5 Essential Pieces of Desert Hiking Gear
But it’s a dry heat…
115℉ and bone dry look scary on paper, but with the right gear, it’s manageable. Note: As I’m finding out during my stay in southern Texas, these tips don’t work well in high humidity.
The gear and tips below have been honed over 15 years of desert travel, and have kept me comfortable through everything from late summer bow hunts to speed runs down the Grand Canyon.
1. Bandana / Shemagh
In my opinion, this is the #1 trick to staying comfortable on a desert hike. A plain cotton bandana works great, as does my personal favorite, an Afghan Shemagh, which is a cotton scarf and the traditional headwear of desert nomads.
Soak your scarf in water and wrap it around your head or neck. It will provide shade and evaporative cooling as the desert wind dries it. Occasionally stopping to cool your face with it feels incredible!
2. Wool Felt hat
Something that seems counter-intuitive, but a thick wool cowboy hat or wide brim fedora is the best desert hat. The thick wool provides an excellent barrier from the sun while still breathing enough to let sweat vapor escape. You can also be soaked to provide evaporative cooling. I’m on my second fedora, and both have been worn so much that the sun-bleached them white!
3. Long Sleeve Shirt
Rounding out your sun protection clothing should be a durable, long sleeve shirt. I will feel hotter at first, but as soon as you start sweating, the evaporative cooling will keep you very comfortable. Lightweight, quick-drying fabric is a must.
Photokeratitis, also known as snow blindness, is an eye condition caused by a lack of UV protection, and it is very uncomfortable. Sunglasses are a must on any desert trip. Not only do they provide UV protection for your eyes, but they will also protect you from branches and brush on overgrown trails.
Water is, of course, critical in any hot weather environment. I hike with no less than a gallon per day. The easiest way to carry a large amount of water is with flexible water bladders.
Bladders and Bottles
Flexible water bladders, you can pack gear around them, and when emptied, a water bladder can be rolled up to save space. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket though; water bladders are fragile and prone to leaking; I hike with at least one steel or hard plastic bottle to ensure that I’m never without a way to carry water.
Keep Those Electrolytes Balanced!
When we sweat, we lose not only water but also electrolytes, which are minerals that control vital cell functions. Getting too low on electrolytes can be just as bad as getting dehydrated. Sports drinks and mixes, as well as salty foods, should be on hand for any hot weather excursion.
I prefer to keep my water bladder full of plain water and keep Gatorade or a hydration mix in a separate bottle. I find that in extreme weather, too much hydration mix can upset your stomach.
My favorite trail snack is flavored sunflower seeds. The flavoring is very high in sodium (an electrolyte), and the seeds are rich in potassium (also an electrolyte). Continually snacking on them while hiking should keep your electrolytes balanced.
The desert is considered a very inhospitable place, but with the right gear and preparation, one can explore the vast beauty and solitude that is the desert.