(Originally Posted: Sunday, August 28, 2016)
How to prepare, what to wear and what to have with you
Anytime of year is a great time to visit the deserts of the American Southwest. In fact, if you want to avoid crowds and ensure yourself some solitude, summer is your best option for exploring these majestic places. However, regardless of the season, there are some considerations you need to take, should you decide to visit, regardless of the time of year. If you plan ahead and pay attention to these few suggestions, you can ensure that you will not only have an enjoyable visit; but a safe one as well.
Yes, deserts can be hot and arid, but they can also be quite cold as well, depending on their location and the time of year. There are numerous types of deserts in the world, that have evolved through various phenomenon. Presently, deserts comprise about 20% of the earths surface. A desert can be generally summed up as any place that usually receives less than 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rainfall per year. Deserts are a classification of regions, also called "drylands." These areas frequently lose more moisture annually, through evaporation, than they receive from precipitation. Temperatures can easily soar to 120 degrees or more during summer days before plunging as low as 60 at night.
Therefore, clothing selection is very important. You need to be prepared for both hot and cold weather during your visit; and often in the same day. You may be surprised but hypothermia is a real possibility when visiting the desert. While the temptation to wear shorts and a t-shirt may seem like appropriate attire in the desert, it would be an erroneous decision. Not only will you risk a horrible sunburn, but the limited clothing offers you no protection from the vegetation or other environmental hazards. Furthermore, wearing next to nothing puts you at risk of hypothermia when the sun does drop. Wearing light colored long pants and sleeves will offer you the greatest protection from the elements as well as the environment. Good trail shoes or hiking boots are recommended; the trail is no place for sandals, open toed shoes or flip-flops. Your feet will thank you. The comfort level you associate with shorts, t-shirts and sandals is far more psychological than actual. Consider this: Have you ever seen the Bedouins of sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East wearing shorts and t-shirts? There is a reason. Don’t forget to check the weather reports before you depart and periodically throughout your trip if possible.
Deciding to head off and explore the desert ( or any other location ) should never be a last minute consideration. Where are you going? How long do you plan on being gone? How are you getting there and what happens if something goes wrong? These are all things to consider. In places like Joshua Tree National Park, help is not “just a phone call away” (there is no cellphone service in the park) and never assume that everything will go as planned. Cars break down, you can get lost, the hike will be longer than you thought and injuries may occur. Did you leave a plan with someone you trust with you itinerary? Is your vehicle up to snuff, spare tire? Desert temperatures and roads can quickly beat your vehicle into submission and a flat tire may leave you stranded miles from help. Do you have a first aid kit, map, compass, GPS? Do you know how to use them? Careful planning and preparation will ensure that you have a safe enjoyable trip. Carefully addressing all the things that could go wrong will increase your ability to deal with situations should they arise. No one ever plans for bad things to happen but they do. How your prepare and what you have available will make the difference between an unfortunate event and a tragic one. Find more on wilderness essentials here.
Water, Water, Water! It cannot be overstated enough, the importance of water in the desert! No matter how much you have, it will likely not be enough and we don’t just mean what you carry on your hike. You should have water everywhere. In your car, on the trail and at your campsite. You can never have to much. If possible, have a stash on ice as well. You will appreciate it at the end of a long hike in the heat plus, cold water is an efficient method of bringing down core body temperature safely and quickly. You should also have at least five gallons of extra water in the vehicle when heading out into the desert and the recommendation is to carry at least a gallon of drinking water, per person while hiking. More is always better and warm water is better than no water. Soda, juice, energy drinks and alcoholic beverages may be fine when relaxing in camp or once sufficiently hydrated. However, none are suitable replacements when out on the trail. The golden rule to follow when it comes to water is: when your water is half gone, it is time to tun back. You will drink just as much, if not more on your return leg. Many unfortunate incidents could have been avoided by following this rule. The other thing to consider is that by the time you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated. You are losing far more fluids than you realize, especially in the dry hot desert air. Push fluids constantly and remember that drinking only when thirsty is a recipe for tragedy. Keep an eye on the young and elderly, they are far more susceptible to heat injuries and the effects will impact them far faster than others. Don't ration, share if needed and drink plenty before, during and after your hike.
Always carry food with you. You never know when you may have to spend a considerable amount of time on the trail. Hikes take longer, accidents happen, you may get lost. Having a resupply of food is critical in helping your body maintain its energy level, critical functions and in keeping your body flush with the sodium and electrolytes needed. If you are drinking the water you should be, you are also flushing salts out of your body. Replacing these nutrients is critical in preventing a condition called hyponatremia. This condition can be just as debilitating and potentially dangerous as other heat related injuries. However, it is easily prevented by adequate intake of food throughout your day. Beef jerky, nutrition bars, dried fruits and nuts are all great options to carry in addition to meals that you plan on carrying. The rule to follow is to carry at least one more major meal than you plan for. For example: If you know you are going to eat lunch on the trail, make sure to carry a dinner meal, along with lots of snacks. That way you’ll ensure that you have enough to cover most unexpected delays. Putting the fuel you burn, back in your body will help you stay focused and give you the energy needed to complete your trip safely. Don’t skimp on food!
Now we’re not suggesting that you pack everything possible for a short day hike. However, there are a few critical items that should always be with you, regardless of the hike you are planning to undertake or the environment you are in. These are all things that will be useful and may just save your life if necessary.
First Aid Kit: One that will address the most anticipated injuries. Knife: Any good reliable pocket knife will be with its weight in gold. Map: Of the area you will be hiking in. Compass: Never underestimate being able to determine your direction of travel and how to return. GPS: Will tell you exactly where you are; know how to use it. Whistle: Valuable signaling device that carries a great distance (three blasts is the international sign of distress). Warming layer: Temperatures and weather can change quickly. Required medications: Don’t leave home without them! Food, Water: Carry more than you think you will need. And lastly, a communication device that will work in the area you plan on visiting: A cell phone is great but service is not available in all areas. These, at a minimum, should always be in your day pack. In general, it is always wise to pack as if you may have to spend the night. That way, you can be prepared for most delays should things not go as planned.
Lastly, a note on some hazards that are unique to the desert.
The Heat: Heat related injuries can be a serious life threatening problem. Heat exhaustion, Heat Cramps, Heat Stroke and Hyponutremia can quickly turn a fun summer hike into a tragedy. In addition to hydrating continuously, make sure you eat well, take regular breaks and don't ignore the warning signs. All of the above conditions are easily prevented and reversible. However, if left untreated all of them pose serious risks.
Wildlife: Everything in the desert bites, pricks, pokes or stings. Proper clothing and paying attention to where you are walking will save you from painful encounters with both the wildlife and plant life. Avoid sticking your hands, face or feet into any location you have not visually inspected first.
Most of the larger predators that call the desert home will go out of their way to avoid you, but be aware of your surroundings, travel in groups and store your food and waste properly to avoid any close encounters with these beautiful creatures. Snakes, scorpions and spiders also call the desert home. Most of them are harmless however, there are some that can be quite dangerous and at the least, quite painful. Watch your step, keep your tents zipped up and never leave your boots or other articles of clothing out in the open, as they make for an inviting shelter to many of these creatures. Shake out bedding before climbing into it and inspect your pack before throwing it on your back. Performing these small rituals will help you avoid any unpleasant encounters.
Flash Floods: The desert can be a dangerous place in a thunderstorm. Dry washes quickly fill with raging waters and more than once, an unsuspecting hiker has been washed away. Keep your eye on the sky and weather reports. In the desert, it does not need to be raining where you are for there to be a flash flood. Avoid camping in washes and hiking narrow canyons if there is rain in the forecast. Never attempt to cross flooded washes or roads. Just wait on the high ground. Flood waters in the desert rarely last long and the risk just isn’t worth it.
The desert is a beautiful and alluring place to explore and enjoy. It is also dangerous and inhospitable for those who enter unprepared. By planning ahead, packing properly, having a plan and heeding these simple suggestions, you can have a memorable and enjoyable desert journey. So get out there and explore but be smart, be safe and avoid unnecessary risks.
Kelly is the founder/CEO at Joshua Tree Excursions, a veteran-owned and operated outdoor ECO adventure tour company.