock to rest and cool down. (Photo: Jessica Sample/Corbis)

2. Take advantage of all shade.  If you do find yourself running out of water or become overheated, find a rock or anything casting a shadow and sit in it for an hour or two.  Breathing through your nose will conserve moisture.  When the sun starts to set, carry on, it’ll be a lot less hot.

3. Bring Kool Tie’s. “Developed by a lovely couple in Arizona, Kool ties are neckerchiefs that contain hundreds of little beads that soak up and swell with cool water,” Impecoven says. “Hiking with one around your neck can be great for keeping cool.”

4. Do not eat the cacti. It’s a myth that breaking open a cactus will do anything for your thirst. Cactus pulp may contain water, but it’s salty and no good to drink.

A bit of a long shot, but keep an eye out for trees and bushes that may be growing around a spring. (Photo: Michael DeYoung/Corbis)

5. Look for deciduous trees or bushes.  They’ll only grow near a water source.  Sometimes you’ll see them clustered around a spring on a hillside. But don’t count on this, springs are a long shot and are usually too deep underground to get water from.

Google maps won’t help you out in the middle of the desert. (Photo: Odyssey Stock)

6. Bring a map. In this device-enabled age it’s easy to forget the importance of analog technology.  Google will do nothing for you out in the desert.  "Take a class and learn how to properly navigate. Abandon any myths you may have heard about navigating by the sun and the moon. Chances are what you heard was incorrect and anyone who can actually use those celestial tools would rather use a map and compass. REI offers several navigation courses,” Impecoven says. Better yet, get a decent topo map. As a bonus, good maps often show water courses and springs.

7. Bring moleskin and extra socks: Friction and heat are the cause of blisters. “If you have a hotspot in your shoe the hot dry desert air may not be helping it. Moleskin and a fresh pair of socks can turn a crummy hike into a great one,” Impecoven says.

8. Pack snacks. Pack a few snack bars to keep your energy high. “Salty snacks are great to help retain the water you’re losing so quickly,” Impecoven says.

9. Bring a flashlight/Headlamp: Desert sunsets can be the best and it’s easy to spend some extra time watching the sunset from the top of a peak. The problem is you are now hiking down in the dark. Bring yourself some light. You won’t regret it.

It’s not a contest. Your safety is more important than bragging rights. (Photo: Luis Felix/Stocksy)

10. Don’t get cocky. The desert in the summer is no joke. You really can’t go as far as you might otherwise think you can without lots and lots of water so don’t try to be heroic.

11. Have an extra cell phone battery/portable charger:  Cell phones heat up and malfunction easily in the desert heat. Don’t use your phone’s fitness program or other energy draining apps. Turn the phone off so it will be available for emergencies. 

12. Pack a mustache comb or a multi-tool. “The Teddy Bear Cholla cactus only needs the slightest grazing touch to let go of a big clump of cactus that will grab onto your, clothing, gear, and skin,” Impecoven warns. “A mustache comb is a must to remove the barbs from anywhere you’ve taken a hit.”

13. Wear a hat and loose clothing. The last thing you need is a sunburn. An exposed head will heat up far faster than a well shaded one which can lead to heatstroke and the need for even more water.

Slow down and really soak in all that beautiful desert scenery. (Photo: Micky Wiswedel/Stocksy)

14. Take it easy. The desert is a wonderful place. Slow down and enjoy the silence. Walking at a comfortable, slow pace will ease the heat and the need for water and you’ll also get a much deeper level of enjoyment out of your hike!

15. Don’t bring the dog. “Dogs should not hike in the desert during the summer,” Impecoven says. “A simple rule is if you can’t sit on the hot ground your dog shouldn’t be hiking, even with boots.”

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