How to Stay Safe When Hiking in the Desert

Jul 7, 2013 by

When hiking in the desert, the climate is unforgiving. Temperatures in the desert range from blistering hot during the day to freezing at night. Water is scarce and dangerous animals abound.

Hiking In The Desert

Safety is paramount when hiking in the desert as disregarding it can turn even a day hike into a tragedy. Plan your hike well, bring plenty of water and food, dress appropriately and respect your own physical limits. Know how to avoid venomous animals, and know what you should do if you get lost.

hiking in the desert

Plan Smart

Don’t just wander out into the desert on a whim. Know where you’re going and which route you’re taking to get there. Leave your itinerary with someone back home. That way, if something happens, rescuers will know where to look.

Avoid hiking in the desert during the summer when temperatures can reach as high as 120°F. Hiking in that kind of heat can be deadly. The safest time for hiking in the desert is between October and May.

Never hike alone! Bring maps and a compass so you won’t get lost. Buy or rent a satellite phone. This way, you can contact emergency services even in areas where there’s no cell service.

Know Your Limits

When you’re hiking in the desert, don’t push yourself too hard. Plan a route that you know will be appropriate for your abilities. Try to do most of your hiking in the early morning and late afternoon when temperatures are lower. Take a shady route if you can.

Dress Appropriately

Even in the winter, you’ll still face high temperatures and blistering sun hiking in the desert. Dress in layers so that you can conserve heat in the morning and evening hours, when temperatures drop drastically, and strip down during the hottest part of the day. Loose-fitting, light-colored, long-sleeved clothes protect your skin and keep your body temperature low.

Wear sunglasses and sunblock. Wear a sun hat and cover the back of your neck with a scarf.  Wear hiking boots or closed walking shoes that fit well. Carry a jacket in case you get lost — you’ll need the extra warmth at night.

Stay Hydrated

When hiking in the desert, you need to drink a liter of water each hour to prevent dehydration. Don’t rely on your sense of thirst to tell you that you’re getting dehydrated. It takes far less water to quench thirst than it does to hydrate the body. Drink constantly, even if you don’t feel thirsty.

If you run into an emergency situation in the desert, and water runs low, remember: Save sweat, not sips. Seek shelter and stay out of the sun during the hottest part of the day. Continue drinking any water you have. Breathe through your nose. Don’t talk, eat or smoke.

Bring Snacks

Nuts, dried fruits, jerky, trail mix, sandwiches and energy bars can keep your energy levels up when hiking in the desert. Bringing a little extra food can’t hurt, since it will come in handy if you get lost.

Avoid Poisonous Animals

Watch where you step, sit or place your hands. Don’t step over logs or rocks, or walk through vegetation — snakes, scorpions or venomous spiders could be hiding there. If you see a venomous animal, don’t tease it. Stand at a safe distance and throw rocks to scare it away. Leave dead rattlesnakes alone — they can still deliver lethal venom.

Know the Signs of Heat Sickness

Heat stress, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are all serious conditions that require immediate attention. Heat stress causes painful cramps in the abdomen and legs. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

• Cool, pale, flushed or moist skin
• Nausea
• Headaches
• Dizziness
• Weakness
• Exhaustion

Symptoms of heat stroke include:

• Red, hot, dry skin
• Loss of consciousness
• Rapid breathing
• Weak, rapid pulse

Treat all forms of heat sickness by getting the person out of the sun and giving them small sips of water. Loosen the victim’s clothing and apply wet cloths to their skin. Call emergency services immediately if they refuse to drink water or develop signs of heat stroke.

Know What to Do If You Get Lost

If you get lost, try to contact emergency services and describe your location. A satellite phone is excellent for this, since it doesn’t require a cell signal.

If that’s not an option, stay calm. Remember that your priorities are to:

• Protect yourself
• Stay cool
• Stay hydrated

If you are near water or shelter, stay there and try to signal for rescue. If you are near a vehicle, stay with it.  It will make you easier to find and you can lie underneath to stay out of the sun.

If you must move, do so purposefully. Do not wander indiscriminately in the desert.

Conserve your energy, rest often and continue to drink your water as long as you have it.

About the Author: Steve Manley is the president of Globalcom Satellite Communications (, a leading distributor of satellite phones for both purchase and rental.


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1 Comment

  1. Those are good tips. It’d also be helpful to carry a compass or GPS unit as navigating in a desert can be difficult. Also, if a person is inexperienced at desert hiking they should avoid it when possible.