My first trip to the desert was to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in the southwest portion of Texas. Other than a church youth group trip to a camp near Colorado Springs, I had never been past eastern Oklahoma at that time. I had no idea what to expect, but I wanted to be prepared for camping in the desert. I’m used to Arkansas trails where it’s sticky and humid, and we have cottonmouths but not near as many scorpions. Since that first trip, I have been back many times. To help others who are like I was, I’ve compiled a list of my 10 tips for desert hiking and camping.
I love camping and hiking in the desert. Perhaps it’s because it’s so different from what I’m used to here in Arkansas, and new experiences thrill me. Or perhaps it’s just that the desert is a magical place that holds a spell over many. I have hiked and backpacked in many parks in the American Southwest including Big Bend, Zion, Guadalupe Mountains, and Grand Canyon, as well as Palo Duro Canyon, Caprock Canyons and Seminole Canyon State Parks in Texas. They are all wonderful places and I highly recommend them!
1. Drink lots of water before you go
You really want to be well hydrated before you ever go to the desert. Your body needs water in your cells, not just sloshing around in your belly after you get there. By preparing before your trip and drinking a lot of water before you ever go, your body can adjust better to the drier climate.
Some experts say that when you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. So by making sure that you are drinking plenty of water before you go, you are sure not to begin your hike in the desert dehydrated.
2. Carry plenty of water with you and drink it
Not only do you want to have a healthy amount of water in your body when you start, but you also want to have plenty of reserve with you to replace it. Experts recommend you carry one gallon of water per person, per day. If that sounds like a lot of water, believe me, it’s not. You will also want to make sure you’re getting enough salts so that you’re not overhydrated.
I made this terrible mistake in Zion National Park last summer. When I passed by a spring and decided that I had enough water to make it to the end of my trail, so I didn’t fill up. And I should have filled up. I quickly ran out of the water and had to hike two miles without a drop to even wet my lips. It was pretty scary and miserable. You can read about it in more detail here.
A problem many people from climates like Arkansas experience when they hike or camp in the desert is that your sweat doesn’t stay on your skin as it does in the South. The arid climate quickly evaporates it away. And if you’re used to equating sticky skin with sweat, it’s easy to think you are not sweating as much. But in fact you are sweating just as much, you just don’t see it or feel it.
3. Check with the park professions to make sure your water source is flowing
Sometimes springs are weather dependent. And if there has not been enough rain lately to refill the water table, then your trusted water source might not be so trustworthy. You should always check with a park professional on whether your planned water source is flowing.
When I backpacked at Big Bend National Park, they said there was no reliable water source. So we had to carry all of our water with us for the entire time of the backpacking trip. A park ranger advised us that a spring was flowing when she was on that trail a few days ago, but we should still carry water with us.
4. The temperature difference between night and day can be vast
Unlike the sticky South, there is not as much vegetation in the desert environment to hold in heat. So the temperature can make a big drop in the nighttime. If you are like me, you are used to calculating the nighttime temperature in your head by comparing it to the daytime temperature, this is how you plan for hiking and camping. However, in the desert or arid climates, you might want to recalculate that. Or, you know, simply make sure to check the weather.
5. It gets cold in the desert in winter too
When I was a kid, I was amazed the first time I saw a picture of snow in the desert. “The desert is supposed to be hot!” I thought. It snowed on me while I was visiting the Grand Canyon as well as Big Bend National Park, so you’ll really want to check the weather before your desert hiking and camping trip.
6. Don’t store things that can melt in your tent during the day
If you are car camping or base camping for your desert hiking and camping trip, you want to make sure you don’t leave anything in your tent that can melt. It might be nice and cool in your tent when you go to sleep at night, but in the day that tent material magnifies the sun’s heat.
Because of the lack of trees, your tent probably won’t be in the shade much during the day either.
It’s also a good idea not to store anything with a smell in your tent. Things like toothpaste and Chapstick can attract animals which can put a nasty hole in your tent trying to get to it.
7. Bright colored clothes can help search and rescue spot you in the event of an emergency
If something bad were to happen, being dressed in brightly-colored clothes can help emergency personnel find you quicker. Say you were to misstep and fall down a ravine, a bright pink shirt will help you stand out against the tan ground.
Sometimes it can be hard to find the trail while you are hiking and camping in the desert. Brightly colored clothes help others see you and follow your trail and vice versa. Also, rout finding and knowledge of a map and compass might be required for some trails.
8. Know the flash flood potential
It doesn’t have to be raining where you are to be caught in a flash flood. That is why it is so important to check the weather while planning your desert hiking and camping trip.
While I was visiting Capitol Reef National Park in Utah I noticed several signs warning before taking auto tours that warned of the potential of flash floods. As I drove through, I noticed how there is no escape if one were to hit. You really want to check with the park rangers before and assess the risk of flash floods.
9. You definitely want Chapstick and sunscreen, but you may also want lotion
If you are used to the soggy South, you will notice how much drier your lips and skin get when hiking and camping in the desert. Chapstick, especially with a layer of sun protection, is probably going to be needed.
Sunscreen is something else you will want to take with you. One reason I got into trouble while backpacking in Zion National Park was that I failed to account for the white rock radiating the sun back up on me. This also caused me to get burned because I forgot my sunscreen.
If you have a problem with dry skin normally, you may want to bring lotion with you. But remember Chapstick, sunscreen, and lotion usually are smelly so that can attract animals to your tent.
10. Zip it! Scorpions are a real threat in some places
In the short time of year when we don’t have many bugs in Arkansas, I usually leave my tent unzipped. Or sometimes I’m just lazy and don’t take the time to zip it. However in the desert, you may not be worrying about mosquitos, but you do need to worry about scorpions in some places.
When I camped at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park I was warned to keep my tent zipped. However, I forgot and walked off without zipping it. Fortunately, no critter attempted to make room in my tent!
You will also want to check your shoes before putting them on your feet.
Desert hiking and camping
The desert is a beautiful and amazing place. And it takes up a great deal of the United States. Yes, it can be dangerous, but don’t let that stop you from planning a wonderful desert hiking and camping trip. With proper planning, it can be an amazing time.