Let's Go Hiking in the Desert
Mountain climbs, leafy trails, fleece jackets with pockets full of GORP. Is this the scene that springs to mind when you picture your next hike?
Summit views make likable photos, so they're a popular place to escape the quarantine blues. But never forget: hiking is just walking. And you can walk anywhere! The cement sidewalk out the front door. The dried-up aqueduct that slices through town. The dusty roads of a sherbet-color desert. Let's explore that last option ... that one sounds nice.
If city skylines grab your heart, you may be surprised to find a similar beauty in the desert. Frank Lloyd Wright pulled major inspiration from the landscape, calling the saguaro cactus the "greatest example of a skyscraper ever built."
Saguaro National Park, by Christoph von Gelhorn
The appeal of a desert is the appeal of minimalism. And this goes not just for sight but all your other senses, too. Your ears will welcome what Edward Abbey calls "not a silence so much as a great stillness." The few sounds there create a gentle symphony, letting you focus in on each creak and each sigh. Your skin will appreciate the lack of mosquitoes, which prefer places with more water and trees. And your mind will feel calm from the blend of sage and juniper, which smells fragrant under the hot sun.
If all of this sounds like a weekend trip you’d enjoy, here's what you should know about hiking in the desert:
1. It's hot
And water is wet. But if there's a desert hiking guide that doesn't mention the heat, then beware: they may be trying to kill you. To escape the worst of the heat, consider going early or late in the day. Those are also the times you can enjoy a desert sunrise and sunset, which are like no human-made art.
2. It's also cold
A walk through the desert can feel like a trip across time zones. It may feel like a Tucson summer at the trailhead, then a Detroit fall once you're through. Breathable, loose-fitting layers keep you comfortable as you ride the wave. Plus, you could drench that long sleeve tee in water and wrap it around your head when the mercury rises.
3. It's no time to tan
Maybe the most important thing to wear? Sunscreen. Slather it on everywhere. Your ears. Your chin. That area between your nose and mouth, unless you want a goatee sunburn.
4. Stay hydrated
Ok, soaking your shirt in water isn't the best use of liquid unless you're already hydrated. You've been drinking water all this time, right? It's not just about what you sip on the trail, but what you've consumed before you get there too. Stay ready so you don't have to get ready, as they say. Pro tip: Pour a couple spoonfuls of chia seeds into some coconut water, and drink that before heading out. The chia soaks up the fluid, then slow-releases it as the day goes on.
5. Find shade
Heat exhaustion is real, and strenuous exercise makes it worse. There’s a reason a lot of desert creatures are the slow-moving types. Take a cue from them, and rest often. You may also have to get creative with where you find shade. The shadow of a tall rock brings cool relief when there are no trees in sight. It’s also a good idea to wear a hat for guaranteed, on-the-move shade.
6. Look, but don’t touch
Speaking of desert creatures, keep your eyes and ears tuned to signs of life around you. If you encounter a critter, the best thing to do is keep your distance. Desert dwellers have to fight to survive, and they’ve got defenses to prove it. While you don’t want to cross them, this also means they don’t want to cross you. It takes energy to fight, and they’d rather mind their business unless you prove yourself a threat. The same thing goes for plant life: Everything in the desert is armed to the teeth. Look, but don’t touch.
7. Check the forecast
The desert is really an environment of extremes, right? Hot and cold. Dry and flood-y. Check the forecast, especially if you plan on hiking during monsoon season. Avoid low-lying areas and slot canyons if there’s even the slightest chance of rain. A thunderstorm can turn into a flash flood in the right (or more like wrong) conditions.
8. Snack often
You’ll be losing a lot of electrolytes as you sweat, so make sure to munch on something as you hike. Salty snacks make good desert fuel since they help retain water. It won’t hurt to leave extra food and drinks in your car, too. The ideal trail snacks are portable and lightweight, but car snacks don’t have to play by those rules. So stick a large piece of cake in that cooler, or pack up some cabbage rolls from the other night. You have more room to go wild. After hiking all day in the sun, it’s time to celebrate.