These desert hiking tips will help you prepare and thrive in a barren and hot environment.
Hiking in the desert is my absolute favourite. I’ve crossed 2 deserts now. The first was the Negev desert as part of hiking the 1000km Israel National Trail (the story of which is now a published book – Three Stripes South). I’ve also crossed the Jordan desert (read about that here).
I love the changing terrain, the sand and orange colours, the warmth and the sense that life is so precious in such a harsh environment.
If you are about to do some trekking in a hot environment, here are my top 9 tips….
#1 Get your Desert hiking clothing Right
It’s important to get your hiking clothes right when hiking in the desert.
I like to wear loose-fitting clothing that hangs off me comfortably. Although there is some debate around the material to use, I recommend cotton. It holds sweat for longer which keeps you cool. I never wear anything technical or what you’d consider typical hiking clothing.
Instead, I head to H&M or Gap where I can pick up a cheap cotton clothes. I wear
- T-shirt or vest on the top
- Lightweight open shirt over the top to keep me shaded from the sun
- Lightweight hiking shoes
#2 Keep covered up
Just like you see the Berbers, Bedouins and other desert people doing, cover-up. I always take a long-sleeved shirt which I wear as soon as the sun is up to cover my arms and shoulders. Make sure your head and face is shaded with a shall or brimmed hat.
The only part of my body that is out are my legs as I can’t stand wearing long trousers but everything else is shaded. this will save you a lot of weight not having to carry excessive amounts of sunscreen but will also protect you from UV damage.
#3 Think like a camel when it comes to water
It’s hard to stay fully hydrated in the daytime when hiking which can lead to heat exhaustion and put your body under a lot of strain. That’s why it’s important to drink lots of water when you can.
The hikers ‘camel technique’ refers to stocking up with water. Before you leave your camp spot in the morning, aim to drink 1 litre of water. This means you will rehydrate after a long time sleeping and will start the day hydrated.
Use the same technique when you get into camp at night to stock up any reserves lost in the day. I aim to drink 1.5litres in the evening before bed, especially if it’s been a hot day.
Also like a camel, you should be looking to set a slow and gentle pace throughout the day.
#4 Sip water little and often
If you are feeling thirsty then you are already dehydrated. You should be aiming to take small sips of water regularly throughout the day. This is much better than gulping down chunks of water with big periods in between.
This is where a hydration pack (I recommend Source) becomes a brilliant bit of kit. It means you can sip easily without needing to stop and take out a bottle, the only downside being you can’t monitor how much you are drinking. Water is precious in the desert so you need to work out how much you have and make sure you ration it realistically throughout the day (ensuring you have plenty to stay hydrated plus ideally a litre spare).
Usually, on a hot hiking day in the desert, I will take between 4 – 6 litres.
#5 Snack regularly
Being in heat can take away your appetite. It’s important to eat though to maintain your energy levels.
Rather than having a large meal, I snack throughout the day aiming to eat something (like a handful of dried nuts or fruit) every hour.
You’ll notice this will make all the difference to your energy levels.
#6 Plan to miss the heat of the day
One of my top desert hiking tips is to aim to miss the hottest part of the day.
11am to 3pm is when the sun is at its strongest. Hiking during this time, especially on a very hot day, can be slow and exhausting. Rather than fighting against the heat, schedule your day so you miss it.
I will often wake up before the sun has risen, hiking for 30-60mins using my head torch (as long as the terrain isn’t dangerous or technical). This way you do a chunk of your day’s hike while it is still cool.
Find a nice shady spot to then wait out the heat of the day before starting to hike again.
#7 Go on an outdoor first aid course
I can’t emphasise the importance of knowing basic first aid. Deserts are remote places so help is often far away. It is essential that you know the basics to look after yourself and your teammates should something go wrong.
Particular importance needs to be put on understanding heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Heat stroke is lethal and can kill you in minutes.
Know the signs!
# 8 Take a pot of Vaseline
Another top desert hiking tip is to take a tub of vaseline to combat the dryness of the desert. I put it around my hands, nose and mouth at night to soothe any cracks. It works great as blister prevention (slather it on hot pots before putting your socks and shoes on in the morning).
I always bring vaseline with SPF as can then use it as lip balm to protect my lips in the day.
# 9 Follow safe practice
Make sure you are well prepared with maps, compass, a GPS if needed and a phone with a spare battery pack. Water and food supplies need to be planned out in advance. Ensure you are self-contained with all the right clothing and gear needed to look after yourself.
And finally….always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back.
Tips for hiking in the desert
If you are planning to head to Israel or Jordan I’ve written lots of advice based on my time hiking here. You might find these blogs useful:
- How to pack your hiking backpack like a pro
- Guide to hiking the Israel National Trail
- What to pack for hiking in the desert
- Guide to hiking the Jordan Trail
- And although it may sound strange, night times can get surprisingly cold so follow these top tips for staying warm when camping
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