Desert Hiking 101 - How to be Prepared

  • Posted on 29 March 2021
  • By Regge Bulman
Spring is upon us and it (along with close competitors Fall and Winter) is a perfect time to strike out into the deserts of Southern California. Spring is the time to catch Instagram-worthy flowering cacti and plants that only strut their stuff after a few winter storms and the desert is always ready to provide stunning sunsets full of orange and red. The desert also provides experiences for every level of ambition – from difficult scrambles up rocky peaks to exploring washes and canyons to visiting a desert oasis or long-abandoned mines and camps – the SoCal deserts provide a bona fide playground for the prepared hiker.
What the desert does not provide is a gentle experience for the unprepared. On a desert excursion years ago a friend remarked, “Remember, everything in the desert is trying to kill you!” While her warning was hyperbole, the desert does have a special ability to protect its secrets and keep outsiders away. From spiny and prickly plants to disorienting terrain, from extreme weather to rare encounters with scary critters, before heading out for a desert adventure, it’s best to, as our Scout friends remind us, “Be Prepared.”
Regge sporting proper attire for desert backpacking and robbing banks! (or avoiding others)

Regge sporting proper attire for desert backpacking and robbing banks!(or avoiding others) by Bernie Fox

A version of the Ten Essentials should be in every daypack or backpack. Before hiking in the desert you might want to tweak what you wear and what you bring. (If you don’t have the Ten Essentials memorized, refresh your memory here.)
While a warm spring desert hike might seem to call for a tank top, shorts and sandals, just remember, that 30-year-old jumping cholla cactus along the trail has been waiting all those 30 years to do just one thing – impale you with its sharp, barbed spines. And Mr. Cactus has friends…lots of them. Catclaw, or “wait-a-minute-bush,” wants to get up close and personal and has ways of keeping you there. Meanwhile, there are a wide range of yucca plants ready to poke you, just to see if you’re paying attention. 
In the end, perhaps the shorts and tank top are best left for a beach day. Not only will long pants and a long-sleeved shirt help keep our desert plant friends at bay, but they serve double-duty against another desert nemesis – that lucky old sun. If you’re going to be out for more than an hour or two, it’s probably best to just cover-up. Though sunscreen helps, it’s not as effective as long sleeves and pant legs. And while you’re at it, might as well cover up the rest of yourself too. A wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and protective footwear are no-brainers, but an all-day adventure calls for full-out coverage. Try a Buff or bandana to protect your face and neck and even gloves can be nice for sun and cacti alike.
Don’t forget that the blazing sun will eventually sink into the horizon and temperatures will change rapidly. A sunset and a stiff wind can turn a warm day into a bitterly chilly evening or night. A light jacket (or more) might be essential if you’re out when the sun goes down. Also, though rain isn’t a common threat in the desert – it happens. Rain gear, or at least a one-dollar, one-use rain poncho, is valuable insurance. It may sit in your pack for years, but one day you’ll finally be glad to have it there.
The Joshua Tree cholla are waiting for hikers

The Joshua Tree cholla are waiting for hikers by Regge Bulman

Before your desert adventure, make sure your essential First Aid kit has good tweezers or a small multitool with pliers in it (see jumping cholla above). Also, no matter how good your footwear choice, all that sand on the ground will eventually find its way into your shoes or boots. Regular “de-sanding” of your shoes, socks and feet will help keep your blister supplies in the first-aid kit where they belong.
Water, water and more water. The desert is a desert for a reason; there’s no water out there! You’re unlikely to ever find a water source, much less a drinkable one, so just bring more than you expect to need. You might end up the hero with extra to help out a friend or fellow hiker. An ironic oddity of your desert adventure is that after drinking all that water, and sweating it all out, your body may actually run low on salt, not water. Hyponatremia is the medical name and headache, nausea and a general feeling of “yuck,” are the symptoms. If you’re spending a long, hot day in the desert, a few salty snacks throughout the day should do the trick. A couple takeout salt packets in your first aid kit will also work in a pinch (yes, pun intended).
Ultimately, the varied deserts of Southern California are full of adventure for those willing to go find it. So grab your pack and ten essentials (with a few tweaks) and get out there to explore, enjoy and protect our incredibly unique deserts! And remember that the desert and its inhabitants aren’t really trying to kill you, although if you show up unprepared, it might feel like it.

 By Regge Bulman, WTC Newsletter editor, M-rated mountaineer and outings leader  and WTC Assistant Group leader, West LA


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Although it did not inspire me to do 100 miles across joshua tree, I’ll be better prepared for a day out there!

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