The Art of Desert Backpacking – 5 Great Tips
Jaala Freeman: As a hiker approaches the Kennedy Meadows General Store, at mile 702 on the Pacific Crest Trail, the crowd on the deck erupts in applause and cheers. Each person who walks up has completed the 700 mile section that is the southern California desert. Notorious for 20-40 mile water carries, rattlesnakes, scorpions, cacti and blistering heat, this first section is a different kind of challenge for most backpackers. Kennedy Meadows is the perceived transition between the desert and the Sierra, where water flows from snow melt and alpine lakes are everywhere, so most view this place as an accomplishment and a relief.
However, the desert is full of plant diversity and wildlife, the landscape is expansive, the sunrises are stunning and the overall experience is calming. So, for those who might head into similar arid environments I have a few tips to help you be safe and get the most out of your experience.
1) Drink a liter of water at EVERY water source
Water can easily be the heaviest item in your pack, at 2lbs/liter. Hydration in the desert is a top priority for all backpackers and with an average of 17-20 miles between water sources most people are carrying 3-5 liters, or 6-10 pounds, of water. The more you drink, the less you have to carry, the lighter your pack is. And your still staying hydrated.
2) Wake up and get out early
At 7am the sun is already in full force, by 9 am it’s unbearable. The temperature during the day can reach 110 degrees and there is very little shade to be found. While it’s easy to sleep-in, leisurely make breakfast and pack up, that would be the beginning of an extremely hard day–it would simply be too hot to hike. So the best recipe for a great day of desert hiking is waking up early (around 5 am) and hiking by 6am. We try every day to do 10 miles by 10am, or 10-by-10, which means getting out early.
3) Siesta from 1-4pm each day
This is the hottest part of the day! Sometimes you’ll even extend siesta from 12-5pm, when it’s really hot. Push through such heat and your pace will slow, you’ll be guzzling water and the few miles you make won’t be worth the energy you expended. Hiking through the heat of the day is also a recipe for dehydration and heat exhaustion. So pick a nice shady place, possibly near a water source, take a nap and keep hydrating. You can make more miles after 4pm and still camp before the sun goes down.
4) Take a break every 1-2 hours
This may not be difficult for most people to implement, however this is the number one most neglected desert hiking tip. It seems that many people forget to take a break if their legs aren’t tired. Because the trail grade can be so gradual in the desert (and particularly on the PCT) many people find themselves able to hike faster and farther than in other areas (like the Appalachian mountains). But your feet are still taking a beating and they still need rest. By taking a break every 1-2 hours, even if it’s only 15 minutes, you can take your shoes and socks off and elevate your feet. Doing this helps prevent your feet from swelling so much that your shoes don’t fit, prevents blisters and improves morale.
Drinking water is important, but adding an electrolyte supplement, like Nuun or Propel, ensures that your body can USE that water, because electrolytes are important for muscle contractions and nerve signaling. The most common electrolyte disorder is hyponatremia, which is caused by a lack of sodium in the body, and can include headache, confusion, fatigue and muscle spasms. I’ve known 3 hikers who have been airlifted out of the desert, just this year, for this reason. Drinking water is very important for your body to function properly, but so is consuming electrolytes. Just add an electrolyte supplement to your water every other liter and you’ll be able to hike happy.
The desert can be a beautiful and rich hiking experience. Rather than being intimidated by the lack of water there, put these tips to use and give yourself the chance to experience a completely different side of the backcountry. I think you’ll enjoy what you find there!