I grew up in Northern Arizona loving everything outdoors. Hiking, camping, fishing. You name it, we did it. As an adult, I continue to love everything outdoors. And that love continues to grow by the year. I have always been lucky to live in some amazing places for hiking and other outdoor activities between the southwest and Rocky Mountains of Arizona, Colorado, and now Southern Utah. This has given me the unique opportunity to spend a decent amount of time hiking and exploring in the desert.



Hiking in the desert areas of the southwest can be a magical experience, isolated from the chaos and noise of the rest of the world and filled with unique landscapes and wildlife.  All of that said, it is not without its unique challenges. Safety measures need to be taken into consideration in order to safely hike. Extreme temperatures (cold in the winter and heat in the warmer months), terrain, lack of available shade in many areas, and dangerous wildlife make the desert a bit of an unforgiving environment.



Challenges of the Hiking in Desert

I was recently hiking Camelback Mountain while visiting Arizona when a hiker nearby lost his footing on the descent down and injured his knee. Although the injury was not life threatening, due to the terrain and difficulty of the descent, he was not able to make it off the mountain on his own.

Fortunately, it was still early enough in the morning that the temperatures had not gotten too warm. He was able to find some shade on the trail and was well prepared with plenty of water. The amazing rescue team was able to get him off the mountain quickly and safely for further treatment.

As this hiker found out, not all situations or accidents can be prevented. However, through diligent preparation, we can avoid making a difficult situation worse. If properly prepared, hiking in the desert–even in the warmer months–can be an experience of a lifetime.

Below is are 8 key things to remember to ensure you have an amazing hiking experience in the desert.

1. Think and plan ahead.

  • Ensure you are well rested, hydrated, and nourished prior to starting the hike. Do not hike if you are not feeling well.
  • Know your limits. The hotter months are not the time to push those limits.
  • Plan out the hike thinking about length, access to shade, route, and difficulty.
  • Tell others where you are going and when you expect to be home or check in and when to call if you do not check in.
  • Download a map of the trail for offline navigation. Going off course can be very dangerous and put you at risk of injury, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke. AllTrails Pro is a great app for downloading maps for offline trail navigation.
  • Watch the weather in and around the area. Desert storms can be dangerous bringing lightning and flash flooding. Flash flooding can start miles away and is especially dangerous when hiking in slot canyons and dry river beds.



2. Hike during cooler hours of the day.

  • Plan to be on the trail by sun-up and be wrapping up by no later than 8-9am.
  • Avoid 10am to 4pm, which is the hottest part of the day.
  • Hike in the late evening if you use a headlamp and are cautious with where you are hiking.

3. Bring enough water – This cannot be emphasized enough.

  • Drink at least 1 liter of water per hour of hiking, per the typical recommendation.
  • Turn back if you are down to half or less of your water supply.
  • Sip water throughout the hike
  • Hydrate but don’t force. A danger frequently forgotten about is overhydration. Overhydration can cause serious potentially life-threatening electrolyte imbalances (hyponatremia). Hyponatremia is caused by drinking too much water and losing too much salt. Be sure to know the signs (nausea, vomiting, confusion, altered mental state, may appear intoxicated, frequent urination, and in extreme cases–seizures) and act quickly to get medical help.


4. Be well fed.

  • Bring plenty of high calorie snacks. Your body will expend more energy when hiking during warmer weather. You will need the extra fuel to support these energy needs and to help absorb water.


5. Protect yourself from the sun.

  • Wear a hat and sunglasses (you can actually sunburn your eyes–not fun, trust me).
  • Apply sunscreen 15 spf or higher and ensure you reapply frequently.
  • Wear sun protection clothing that is light colored, lightweight, breathable, loose fitting and if possible moisture wicking.

6. Know and recognize the signs of heat related illnesses.


7. Watch out for snakes.

  • Rattlesnakes, unfortunately, come out early in the morning and late in the evening (when it’s best to hike) during the warmer months. They like to hang out in rocky areas. Stay on well-groomed trails and keep your eyes and ears open, especially listening for that tell-tale (or should we say tail) warning signal of the rattle.


8. Beware of cacti.

  • Cacti are beautiful but a little prickly, so don’t get too close. They can be miserable to run into. It’s especially important to keep kids and dogs away from them. Check out this video on how to remove a cactus needle.

Hopefully, these words of caution have not scared anyone off from hiking in the desert. Rather, I hope these tips have given you the tools to be prepared and keep yourself safe, especially in the warmer months.. The unique solitude and beauty of the desert make it an amazing place to hike any time of year as long as you make sure to plan ahead and follow important safety precautions.



For additional information and resources, please review the links in this reference section.

American Hiking Society. (n.d.). Hot weather hiking. Retrieved from  https://americanhiking.org/resources/hot-weather-hiking/

Center for Disease Control (CDC). (Dec., 2020). Avoid, spot, treat: Heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/cpr/documents/avoid-spot-treat-heat.pdf

National Park Services. (n.d.). Summer hiking – hike smart. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/hike-smart.htm

Zionnationalpark.net. (n.d.). Recognizing and preventing heat stroke while hiking. Retrieved from https://zionnationalpark.net/recognizing-preventing-heat-stroke-hiking/