Because desert environments can be harsh and unforgiving, it is essential that campers be aware of these inherent dangers and plan carefully to avoid them.
The most obvious yet often overlooked factor when camping or hiking in the desert is the potential for severe heat and the health risks associated with it, including but not limited to dehydration and heat stroke. Because the desert floor can reach summer temperatures above 130 degrees F, desert camping is better suited for winter, spring and fall. Nonetheless, many outdoor enthusiasts choose to camp during the summer vacation season and should keep some basic tips in mind to deal with the heat.
Try to avoid hiking when the sun is at its highest and limit all strenuous activity to early morning, late afternoon and evening hours. Shade can significantly reduce the desert temperature and is always at a premium during daylight hours. Tarps and umbrellas should be utilized around the campsite, and wide-brimmed hats can provide shade on the go. In emergency situations, such as on a hike, shade can be found in under overhanging rocks or inside cave-like holes or holes dug in the sand.
For any camping situation, a common rule of thumb is to bring at least 1 gallon of water per person per day—desert camping necessitates that much and more, depending on season. Water should routinely be drunk throughout the day, and drinking should increase with activity level. Always pack back-up water supplies and store them in the vehicle if possible. When hiking, take twice as much water as needed should a person become lost or stranded away from camp or the vehicle. It’s also wise to carry water in two separate containers in case one leaks or spills. There are no safe, dependable sources of water in most desert environments, so any water found should be treated with purification tablets or filtering devices before drinking.
It may seem strange to worry about too much water in the desert, but flash floods are common and can be dangerous in low-lying drainage areas. Ravines and dry stream beds are common desert camping areas, so whenever heavy rains are likely, campers should immediately move to ground at least 30 feet above the canyon floor. Also, because of the danger of high winds and lightening, campers should never camp on top of a tall hilltop or mountain.
Despite what can often appear as a vast, lifeless landscape, the desert has its share of dangerous animals, most notably venomous snakes and scorpions. Like humans, these animals seek shady areas during the hottest hours. That’s why it’s important to not reach into or under rocks, crevices and rocky formations where snakes seek shade. Since most snakebites are the result of people accidentally stepping on a snake, hikers and campers should pay extra attention to where they place their feet. This advice will also help campers avoid tripping over stones, exposed roots and rodent burrows as well. Scorpions, however, tend to prefer the shelter of dense vegetation, so a person should visually inspect any vegetated area before sitting or lying down, and shake out footwear and clothing before putting them on.
Some desert vegetation can also be hazardous, mainly the many forms of cactus and thorny or needled plants. Many experienced desert hikers wear gloves for protection, as well as boots with thick socks doubled over around the ankles. Pocketknives and multitools with tweezers and small needlenose pliers are handy tools for removing painful needles, and combs can be used to remove burs and stickers from clothing.
Lastly, if pets such as dogs are brought along they should be leashed at all times to prevent encounters with snakes and harmful plants while wandering.
What To Do If Lost
Because so many parts of the desert look similar, it is quite easy to become lost. The first and most important thing a camper or hiker can do when lost is to remain calm. This allows clear thinking and prevents critical errors in judgment brought on by panic. The first decision is whether to stay put and wait for help or to hike to safety. If a camper stays, they should remain as cool and hydrated as possible. If a camper decides to move, they should set out for a noticeable, obvious landmark and not wander aimlessly. Usually the best strategy is to retrace their steps. Remember, though, that distances in the desert are usually three to four times farther than they appear.
In most cases, the S.T.O.P. process should be followed: