Hyponatremia | Heat
| Creatures | Navigation
| Injuries | Weather
The author assumes no responsibility for accidents, injury or death incurred as a
result of the use or misuse of information contained in these pages. Hiking in the
desert contains inherent risks which no amount of care, caution or expertise can
eliminate. This site is no substitute for topo maps, route finding skill, compass,
physical condition, sense of humor or good judgement. Acts of god, stinging cacti,
slippery slopes, poisonous creatures, blazing heat, faded trails, lack of water, trampling
cows and mooching mice are all part of the desert wilderness experience. Every hiker must
assume responsibility for his or her own safety and survival, for the rest ......... I'm
sure there's something good on tv.
"Don't let your ego exceed your ability."
- R. Hustler
"Death is an unforgiving tutor."
- M. Chase
In the desert, water is the single most important item to carry with you. You should not
rely on finding water as you hike, as most springs & streams flow only during certain
times of the year and have flows that are unpredictable at best. The amount of water
needed for a hike depends on several factors including: the duration and difficulty of the
hike, the temperature of the hiking locale, amount of shade available and the water needs
of the individual. With strong exertion on a 100 F day, staying hydrated is a losing
battle. Drink lots of water at frequent intervals as you hike and carry more water than
you think you will need until you find what is right for you. Even if you are able to find
water, sources are often contaminated with the protozoa giardia or cryptosporidium (from
human or bovine wastes) or may be highly alkaline from minerals leached from surrounding
soils. All water should be treated before drinking. Common treatment methods include:
1) Boiling: kills protozoa, but is very time and energy intensive, few hikers use boiling
as a treatment option, except when you are boiling water for cooking. 2) Disinfectants:
either iodine or chlorine may be used to disinfect water for drinking. They are light
weight and will kill protozoa, bacteria and viruses, but will not remove particulates and
add an unpleasant taste (a flavored drink mix helps). Iodine comes in tablet form or
liquid resin. The author has shied away from chlorine in the past (usually administered by
adding 1-2 drops of household bleach per quart of water), simply because the idea of
drinking bleach sounds somewhat unappealing (chlorine can also produce small quantities of
toxic by-products when mixed with humic matter in the water). It should be noted, however,
that millions of Americans consume chlorinated water every day with no short term harm. 3)
Filtering: there are many brands of portable water filters available on the market.
Filters will remove protozoa & particulates without adding taste to the water,
though they will do nothing for bacteria or viruses (some filters, billed as water
purifiers, also contain an iodine resin to kill these objects). Filters will add weight to
your pack and , depending on the model, can be somewhat time consuming to operate. The
author carries all water needed for day hikes and uses a filter w/iodine resin for
Hyponatremia is an illness that mimics the early symptoms of heat
exhaustion, but is actually the result of low sodium in the blood
caused by drinking too much water, not eating enough salty foods, and
losing salt through sweating. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting,
altered mental states, and frequent urination. The condition is most
easily prevented by carrying and eating salty snacks as you hike.
Here's your excuse to pig out on Cheetos.
It should come as no surprise to learn that the desert is a sunny, hot, dry, terrible
place, unfit for humans, cows or golfers. Heat coupled with dehydration can lead to heat
exhaustion, heat stroke and possibly death. Heat and sun are best dealt with in the
planning stages of your hike. Choose a hike that is appropriate for the time of year. An
easy 9 mile stroll through the Sonoran desert in January can turn into a struggle for
survival in July. During the summer months (all 8 of them) choose hikes that pass through
higher elevations or through canyons that have perennial running water. Avoid hiking in
the heat of the day at low elevations. An example of a summer hike might be to begin
hiking early on the desert floor, hike uphill while it's still relatively cool, hike
through the heat of the day at a higher elevation, then return as the sun begins to set.
There are also quite a few hikes which require wading and swimming through canyons which
may be appropriate for the summer months. Other tips to beat the heat include drinking
plenty of water, wearing light colored cotton clothing and a hat, or sitting at home
in the air conditioned comfort of your living room with one of those umbrella drinks. If
you should find yourself feeling overheated, sitting out the afternoon in the shade of a
mesquite tree and finishing the hike after dark is a viable alternative to hiking yourself
into a coma. Coupled with the heat is the very real chance of serious sun burn. The desert
sun is very harsh and can cause a burn in a short period of time, even during the winter
months. Do not use a hike as an opportunity to work on your tan. Wear sunscreen and a wide
brimmed hat (& possibly a bandana to cover your neck) to keep from burning.
As Edward Abbey says, everything in the desert either "bites, stabs, sticks, stings
or stinks". The desert flora and fauna in Arizona tend away from the soft, cute and
friendly (except perhaps the teddy bear cholla which, as the name implies, makes an
excellent snuggle toy for the kids - especially the obnoxious ones). It is important to
remember, however, that these creatures lead busy, important lives in an unforgiving
landscape. It is you who are the uninvited guest in their ever dwindling desert home -
please show some respect.
These beautiful highly adapted creatures exist throughout the Sonoran desert.
Rattlesnakes, though venomous, are unaggressive, shy and pose little danger to the
attentive hiker unless provoked. Although there are approximately 8,000 poisonous snake
bites a year in the US, only 0.2 percent are fatal. A 1988 study at the University of
Southern Calicornia Medical Center found that nearly 100% of snake bites occur as the
animal strikes in self defense, 44% as a result of accidental contact, such as stepping on
the animal and more than 55% of bites were due to the victim's grabbing or handling the
creatures. It should go without saying, but a good piece of advice is: "Don't taunt
the snakes!", it also helps to visually scan the trail ahead of you to avoid stepping
on a basking serpent and avoid using handholds that are out of your range of sight when
climbing. Current literature indicates that the commercial snake bite kits are next to
useless and the old 'cut and suck' method of venom removal doesn't help much either. In
the unlikely (and unlucky) event that you have been bitten by a poisonous snake, remember
that 40% of the time no venom is injected. Options at that point include: having a friend
go for help, whipping out your cell phone that you have been carrying for just such an
occasion or slowly walking out under your own power. Do not kill the
snake under the assumption that it will aid the medical facility in your
treatment, it will not. All rattlesnake bites are treated with the same
antivenin. Rattlesnake venom is unlikely to kill
a full grown human, so relax, get help and think of how you'll entertain your bar buddies
for years to come with your snake bite exploits.
These slow moving reptiles are one of only two species of venomous lizards (it's cousin
the Mexican Beaded Lizard is the other). Rather than injecting venom through hollow fangs
like venomous snakes, Gilas have enlarged, grooved teeth in their lower jaw. When they
bite, their powerful jaws chew the venom in through capillary action along the grooves in
these teeth. Gila monster venom is about as toxic as that of a western diamondback
rattlesnake. However, a relatively small amount of venom is typically introduced in a Gila
bite. Unless you pick one up or try to kiss one on the lips, you're probably safe from
The scorpion is a nocturnal arthropod which feeds mainly on spiders and insects.
It's tail usually curved upward and forward over the back and has a venomous stinger. The
species of scorpions that live in Arizona cannot inject a sufficient quantity of venom to
kill an adult human, though their sting can be quite painful. Certain individuals,
however, may be allergic to the venom and can experience life threatening side effects
when stung (as occurs with bee stings).
Many desert plants have barbs or thorns which can make hiking painfully
inconvenient at times. The two types that you'll run into most often are cholla and cats
claw acacia. Cholla are a cactus which consists of thorny segments with barb hooked
spines. When brushed the segments break off and imbed themselves in your flesh. The spines
are sharp enough to penetrate boot leather and seem to slide effortlessly into your skin.
Removal can be somewhat troublesome since an attempt to pull out the segment may result in
your hand becoming stuck (and wind up like Brer Rabbit in the process). Some
individuals carry a comb or tweezers to remove these segments, but the best solution is to
simply watch where you're going. My personal nemesis is the cats claw acacia. The
cats claw is a shrubby woody plant with tiny, hooked, razor sharp thorns which catch on
everything that passes by at the slightest provocation - snagging your clothes & skin.
The plant tends to grow across unused trails and is unavoidable in many cases. Wearing
thick long pants and shirt might protect you as you hike, but would make serious hiking
difficult. You may as well resign yourself to being shredded by this plant - plunge ahead,
you'll heal in no time.
In the northeast where the author lived previously, route finding usually consisted of
following paint blazes on trees and rocks or following a path through the woods. In the
desert, where vegetation is often sparse, the openness tends to make everything look like
a trail! In addition, crisscrossing footpaths left by hikers (called 'use' trails) and the
stamping of noxious cattle on the delicate desert biota, can lead to a network of
confusing paths. Fortunately there are aids to route finding which can guide a hiker
before having to resort to map and compass. Most trail heads and junctions on National
Forest land in AZ are marked by signs indicating either the trail name or trail number and
occasionally mileage to the next junction. Though some signs are quite old, most are
placed in conspicuous locations and are easy to read. Between junctions, small piles of
rocks (called 'ducks') are often used to mark the path. Usually placed by others, ducks
are often used to guide hikers through some of the more confusing sections of trail. If
you find a section of trail confusing, think of placing a few ducks of your own to aid the
next hiker that comes along. If you have doubts about whether you are still on the trail -
STOP!, turn around, and retrace your steps to the last duck or until you are back on the
trail (the absolute worst thing you can do is plod on stubbornly). Search the area for
ducks, scouting ahead a short distance until the correct route is found. When in doubt,
turn around! The most dangerous portion of a long hike (16+ miles) occurs after you have
passed the half way point and backtracking loses its attractiveness as an option. Thus,
extra care must be taken after the half way point is passed to ensure that the correct
path is followed. Fatigue & carelessness can lead to a mistake which can prove to be
inconvenient, unpleasant or even fatal. Every year people die as a result of becoming lost
in the desert.
Most hiking injuries are due to either twists/sprains or repetitive use stresses which
usually manifest themselves in the joints. These risk of these injuries may be lessened
through proper conditioning, proper foot placement and care.
It's fairly simple, the better condition you are in, the more enjoyable the hike,
the farther you'll be able to walk, the more you'll be able to see - all with less chance
of damaging muscles or joints.
Many desert trails require walking on loose, rocky soil. Rocks which shift with
every step can put your ankle at an awkward angle. Putting your full weight on your ankle
in this position can cause a twist or sprain (this is only aggravated when carrying a full
pack). The author has developed the habit of removing all weight from the foot that has
shifted into a potentially injurious position. While this may result in a fall, it will
protect the joints vital to the hike. The author has hiked thousands of miles with no
injury .......... yet.
When hiking in the Grand Canyon it appears that every other person is wearing a
knee brace of some kind. Apart from the dubious notion that squeezing a body part with an
elastic band prevents/cures injury, it must be wondered why so many people are
experiencing joint pain from an activity as natural as walking. Part of the problem seems
to stem from technique used during descents. The author has witnessed many hikers stomping
off down hill with little regard for the stresses caused by dropping their full weight
(and possibly that of a pack) down on their knees. It is easy to imagine the cumulative
effects of such an activity as the joints absorb the full impact of each step. The author
recommends a controlled decent in which the body weight is lowered by the leg in contact
with the ground. This technique requires slightly more work, particularly by the
quadriceps, and is a little slower than stomping away, but will reduce injury and strain
(and build up stronger leg muscles for the next hike).
Walking in warm weather on rocks whose temperature can exceed 120F results in hot
feet and often blisters as well. The obvious solution is to apply mole skin when you first
start feeling a hot spot forming. Unfortunately, mole skin will not stick
effectively in hot, damp conditions and tends to slide around while walking. The solution
to this problem is to first apply tincture of benzoine to the effected area.
Tincture of benzoine is a nasty smelling, sap-like liquid which turns tacky as it
This tackyness will aid in holding the mole skin in place as you hike.
As if the broiling temperatures and searing radiation from the sun weren't enough, the
southwest also boasts summer monsoons which provide additional fun for the avid hiker. The
monsoon season in Arizona tends to last from July-September. Rising warm air over the
desert creates a zone of low pressure which pulls up moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.
This moisture brings daily afternoon thunderstorms with short torrential bursts of rain.
Summer hikes should be planned to safely accommodate this weather.
Plan your hike so that exposed ridges are avoided during the afternoon hours.
Towering black clouds are probably a clue that it's time to turn around or find shelter.
Should you get caught in a thunderstorm, seek shelter under a rock ledge or overhang
(preferably one large enough that you are out of the elements, but are not in contact with
the rock). Place a pack or other insulating material under your feet and squat with only
your boots touching the ground until the storm passes. Fortunately most storms are short
(~1/2 hour) so you will not be forced to remain in this uncomfortable position for long.
One of the main attractions of the desert are the many cool, narrow sandstone canyons.
During a downpour, however, runoff is channeled into these canyons making them quite
hazardous. Logs and branches wedged 30 feet above the ground provide an idea of past water
levels. Unless you'd like to spend the last few moments of your life witnessing the
physics of canyon formation, have a good weather forecast before attempting to hike in
narrows. The much publicized death of 11 hikers in a popular canyon in northern Arizona
was due to a rain storm 14 miles from the canyon they were hiking. Hints of your impending
demise may include: thunder, sudden increase in silt in the stream, or a rumbling sound
similar to an approaching freight train. Get to higher ground if possible and sit out the
flood until safe to continue (usually within 24 hours). An example of a
flash flood in Wet Beaver Creek may be seen