Hydration – Even if you are out for just a couple hours, the desert is a brutal environment. It is dry and can be difficult to gauge how much fluid you are losing. And, of course, there is that chance you can be on the trail longer than expected so having extra water is necessary. Too often I have people tell me they want to keep their load light so they take one 16 oz water bottle out in the desert on a 2-3 hours hike. That IS NOT enough. Get a day pack, carry at least 2 liters and just suck it up (water and your ego!)
Nutrition – With water, you need food. Take snacks – salty and sugary. Bottom line, you need carbs to get through the day. And to sound like a broken record (now that vinyl is coming back, you might know what that means), you might be out longer than you expected. Hunger is not a good thing to have when you need the energy to stay warm or to get back to the trailhead.
Protection – This is protection from the elements. The desert sun is brutal so you want to be sure you are protected. Sunscreen (at least 15 SPF), lip balm with sunscreen, clothing with UPF, a brimmed hat and sunglasses. Even an emergency poncho just on case you are out and it rains – yes it rains in the desert. Oh, and an ice axe! Have you ever see The Descent? If you haven’t, watch it and then you will see why you need an ice axe!
Prevention – Your footwear is the most important piece of equipment. Bad shoes (and socks – we like merino wool) can lead to sore feet, debilitating blisters and twisted ankles. Make sure you have good, broken in, breathable hiking shoes or boots. Check out out expert advice about selecting the proper hiking footwear. Aside from your footwear, make sure you know your limits. Don’t go from walking the dog 1 mile on the sidewalk 3 days a week to hiking Grand Canyon 10 miles. You are not prepared physically and you will find yourself in a very dangerous predicament. Just because you saw someone do it on YouTube does not mean you should too.
Navigation – A GPS or phone app is not a bad idea, but always have a topographic map and a compass with you. These do not require batteries or updates and will not break if you drop it. But you do need to actually know how to read a map and use a compass for these to actually be effective.
Insulation – This also means clothing. There is a common theme here; you need to be prepared to be out in the wilderness longer than expected – just in case. But sometimes timing is perfect but the weather changes without notice or you are just not familiar with desert climate. For example hiking in the summer is not necessarily the best idea in the desert – it’s HOT! But hiking anywhere in AZ during the summer months can bring you fast moving thunderstorms. This can equate to an extreme drop in temperatures, rain and wind – not to mention lightning and other hazards, but that is for a different article. But people hiking in the Phoenix area in March can find themselves enjoying temperatures in the high 70s – perfect for shorts and tank tops. Bring in sunset and temperatures can drop to the 50s and lower very quickly – and you don’t need to be exposed to freezing temperatures for hypothermia to set in. You need to have the proper clothing to protect you from the elements. A rain poncho helps but more importantly, you need layers. Make sure you have a lightweight, long sleeved wicking base layer, then a lightweight fleece and finally a water resistant or proof shell or outer layer. Of course, we don’t want to scare you. Hypothermia does take some time to set in, but if you had to stay overnight in the desert in temperatures in the low 50s, shorts and a tank top will not suffice.
Communication – You go out into the wilderness to disconnect. However, emergencies arise and you will need to connect to the outside world. A cell phone is not sufficient. If there are no cell towers, there is no signal and there is little worse than a giant tower sitting in the middle of untouched wilderness. But a satellite device will work. A Spot communicator or Garmin InReach will allow you to keep in touch with the civilized world and connect with emergency services if needed. At the very least, take a mirror so you can signal a plane or helicopter. But keep in mind, you could be hours to days from rescue; thus, all these essential items you are bringing will come in handy.
Illumination – Sometimes when you are out in the great outdoors, you can lose track of time. Other times, we just misjudge the amount of time a hike will take or it just gets dark faster than expected. Worse case scenario, you got lost and now you are stuck in the desert in the dark. The cure? Aside from proper planning, make sure you have a headlamp or a flashlight to light your way back to the familiar. Not only can you see, but someone looking for you can see you. A glow stick is a nice to have also. An odd green glow in the middle of nowhere does not always mean glowing, green extraterrestrials.
First Aid Kit – The only thing on the list not ending in “tion,” but is is essential. It doesn’t have to be big, but enough to carry tweezers, sport tape, an elastic bandage, NSAIDs, safety pins, tissue and some Mole Skin. I always add a lighter or waterproof matches just in case I need to start a small fire (notice I said small – attempt to not burn up the desert). Here is an example of a small kit perfect for a single hiker on a day hike.
Yes, this all sounds excessive and like you would be carrying a 20 lb pack just for a 3 hour hike. That is definitely not the case. There is so much gear out there that will suit your needs and keep your weight minimal. All this stuff can easily fit in an 1000 cu in day pack. And I am sure everyone has those “must haves” when out on the trail as well. Mine? A Yeti Bottle filled with barrel-aged Negronis!
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