Pack for a Desert Hike

In many parts of the world, deserts cover vast areas of land — so vast, in fact, that our sprawl has butted right up against them. So what are humans to do with all that space? Well, a good hike would be a great way to explore one of nature's wonders. Knowing how to pack for just such an excursion will ensure that you truly make the best of your desert hike, even if you're from an urban jungle.


  1. Determine the type of desert you will be hiking in. There are many types:
    • A coastal desert is an area near the ocean that is fairly dry (average of 8-15 cm or 3-6 in of rainfall per year) and has a very sandy soil. It is characterized by a short, cool winter and long, warm summer, with annual temperatures ranging from 35° C to -4° C (94° F to 25° F). Most plants in these deserts are brush types with extensive roots close to the surface (to catch water before it drains into the sandy soil). Because this is a mild desert, various animals have adapted to survive in coastal deserts. These include coyotes, toads, owls, badgers, and various Feed Crickets to Reptiles.
    • A semiarid desert is the most commonly found desert in North America, Europe, and Asia since they are generally found in temperate zones. Rainfall averages about 2-10 cm (.75-4 in) per year and temperatures hover around 10° C (50° F) in the evenings. Because of this cool evening period, dew formed in the morning hours can meet or exceed the rainfall for that year, thus, providing many plants and animals with a daily source of water. Overcome a Fear of Rats, lizards, rabbits, skunks, and other small rodents are frequently found in semiarid deserts.
    • A hot and dry desert is exactly how it sounds: excessively hot and dry. Temperatures vary from extreme cold in the evenings (-20° C or -4° F) to extreme heat during the day (49° C or 120° F). Rainfall is usually less than 1.5 cm (half an inch) per year. This makes for an extremely harsh environment for any organism to live in. However, some Say the Names of Insects in French, Ignore Spiders, rodents, and birds have found ways to stay out of the heat in the day (burrowing or cave-dwelling) and searching for food during the evening.
    • A polar desert or cold desert is generally found in the Arctic or Antarctic. Precipitation is light, and quickly forms hard snow packs during most of the year. When vast areas of a polar desert are covered in snow pack, the region is called "tundra". Rainfall is generally 15-26 cm (6-10 in) per year, depending on winds and coastal effects. Winter temperatures are rarely above 0° C (32° F), and summer temperatures about 20° C (68° F). Note: Polar/cold desert hiking requires very specialized equipment. This article does not discuss polar desert hiking preparations.
    • A high desert is a semi-arid area that exhibits many of the features of a cold desert because of its high altitude location. While some of these instructions may apply to high deserts during the warm summer months, traveling in these deserts during other times of the year requires the same precautions as a cold desert, which are not covered here.
  2. Leave your itinerary with someone you trust. Even if you are only taking a day hike, you can easily get lost. Provide them with a map outlining the path you intend to follow. Write down what time you plan on getting there and coming back. Tell them that if you don't contact them at the planned time, they should take action to ensure your safety. Check in with that person immediately upon return, so you don't inadvertently have authorities looking for you!
  3. Find, fill, and pack Label Water Bottles in large quantities. The very definition of a desert requires the area to receive little precipitation. Most people will hike in coastal, semiarid, or hot deserts. You may not be able to find ANY water supply while hiking, so it is best to bring your own. Not energy drinks, not flavored water, just regular H2O. It's important to remain hydrated in the simplest way possible. It should last for the entire trip.
  4. Wear and pack clothing with the following characteristics:
    • light-weight - you need to allow your skin to breathe and release moisture (sweat)
    • light-colored - this will help reflect some light and keep you cooler
    • long-sleeved - particularly for multi-day trips, sun exposure can be fatal; if it's light-weight and lightly-colored, you should be OK
  5. Choose a light, but well-insulated sleeping bag if you plan to stay overnight. Many deserts have cool or cold nights. It's important to understand that, while the cool air feels good, you can get sick if you aren't kept warm through the night.
  6. Pack navigational aides:
    • GPS unit (the easy way, but it can run out of battery power)
    • Compass (the hard way, but more reliable to work properly)
    • Map of your final destination, camping location, set-off/arrival point, etc. Should include topography and important geological features
    • Radio
    • Satellite phone (you won't be getting cellular service out in the middle of nowhere)
    • Star chart for the correct season and hemisphere
  7. Bring energy-rich, high-protein food. This food should have lots of calories and good carbohydrates, with protein for energy. If the hike is particularly strenuous or lasts for more than a few hours, however, you should bring an electrolyte replacement (such as beef jerky) to replenish salts lost through sweating (see Warnings).
  8. Remember the daily essentials like:
    • Use Sunblock (the highest SPF you can find, preferably sweat-proof)
    • Toothbrush
    • Find Toothpaste That Doesn't Burn
    • Make a Toilet Paper Wick Heater
    • Washcloth
    • Sunglasses
    • Head covering (a wide-brimmed hat that goes around the entire head is best; baseball caps leave the neck completely exposed)
    • Neck covering, such as a handkerchief
    • Hand towel
    • Gloves (for rocky, mountain terrain)
    • Multi-functional knife
    • Small first-aid kit
  9. Zip up your backpack securely to ensure that no items fall out. Liquids should be placed in plastic zipper bags.
  10. Wear your backpack high on your back so that the top is nearly touching the base of your neck. This places the Shorten Backpack Straps square on your shoulders and more evenly distributes the load on your back muscles, instead of just your shoulders.
  11. Consider a bear canister. If you have hiked in other places, you know that your food and "Smelly foods" must be protected. However, in any desert areas, there are no trees to hang traditional bear bags. The solution is to get "bear canisters" or some other secure container. Some state and national parks provide these for a small fee. Others have bear boxes in highly utilized areas. Check with park or land management to see what you may need. Bear containers should be placed at least 100 feet downwind of your campsite. Traditionally, you would make a triangle campsite with your tent in one corner, your cooking area in another, and the bear canister in a third.


  • If you're staying overnight, make sure to bring matches and a small pot of some kind to cook food and heat water.
  • Pack as lightly as possible. Remember that you are hiking in a dry, desolate climate where humans don't generally live. You will want to have as few items with you as possible, and have as little weight on your back as possible.
  • Get some wilderness medical training, and keep it up to date.
  • Research the flora and fauna of the area you will be hiking. It's a good idea to become familiar with:

    • Venomous creatures (e.g. scorpions, spiders, and rattlesnakes) and what to do if you get bitten by one.
    • Predators (e.g. mountain lions) and how to avoid them
    • Edible plants (e.g. yucca, prickly pear cactus), how to test them for edibility--just in case you get lost and run out of food. This is a last resort.
    • Fragile environments - for example, the Cryptogamic soils of Utah's deserts can take decades to recover from a one-time hiking track.
  • Drink frequently throughout the day. Don't wait until you're thirsty. Sometimes the effects of dehydration can kick in before the urge to drink does.


  • Avoid dark items of any kind, whether it's your clothing or your backpack or your sleeping bag. All will absorb heat.
  • Fragile environments - for example, the Cryptogamic soils of Utah's deserts - can take decades to recover from a one-time hiking track. Stick to designated trails and respect the unique environment you're hiking in.
  • Avoid bringing electronics that aren't necessary and/or aren't built to withstand extreme conditions. They can malfunction, or even melt in high temperatures. If you think you can keep it cool during the trip, bring a small camera that you take out rarely during the day. Avoid prolonged sun exposure.
  • If you don't replenish salts lost through sweating, you can get hyponatremia, an electrolyte disturbance brought on by low levels of sodium in the blood. Drinking a lot of water without replacing electrolytes can be dangerous, so pack some salty snacks for a long or strenuous hike.

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