Saturday, August 9, 2014

Backpacking in the Summer Desert...How to Prepare

Living in Las Vegas has taught me a lot about hiking and backpacking in the desert.  Where previously most of my excursions took place in the beautiful (and wet and cold) Pacific Northwest, these days you are more likely than not to find me--yes even in the summer--hiking in the desert.  And it can be done, but not by amateurs and not by those who don't heed the simplest of warnings.  Unfortunately, each summer sees a number of fatal and near fatal events because people either don't prepare or don't prepare enough to make hiking in the desert safe (note, even experienced athletes can underestimate the desert and die).

Here are ten tips to make your next hike into the summer desert safer:

  1. Plan ahead.  Check out trail reports, make sure there are no closures where you plan to hike, make sure there are no wildfires where you plan to hike, and, most importantly, check out websites where others have commented on conditions recently so you can get an idea of the environment and special challenges of the place you plan on hiking.
  2. Work your way up to desert hiking.  For those brand new to hiking, deciding to head out on a ten mile day hike in any kind of environment will make for miles of misery if you aren't in pretty good condition.  Increase this x10 if you head out to hike in 100+ desert temperatures.  Before you decide to hike in the desert, you will want to condition yourself in both mileage and terrain first then do this at higher temperatures.  Ideally you will be hiking year round then as summer rolls around acclimate yourself to hiking in higher temperatures.  
  3. Gather knowledge.  There are reams of information on desert hiking online.  Read as much information as you can about desert hiking and tattoo the basics about desert hiking into your memory (like hiking in the early morning or early evening, not during the heat of the day, carrying more than enough water, not hiking when there are extreme heat warnings, etc)
  4. Go with a group.  Although sometimes solo hiking and backpacking can't be avoided, if you are new to desert hiking it is best to go with a group.  Not only does this improve safety (others can help you in the event of an accident or notice if you are becoming dehydrated) but you will also learn a lot from these folks.  Our local area has a bunch of hiking clubs including this one and this one.
  5. Know the dangers.  While you are gathering knowledge (above), be sure to study up on the most common dangers you will find in the desert and how to avoid/prevent them including heat related problems (dehydration, heat stroke), animals (rattlesnakes, etc), the possibility of flash floods, and desert terrain that could cause accidents (the terrain can be slippery rocks and scree which can easily cause falls).
  6. Heed the warnings.  Even if you are in great shape and well experienced at desert hiking, pay attention to specific warnings where you are going.  Areas can be closed due to extreme heat, the news may tell you that rain and subsequent flash flooding are possible during the time you had planned to hike, rangers may give you specific warnings...all of these warnings are for your benefit so take them seriously.
  7. Take more than you need.  On the one hand, you don't want to over pack so much so that your pack weights more than a medium-sized child, on the other hand, you don't want to underestimate your needs and bring less water/food/clothing than you need to survive.  In desert conditions, always opt to bring more than you think you will need just in case.
  8. Learn primitive skills.  Before all of this technology that we currently use, there were desert dwellers who survived just fine in the American Southwest with only the knowledge they had.  Learning some of this knowledge can benefit you greatly if you intend to hike in the desert during any time of the year.
  9. Get a Spot 3.  On the flip side, the latest in technology can be a lifesaver in certain situations, especially if you will be hiking alone.  Consider getting a GPS emergency signal device (like a Spot 3) to use during an emergency.
  10. Change plans if necessary.  Finally, don't be too proud (or arrogant, or stupid) to change plans if necessary.  Whether there is a flash flood warning that derails your plans or you just decide that hiking in a hot, dry, rocky area with 100+ degree temps aren't your thing, there are always other options.  In the case of the Las Vegas area, desert hiking (short, early morning) is fine in the summer but if I want to cover some distance and not roast like a pig on a spit, I head for the nearby higher ground of Mt Charleston where temps are lower and it's more enjoyable to hike in during mid summer.
And some links:

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