|Teddy Bear Cholla|
As the hiking season winds down in higher elevations, in the Sonoran Desert it's just beginning. I've managed to spend a significant amount of time wandering the desert in the last month or so, mainly in The Phoenix Mountain Preserve, but a little in South Mountain as well, and I thought I would just share some observations, and some of what I've learned.
Hiking in 100 degree heat with the sun beating beating down on you is hard, and the first thing I noticed early on was that everything you do in that heat is harder than normal. You have to be prepared for those extreme conditions, because something as routine as a steep climb can leave you feeling sick and spent.
1) Acclimatize - The more you hike in the desert, the better you handle the heat. My first couple desert hikes left me feeling sick and slightly demoralized. If you plan on backpacking in the desert, I would recommend plenty of desert day hiking beforehand. Start small.
2) Temper Your Ambitions - Like I mentioned above, everything is harder in the heat. Expect routine distances and climbs to push your limits. What you can easily accomplish physically in milder climates will be a challenge in the desert.
3) Bring More Water - Unless you've hiked in the desert in summer, it may be hard to imagine just how much you can sweat, and how thirsty you constantly feel. In the last month, routinely hiking in 100 degree heat, I've found that bringing double the water I normally bring is just enough. Last Saturday I finished 4 liters on a 7 mile hike. Trust me, you'll need to drink much more water than normal. Also keep in mind that water is really going to dictate where and how far you hike. If you bring 4 liters and notice that you've finished 2 already, then its time to turn around and head back to the car.
4) Seek Shade - Heat stroke is a serious risk, and keeping your body from overheating is going to take effort on your part. If you come across shade, take your pack off and sit in it for a few minutes. Drink some water. Let your heart slow down. Let your body cool a little bit. I usually plan my breaks around shade instead of distances. I'll say to myself, "The next shade I come to, I'll take a short break". Trust me, it really helps taking a break in shade, versus taking a break in the sun, which can be totally miserable.
5) Bring Sun Protection - This one seems like a no-brainer. Keep sun screen in your pack. Wear a hat to keep the sun off your face. Wear a wide brimmed hat or drape a bandanna from the back of your hat to protect your neck. Wear polarized sunglasses. I have forgotten sun screen multiple times, and got burned for my stupidity. Now I keep a tube in my day pack at all times.
6) Keep Track of the Forecast -. I like to use 100 degrees as a good mark of when to start and when to stop. If it's 100 in the morning when I plan to start then I stay home, because it will only get hotter. If it's 100 in late afternoon when I plan to start, then I'll go, because it will only get cooler. Hiking in 110-120 degree weather is dangerous, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, but 100 is doable as long as its the peak temperature. You can beat the hottest times of the day by hiking near dusk and dawn.
So, those are just a few of the things I've learned in the last month. I'm not suggesting anybody run out to the desert and brave the heat, I'm just pointing out a few things I figured out, that really helped me. Desert hiking is a lot more doable in the winter months when the heat lingers in the 80's and water can be found in places dry during summer. I guess the smart thing to do is just wait for winter to hike in the desert, but living in Phoenix I basically have 3 options. Option 1: Don't hike. Option 2: Drive at least 2 hours north to escape the desert. Option 3: Hike in the desert. I have to take option 3 because I hike multiple times a week, and I cant make a 2 or 3 hour drive every time I want to hike. But hiking in the desert is doable. Just be smart and bring lots of water.