How to Survive (and Even Enjoy) Hiking in the Desert

It may officially be pumpkin-spice latte season, but in places like Phoenix, Arizona, the heat ain’t over yet. Into early fall, daytime temperatures hover in the high 90s and can still occasionally touch the low 100s, which sounds brutal to most out-of-towners, but spells relief for residents who’ve endured spikes as high as 119 in July and August.

You gotta know what you’re doing when you venture out to the desert. Photo: Kim Stravers

But don’t let that put you off a trip to the desert Southwest. As with any adventure, prep makes anything possible, so we reached out to an Arizona native for some guidance on getting after it in the desert heat.

Since 1992, Dale Stewart has been the owner (with his wife, Irene) of the Arizona Hiking Shack, a Phoenix-based shop that’s catered to all comers since the early 1970s.

The Shack is packed with a hand-curated selection of gear for everything from backpacking to paddling to climbing (it’s small, but it feels intimate rather than cramped), and the vibe is unpressured and unhurried. Don’t mistake that for lack of local knowledge, though. Ask a staffer about a trip you’re considering and it’s almost guaranteed someone in the shop has done it at least once. You can lose a good half an hour just swapping stories and debating gear.

Stewart has spent decades exploring the Arizona desert, out of both fun and necessity. He spent several years on search-and-rescue (SAR) missions with Central Arizona Mountain Rescue and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, and since 1987 he has been a Technical Rescue Instructor training the Phoenix Fire Department in SAR techniques specific to the low-desert landscape: rope, high-angle, steep-angle, low-angle, swift-water, confined-space and trench rescue.

The Shack naturally reflects his passion for introducing enthusiasts to the desert safely: The shop hosts courses in and connects enthusiasts with skilled, certified leaders in canyoneering, tarp camping, wilderness first aid, GPS navigation and more. It also supplies local agencies and industries with emergency and critical gear under the name AHS Rescue.

Over coffee in his modest back-of-the-shop office, Stewart offered his best advice for enjoying all the landscape has to offer when the air is hotter than your body temperature.

Act Like an Animal

Assume the role. Photo: Jared Verdi/Unsplash

You can recreate here year-round, and some of your best teachers are sharing the trail with you. “You have to live like the creatures in the desert if you want to enjoy the desert,” Stewart tells ASN. “When are the coyotes and the birds and the rabbits out there? They’re out at daybreak or just before, and that’s when they’re foraging around. About 8, 8:30, you start not seeing desert critters anymore because they’re smart enough to get out of the sun; they know the desert is harsh and can take their lives just as quick.”

“That 10 a.m. to about 3 p.m. [window], stay out of the desert,” he cautions. “Those coyotes watch you walk by and they laugh at you … We need to be aware of our surroundings and do as our locals do (so to speak).”

Accept That You’re Not in Kansas Anymore

Unfamiliar territory indeed. Photo: Courtesy of Gert Boers/Unsplash

There’s little natural shade available, and exposure can be a deadly factor to dismiss. The heat will quickly sap your energy and your hydration levels, upping the difficulty on things that may seem easy back home.

“People that visit here generally want to go out and hike after they’ve only been here a couple of days and stayed at the pool or inside; their bodies are not adjusted or acclimated,” observes Stewart. “It’s just like going up into 15,000 feet [of elevation]: You better get up there first and acclimate, otherwise you’re going to struggle with it the next day. Heat’s no different.”

Instead of plunging into the pool straightaway, take a short stroll outside; it will help you gauge how you uniquely react to this unfamiliar environment and show you within 15 minutes how severely the heat can degrade your physical abilities.

“There are certain key elements that make a successful, enjoyable hike in the desert,” Stewart tells ASN. “And an understanding of your own preparedness and your personal conditioning [is key]. Are you already somewhat of an athlete, or are you just an enthusiast?”

Err on the side of underestimating yourself and live to hike another day.

Shush Your Ego

It’s important to take a step back. Photo: Courtesy of Olivia Hutcherson/Unpslash

“Go big or go home” doesn’t apply when it’s this hot and dry. It’s more like “Go big and go home” – against your will, much worse for the wear and possibly in the hands of first responders. If you can’t afford a couple of days to adjust to the climate, consider dialing back the intensity of your adventure.

Even if you’re in top shape, “pick some trails that are moderate,” advises Stewart. Avoid sharp, sustained elevation gain and opt for flatter or rolling terrain instead. “As soon as you start going vertical, you put your body under a great deal of stress,” he continues. “You start to heat up; you sweat profusely. Now how prepared are you?”

Water Is King …

Hydration is key. Photo: Courtesy of RawPixel/Unsplash

Whether you’re on a technical rescue team or just out for a day hike, Stewart’s hydration philosophy stands: “Without water, you might as well not go out in the field. If you get yourself in trouble, you’re a liability, not an asset.”

For a full-day SAR mission, Stewart will carry 2 gallons (16 pounds) of water, but you won’t need quite that much for a standard walkabout.

“Two quarts to go out for a short hour or two in the morning,” he estimates. “Two quarts minimum, and that’s considering that you hydrated up in the morning and you’re preparing and getting yourself conditioned the day before. If you’re almost back and you’ve got too much and you’re tired of carrying it, water something. You don’t have to carry that water [home].”

“I’ll usually fill [my hydration pack] up about halfway, freeze it and then top it off the next morning with water, and then my water stays cool,” he recommends.

… But It’s Not Enough

Yes, you’ll need more water in the desert, but it’s only part of the deal. Ideally, “the day before [your mission], you’re already hydrating up,” Stewart tells ASN. “You’re already eating nutritional foods that have potassium in it, like bananas. You’re adding a pinch of salt to your food to help retain some of that moisture.”

“Electrolytes are a big deal when you’re sweating heavily in the desert,” he explains. “I don’t only drink water, but I’ll also take a Gatorade — something that’s got some electrolytes and some sugar in it so I can work off of that through the morning.” Electrolyte snacks and powders can make replenishment easy without a lot of added pack weight.

Know When to Call It a Day

Know your limits. Photo Courtesy of @Trails/Unsplash

Anyone can get caught out in the desert, no matter how prepared they think they are. Thankfully, your body provides a continuous feedback loop that will flash warning signs long before your logic realizes you’re about to enter the danger zone. Let your lizard brain, not your pride, make the decisions.

“You’re about halfway up [a peak] and you’re feeling a little nauseous and dizzy,” Stewart says by way of example. “Those are the first signs of heat stress, and you need to pay attention to it. Just like your car, if you run the air conditioner and [drive] 80 miles an hour across the Mojave [Desert] and you see that [temperature] gauge creeping up, do you just keep pushing the pedal? No. People need to recognize that they’re no different and they need to stop, take breaks, get in the shade. Cool down. Give yourself some time [to normalize].

“Your body is going to react to that heat and stress whether you’re going vertical or horizontal. It’s still going to be a challenge for your body to adjust to it. The more out of condition you are, the more susceptible to heat stress and [heat]stroke you are. Ninety-eight point six is our [body] temperature. It’s really scary to see anybody at 103. One hundred and five, you’re losing brain cells, and above that, you’re going to go into a coma.”

Even if you think you’ll feel fine at the summit or turnaround point, remember that you still have to make it to the car. “Exhaustion catches them on the downhill side,” Stewart says of hikers new to the desert. Plan to clip your trip a little shorter to hedge against dragging through the home stretch.

Tailor Your Kit to the Conditions

The “Teddy Bear” cactus. Phioto: Demi Deherrera/Unsplash

“The farther out you go, the more prepared you’d better be,” Stewart warns, but even a brief stroll on a well-marked trail merits a safe-than-sorry pack and wearing more clothing, not less.

“When we teach our classes, I tell people you need to wear long pants, long sleeves, and here’s the reason why: The desert wants a piece of you. It either wants to bite you, sting you, poke you, scratch you or cut you,” Stewart laughs. “The less clothed you are, the more battle wounds you’re going to come home with. The more adventuresome you are and the more difficult trails are, the more likely [it is] you’re going to encounter opportunities to be beat up by the terrain.”

Total coverage keeps the sun off sensitive skin, he points out, suggesting also that you wear a hat. And pay attention to your aesthetics: Light colors and thin synthetic fabrics are Stewart’s first choice.

In addition to your standard safety gear (first-aid kit, fire starter, whistle, maps, signaling equipment, etc.), Stewart recommends a couple of other items essential to a desert daypack: tweezers or a comb to remove cactus spines (cholla, also known as teddy bear cactus, is especially prevalent and easy to pick up on skin or clothing) and “a really big bandana.” Beyond wetting it down and using it as a cooling mechanism around his neck, he explains, “I can use it as a cover. I can use it as a sling. I can use it as a tourniquet.”

If you’re driving to the trailhead, says Stewart, “have an off-road vehicle that’s prepared to be out there. You’ve checked the tires. You’ve got a spare, a jack and a lug wrench … I always carry a first-aid kit, flares, battery cable jumpers. I also take a cooler in my truck. I’ll ice it up and put water and drinks in it. Then when I get back from the trail, I’ve got something cold to hydrate up, because my body’s going to still be challenged. We don’t tend to drink as much as we should on the trail. I keep things in the freezer, so that also adds a block of ice so others can have access to water too when they get back. I share my cooler, so to speak.”

Keep an Eye on the Sky

Breathe it all in. Photo: Courtesy of Andreas Selter/Unsplash

Storms in the Arizona desert tend to be brief, beautiful, powerful and swift. Late summer brings monsoons, which are mesmerizing in their own way – warm rain, sage on the wind, brilliant lightning – but can trigger deadly flash floods in otherwise serene canyons, ravines and washes.

“The best advice is be aware of the weather reports before you go,” Stewart tells ASN. “In hiking, we just don’t connect how fast and big [a squall] can come up. Look upstream always, and know your weather before [you head out]. If you see big cumulonimbus clouds 15, 20 miles away, be on your toes.”

Dust storms (aka haboobs) – think of the Tasmanian Devil rushing off — are equally violent and dangerous. “They do have lightning,” says Stewart. “They are full of silt and dirt. This is where the bandana comes in. Any foul, dusty conditions you get into, you don’t want to breathe it into your lungs.”

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