Backpacking in the Desert

Backpacking in the Desert. А Full Guide

(Last Updated: May 7, 2019)

Do you know why people fear hiking in deserts? They assume that the desert is dangerous, full of poisonous snakes, and completely inhospitable. This is not entirely true. Deserts have a unique ecosystem, rare plants and wildlife, and breathtaking landscapes and rocks. In fact, desert hiking can be a rewarding adventure that will stay in your mind forever. The best time to enjoy an awesome desert hike is during early spring, late autumn, and winter.

If you a history enthusiast who loves to collect artifacts, bones, and other ancient items, a desert hike will be automatic heaven for you. But the truth is, backpacking in the deserted is not an affair for the weak hearted. Hot sun, scarce water, flash floods, and yes, poisonous snakes are just but a few things that can ruin your adventure. However, if you are an adventurous person looking for some series of adrenaline rush and thrilling experience, read on. We have pulled together a comprehensive guide on everything you need to know when you are hiking in the desert.

Avoid overheating

Desert hiking can become uncomfortably hot. Thus, you will need to take all necessary precautions to avoid overheating. Additionally, it is extremely crucial for you to equip yourself with first aid training for conditions associated with overheating such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

1. Think like a desert animal

Study the behavior of desert animals; they will always retreat during the hottest parts of the day. Similarly, avoid hiking during the hottest parts of the day. This means that you should start your hike as early as you can. Ensure that you have packed a good headlamp, compass, and a map and begin your hike before sunrise. Also, try as much as possible to cover half of the distance you intend to travel in a day in the morning before it gets too hot. Hours between 10 am and 4 pm are usually the hottest.

2. Hike at night

Remember you want to avoid overheating as much as possible. The nights will have much cooler temperatures, and your body will not demand a lot of water. When hiking at night, use trails that are easy or familiar. This can present an awe-inspiring adventure especially if there is a moon to light your way. However, be on the lookout for other wild animals that may also be out taking advantage of the cool temperatures.

3. Rest often

Rest often

Take advantage of the duration when the sun is hottest and take a nap. Extremely high temperatures, especially after 10 am, usually drain your body’s energy levels at an alarmingly fast rate. Thus, such times are the best times to rest, nap, eat lunch, read a book (or a map), or to just relax. Whenever possible, take the break near a water source and away from direct sun. if there is no shade available, you can make a shade of your own. Relax and let your body’s energy levels rejuvenate.

4. Stay hydrated

Stay hydrated

Whenever a chance arises, get wet. Immerse your clothes, especially your top and scarf, in water and put them back on. This is a very effective way to cool down your body. As the water on the clothes evaporates, it will leave behind the much needed cooling effect. The wet scarf or bandana should be tied on your neck to make the cooling process even more effective.

Even when the heat is immense, do not be tempted to use your drinking water to get wet. Always wait until you get to the next water body on your trail. However, always remember to follow the 7 LNT principles. Be considerate of other hikers who will come after you and avoid polluting the water bodies.

In case you are lucky to come across a river, lake, or a large oasis, take advantage of this golden opportunity to soak your feet or whole body in the water. This is the most effective way of cooling off.

5. Seek shade

Seek shade

You may not be lucky to have a tree to offer shade at your every stop but there are other options available. If you are in a rocky area, outcropping rocks will offer perfect shade to hide from the scorching sun. In other areas, small shrubs or cactus plants may be the only sources of shade. The idea here is to conserve as much water in your body as possible. Thus, never sleep under direct the sun; instead, always look for some form of shade.

Some seasoned desert hikers prefer to carry a portable hiking umbrella to keep them out of the hot desert sun. They are very light and are said to lower the feel of the sun up to 15 degrees. Impressive, right? However, these hiking umbrellas are not a substitute for any layer of clothing and cannot withstand very windy weather. They only make the hot sun or walking in pouring rain more bearable. While some hikers prefer not to carry these umbrellas, many agree that these hiking umbrellas are an ultimate savior when the sun gets too hot and or when there are unexpected rains.

6. Prepare in advance

Prepare in advance

The one most important commodity you cannot do without in a desert is water. The heat drains away water from your body very fast and you will need to keep replenishing it often. Roughly, a person may drink anywhere between 4 to 6 liters of water in a day. Considering that water in deserts can get very scarce, having enough water to drink, cook, and use while camping is extremely important.

You will need to do a prior study of your maps to identify the water sources available on your route and to determine the approximate water quantity you need between water sources. Should you find that some sources are drying up, fill up your containers with whatever water you find regardless of how filthy it may look.

7. Carry a backup water filter

 backup water filter

The water sources in deserts change as you move from one desert to the other. Also, the amount of water available is largely dependent on the seasons of the year. A majority of desert hikers opt to hike during spring and autumn. This is when the water supply in deserts is thought to be a bit higher and more reliable – though it is not guaranteed.

Thus, you will need to conduct prior research about the sources of water along your hiking route. The info will help you select the most appropriate water filtration method. There are two factors that determine the ideal filtration method for you. These are water quality in the source and the amount you will need to filter.

If you plan on hiking with your friends or spouse, you may need to carry a filter that can hold a large water quantity at each source (4 liters and above). Take a look at our review of the best backpacking water filters to find out more.

Most sources of water are stagnant and thus easily polluted by desert animals as they come to drink. Thus, it is a good idea to always bring water treatment alternatives such as Chlorine Dioxide pills. These will save the situation should the water filters block or become inefficient.

The most common water sources available for desert hikers and the wildlife are mostly puddles and stock tanks. Thus, brace yourself for unpleasant waters. Do not be shocked to occasionally We recommend packing all the things you may require to filter the water. These include items such as clean clothe to pre-filter dirty water and a backflush that rectify a slow filter. Do not forget to bring some flavored drinks—they will make the taste of the water bearable.

8. Pack in some salty snacks

salty snacks

Although you may barely notice, your body loses water rapidly due to the desert’s extremely high temperature. Unfortunately the water available may not be enough to match the amount being lost. You will need to do all you can to conserve the water already in your body. Taking foods containing a considerable amount of salt does exactly that. Salt slows down the process of water loss in the body by minimizing the frequency and amounts of urine.

Ensure that you are frequently snacking on nuts, dried fruits, veggies, bars, candy and other snacks of this kind. They will greatly reduce the likelihood of suffering from exhaustion. Additionally, they will replace important electrolytes that were lost through sweating.

In case you are consuming a lot of dry foods, you will need to up your water intake. Dry foods usually need a lot of water to be digested. If your water intake is low you are likely to suffer from dehydration. Another smart idea is to put the dried fruits you intend to take for breakfast in a container of water when going to sleep. Some minerals and nutrients in the fruits top skin transfer to the water and will be more easily absorbed in the body.

9. Shield your skin from the sun

The heat of the scorching desert sun can easily lure you into removing your clothes. This is not recommended. In fact, you are advised to wear lightweight, loosely fitting, and breathable long-sleeved tops and pants. If you prefer to wear short-sleeved tops and shorts, ensure that you regularly and generously apply enough amounts of SPF sunscreen. Also, if you experience any signs of sunburns (tenderness and burning sensation) inspect your skin for likely sunburns and cover any exposed area.

10. Shield your eyes too

Shield your eyes

The harshness of the desert climate will not spare your eyes. When your eyes are exposed to too much dust, dryness, sun, and heat they may experience irritation, temporal blindness, or sunspots. Sometime you may even experience a headache.

An easy method to shield your eyes is by wearing a hat and a pair of sunglasses. The hat will shield your eyes especially during sunrise and sunset hours when the sun is shining at an angle. An ideal hat is one that dries very fast, is made of breathable material, and has a brim wide enough to offer maximum shielding from the sun.

When shopping for desert hiking eyeglasses always go for those with UVA and UVB protection. Also, ensure the glasses are comfy for you to put on the whole day. To increase visibility around sand and desert rocks always go for sunglasses with polarized lenses. These lenses normally disperse away excess light away from your eyes. On the flipside, while wearing glasses with polarized lenses you will be required to take them off so that you can read your phone or GPS device. A good idea would be to have your sunglasses secured around your neck using a retainer. This way, it will be easier to take the sunglasses on and off and to secure them from falling and crushing or getting lost.

11. Create some self-care routine

Because your body is dealing with already harsh weather, it is extremely crucial for you to take care of it. Take advantage of meal break and siestas to cool off and air your feet. Use your backpack to raise them up to prevent them from swelling and to hasten your body’s recovery process. 

These breaks are also useful in airing your shoes and socks to prevent them from stinking. Also, you will be able to get rid of any sand that might have gotten into your shoes to avoid getting blisters.

12. Moisturize your skin

This is yet another self-care routine that you should adopt. To ensure your skin also survives the desert heat glowing as usual you will need to keep it moisturized and healthy. Make sure all your clothes are correctly worn avoiding any folds as much as possible. Additionally, in case some areas of your skin are chaffing, apply lotion to them soonest possible.

Another good skincare routine is to clean your body at the end of each day’s hike. This will relief heat rash and irritations that might have been caused by salts left on the skin after intense sweating. Set apart a few clothes to use as you go to sleep to give your body a break from the sweat filled hiking clothes. A good moisturizer is coconut oil. It can be used as a moisturizer and as cooking oil too.

13. Be on the lookout for thorns and thorny plants

thorny plants

The highest percentage of a desert’s ground cover will include cactus species and other thorny plants. If you are not careful these plants may be a pain in your foot—literally. Thus, always have your shoes on and walk carefully to avoid stepping on these thorns.

Keenly inspect your campsite for these thorny plants and clear any of them present. However, let these plants not scare you from bringing your inflatable sleeping pads. You will only need to place a ground cloth under your pad to protect it from any thorn that may have been left unnoticed. Note that accidents happen, and sometimes deflated sleeping pads happen. So, always pack in a small patch kit or duct tape for use in such scenarios.

14. Learn how to remove a cactus thorn


Regardless of how careful you are, a cactus thorn is still very likely to get its way into your skin. These spines are not poisonous nor do they produce any irritating liquids. However, the pain they cause is usually agonizing. No professional care is needed to remove these thorns.

Although some people prefer the use of duct tape, the use of tweezers is more efficient. It is always recommended that you pack a small pair of tweezers in your backpack.

Here is how to remove cactus spines from your skin:

  • Hold the thorn as close to the skin as possible using your pair of tweezers.
  • With a slow but steady motion, pull the thorn out.
  • Care should be taken not to break the thorn since the smaller it is, the harder it will be to remove.

In case several small spines enter your skin at the same time, it may be practically impossible to remove them one by one using tweezers. Also, it may be so painful that you can barely wait. The best and fastest method would be the use of duct tape to pull the glochids from your skin. You may need to use two or more pieces of tape to get them all out.

15. Beware of snakes

Beware of snakes

Deserts are well known as a habitat for a variety of poisonous snakes such as the rattlesnake. Although this fact may make you afraid of backpacking in a desert, the possibility of having a dangerous experience with them is quite low. You only need to be careful. Note that a snake will only bite when they feel like you are threatening them. If you leave them alone, then you are less likely to have a snake bite ruin the thrill of your journey.

However, if you are one of those backpackers who love wearing headphones while hiking, leave one year open. Most snakes normally produce sounds to warn you before they bite. Be keen and listen for these warning signs to prevent likely bites.

16. Pack light

Unlike on other backcountry hikes, a large part of your luggage when backpacking is water. Remember water by itself is already heavy, so, a good idea would be to bring the lightest items possible. Carry only a few lightweight clothes, a light backpack, light and easily portable shelter, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and other items you may need.

17. Be ready for all kinds of weather

Deserts are not always hot. The difference between the day and night temperatures can be up as high as 60 degrees. You need to be ready for any type of weather. You may be sweating due to the scorching midday sun and in a flash of a second, you may find yourself dripping wet due to a sudden thunderstorm. This is very common especially during summer and spring seasons. These thunderstorms are often characterized by strong winds and lightning.

Thus, take all the precautions necessary and learn to hike through different climatic conditions. Also, it is extremely crucial that you understand all the signs of complications caused by extreme temperature fluctuations. The most common are heat stroke and hypothermia.

18. Learn how to use a physical map and compass


There are very few established trails in deserts. Thus, desert navigation can be a real challenge. If you are not careful, you can easily get lost. For this reason, it is extremely important that you know how to use a map and compass for navigation.

When starting your hike, use your compass to get a bearing of the direction you are headed. The maps will then give you a mental picture of where you are, the distance you need to travel to your next stop and the landscape of the area you are hiking through. Another smart practice is timing your average hiking speed per mile. This will help you in estimating the distance you have already covered. To avoid getting lost on your way back, it is wise to record your route using a navigation app or mark them on a small book or on the physical map you are carrying.

Navigation in the desert will form part of the awesome hiking memories. If you master the art of using the physical map and compass for direction, you will have the freedom of following whichever direction you want without the fear of getting lost. Also, you may just decide to establish your own tracks. But, always remember to follow the 7 LNT principles. New tracks should only be formed on durable surfaces and plants and lush vegetation should be avoided as much as possible.

19. Have a GPS App

Have a GPS App

Whether you are a seasoned user of the old school maps and compass, a phone GPS app will be something that you may end up appreciating more. These apps will help you know how much distance you have traveled and the remaining part. Also, they are a quick yet accurate device that will make dessert navigation even easier without having to pack in any extra luggage.

Learn more about using your phone as a GPS device here.

Even when you plan on using your phone GPS for navigation, do not forget to carry your map and compass. They will come in handy in case the phone battery dies.


In Conclusion

Do not let the harsh climates discourage you from backpacking in the desert. The memories you make in such areas are precious and will last forever. Additionally, a hike in the desert will not only be a chance to explore other parts of the world but it helps you appreciate the diversity of the world as a whole. Be sure to use the tips above on your next hike in the desert. Remember to stay safe and have fun.

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