From the Grand Canyon to Saguaro National Park, the desert is home to some of the most beautiful, otherworldly scenery on the planet. But it’s also one of the earth’s harshest environments: Lack of water, extreme heat, and rugged, occasionally disorienting terrain can put unprepared hikers in danger in minutes. Come prepared for the heat with these basic tips.
You can’t live without water, and in a desert environment, you can’t count on finding it. Arroyos—seasonal streams that run in heavy rain or wet conditions—are bone-dry most of the year, and even normally reliable sources can run out. Polish off your stash, and you’re in big trouble: If notice you’re producing less, and yellower, urine than normal, feel abnormally sleepy, or start to suffer a headache, you need to find H2O stat.
Survive it: Don’t underestimate how much water you’ll need: A U.S. Army study calculated that soldiers doing moderate work in 90 degree heat needed as much as two and a half gallons a day to ward of dehydration. Plan on packing at least 4 to 6 quarts per person per day, and check with rangers in advance if you’re planning on filling up along the way. For long, hot hikes, add salt or a sports drink mix to your bottle to avoid potentially life-threatening hyponatremia.
It won’t kill you, but getting a sunburn is one of the quickest ways to ruin your trip (and the week or so after it). Blister badly enough, and it could compromise your ability to carry your pack. Don’t assume that your clothes will protect you: A white cotton t-shirt has a UPF of just 5, meaning it still lets 20% of the sun’s UV rays through.
Survive it: In the desert, cover up. Long, loose-fitting clothing will both help you retain moisture and protect your skin. Go for UPF-rated fabrics when possible, and wear a hat and sunglasses. And as always, wear sunscreen.
High temps aren’t just uncomfortable. An average of about 650 people die of heat-related causes in the United States every year, and not just in the desert either—high humidity can actually make it harder for the body to cool by preventing sweat from evaporating. If you or your partner start exhibiting nausea, dizziness, and irritability in the heat, you may be slipping into heat exhaustion, heat stroke’s little cousin. Once your body temperature hits 105 F and you stop sweating, you’ve graduated into the real thing, and need to get help before organ failure and death take over.
Survive it: Stay covered and hydrate with cool liquids to avoid this danger. In hot, dry temps, tying a wet bandana around your neck and resting in the shade whenever possible helps too. If heat stroke has already taken hold, you’re facing a five-alarm fire: Call or send someone for help, give the victim water if conscious, and cool him or her down by placing wet cloths on areas with lots of close-to-skin blood flow (think neck, armpits, and groin) while you wait.
Bites and Stings
Snakes and scorpions are little critters that get an outsize amount of attention from hikers headed to the desert. And while we understand the fear of suddenly catching a pair of fangs or a stinger in the ankle, there’s good news: Death by bite or barb is rare, especially with prompt treatment.
Survive it: Respect the critters and they’ll respect you. Don’t turn over rocks or stick your hands in dark nooks, shake out your boots before you put them on, and, for goodness sake, don’t harass or try to pick up a snake. (A study by researchers from the University of Hartford’s Hillyer College found that about one-third of snakebites were preventable.)
If a snake bites you, don’t panic—raising your heart rate will spread the venom faster. Take a picture of the snake if you can do it safely, then clean the wound, remove constricting clothing from around the bite wound, bandage it firmly (but not tightly), and head for the nearest hospital. Don’t try to cut the wound or suck out the venom: It doesn’t help, and will just increase your chance of infection.
Stung by a scorpion? If you’re a healthy, non-allergic adult, you’re likely not in danger. Treat like a bee sting, applying cool compresses to keep down swelling and taking anti-inflammatories. Going numb or having difficulty swallowing? Call 911.