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Dehydration | Hyponatremia | Heat | Creatures | Navigation | Injuries | Weather

The author assumes no responsibility for accidents, injury or death incurred as a result of the use or misuse of information contained in these pages. Hiking in the desert contains inherent risks which no amount of care, caution or expertise can eliminate. This site is no substitute for topo maps, route finding skill, compass, physical condition, sense of humor or good judgement. Acts of god, stinging cacti, slippery slopes, poisonous creatures, blazing heat, faded trails, lack of water, trampling cows and mooching mice are all part of the desert wilderness experience. Every hiker must assume responsibility for his or her own safety and survival, for the rest ......... I'm sure there's something good on tv.

"Don't let your ego exceed your ability."
                                - R. Hustler

"Death is an unforgiving tutor."
                                - M. Chase

In the desert, water is the single most important item to carry with you. You should not rely on finding water as you hike, as most springs & streams flow only during certain times of the year and have flows that are unpredictable at best. The amount of water needed for a hike depends on several factors including: the duration and difficulty of the hike, the temperature of the hiking locale, amount of shade available and the water needs of the individual. With strong exertion on a 100 F day, staying hydrated is a losing battle. Drink lots of water at frequent intervals as you hike and carry more water than you think you will need until you find what is right for you. Even if you are able to find water, sources are often contaminated with the protozoa giardia or cryptosporidium (from human or bovine wastes) or may be highly alkaline from minerals leached from surrounding soils. All water should be treated before drinking. Common treatment methods include: 1) Boiling: kills protozoa, but is very time and energy intensive, few hikers use boiling as a treatment option, except when you are boiling water for cooking. 2) Disinfectants: either iodine or chlorine may be used to disinfect water for drinking. They are light weight and will kill protozoa, bacteria and viruses, but will not remove particulates and add an unpleasant taste (a flavored drink mix helps). Iodine comes in tablet form or liquid resin. The author has shied away from chlorine in the past (usually administered by adding 1-2 drops of household bleach per quart of water), simply because the idea of drinking bleach sounds somewhat unappealing (chlorine can also produce small quantities of toxic by-products when mixed with humic matter in the water). It should be noted, however, that millions of Americans consume chlorinated water every day with no short term harm. 3) Filtering: there are many brands of portable water filters available on the market. Filters will remove protozoa &  particulates without adding taste to the water, though they will do nothing for bacteria or viruses (some filters, billed as water purifiers, also contain an iodine resin to kill these objects). Filters will add weight to your pack and , depending on the model, can be somewhat time consuming to operate. The author carries all water needed for day hikes and uses a filter w/iodine resin for backpacking trips.
Hyponatremia is an illness that mimics the early symptoms of heat exhaustion, but is actually the result of low sodium in the blood caused by drinking too much water, not eating enough salty foods, and losing salt through sweating. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, altered mental states, and frequent urination. The condition is most easily prevented by carrying and eating salty snacks as you hike. Here's your excuse to pig out on Cheetos.
It should come as no surprise to learn that the desert is a sunny, hot, dry, terrible place, unfit for humans, cows or golfers. Heat coupled with dehydration can lead to heat exhaustion, heat stroke and possibly death. Heat and sun are best dealt with in the planning stages of your hike. Choose a hike that is appropriate for the time of year. An easy 9 mile stroll through the Sonoran desert in January can turn into a struggle for survival in July. During the summer months (all 8 of them) choose hikes that pass through higher elevations or through canyons that have perennial running water. Avoid hiking in the heat of the day at low elevations. An example of a summer hike might be to begin hiking early on the desert floor, hike uphill while it's still relatively cool, hike through the heat of the day at a higher elevation, then return as the sun begins to set. There are also quite a few hikes which require wading and swimming through canyons which may be appropriate for the summer months. Other tips to beat the heat include drinking plenty of water, wearing light colored cotton clothing and a hat, or sitting at home in the air conditioned comfort of your living room with one of those umbrella drinks. If you should find yourself feeling overheated, sitting out the afternoon in the shade of a mesquite tree and finishing the hike after dark is a viable alternative to hiking yourself into a coma. Coupled with the heat is the very real chance of serious sun burn. The desert sun is very harsh and can cause a burn in a short period of time, even during the winter months. Do not use a hike as an opportunity to work on your tan. Wear sunscreen and a wide brimmed hat (& possibly a bandana to cover your neck) to keep from burning.

As Edward Abbey says, everything in the desert either "bites, stabs, sticks, stings or stinks". The desert flora and fauna in Arizona tend away from the soft, cute and friendly (except perhaps the teddy bear cholla which, as the name implies, makes an excellent snuggle toy for the kids - especially the obnoxious ones). It is important to remember, however, that these creatures lead busy, important lives in an unforgiving landscape. It is you who are the uninvited guest in their ever dwindling desert home - please show some respect.

These beautiful highly adapted creatures exist throughout the Sonoran desert. Rattlesnakes, though venomous, are unaggressive, shy and pose little danger to the attentive hiker unless provoked. Although there are approximately 8,000 poisonous snake bites a year in the US, only 0.2 percent are fatal. A 1988 study at the University of Southern Calicornia Medical Center found that nearly 100% of snake bites occur as the animal strikes in self defense, 44% as a result of accidental contact, such as stepping on the animal and more than 55% of bites were due to the victim's grabbing or handling the creatures. It should go without saying, but a good piece of advice is: "Don't taunt the snakes!", it also helps to visually scan the trail ahead of you to avoid stepping on a basking serpent and avoid using handholds that are out of your range of sight when climbing. Current literature indicates that the commercial snake bite kits are next to useless and the old 'cut and suck' method of venom removal doesn't help much either. In the unlikely (and unlucky) event that you have been bitten by a poisonous snake, remember that 40% of the time no venom is injected. Options at that point include: having a friend go for help, whipping out your cell phone that you have been carrying for just such an occasion or slowly walking out under your own power. Do not kill the snake under the assumption that it will aid the medical facility in your treatment, it will not. All rattlesnake bites are treated with the same antivenin. Rattlesnake venom is unlikely to kill a full grown human, so relax, get help and think of how you'll entertain your bar buddies for years to come with your snake bite exploits.

Gila Monsters:
These slow moving reptiles are one of only two species of venomous lizards (it's cousin the Mexican Beaded Lizard is the other). Rather than injecting venom through hollow fangs like venomous snakes, Gilas have enlarged, grooved teeth in their lower jaw. When they bite, their powerful jaws chew the venom in through capillary action along the grooves in these teeth. Gila monster venom is about as toxic as that of a western diamondback rattlesnake. However, a relatively small amount of venom is typically introduced in a Gila bite. Unless you pick one up or try to kiss one on the lips, you're probably safe from this creature.

The scorpion is a nocturnal arthropod which feeds mainly on spiders and insects. It's tail usually curved upward and forward over the back and has a venomous stinger. The species of scorpions that live in Arizona cannot inject a sufficient quantity of venom to kill an adult human, though their sting can be quite painful. Certain individuals, however, may be allergic to the venom and can experience life threatening side effects when stung (as occurs with bee stings).

Many desert plants have barbs or thorns which can make hiking painfully inconvenient at times. The two types that you'll run into most often are cholla and cats claw acacia. Cholla are a cactus which consists of thorny segments with barb hooked spines. When brushed the segments break off and imbed themselves in your flesh. The spines are sharp enough to penetrate boot leather and seem to slide effortlessly into your skin. Removal can be somewhat troublesome since an attempt to pull out the segment may result in your hand becoming stuck (and wind up like Brer Rabbit in the process). Some individuals carry a comb or tweezers to remove these segments, but the best solution is to simply watch where you're going. My personal nemesis is the cats claw acacia. The cats claw is a shrubby woody plant with tiny, hooked, razor sharp thorns which catch on everything that passes by at the slightest provocation - snagging your clothes & skin. The plant tends to grow across unused trails and is unavoidable in many cases. Wearing thick long pants and shirt might protect you as you hike, but would make serious hiking difficult. You may as well resign yourself to being shredded by this plant - plunge ahead, you'll heal in no time.

In the northeast where the author lived previously, route finding usually consisted of following paint blazes on trees and rocks or following a path through the woods. In the desert, where vegetation is often sparse, the openness tends to make everything look like a trail! In addition, crisscrossing footpaths left by hikers (called 'use' trails) and the stamping of noxious cattle on the delicate desert biota, can lead to a network of confusing paths. Fortunately there are aids to route finding which can guide a hiker before having to resort to map and compass. Most trail heads and junctions on National Forest land in AZ are marked by signs indicating either the trail name or trail number and occasionally mileage to the next junction. Though some signs are quite old, most are placed in conspicuous locations and are easy to read. Between junctions, small piles of rocks (called 'ducks') are often used to mark the path. Usually placed by others, ducks are often used to guide hikers through some of the more confusing sections of trail. If you find a section of trail confusing, think of placing a few ducks of your own to aid the next hiker that comes along. If you have doubts about whether you are still on the trail - STOP!, turn around, and retrace your steps to the last duck or until you are back on the trail (the absolute worst thing you can do is plod on stubbornly). Search the area for ducks, scouting ahead a short distance until the correct route is found. When in doubt, turn around! The most dangerous portion of a long hike (16+ miles) occurs after you have passed the half way point and backtracking loses its attractiveness as an option. Thus, extra care must be taken after the half way point is passed to ensure that the correct path is followed. Fatigue & carelessness can lead to a mistake which can prove to be inconvenient, unpleasant or even fatal. Every year people die as a result of becoming lost in the desert.

Most hiking injuries are due to either twists/sprains or repetitive use stresses which usually manifest themselves in the joints. These risk of these injuries may be lessened through proper conditioning, proper foot placement and care.

It's fairly simple, the better condition you are in, the more enjoyable the hike, the farther you'll be able to walk, the more you'll be able to see - all with less chance of damaging muscles or joints.

Many desert trails require walking on loose, rocky soil. Rocks which shift with every step can put your ankle at an awkward angle. Putting your full weight on your ankle in this position can cause a twist or sprain (this is only aggravated when carrying a full pack). The author has developed the habit of removing all weight from the foot that has shifted into a potentially injurious position. While this may result in a fall, it will protect the joints vital to the hike. The author has hiked thousands of miles with no injury .......... yet.

When hiking in the Grand Canyon it appears that every other person is wearing a knee brace of some kind. Apart from the dubious notion that squeezing a body part with an elastic band prevents/cures injury, it must be wondered why so many people are experiencing joint pain from an activity as natural as walking. Part of the problem seems to stem from technique used during descents. The author has witnessed many hikers stomping off down hill with little regard for the stresses caused by dropping their full weight (and possibly that of a pack) down on their knees. It is easy to imagine the cumulative effects of such an activity as the joints absorb the full impact of each step. The author recommends a controlled decent in which the body weight is lowered by the leg in contact with the ground. This technique requires slightly more work, particularly by the quadriceps, and is a little slower than stomping away, but will reduce injury and strain (and build up stronger leg muscles for the next hike).

Walking in warm weather on rocks whose temperature can exceed 120F results in hot feet and often blisters as well. The obvious solution is to apply mole skin when you first start feeling a hot spot forming.  Unfortunately, mole skin will not stick effectively in hot, damp conditions and tends to slide around while walking. The solution to this problem is to first apply tincture of benzoine to the effected area.   Tincture of benzoine is a nasty smelling, sap-like liquid which turns tacky as it drys. This tackyness will aid in holding the mole skin in place as you hike.


As if the broiling temperatures and searing radiation from the sun weren't enough, the southwest also boasts summer monsoons which provide additional fun for the avid hiker. The monsoon season in Arizona tends to last from July-September. Rising warm air over the desert creates a zone of low pressure which pulls up moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. This moisture brings daily afternoon thunderstorms with short torrential bursts of rain. Summer hikes should be planned to safely accommodate this weather.

Plan your hike so that exposed ridges are avoided during the afternoon hours. Towering black clouds are probably a clue that it's time to turn around or find shelter. Should you get caught in a thunderstorm, seek shelter under a rock ledge or overhang (preferably one large enough that you are out of the elements, but are not in contact with the rock). Place a pack or other insulating material under your feet and squat with only your boots touching the ground until the storm passes. Fortunately most storms are short (~1/2 hour) so you will not be forced to remain in this uncomfortable position for long.

Flash Floods:
One of the main attractions of the desert are the many cool, narrow sandstone canyons. During a downpour, however, runoff is channeled into these canyons making them quite hazardous. Logs and branches wedged 30 feet above the ground provide an idea of past water levels. Unless you'd like to spend the last few moments of your life witnessing the physics of canyon formation, have a good weather forecast before attempting to hike in narrows. The much publicized death of 11 hikers in a popular canyon in northern Arizona was due to a rain storm 14 miles from the canyon they were hiking. Hints of your impending demise may include: thunder, sudden increase in silt in the stream, or a rumbling sound similar to an approaching freight train. Get to higher ground if possible and sit out the flood until safe to continue (usually within 24 hours). An example of a flash flood in Wet Beaver Creek may be seen here.