Hiking In The Desert & Desert Survival

God's Country

Return to Table Of Contents

General Information:

Always inform someone of your plans:

* Tell a spouse, friend, neighbor – of where you are going and your expected time of return.

* Provide them with a map and the route that you expect to take and STICK TO YOUR PLAN.

* Make sure your backup person has the appropriate emergency phone numbers and description & license plate of your vehicle.


* You should have at least 1 gallon per person per day, plus an extra 5 gallons in the vehicle.

* Drink water if you have it. Do not ration it if you have enough.

* If you are going on a long hike and if you know that you are returning by the same route, you may want to stash some water along the way for the return trip. This will help eliminate some weight. Do not forget to “mark or waypoint” the place where you dropped off the water.

* If water is in short supply, try breathing through your nose and not your mouth, which will help reduce moisture loss.

* When you urinate, note the color. If your urine is dark, it may indicate that you are not getting enough water. If you have the water, drink it.

* No beer, coffee, or booze as these will dehydrate you and make your situation worse.

Download this Survival. PDF Pamphlet published by the MARICOPA COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT, carry it with with as a reference.

Some of the signs of possible dehydration:

* Thirst

* Dry mouth / Cottonmouth

* Muscle aches

* Headache

* Confusion

* Irritability

* Dark urine

Heat Cramps:

One heat related problem that you may encounter that is not normally considered life threatening is Heat Cramps.

* Usually associated with strenuous hiking.

* Usually cramps in the legs or stomach.

* Normally a condition of low sodium.

* Try not to use Salt Tablets because they require a lot of water vs. using a salty food such as nuts.

* Try resting in a shaded area.

* If cramps are in the legs, try stretching or massaging the muscle.

Two things that you might come up against in the desert are Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke. Of course this not to mention the possible snake bite, cactus needle in the leg, or broken bone now and then. In my case it is the bloody legs because I hike in shorts which is a big no-no.

Heat Exhaustion:

What happens to the Body:

* Headaches

* Dizziness / light headed

* Weakness

* Feeling sick to your stomach /vomiting

* Pale clammy skin

* Irritability or confusion

* Fainting

* Decreased and dark urine

What should be done:

* Move the person to a cool, shaded area to rest and do not leave the person alone. If the person is dizzy or light headed, lay them on their back with their feet elevated. If they are nauseated, put them on their side.

* Remove heavy clothing.

* If they are not sick to their stomach, have them drink a small amount of water every 15 minutes or so.

* Try to cool the person with a spray mist or cold wet cloths.

* If the person does not feel better within a few minutes, they will need to be transported or taken to emergency help.

* If not treated, the illness could advance to Heat Stroke.

Heat Stroke:

What happens to the body:

* Dry pale skin – no sweating

* Hot red skin – looks like sunburn

* Mood changes – irritable, confused, not making sense

* Seizures, collapses / passes out

What should be done:

* Emergency help needs to be obtained immediately

* Move the person to a cool shaded area

* Lay the person on their back

* If they are having seizures, protect them so they do not injure themselves

* If the person is nauseated, place them on their side

* Remove heavy clothing

* If they are not sick to their stomach, have them drink small amounts of cool water every 15 minutes

* Cool the skin by fanning, spray mist, or wet cloths

* Place ice packs (if available) under the arm pits, back of the neck, and groin area

The Cold: Hypothermia

Yes, it does get very cold during the winter in the western deserts, at least cold by my standards. The low 20’s with a wind chill may be nothing for those of you from the mid-west and the upper northeast, but if you were running around in a short sleeve shirt with no jacket during the day because it was 70 degrees during February and the sun goes down, you may have a recipe for disaster. The deserts are no different from hiking anywhere else, so be prepared. Something to remember is that the deserts tend to lose heat very rapidly after the sun goes down.

Hantavirus: The short version,

*There are confirmed reports of the virus in the southwest.

*This disease is characterized by influenza-like symptoms.

*Hantavirus appears to prefer rodents as a host, but other small mammals can be infected.

*Rodents that are carrying the Hantavirus do not exhibit signs of apparent illness – at least none that the layman would recognize.

*The virus is passed from the infected critter through its urine, saliva, and feces for many weeks.

*Human infection may occur when infected saliva or excretions are inhaled as an aerosol directly from the infected animal or when dried excretions are disturbed and become airborne and then are inhaled. The infection can also occur through a break in the skin, through the eyes, or even ingested in contaminated food.

*The last bit of information that I was able to obtain stated that the experts are still uncertain at this time exactly how long the virus survives in fecal matter once it is shed into the environment.

*The Hantaviruses are currently susceptible to most disinfectants.

Probably one of the more common ways for people interested in rock art to come in contact with the virus would be when they are crawling around in caves, rock shelters, or under the overhangs of cliffs. These are all potential places where infected rodents might hang out.

To familiarize you with the Basic practices of First Aid read the information contained HERE published by the survival-center,

SPOT Satellite Messenger

My Personal Choice……Leveraging both GPS satellite and SPOT’s own network, the device is able to report its location to friends and family even in areas without cellular or wireless coverage.


* SPOT sends your exact GPS coordinates and selected messages over commercial satellites to tell others of your location and status.

* Works around the world, independently of cellular networks.

* SPOT features four key functions that enable users to send messages to friends, family or emergency responders, based upon varying levels of need:

o Alert 9-1-1 – Dispatch emergency responders to your exact location

o Ask for Help – Request help from friends and family in your exact location

o Check In – Let contacts know where you are and that you’re OK

o Track Progress – Send and save your location and allow contacts to track your progress using Google Maps™



* I carry two Garmin eTrex GPS devices – We also carry a second GPS as a back up in our packs.

* Use mapping software – Delorme topos, National Geographic topos, and All Topo Maps are good sources.

* Upload waypoints to the GPS to mark the roads and to mark your route in and out of the washes/canyons that you expect to hike.

* ALWAYS, always, always mark a waypoint where you parked you vehicle even if you are on a paved road. How many times have you left the vehicle and lost sight of it in the matter of minutes because of the washes, hills, and just low knolls. Sometimes the old, “I think I parked it just over the next hill” doesn’t quite cut it, unless you are parked at the mouth of a canyon and there is only one way in and out. If you have for some reason neglected to mark where you parked, some GPS’s can “project” a waypoint in case you do not want to “back track”. Many times I want to take a different route back to the vehicle and marking a waypoint where I parked allows me to do this without too many problems.

* If you do not have mapping software, Google Earth has a great piece of software it offers absolutely free.


* If you have a compass, KNOW how to use it. Many people carry one and don’t have a clue how to use it. Consider taking an orienting course through the local community college.


* Should be lightweight, light colored, long pants and long sleeved.

* Have a hat available.

* Have something to cover the back of your neck. A sunburned neck is a killer. Some hats provide a flap for protection or another piece of clothing can be used.

* Good comfortable boots with non-slip soles if possible. No tennis or street shoes.

Know your limitations: The really obvious stuff…

*Some of us are not in our 20’s any longer. Keep that in mind when you start out.

*Try to always hike with at least one other person – some of us may hike alone at times and that is not always a good idea.

*Know your hiking partner. Hike with someone that is at your level or slightly better. On an arbitrary scale of 1 to 10 and, say you rate yourself as a 4, try hiking with someone at a level 5. This will challenge you and help make you a better hiker. The situation that I had above was that my partner was a 15 on a 10 scale and I am about a 4.

*If you are new to the desert, try starting in the cool spring with short hikes and work your way up to the longer ones and the heat. Take time to acclimate to the warmer and dryer heat. You might have been a great hiker in the northwest where it is nice and cool most of the time, but the desert and the heat is a different ball game. It would be similar situation to me going back east and trying to deal with 150% humidity.

*Work up to some of the hikes by hiking established trails at first. Don’t try the cross country stuff until you know what you are capable of doing. There are several good hiking books dealing with the southwest.

Other Information:

*Drug Labs: Drug labs and other illegal operations in remote desert locations are becoming more commonplace and consequently may be more easily stumbled upon by the average hiker or off-roader. Use caution and stay clear of anything that doesn’t look right. If possible, GPS the location and report it to the proper agencies.

*Abandoned Mines: As intriguing as they are, mines can be death traps. Please remember mines not only go straight in, but mine shafts also go straight down; those are the ones you may not see. A 200-foot freefall may be exciting, but the stop at the end will get your attention.

*Explosives: On occasion in the desert you may come across explosives from either abandoned mining or military operations. If possible, mark or GPS the location so you can report it to the proper agency.

The following is not recommended

Walkabouts in the summer heat:

Most people hike the deserts from late fall to spring which are probably the safest and smartest times to do it. My wife and I hike throughout the summer which can be done if you take precautions. We are the kind of people who would rather hike the summer months than deal with the cold of the deserts during the winter. Hiking the summer months can be very dangerous and is not recommended.

It is recommended that you NOT hike during the summer months

The following are some of the precautions that we take hiking during the summer:

* The FIRST thing that I do after getting to our jumping off point is to MARK (waypoint) the location of the vehicle.

* During the summer months I even take a second GPS (it is also tracking my route) in my pack. What can I tell you — I am overly cautious during the bad times of the year.

* I take at least twice the amount of water that I think I will need.

* We are at our destination and start hiking at sunrise. This means getting up VERY EARLY.

* Most of our hikes are in canyons or deep washes, and for safety we try to be back at the vehicle not later than 11:00 am. Depending on the time of the year, and where we are located, the temperatures are closing in on 100 degrees by 11:00 a.m. and it is time to be heading out or… die.

* Be aware of your limits during the summer time; know yours. Most of my hikes are 2 to 6 miles.

* Stash water on the way (GPS its location) so that it can be retrieved on the way out.

* If the heat gets too bad, we take a 10-minute break every 60 minutes and increase the breaks as needed.

* Also try to take advantage of shade whenever possible and try not to sit directly on the ground. Ground temperatures can be 10 to 30 degrees hotter than when sitting on a rock up off the ground.

* The summer months are my favorite time of the year to hike. You just need to take extra precautions and think about everything you are going to do.

* Try to know as much as possible about the area that you are going to be in so that you can prepare as much as possible.

* Stop, turn around, and look back frequently. Things always look different going the opposite way. Be aware of your surroundings.

* Know your limitations. Hiking during the summer months is generally not a good idea.

The big thing, “Watch where you place your hands or feet”. We tromp up and down rocky areas – great spots for some rattlesnakes; We have crawled into caves – great place for rattlers and assorted critters; and we cut across country stepping over brush – sidewinders just love to curl up under these areas. Now for me this is great because we enjoyed finding and photographing critters of all kinds although the reaction I get from my wife seems a bit more entertaining. Some people, even though they hike in the desert, are very nervous around wildlife. Bottom line, try not to take too many chances.

Some of the critters that you will find in the Southwest

"Watch Your Hands & Feet"

"Watch Your Hands & Feet"

Rattlesnakes: Contrary to some people’s thinking, they are not out to hunt you down and do you in. If you have spent time in the desert, you have probably walked right past one or two and never knew it – they do not always rattle. I carry a walking stick – not to beat the poor snake to death, but to alert any number of critters that I am on the way.

Once Again, "Watch Your Hands & Feet"

Once Again, "Watch Your Hands & Feet"

Scorpions: Most scorpion stings are not going to be a problem with the exception of the “Bark Scorpion”. The Bark Scorpion can be life-threatening to children, elderly, or people with existing medical conditions. Scorpions and other insects like cooler, damp places so make sure you check boots and clothing very carefully before putting them back on.

Gila Monster: Not often seen and it is our only poisonous lizard. They are heavy-bodied lizards with a fat tail, and are black, orange, red, and yellow in color. The venom is neurotoxic, free flowing and chewed into the wound.

Africanized Bees: The so-called Killer Bees have made in-roads into Southern Nevada recently. In fact, there have been a couple of situations involving the bees not far from the Las Vegas Strip. If on a hike and you see bees going in an out of a small opening, it would be a good idea to give it a very wide berth just to be on the safe side. If you are attacked by bees, cover your head, do not flail your arms around (it will only antagonize them more), and run towards your vehicle if possible, or just keep running. Some reports that I have read state that the bees will pursue what they perceive as a threat up to a half mile. Think about it… if you are in a rocky canyon you will not be able to run a long distance without major injury to your body. Play it safe and when hiking give all bees a wide berth. Some other hints are to wear light colored clothes and avoid wearing scented lotions.

Tarantulas: Bites are rarely fatal, just normally painful. This is another one of those “shake out your gear and clothing before putting them back on”. I laid down my pack in the shade while resting one time and when I went to pick it up, there staring back at me was the cutest little hairy critter on my pack.

Burros and just about any critter with young: Give them space. The only times that we have had wild burros be aggressive was when they had young with them. The two young bob cats at the top of this page were very curious about me. I watched them for about five minutes, all the time mamma was sitting about 150′ above and behind them watching me, watching them. Common sense says TRY NOT TO GET BETWEEN THE YOUNG AND THE ADULT.

Cactus: The only thing I can say is the obvious, “watch where you are going”. My ex-old time hiking partner use to rush so much that one time he blindly walked into a Cholla. The tips of the needles stayed in his thigh for the next four months, and to say he was hurting is putting it mildly. Watch for pieces of cactus lying on the ground. I have accidentally stepped on a section of cholla and the spines went right through the sole of a boot.

Other Stuff:

* Know your limitations

* Take advantage of shade whenever possible. When resting, try not to sit directly on the ground. It can be 10 to 30 degrees hotter on the ground.

* If possible, rest at least 10 minutes every 60 minutes. Increase your resting time as it gets hotter or when you feel the need.

* Keep hydrated with water. Do not drink alcohol or coffee as they will dehydrate you. A cold beer is NOT the answer to thirst.

* Everyone should complete a basic First Aid and CPR course, if for no other reason than to be able to help their own family or friends in the case of an emergency.

* On the average, a person tends to acclimate to the weather in the area that they are living in about 4 weeks. So, if you have just moved to the southwest deserts in the middle of summer, from say cooler northwest environment, you may want to give yourself a few weeks to get use to the heat before venturing out on desert hikes. Then it would be advisable to start with slow easy hikes on a well traveled trail and preferably not during the heat of the day. If you hike during the summer months – which is not recommended – start very early in the morning and finish up in the early morning and keep hydrated.

* And, oh yes, Know Your Limitations.

Things to consider taking with you on the trail

* Water – Even on a cool day and a short hike, do not leave your car without it.

*GPS – Always have fresh batteries in it and spares in your pack. Even though the GPS is great, you still need to be aware of your surroundings, where you are heading and where you have been. Turn around and look behind you so that you recognize the area when you are returning – it will look different going the other way. It is always a safe bet to mark your trail with a stack of rocks or scratches in the dirt pointing out. This may seem redundant, but you just never know… and yes when using your GPS, do not forget to “mark” the position of your vehicle or where you started the hike.

* Maps of the area you are hiking.

* Sunscreen – No perfumed sunscreens. The coconut and flower scents are really nice next to the pool, but they can also attract an assortment of unwanted flying critters.

* Gators (brand name)- They are normally used to keep snow out of your boots. I use a pair of low cut lightweight ones to keep weeds out of my socks and boots. I no longer come back from a hike and spend an hour digging weeds, stickers, and such out of my boots and socks. Gators come in different heights from low (ankle height) to just below the knee. They also come in lightweight nylon to heavyweight materials. Most of my hiking is through the brush and I hike in shorts (I know, I know… you should be in long pants.) So I was constantly digging weeds out of my boots.

* Hat and jacket – protects you from both heat/sun and cold.

* Medication – you may be out longer that expected or the exertion may require you to take extra meds.

* Sunglasses – pretty obvious…

* Two-way radios – FRS radios are great for keeping in contact with your hiking partner. Make sure you have new batteries every time you go out and that you are both on the same channel. I have hiked with a person that did not carry extra batteries and did not change the batteries in his equipment and it could have been really dangerous if we had needed to get in touch with each other. The same applies for your GPS; keep new batteries in it and spares in your pack.

* Cell phone – keep in mind most cell phones DO NOT work in back country. Know your coverage areas and do not assume that your phone will work. Now if you are fortunate enough to own a Satellite phone, please keep me in mind the next time you go out.

* Flashlights and spare batteries

* Waterproof matches

* First aid kit, tweezers, insect repellent – Also, I do not believe that it is recommended by the AMA, but super glue for me is a great way to take care of minor cuts. Hint: If you use super glue in conjunction with a band aid, make sure the super glue is dry. You can not imagine how much fun it is to try to remove a band aid that has been glued to you body.

* Gloves – Hiking the washes that are alive with “Catclaw” (acacia family) and the limestone rocks that can be sharp as razors, may beg to differ.

* Walking stick – Many people do not like them altho0ugh they can be a virtual lifesaver. Not only is it a third leg when coming down steep slopes, it also helps with the steep slopes. they can also use it for beating the bushes / making noise when walking in areas that may be hazardous to my health.

* Camera – do not leave home without a digital camera.

* Paper and pencil – handy when leaving a note on your vehicle for someone to find.

* Hi-energy food bars (just in case you are out longer than expected).

* Hike with at least one other person – Many of us do hike alone at times and that is not a really good idea.

* Again Know Your Limitations

An assortment of ideas and information:

Contact Person: Have you given the appropriate information to your contact person?

* A Contact Person can be anyone that you trust or know is reliable. Ex: spouse, friend, co-worker, neighbor, even an email contact that you email on a regular basis. Set up something with that person to respond if they have not heard back from you by a certain day/time. Example: “Hey Mom, I’m going to Devils Hole today and should be back around 2000 and I’ll email / call / notify you when I get back. If you have not heard from me by……, please call the local authorities for help!”. Be as detailed as possible about where you are going and who “Your Contact” should call.

* Does your contact have emergency telephone numbers, agencies, or people to contact?

* Do they have maps of your planned route?

* Do they have your ultimate destination?

* If possible, have you provided them with all GPS and/or maps coordinates?

* Do they have your approximate return time?

* Have you set a time when they should contact help?

* Do they have a complete description/photograph of you and the vehicle that you will be using?

* Do they know whether you are alone or with a hiking partner?

* Very important: Stick to your plan, otherwise everything that you have setup with your contact person is just about useless.

Collecting Water:

Need sharp knife or machete, large plastic bags, small fold-up shovel, something to collect and/or pour the water into.

* The absolute best method of collecting water is to “bring it with you”. Always bring more water than you think that you will need.

* Keep water in your vehicle at all times and change it out on a regular basis. An emergency situation can happen anywhere at any time.

Myth: Old western movies picture the almost-dead cowboy knocking off the top of a barrel cactus and scooping out cups full of life-saving fresh water. Reality: The interior pulp does have a little moisture that can be squeezed from the pulp, but it can cause nausea and is very bitter.

* Place the open end of a large plastic bag over the end of a tree branch enclosing as many leaves as possible. Place a small rock in the bottom of the bag. This helps to weigh down the lower part of the bag. Then tie the open end of the bag tightly around the branch so that you are sealing the leaves and branch inside of the bag. Now, theoretically the moisture that is released from the leaves will be collected on the inside of the bag. Depending on the type of tree, you can get from 1 to 2 cups of water per day. Not a lot, but every little bit helps.

* Solar Still – In a preferably sandy wash/arroyo, dig a hole approximately 2-foot wide and 1- to 2-foot deep. In the bottom of the hole place a container for collecting the water. If available, place pieces of cut up cactus around the container. Over the top of the hole place a piece of plastic sheeting. Secure the sheeting in place with sand and rocks around the edges. Put a small rock in the center of the plastic directly over the container at the bottom of the hole (the center of the plastic is now lower than the edges. This will cause the water to run down the under side of the plastic into the container. Not very reliable and takes most of the day to get a little water.

* Water can sometimes be found on the inside curve of dry washes, creek beds, and arroyos. You will need to dig for it and it will not be clean, but it may save your life.

* Many times water is trapped in the natural rock basins (tinajas) in the desert. Water has been taken from these natural rock basins by Native Americans for thousands of years.

* Watch for green vegetation as there may be a natural spring nearby. Also check near the base of cliffs for moist areas.

* Watch for animal tracks as they may lead to water sources.

* Insects sometimes buzz around or over moist areas.

* Water indicator plants: Locally, they would be grasses and Cattails, or Cottonwood, Willow, and the Salt Cedar (Tamarisk) trees.

Attract attention

Rescue planes or any passing aircraft,

make a very large X on the ground with torn clothing, or the sheet which you should have brought with you if you had read the above before you set off. Remember that whatever you use must be able to be seen from fairly high in the air. For land based search parties, a fire at night or a smoke signal by day must be seen up to 5 miles away. So if you are in a depression or valley, you should get to higher ground or at least have the signal on higher ground for land or sea based search but you yourself should stay in shade.

During day, burn a tire with the tube taken out, if you are with your car

During the night, light a fire or have sticks of wood or flammable material ready to be lit if you hear a plane.

Use a mirror to flash any possible rescuer.

Use 3 blasts on the horn, or from a whistle if someone comes near. Three may be considered a signal and not random.

The Panic Factor

The biggest killer in any emergency situation is panic. Panic blinds a person to reason and can cause them to compound the emergency with fatal results. Controlling panic is a matter of focusing the mind and operating in an organized manner. My Australian counterpart, Bob Cooper, teaches the ABC’s of survival to ward off panic and start the person on a constructive course of action.

A: Accept the situation. Do not blame yourself or others. Do not waste time contemplating “What if I had…”

B: Brew up a cup of tea, the mormon tea shrub is widely distributed through out the desert in the Mesas, plains, sandy soil including dunes below 5,000 feet. In addition what you are actually doing is starting a fire, which is needed, and completing a familiar, calming chore.

C: Consider your options. Take stock of items at hand, such as water reserves, survival kits, etc.

D: Decide on a plan. Taking into account of your options, decide on a plan that best ensures your health and safety. Thoughts such as “I have to be at work tomorrow,” are not considered.

E. Execute the plan and stick with it unless new conditions warrant.

The brain is by far the best survival tool we have. Survival is much more a mental than physical exercise, and keeping control of the brain is necessary. The large size of the human brain requires a high metabolic sacrifice in water and temperature control. Keeping the brain hydrated and in the shade will be more beneficial than all the gee-whiz survival gizmos in the sporting goods store.

An additional psychological factor is the will to survive. It may sound odd, but some people have just given up due to what they felt was hopelessness, impending pain, hunger, etc.

Women should not be discouraged in these situations on the basis of their gender. Women have several physical advantages over men in high stress situations.

Find This Page helpful ? Check Out Driving In The Desert

Return to Table Of Contents

Published on February 5, 2009 at 3:12 PM  Leave a Comment  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://southwestbackcountry.wordpress.com/hiking-in-the-desert-desert-survival/trackback/

%d bloggers like this: