Last Updated on June 22, 2023

Desert hiking is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding experiences you can have, and which everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.

In fact, a hiking trip to the desert presents many logistical and organizational challenges regarding hydration, protection from sunlight, and dealing with extreme temperature changes between day and night.

Before the beginning of your journey, it is important to bring with you all the necessary desert hiking gear and to follow a few precaution tips which will ensure that your desert hike goes as smoothly as possible.

Below, everything you need to know in order to prepare yourself for your next desert adventure.

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Man hiking in the desert
Hiking in the desert.

Desert Hiking Tips

1. Check the local weather

Weather conditions in the desert can change drastically and very quickly.

Even in a hot desert, flash floods and thunderstorm are very common, especially at night.

Make sure you plan your trip accordingly and keep an eye on the weather forecast a few days before you leave.

There are four main types of deserts: hot, cold, semi-arid, and coastal.

The only characteristic all deserts have in common is that they are very dry with little to no precipitation, other than that, they differ in terms of seasons, temperature ranges and wildlife.


2. Protect yourself from the hot desert sun

The sun in the desert is stronger than anywhere else, because of the lack of vegetation and shade, and because sunshines get reflected by sand.

Needless to say, it is important to take a few actions to protect yourself from the hot desert sun:

  1. Cover up from head to toe, leaving as little skin as possible exposed
  2. Apply strong suncreen every two hours or so
  3. Wear desert sunglasses, because the sun can also damage your eyes

SPF 100 Banana Boat Sport Ultra

SPF 100 Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch

SPF 100 La Roche-Posay Anthelios

SPF 110 Neutrogena Age Shield
Read more: Best sunscreen for desert
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ACBLUCE Kids Polarized Sports Sunglasses TPEE Flexible Frame with Adjustable Strap for Boys Girls Age 5-13

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Read more: Best sunglasses for desert

3. Bring more water than you think you need

How much water should you bring to the desert?

Ideally, when hiking in the desert you should bring around 2 to 6 quarts (10 to 20 cups) of water with you for daily excursions, and also keep another gallon (4 liters) as a reserve in your vehicle.

It is also a good idea to have some electrolyte sources in the form of sport drinks or coconut water to replenish salts and minerals you lose sweating.

A purifying water bottle can help you collect water from streams or fountains, never drink water you find in the desert without filtering or boiling it first.


4. Be ready for sudden drops in temperature

Even if you are traveling to a hot desert, if you are planning to spend extended periods of time there you will have to deal with sharp drops in temperature at night.

Because of this it is recommended to dress in layers and always have a jacket that you can put on at night and in the case of rain.

If you are camping in the desert, then you will also need to pick an adequate desert tent and sleeping bag to keep you warm at night.


5. Pack some snacks

When the sun is scorching and the heat feels unbearable, it’s easy to forget to eat.

Even if you are not hungry, you need to restore your energies.

When camping in the desert, make sure to bring with you foods that won’t spoil easily and that are not going to make you thirstier.

Ideal desert hiking snacks are unsalted nuts, dried fruits, beef jerky, canned foods, instant ramen, crackers and oatmeal.


Desert Hiking Gear

Alright, so you’re planning to travel through the desert and you’re wondering what kind of gear you need.

To start with, make sure you pack lightweight and breathable clothing, and a wide-brimmed hat to protect yourself from the scorching sun.

And of course, don’t forget to bring some sturdy shoes that can handle the rugged terrain.

Staying hydrated is key in the desert, so pack a solid supply of water and electrolyte-replenishing drinks.

You’ll also want to bring along a reliable GPS device, a well-stocked first aid kit, and a means of communication in case of any unexpected emergencies.

Below, a list of accessories which will make your trip to the desert easier:

  • Backpack with hydration reservoir – this will allow you to bring as much water with you as possible
  • Purifying water flask – if you find water in the desert, you must make sure to kill all bacteria before drinking it, so consider bringing a water purification system or tablets with you.
  • Water cooler – to keep your beverages cool in the heat.
  • Merino socks and desert gaiters – to protect your legs and feet from hot sand, debris, and absorb moisture from sweat so that you stay comfortable in the heat.
  • First aid kid – Pack a small first aid kit with supplies like bandages, antiseptic wipes, and pain medication in case of minor injuries or emergencies. You may want to include a snake bite kit depending on location.

Man wearing desert clothing on a hike in the Sahara desert
Desert hiking gear includes long-sleeve clothing for maximum protection against the sun.

Desert Hiking Clothes

In a hot desert environment with no shelter from the scorching sun it is imperative to cover yourself from head to toe, preferring long-sleeved shirts and long pants and avoiding wearing t-shirts, tank tops and shorts.

Say yes to closed tennis shoes or desert boots, no to sandals and flip-flops (and absolutely do not go barefoot in the desert).

A sun hat or a headscarf (like a desert shemagh) will also ensure you get full protection for your head, neck and shoulders.

This means that it is especially important that your desert attire covers up every inch of your body, and there are UPF 50+ sun protection clothing items that are made just for that.


Shirts

The best shirts for desert hiking are long sleeve, lightweight, and offer UPF50+ sun protection.

Most people prefer to opt for lighter colored clothing, although there’s a debate around whether what kind of color you wear in the desert actually makes a difference.



Women’s UPF50+ Long Sleeve UV Sun Protection Shirts Quick Dry Rash Guard Swim Outdoor T-Shirt


Vapor Apparel Men’s Outdoor UPF 50+ Long Sleeve T-Shirt


Coolibar UPF 50+ Kid’s Sandshark Long Sleeve Surf Shirt – Sun Protective
Browse more UPF50+ shirts for desert hiking

Pants

Covering your upper body is not enough, it is also recommended to wear long pants and trousers in the desert.

The best pants for desert hiking are long, light, and UPF50+. Avoid shorts or you’ll end up scorching your legs.



Little Donkey Andy Men’s Stretch Convertible Pants, Zip-Off Quick-Dry Hiking Pants, UV Protection, Lightweight


Butrends Women’s Hiking Capris Pants Outdoor Zipper Pockets Workout Travel Cargo Pant


CQR Kids Youth Hiking Cargo Pants, UPF 50+ Quick Dry Convertible Zip Off Pants, Outdoor Camping Pants
Browse more pants and trousers for desert hiking

Jacket

A light jacket is needed for the early mornings and evenings in the desert when the temperature drops. UPF protection is a nice addition but not a must in this case as you’re unlikely to wear the jacket during peak sun hours.

Wind, sandstorms and sudden rain showers can however become a problem at night, and tend to appear all of a sudden, so it is important to have a jacket on hand at all times.


Weatherproof Original Mens Golf Jacket (Mens Windbreaker)

Weatherproof Vintage Womens Rain Slicker Jacket

BALEAF Kid UPF 50+ Sun Protection Jacket Hooded Cooling Shirt with Pockets Hiking Outdoor Performance
Browse more desert jackets

Shoes

When hiking in the desert it is recommended to always wear closed-toe tennis shoes in order to protect your feet from scorching sand and debris.

The best desert hiking shoes are lightweight, durable, and transpirant.

Oboz Sawtooth II Low B-Dry

Oboz Sawtooth II Low B-Dry
Hoka One One Clifton 7

HOKA ONE ONE Clifton 7
Xero Shoes Terraflex
Xero Barefoot Shoes Terraflex
Read more: Best shoes for desert hiking

Boots

Desert boots are ideal for more challenging terrains you may encounter during your expedition, and especially needed if you are travelling to a rocky desert or canyon in the US.


Kenetrek Desert Guide Non-Insulated Hiking Boot

BLACKHAWK Desert Ops Boot, Coyote

DANNER MANUFACTURING Bull Run Moc Toe Work Boot

VIVOBAREFOOT Gobi III Eco
Read more: Best boots for desert hiking

Socks

The best socks for desert hiking are made of Merino wool, a special type of material which is especially good at absorbing moisture from sweat and keeping your feet fresh.

As a rule of thumb, the higher Merino wool percentage, the better.

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75% Merino wool socks
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66% Merino wool socks

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40% Merino wool socks
Read more: Best socks for desert

Gaiters

When hiking in the desert, gaiters offer an extra layer of protection against rocks, debris, snake bites and scorpion stings.

Depending on where you go and how adventurous your hike is, you may need them or not.

Desert Gaiters for Sand Dune Explorers
Outdoor Research Bugout Gaiters

TurtleSkin SnakeArmor Gaiters


Kahtoola INSTAgaiter Low
Best Desert Gaiters
Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain Low Gaiters
Read more: Best desert gaiters

Hat

Sun hats are ideal for desert hiking because they are made specifically to offer maximum protection against the sun and are made of lightweight, breathable materials.


Outdoor Research Sombriolet Sun Hat

Columbia Unisex Adult Bora Bora Booney

Panama Jack Mesh Crown Safari Sun Hat
Read more: Best hat for desert hiking

Scarf

Desert Shemag or Keffiyeh scarves are useful for protection against the sun as well as sandstorms and wind.

Wear them as a bandana and use them to cover your mouth and nose if the weather is particularly windy.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-56.png
100% cotton shemagh
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100% cotton keffiyeh
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-57.png

Cotton/Polyester blend shemagh
Browse more desert scarves

Desert Hiking & Camping Essentials Checklist


Best Desert Hiking Destinations in the US

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park, California is a hiker’s paradise, with over 400 miles of trails to explore.

The park is home to a variety of landscapes, including towering Joshua trees, rugged mountains, and sandy washes.

Some of the most popular hikes in the park include the Hidden Valley Trail, the Cholla Cactus Garden Trail, and the Ryan Mountain Trail.

Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada

Death Valley National Park, located in California and Nevada, offers an otherworldly desert experience with its vast salt flats, sand dunes, and colorful canyons.

Hikers can explore unique trails such as the Golden Canyon Trail, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and the Badwater Basin Salt Flats. It’s important to be prepared with plenty of water and proper sun protection due to the extreme heat in the park.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is renowned for its breathtaking canyon views, but it also offers exceptional desert hiking opportunities.

Hikers can choose from a variety of trails, ranging from easy walks along the rim to challenging treks into the depths of the canyon.

Popular hikes include the Bright Angel Trail, South Kaibab Trail, and the Rim-to-Rim hike for the more experienced adventurers.

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park in Utah showcases the beauty of the desert with its more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches and unique rock formations.

Hikers can explore trails that lead to iconic landmarks like Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, and Double Arch.

The park offers a range of hikes for all skill levels, from short walks to longer, more strenuous hikes through the stunning desert landscape.

Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park in Utah is famous for its towering sandstone cliffs and narrow slot canyons, providing a dramatic and adventurous desert hiking experience.

Hikers can choose from a variety of trails, including the popular Angels Landing Trail, The Narrows, and Observation Point.

The park’s diverse terrain and stunning vistas make it a must-visit destination for desert hikers.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park, located in Arizona, is home to the iconic saguaro cactus, offering a unique desert hiking experience.

The park features scenic trails that allow visitors to explore the Sonoran Desert and encounter diverse wildlife.

Hikes such as the Desert Discovery Trail and the Cactus Forest Loop offer opportunities to appreciate the park’s natural beauty and learn about the desert ecosystem.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

White Sands National Park in New Mexico is a mesmerizing destination with its vast expanse of white gypsum sand dunes.

Hikers can embark on the Alkali Flat Trail, a challenging hike that takes them through the heart of the dunes, allowing for an immersive experience in this unique desert landscape.

The park also offers ranger-led sunset hikes, providing stunning views as the sun sets over the white sands.


Desert Hiking FAQs

What are the best times of year to go desert hiking in the US?

The best times of year to go desert hiking in the US are spring and fall.

During spring, the weather is mild, and the desert landscapes come alive with vibrant wildflowers in bloom.

Fall also offers pleasant temperatures and a more serene hiking experience with fewer crowds.

What are some of the most popular desert hiking trails in the US?

Some of the most popular desert hiking trails in the US include the Badwater Basin Trail in Death Valley National Park, the Hidden Valley Trail in Joshua Tree National Park, the Delicate Arch Trail in Arches National Park, the Mesa Arch Trail in Canyonlands National Park, and the South Kaibab Trail in Grand Canyon National Park.

These trails showcase the unique beauty of desert environments, from salt flats and rocky landscapes to iconic arches and breathtaking canyons.

What are some of the dangers of hiking in the desert?

Some of the dangers of hiking in the desert include heatstroke, dehydration, sunburn, snakebites, and sandstorms.

Heatstroke can be a life-threatening condition characterized by high fever, confusion, and seizures.

Dehydration is a significant risk, so it’s crucial to drink plenty of water and replenish electrolytes.

Protecting your skin from the intense desert sun is essential to prevent painful sunburn and potential long-term damage.

Be cautious of venomous snakes and seek immediate medical attention if bitten.

Sandstorms can impair visibility and cause breathing difficulties, so finding shelter until it passes is crucial.

What gear is essential for desert hiking?

Some essential gear for desert hiking includes hiking boots, sun protection, ample water supply, nutritious snacks, a first aid kit, and navigation tools.

Sturdy hiking boots provide ankle support and traction on varied desert terrains.

Sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses protect you from the intense sun.

Carry enough water to stay hydrated, even if you don’t feel thirsty.

Nutritious snacks provide energy during the hike.

A well-equipped first aid kit helps manage minor injuries.

Additionally, carrying a map and compass or using a GPS device can help you navigate the desert trails accurately.

What are some desert hiking tips?

Here are some desert hiking tips to keep in mind:

  • Start early in the morning when temperatures are cooler.
  • Take frequent breaks to rest, hydrate, and prevent heat-related issues.
  • Stay on marked trails to avoid getting lost in the vast desert expanse.
  • Remain aware of your surroundings and watch out for desert wildlife such as snakes and scorpions.
  • Pack extra water, food, and gear in case of emergencies, and inform someone about your hiking plans.

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