Hiking the desert can be one of the most rewarding experiences. It can also be one of the most relentlessly unforgiving experiences if not planned properly. Here, I’ll list a few things to consider before you face the sandy terrain.
You wouldn’t think about howling sounds in the middle of the desert, but you will certainly hear them. It’s wind. And the wind sounds more wild than the wildlife sometimes. As wind picks up speed with very little to block it’s path, it creates a whistling and tonal noise throughout the skies. This can sound like a ghost howling. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, that’s the last thing you feel like hearing. Do not fret! It’s normal. Also, do fret, it’s blowing sand into your equipment!
Keeping safe from the wind is important. Many people don’t take into consideration the wind speeds when they first start learning to hike, climb, or camp. Wind speeds cause windchill and windchill cause dry and irritated skin, cracking, or more serious injuries. Take a buff with you to protect your face. Goggles can really come in handy as well, but that is something I would only pack for a desert specific trip (I keep as light as possible).
The takeaway: Be prepared to dress for the occasion. The desert is known for being hot, but that isn’t always the case. Windchill can happen in any climate and this windchill also carries sand along with it, which could result in some irritation. I suggest utilizing a balaclava, neck-gaiter, or buff with eyewear to protect form the winds of the desert.
Sand is… well… a nuisance. I’ve been to parts of the world where you could see walls of sand similar to the picture above rushing your way, allowing you ample time to prepare for it to hit. Dust and sandstorms can pop up seemingly out of nowhere, though. Having a quick setup shelter, such as the tent I use in my Backpacking Gear List, will ensure you’re capable of getting coverage when and where you truly need it.
The takeaway: Sand can become bothersome. To avoid this I typically stow my gear under a v-shaped entryway to my tent. Many backpacking tents come with this option built in by unzipping the entrance and rolling one side, securing it to the frame. My tent is an ultralight quick setup framed NEMO. You’re not going to be able to block all of the sand that’s out there, but it’s a whole lot more comfortable if you’re not dealing with an excessive amount. Waking up and having to brush sand away from all of your stuff makes for a rough start to your morning.
Rain doesn’t fall often in the desert, but when it does, it really rains. I was in the Middle East the first time I experienced a “rainy season” in a desert. The scarcity of plants in a desert does not mean it doesn’t get water, it just means the water doesn’t stand a chance of permeating the soil. The reason for this? Evaporation.
The heat that beams down on deserts is far too hot for the water to hold for very long. This is because there is oftentimes no cloud coverage to protect the water from the suns’ UV rays, essentially cooking the water out of the sand.
The takeaway: Although you’ll be preparing for desert backpacking, you can’t assume the weather will be always warm and sunny. As much as we’d all like to spend some time sunbathing like a lizard, it’s best to be prepared by packing some lightweight rain gear. I wouldn’t bother bringing Gore-Tex equipment unless you’re making up the weight difference by reducing how many thermals you pack. This opinion is only due to my constant want to shave ounces in my pack. Whichever you decide, make sure you have some warm gear, whether that’s Gore-Tex materials or thermals. The deserts do become cold as well, especially at night.
Packing light for desert hikes is the best way to setup your pack. I’ve posted about ultralight weight upgrades to gear previously so I will link that post here just in case anyone is interested in further preparation for a desert trip.
Plants To Know About
Desert plants do not mess around when it comes to defense mechanisms. They protect themselves with sharp spines, hardened shells, and even toxins at times. It is important to know about plants that may help you, instead of hurt you. Here, I’ll list a few of those plants. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, and these plants are not found in every desert environment. It’s important to plan ahead and research the plants and environment of the desert you plan to traverse.
Pinyon Pine – provide an edible seed, nicknamed “pine nuts”. These seeds are high in calories and actually quite tasty!
Agave – provide leaves, flower stalks, flowers, and seeds that are all edible.
Prickly Pear Cactus – provide an edible flat, green pad, and plenty of sugars within.
Juniper – provide wood and fiber for fire making and hunting equipment.
Animals & Critters
Rattlesnake: venomous and deadly, avoid if possible. They do give off a warning with the rattle, but most of the deadly bites have come from complacency in the wild. Stay alert! They tend to leave humans alone so long as we aren’t crossing them.
Gala Monster: These are the most venomous lizard in the upper Mexico/southwestern United States regions. They have an extremely potent venom and lightning-fast strikes.
Wild dogs: mostly in Australia or Africa, the desert packs of dingoes are known to hunt and attack humans when hungry.
Cougars: also known as mountain lions, these big cats are precise, stealthy, and extremely fast. They have a brute strength to them as well thanks to all of that muscle. These are mostly found within the western-US regions.
Killer Bees: Today, Africanized honey bees are found in southern California, southern Nevada, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, western Louisiana, southern Arkansas, and central and southern Florida. These guys can sting, and keep stinging, so don’t poke the bees nest!
A Final Word
The desert can be such a unique experience that I would suggest anyone to go. If you do, just make sure you’re prepared for it. Take your med-kits, bite-kits, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Thank you all for reading!
What About Hydration?
This post doesn’t specifically cover tips about hydration, however, it’s the number one rule while you’re in the desert. To learn more about proper hydration techniques, click in this link, which will take you to one of my former posts with a hydration section.
This post was written by Evan.