Winter is upon us, and snowbirds are alighting on the American Southwest for moderate temperatures and world-class hiking. And why not? The searing heat has dissipated, the monsoons and dust storms are over, and the scorpions and rattlesnakes have retreated underground, inviting travel and exploration throughout the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, Great Basin, and Mojave deserts.
The truth is, however, desert camping and hiking are never without their dangers. Here’s a head’s up:
1. Prepare for cold and snow.
Due to low humidity, nighttime temperature drops of 40˚F or more are common in the desert. Bring a lighter for a fire, which you can build with dry desert grasses, yucca, and fallen wood from mesquite trees.
Dress in layers, bring a winter hat, and carry a sleeping bag rated to 20˚ or 30˚F, especially if you are hiking in the mountains, where temperatures are lowest and you’re likely to encounter snow and wind.
The coldest time of day in the desert is between dawn and 8 AM, so you might want to sleep in, or at least bring some gloves for when you’re fumbling around trying to cook your breakfast.
2. Watch for thunderstorms.
December and January can bring violent thunderstorms in some deserts—the Sonoran in particular. If a storm is on the horizon, keep off the mountains to avoid lightning strikes. Stay out of dry riverbeds, washes and arroyos, where flash floods could drag you to your death.
If you are confined to one of these low-lying areas, always have an escape route at hand. Even if it is not raining where you are, always beware of floodwater coming down from the mountains.
3. Don’t rely on reliable springs.
Many trail guides mention “reliable springs.” Don’t count on them. Oftentimes, these “reliable springs” are little more than feces-steeped mud pits swarming with wasps, flies, and rodents. Bring your own water, a gallon per day, unless you are 100% certain you will come across a truly reliable source of water.
If you do find yourself without water, look for cottonwoods—they will most likely be the tallest trees in the area, with quivering yellowish-green, spade-shaped leaves. Cottonwoods only grow near reliable water sources. If there’s no standing water near the tree, dig down a couple feet and wait for the water to pool.
If no cottonwoods are in sight, you can cut into a barrel cactus and mash the inner pulp to obtain limited moisture.
4. Find your own food.
The edible fruits of cacti and other desert plants don’t grow until March or later, so look for the prickly pear instead, a common and easily identified cactus whose pads can be eaten after the spines and hairs are removed. To remove the hairs, which can be hard to see, skin the pad with a knife.
For crunchier game (and higher nutrition), look under rocks and fallen wood for lizards and scorpions. Scorpions are edible except for their stingers, which must be removed with a knife. Quail and desert cottontails can often be found resting under palo verde and other low-branched shrubs during the day. Be sure to cook all meat thoroughly before eating to kill any bacteria.
5. Bring a free-standing tent.
Though heavier than a tarp and not as romantic as a night under the stars, a tent can save your life. The reason? Hantavirus. Passed on by dust from dried rodent urine and feces, hantavirus causes muscle fatigue, respiratory failure, and death: a painful and glory-free way to go. Also make sure it’s free-standing; favorable ground between sturdy trees cannot always be found.
6. Arm your feet.
Wear hiking boots or trail shoes with heel counters, good traction, and rubber toe guards. Heel counters stabilize your feet and prevent against ankle sprains, necessary in the rocky and uneven terrain of desert mountains.
Good traction (anything with a Vibram sole should do the trick) is a must for scrambling up boulders and chutes. Rubber toe guards keep your sensitive piggies safe from the prickly pear and hedgehog cacti you will inevitably shuffle into while on the trail.
7. Bring a hiking stick.
Or trek poles, if you prefer. Hiking sticks are hard to come by in an ecosystem dominated by succulents and scrub brush. And even if you are hiking in the pinyon-juniper communities, it’s better to already have a stick you know will work for you.
8. Wear pants and long sleeves.
Even on warmer days, it is wise to wear pants and a long-sleeve shirt. They trap moisture given off by your body, retarding dehydration and also prevent sunburn. Also, they help protect against cacti, ocotillo, catclaw, shindagger and so on—just be sure to give your clothes the once-over at the end of the day and remove the prickles they’ve accumulated.
9. Bring a pair of tweezers.
No, not for plucking your eyebrows, princess. The desert is chock full of cacti that will gladly send spines and tiny hairs directly into your flesh. The spines you might get out with your fingers, but little chance of plucking out those hairs. And if you do, you’d have them in your fingers, and then what? Bring tweezers to make the job easier. Or a fine-tooth comb, which can also be used to pry foot-long cholla stubs (half urchin, half hotdog) off of your shins.
10. Mind the wind.
Desert winds are frequent and usually whip up sand. Cook your food on the leeward side of a boulder, tree, tent, or other structure, as much to shield the flame from the wind as to prevent sand from blowing into your food. Wait until you are inside your tent to put in or take out your contacts.
If you are camping in the mountains, guy out your tent and bring everything inside for the night to prevent blow-aways.
11. Stay on the trail.
Desert trails can be extremely hard to follow. Often, they are little more than worn paths of flat rock and sand winding through—you guessed it, flat rock and sand. They frequently switchback in and out of canyons, which themselves often appear to be trails.
And in officially designated Wilderness Areas, trails are unmarked and rarely maintained. Look for shoe prints, litter, or cairns if you are uncertain. If you do lose the trail, head to higher ground and scan the area below—the trail should be easier to see from above.
Now that you know how to handle a desert hike, where should you go? Check out some of California’s most spectacular desert terrain here.