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THIS ADVENTURE GUIDE COVERS EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT HIKING IN THE DESERT; INCLUDING, TIPS ON WHERE TO GO, WHAT TO BRING AND HOW TO STAY SAFE WHILE EXPLORING THE BEAUTIFUL (BUT HARSH) LANDSCAPE.
Hiking in the desert can be a truly magical experience. The landscape, the weather, the harshness of it all makes it feel like you are always on the edge of either some great adventure or a terrifying death.
We have spent many months exploring the various deserts around the United States - including road tripping and hiking in Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave desert, camping in the Sonoran desert in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, soaking in various hot springs in the Great Basin desert and adventuring all over the southern desert of Utah (including canyoneering in its famous canyon country). And still, even after all of those trips and years spent in the hot, dry landscape, we still feel like we have only scratched the surface.
This is because the desert is complicated and layered. It is also massive. In fact, some scientists believe that 30% of the whole USA falls under the category of being arid or semi-arid (aka a desert). Within that space, you can find all kinds of different landscapes - from the incredibly hot and dry Mojave in California to the relatively lush and vibrant Sonoran in southern Arizona. If you have ever considered what it would be like to explore the deserts of the USA - or you have visited before but now want to head out on even more exciting desert adventures - then this adventure guide is for you.
Below you will find everything you need to know about hiking in the desert; including, the top places to go, the main safety concerns and steps you should take to recreate responsibly and the outdoor gear you will need to explore comfortably (no matter the temperature). We also outline some important tips on camping in the desert - because if you have ever wanted to see the stars, then the desert is for you.
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT THE DESERTS OF THE USA
| There are 4 types of deserts in the USA: the Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan and the Great Basin Desert.
| The largest desert in the country is the Great Basin Desert. It covers 190,000 square miles and spreads out into such states as Nevada, Utah, California, Oregon, Arizona and Idaho. This desert is also home to the oldest known living organism in the world, the Bristlecone Pine Tree (scientists believe some of the Bristlecone's to be over 5,000 years old).
| Some of the most common animals that live in the desert are coyotes, desert bighorn sheep, cottontails, kangaroo rats, mule deer, rattlesnakes, scorpions and some spiders. Though, due to the heat, it can be tough to spot any wildlife during the day (you are more likely to see them at night).
POPULAR DESERT HIKING AREAS IN THE USA
There are many destinations around the USA that are popular for desert hiking, including numerous national parks and national monuments, state parks and reserves. Interestingly enough, all of the deserts in the USA are west of the Mississippi River in an area often referred to as the American Southwest. Similarly, while you can find some desert environments in northern states like Idaho and Oregon, many of the desert environments are found within the states of Arizona, Utah, California, New Mexico and Nevada.
Below are a few of the most popular places to hike in the desert:
NATIONAL PARKS AND MONUMENTS
Grand Canyon National Park | Arizona
Saguaro National Park | Arizona
Canyon de Chelly National Monument | Arizona
Montezuma Castle National Monument | Arizona
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument | Arizona
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument | Arizona
Death Valley National Park | California
Joshua Tree National Park | California
Mesa Verde National Park | Colorado
Great Basin National Park | Nevada
White Sands National Park | New Mexico
Arches National Park | Utah
Bryce Canyon National Park | Utah
Canyonlands National Park | Utah
Capitol Reef National Park | Utah
Zion National Park | Utah
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | California
Valley of Fire State Park | Nevada
Goblin Valley State Park | Utah
Kodachrome Basin State Park | Utah
A few other desert areas worth exploring are the Mojave desert itself - especially the Mojave National Preserve or Sheephole Valley Wilderness, the Escalante area in southern Utah and most of central Nevada (we suggest exploring it on the aptly named Loneliest Highway - read our full road trip guide here).
TIPS FOR HIKING IN THE DESERT
One of the most important things to keep in mind when hiking in the desert is your overall safety. Because of the desert's harsh environment, you need to make sure you come prepared for all manner of situations. The biggest dangers of hiking in the desert - and the ones you need to be the most aware of - are overheating, dehydration and animals (mainly snakes and scorpions). But, for the most part, as long as you come prepared and use your common sense, you should be perfectly safe hiking around the beautiful desert environments.
Below are a few important desert hiking safety tips to keep in mind:
| Come prepared with clothing that provides sun protection, including a shirt with long sleeves and a hood and full-length pants. This ensures that your skin is protected from the sun's harmful rays, which is one of the main causes of heat exhaustion (plus sunburns are no fun). You can find our full desert hiking gear list below.
| Don’t hike during the middle of the day (especially in the summer), instead hike when it is cooler like in the mornings or at dusk. Or if you really want an interesting adventure, grab a headlamp and head out at night.
💬 INSIDER TIP: the first time we visited Moab was in early July (I know, what were we thinking). We soon realized that being out in the middle of the day was absolutely miserable. So instead we would get up before the sun rose and explore instead. This not only allowed us to beat the heat, but we were also able to see some pretty stunning sunrises. Plus, once done, we still had a full day left to swim in the Colorado River or hang out in a coffee shop.
| Carry a first aid kit with you. This should be mentioned for all types of adventures but definitely when you are in the desert. A good first aid kit will have band-aids, tape, disinfectant wipes and gauze. And if it doesn't have one already, a pair of tweezers would also be a good idea just in case you run into some cacti and need to pull out some of the thorns/spines.
| Wear closed-toed shoes to protect your feet from prickly cactus, desert animals and sharp rocks. While it might be tough to convince yourself to wear full on boots when it is hot out, this is where having wicking shoes come in really handy. And if you don't feel like wearing full hiking boots, then consider a pair of closed-toed sandals (like Keens) or lighter trainers.
| When out hiking in the desert - especially at night - you need to always be aware of your surroundings, especially of where you are placing your feet. Because of the desert's often intense heat during the day, many desert-dwellers choose to come out at night (they are known as nocturnal), including animals such as coyotes, foxes, kangaroo rats, owls, mountain lions, snakes, lizards and scorpions.
If you are planning to hike at night (either because it is cooler or because you want a better chance of seeing wildlife) always remember to have a flashlight handy and to watch where you are stepping.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: in the summer many animals choose to lay out in the middle of the road to soak up that extra heat. When driving in the desert always look out for wildlife in the middle of the road - including lizards and snakes.
| You also need to always be aware of the desert's plant life; including, various cacti. When out hiking you want to always look where you are stepping just in case it is on a cactus or other barbed plant (the desert is full of highly defensive flora). Similarly, if you are hiking near some type of body of water, you need to keep an eye out for poison ivy and/or poison oak. Once again, this is why wearing longer clothing is so important in the desert.
By far one of the most important things to carry with you while out hiking in the desert is water. Without enough water, you can face some serious consequences - including of course dehydration, which in turn can lead to disorientation, headaches, lightheadedness and muscle cramps.
While the amount of water you need to carry depends on how far you are planning to hike and what the overall temperature and terrain look like (steep, flat, rolling..), a good rule of thumb when deciding how much water to bring with you on the trail is to have at least 1 liter of water for every hour or so you plan to be hiking.
Now to be fair that number is not a clear cut answer. In fact, there are many instances where you might not need as much water. We personally have adventured in the desert with a bit less water overall and been okay. But we have spent years exploring the desert and we know how our body handles the temperature and terrain. So while 1 liter per hour is a great place to start, in the end, you want to always listen to your body.
| One great way to deal with needing that much water is to carry a water filter with you. While deserts often do not have that many water sources, depending on the season, you might be surprised to find a few viable streams along your hike. You can find a couple of recommended water filters in our Desert Hiking Gear List below.
| Similarly, one of the best ways to carry your water with you on the trail is in a water bladder that fits nicely into your backpack. If you can carry all of your water in a bladder (which usually comes in a 2-2.5 liter size) then you can more easily scramble around on rocks, head up and down steep rocky sections and just be able to use your hands more easily (this is great if you like to take photos along your hike).
| Besides packing plenty of water with you, also make sure to have a couple of handy snacks that also provide a bit of hydration. This can include foods such as peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, cut melon, peaches, oranges and celery. These foods will not only give you a nice bit of extra water, but many of them also contain a fair amount of natural sugars - which is usually a great help out in the hot desert.
| It is also a good idea - especially if you are planning to hike for a decent amount of time (5+ hours) to have some sort of electrolyte with you. We tend to veer more towards having electrolyte powders or squirts (we especially like the Mio Sport squirts), but you can also purchase electrolyte gummies at most outdoor stores.
| One of the last tips on staying hydrated while hiking in the desert is to simply start your day already hydrated. This might seem like a no brainer but honestly it is really important to start at a healthy level of hydration before you even start exercising. Before stepping out on the trail, drink at least a couple of cups of water - your body will thank you later.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: one of the best ways to monitor your level of hydration is to keep track of how often you actually go to the bathroom (once every 2-3 hours is healthy) as well as the color of your pee (light yellow to clear is hydrated, while a darker color means you need to drink more water).
We have mentioned it before but it is always worth saying again: when hiking in the desert try to avoid the heat of the day as much as possible. This is especially true in the hot summer months (June - August) when temperatures in most deserts can easily reach above 95° F / 35° C. And, in some places, even reach temperatures above 105° F / 41° C. Those temperatures are not only uncomfortable to be out in, but can also be dangerous.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: Death Valley National Park in California is often listed as one of the hottest places on Earth. In fact, it is the hottest place in North America and has the highest recorded temperature ever on the surface of the Earth (134° F / 57° C in 1913).
Therefore it is super important to always check the weather and expected temperature before heading out on any hiking adventure. Know your own limits when it comes to hiking in the heat and if you think it is too hot, wait a bit and instead hike later in the day or earlier in the morning when the temperatures are usually quite a bit lower.
| If you are looking to hike in any sort of tighter canyon (known as a slot canyon) you definitely need to check the weather forecast first and stay aware of any incoming storms. Flash floods, though dangerous no matter where you are in the desert, can be absolutely life-threatening if you are in a slot canyon. If there is any chance of rain or if you see any clouds on the horizon that look like they could become rain clouds, we recommend reconsidering your hiking route if it included any sort of tight canyon section.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: by far the best time to hike in the desert is during the shoulder seasons. Specifically, late March to May and late September to early November. During this time of year the weather is warm and pleasant, the plants are blooming (especially in April) and the days are nice and long. The only downside: this is when the desert is at its busiest. So be prepared for busy trails, packed parking lots and full campgrounds.
Luckily, if you are fine getting a bit more off the beaten path, you can still find a bit of solitude out in the desert. Here are a couple of places to start.
| As you'd expect, dealing with the often intense sun is one of the biggest concerns when hiking in the desert. Therefore it is super important that you come prepared with ample sun protection. Your best bet is to wear clothing that covers your whole body, including your legs, arms and neck. We suggest investing in some lightweight, moisture-wicking sun shirts if you are planning to spend a decent amount of time exploring the desert. Similarly, a wide-brimmed hat that shades both your face and neck is also incredibly useful.
| While a wide-brimmed hat is super helpful while hiking in the desert (or any type of desert adventure) it is also not a bad idea to wear a pair of sunglasses with UV protection. Sunglasses are especially nice if you are planning to be out in the desert all day and don't want to come back to camp with a headache because you have been squinting for hours on end.
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are looking to do a bit of scrambling or slot canyons while hiking (or if you want to go all in and go canyoneering) then we recommend wearing sunglasses that you don't mind getting a bit beat up. We can't tell you how many times we have personally dropped our glasses while hiking, or accidentally got them scraped up on the canyon walls.
| The final item you should have with you when hiking in the desert is a bottle of sunscreen. While it might seem a bit overkill to wear sunscreen alongside a hat and long-sleeved clothing, we promise you will be grateful when you finish the day and your face, neck and hands aren't tinged tomato red. You can find our recommended sunscreens below.
LEAVE NO TRACE PRINCIPLES
| The most important Leave No Trace Principle to remember when hiking in the desert (or really when you are partaking in any desert activity, including biking or canyoneering) is to always, always stay on the trail. The desert is extremely fragile and it takes very little effort to cause serious damage to it.
When you are out hiking, always try to stick to the most obvious trail (little rock cairns or painted stripes are a good way to tell). And if there isn't really one, instead try to stick to either a wash (a dry riverbed) or along slickrock (or other rocky surfaces).
| Following the same statement above, it is also extremely important to avoid stepping on and disturbing cryptobiotic soil. Cryptobiotic soil (or crypto) is that dark, crunchy looking crust that you can find all over America's deserts (see the photo above for reference). This unique substance is composed primarily of very small organisms that cannot be seen with the naked eye. While it might not seem like a big deal to step on the crypto, it is in fact one of the biggest dangers facing the desert ecosystems, for once disturbed, cryptobiotic soil can take anywhere from a few years to several decades (maybe even more) to recover. And until the crypto recovers, the soils in the impacted area can be damaged by accelerated erosion and nutrient loss.
So let us repeat this again, try to never, ever step on the cryptobiotic soil. Even if this means having to take a more circuitous route, always do it.
You can learn more about cryptobiotic soil and its usefulness here.
| Don’t pick up historical objects and don’t disturb ancient sites. This is especially important when you are exploring areas with numerous historical places, including national parks and monuments like Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly and Montezuma Castle. Similarly, even if you aren't hiking in a federally protected park or monument, still leave all historical objects and sites alone. Remember: public land is are for everyone and therefore you should leave things the way you found them so others can enjoy them as well.
| Similarly, leave all rocks and plants (no matter how pretty they are) behind while out hiking. This is especially important when it comes to plants that are necessary for sustaining various desert life (like wildflowers).