The desert is a beautiful but unforgiving place. The seasons are drastically different from the forest mountains that many trails follow and the terrain provides its own set of challenges. I enjoy desert hiking and backpacking because of the extended seasons; it integrates perfectly into a year-round backpacking schedule.
This year I spent two weeks in Death Valley and learned a lot about the rigors of desert travel and camping. Here are my takeaways and tips for anyone looking to head to arid terrain, which brings me to water.
Water in the desert is precious. It is often the center of wildlife, vegetation, and hiking trails. But, if you are expecting the sources to be pristine, crystal clear mountain springs, then you are in for a rude awakening. Water treatment is essential in the desert. The most reliable water in the hottest climates is often in the form of seeps and well-used springs. Many of the sources are shared by cattle, wildlife, and humans, with one source hydrating many. I have found dependable sources trampled through and torn up by wild horses and burros on many occasions.
Tip: Add in a dipping cup to pull water from shallow seeps.
Hydration is the biggest thing that can make or break a hike in the desert. In Death Valley, it was not especially hot, but the dry air and the salt flats worked together to thoroughly dehydrate my body through a day of hiking. Add in the wind and it was tough to drink enough water.
I have found adding flavor, electrolytes, and some sort of general powdered mix makes drinking water more appealing and also easier to do. Oftentimes the water in the desert is warm, and drinking warm water is something no one enjoys.
The most important thing about water is starting the hike carrying the right capacity. If there is a 20-mile dry stretch then you should have the capacity to carry enough water to safely make it through those 20 miles. Simply carrying the capacity does not mean that all the bottles have to be used the entire time, and for some of the trip you may be carrying empty bottles to be prepared for the waterless stretches.
Desert terrain is dry, dusty, and often windy. There are fewer areas to escape exposure and sheltered campsites are rare. Because the terrain can be so varied and challenging, I like to plan out where to camp ahead of getting out there. I am notoriously light on the planning side for most summer adventures, but with the added difficulties of less water, more rugged trail, and increased exposure, I find comfort in going into a desert backpacking trip with a more defined itinerary than a traditional backpacking trip.
Gear to combat both the sun and the wind can drastically improve the experience of backpacking in the desert. Many people carry umbrellas, and try to wear loose and light-colored clothing that covers their skin. If there is exposed skin, staying on top of sunscreen is paramount. Especially if the desert has any sort of altitude, sunburns can happen extremely fast.
The desert changes seasonally, annually, and with each passing weather system. Sand dunes shift, mudslides and flash flooding wash out trails, and water sources can be easily altered. The desert is a fragile place, which makes good planning for an adventure essential. There are countless apps and resources online, but I always prefer to try to talk to a ranger station or see a recent trip report to know what the current situation of the landscape is. I have been on a number of trips where an unreported rockslide changed a route.
No matter how much planning goes into a trip, having the essentials to get through any weather, terrain and situation is a necessity. If the terrain is too difficult, or if essential water sources are dry, there is no shame in turning around and cutting the trip short.
The beauty of the desert is that in its fragility it is continually changing, and what you may read online or see in someone else’s photos can be completely different than your experience. That is why going in with a plan and also being flexible to the current situation can make a desert backpacking trip a wonderful experience.
Jeff Garmire is a hiker, author, and writer who lives in Bozeman, MT. Since 2011 he has hiked 30,000 miles and set 15 trail records. He is the co-founder of BackpackingRoutes.com and the author of the book Free Outside.