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Desert Hiking Tips

If you are new to desert hiking, you need to learn a new set of skills and guidelines. It's similar to alpine hiking, but does have some important twists. Be prepared before you head out and you'll have a great time. Your physical shape and hiking experience should also be considered. Hot weather means more strain on hearts and lungs and lots more perspiration just to keep from burning up. Make sure you are comfortable with everyone in your group being out in the heat. When it's not too hot to hike, then use these tips to stay safe and enjoy the day:

  1. Pick a time of year when temperatures are less extreme. Consider spring or fall hiking instead of the +115 temps of mid summer.

  2. Carry at least a gallon of water with you and don't plan on finding any water on your hike.  A spring marked on your map has a good chance of being dried up. 

  3. Include some Gatorade type mix in some of your water to replenish lost minerals.

  4. Hike with a buddy so you can keep an eye on each other.

  5. Watch for distant storms. Rain can fall miles away in the mountains and create a flash flood roaring down a bone-dry gully. Be weather aware and there's a threat avoid dried waterways.

  6. Slow down, rest more, stop if tired. Don't push yourself on hotter days.

  7. Carry DEET-based insect repellent to fight off insects.

  8. The sun can fry you and there is little shade in the desert. Wear light, loose, long-sleeved shirts, long nylon pants, a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Re-apply sunscreen occasionally if you're sweating or wiping it off.

  9. Add a multi-purpose tool to your pack. A small pliers will be useful for extracting cactus needles.

  10. Watch out for dangerous plants. Cactus and other irritating plants just need to be brushed against to make things very uncomfortable. 

  11. Watch out for dangerous critters. Snakes and reptiles are in the sun to warm up when it's cool and in the shade to stay cool when it's hot. Never put your hand where you can not see, like in a hole or under a rock. Always check around the area before you rest or sit down. Keep your ears open for a rattlesnake's warning.

  12. Don't wear headphones to jam to your favorite tunes on the hike.  Better chance you won't hear that rattler.


Hot Weather Hiking Problems

You lose about 4 liters of fluid each day in three main ways, each contributing to lost fluid in differing amounts depending on your activity level, environment, and health:

1. Breathing - water evaporates in the air you exhale with every breath. Based on your level of activity you can lose from 1 to 6 liters a day.

2. Sweating - through normal daily activity, you lose one to two liters through minimal perspiration. But, hotter and drier air along with increased physical exercise can push that up to one liter per hour! 


3. Using the bathroom - urinating is the body's way of clearing out waste from the blood. Losing one to two liters of fluid a day from urinating is good. If you are going less than that while out hiking, you probably need to be drinking more.

4. If you are sick and having diarrhea, then you may lose significant fluid that way also. Eating well and staying healthy on the trail is important.

5. When you exert your muscles, they generate heat which is absorbed by your blood and warms your body core. When the temperature gets high enough, your body's thermostat clicks on and the cooling system turns on. Blood flow increases to the skin where the blood can better cool off - this is why you get red. Sweat glands produce liquid which evaporates to increase the cooling rate. Everything works fine as long as there is sweat and it can evaporate.

6. If you run out of liquid to create sweat, bad things happen. Kind of like an air conditioner that had all the coolant leak out - it doesn't cool. You need to keep the liquid reservoirs full in order to keep your body cool.

7. On cool days, like 65 degrees, your body's 95 or so degree temperature is 30 degrees higher than the air so heat is transferred to the air through radiation. But, when the air temperature reaches 95 degrees or higher, your body no longer radiates heat and instead may absorb heat. Radiation is how your body loses about 65% of its heat so this is a big hit to the system when air temperature reaches 95.

8. Evaporation of sweat normally accounts for around 30% of your body's heat loss. But, once the air temperature is over 95, it's the only way to get rid of excess heat. On a hot dry day in the desert, your body will sweat a lot and the evaporation will keep you cool. But, as the air humidity climbs, less and less water can be absorbed by the air until 100% humidity is reached and your body can no longer dissipate heat. If you continue to generate heat with no way to get rid of it, bad things happen.

Usually, when your body needs water, you get a signal in your little brain that says "Hey, I'm thirsty!" and then you get a drink of water. Unfortunately, by the time you get the signal, you are often already on your way to being dehydrated - and sometimes you may not even get the signal if you are losing fluid rapidly and the sensors get overwhelmed.

  • Symptoms - Dehydration symptoms include reduction in coordination, fatigue, and impaired judgment.

  • Treatment - Rest in cool, shady area. Replenish liquids. Drink cool water.

Heat Exhaustion (PDF)

Your sweat is mostly water but also contains electrolytes - sodium and chloride ions. When you sweat and do not replenish those electrolytes, heat exhaustion occurs. Even if you consume water, you may experience heat exhaustion if you are sweating heavily for prolonged times.

  • Symptoms - Heat exhaustion symptoms include fatigue, nausea, lightheadedness, fainting, headache, muscle cramps, irritability, and exhaustion. There may be heavy sweating if liquids have been consumed. The symptoms usually occur after the exertion which caused it, even after water has been taken to improve the dehydration.

  • Treatment - Heat exhaustion is not life-threatening and goes away with enough rest and water, but can escalate to heat stroke if not quickly addressed. The condition can be treated more quickly by consuming electrolyte solutions such as power drinks or a teaspoon of sodium chloride salt dissolved in a liter of cold water. Drink the water slowly over 30 minutes or more while resting in a cool, shady location. Pour water on the person to help cool him off. Have him sit in a stream if it is not too cold.

Heat Stroke (PDF from Maricopa County Parks & Recreation Dept.)
Heat exhaustion can quickly become heat stroke if not treated immediately. Heat stroke can kill quickly - less than 30 minutes. This is an emergency situation and 9-1-1 should be called if possible. When your body can no longer dissipate heat, it overheats which can destroy internal organs, including your brain.

  • Symptoms - Heat stroke symptoms include red, hot skin because all the surface blood vessels are dilated. It is possible to have heat stroke with wet skin, especially on hot, humid days, but when caused from extended dehydration, there is usually little sweat present. When the brain begins to overheat, it affects behaviors and the victim may become disoriented, irritable and combative, and have hallucinations. The victim will finally collapse and die if not treated.

  • Treatment - Cooling down the victim quickly is the first goal. Cooling the head and neck should be top priority. Rest in a cool, shady place. Remove clothing, spray water over body, apply wet bandannas, fan the victim to promote evaporation, drinking cool water if possible. Getting a heat stroke victim to drink may not be possible, depending on their mental state.

  • Any heat stroke victim needs to go to the hospital as soon as possible!

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