SALT LAKE CITY — Travel in the desert presents unique challenges and hazards that you won’t be familiar with if you are not familiar with a desert environment. This is a rugged land that sometimes presents travelers with severe obstacles. Here are some points to consider when it comes to traveling in the backcountry.
Make sure your vehicle is ready
When putting your vehicle through the stresses of a desert environment, it's not uncommon for your vehicle to overheat, get flat tires, get stuck in the sand or become high-centered. Make sure that you have enough water to sustain you through an unplanned delay.
For such a rugged place, the desert is incredibly fragile. Cryptobiotic soils, or living soil crusts, exist all across our deserts and play a key role in a healthy desert environment so try to avoid “busting the crust." Travel only on durable surfaces (rock) or in wash bottoms, or clearly established trails and roads. Avoiding off-roading will not only protect the environment, but also decrease your chances of getting stuck or high-centered.
Bring a map and compass and communicate with others
If you get into the depths of a canyon, your GPS (and cell phone) most likely won’t work. It's important to know where you’re going and equally important to let others know too. Tell someone when you're expecting to return home from your trip.
Have proper clothing
Cultures that have spent millennia in the desert sun and heat don’t have much exposed skin. Your clothes will most likely be your only shade and they should provide shade.
Keep the tank top in the gym. A breathable, wide brim hat will be your best friend out there. Light colors are essential because they reflect back the sunlight. However, nights in the desert are colder than most people expect. The clear, dry desert air doesn’t insulate well so make sure you have some layers.
Take hiking/trekking poles
Many people brush off the idea of poles, but they will come in handy. Walking in the desert is an active pursuit and the obstacles you encounter as you go — rocks, cactus, ledges, etc. — will force your eyes down. Poles give you the ability to look around a bit while traveling in rough terrain, and they help keep your torso, and body in general, moving more fluidly and efficiently. And they’re great if you do trip. Most of the time you can catch yourself before hitting the ground.
Wear proper shoes
Sandals are for the beach. Wrap your feet in something protective. The sun, sand, gravel and cactus all conspire to harm your skin, and sweaty feet in slippery sandals can cause problems in dicey desert terrain.
Prepare for the sun
The sun can be deadly in the summer. Be sure you bring sunglasses with good UV protection. Polarized lenses are recommended. You should also avoid strenuous activity in the hottest part of the day. Think siesta! Most people are not properly conditioned to be out in such heat and they simply cook like anything else would. If you don’t see lizards running around, you might want to consider why. Even they hide from the midday sun.
Be prepared for sand
Sand gets in everything. It goes through mesh shoes, it gets through your tent’s screens, it gets into your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, food and water, so be prepared. A four season tent will keep out the sand in a wind storm. Also bring Q-tips. Enough said.
Bring enough water
Staying hydrated is hard in the desert, and it’s impossible without enough water. Drink a minimum of 4 liters/1 gallon per person per day, and a lot more if you’re engaged in a strenuous pursuit. And don’t just bring it, drink it! Drink lots of it!
Modern hose/bladder systems are great, but remember to blow any water back out of the hose after drinking to avoid a shot of hot water when you want a drink later. A half-filled frozen bladder topped off with water is ideal. A frozen bottle resting against the bladder will also keep your water cold and you’ll get some ice-water in the bottle too! There is no way to really over-emphasize the danger of dehydration. It kills people out there.
Have an electrolyte strategy too, you need to replace all those salts and minerals that you’re sweating out. Canyons are carved by flash floods so if rain is imminent, have a way out of the danger zone. You will not survive being hit by a wall of rocks, lumber and mud pushed by a raging torrent of water. Or best yet, avoid hazardous canyons if rain is a possibility.
When taking water from natural sources, you may find purifiers preferable to filters. The sediment load in desert water can clog filters quickly. If there’s cattle in the drainage, or have been in the last couple years, you should treat your water some way.
Everything slows down in the desert. Distances are deceptive. The desert is a big place and is harder to travel in then most environments. It may take longer to reach a destination than you expected. So with that in mind don’t have a tight schedule. Give yourself time to enjoy your location, time to take in the silence, the breadth. Give yourself time to breathe.
Creator of the Hayduke Trail, owner of Deep Desert Expeditions, and a desert-wandering happy hiker. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org