You are here

Katherine Donnelly | 04.24.2018

If you’re a backpacker, chances are your bucket list of trails includes at least some that travel through desert environments. Many of the popular long distance trails in the country have desert sections, including the southern California stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail and the New Mexico and Wyoming stretches of the Continental Divide Trail. Other desert routes, including the Arizona Trail, Oregon Desert Trail and Grand Enchantment Route, wind through dry and hot climates for most of their miles.

Below you will find six tips to keep you comfortable and happy on those desert miles.

1. Use an umbrella

On a desert hike, a sun umbrella can make the experience far more pleasant. When you are the tallest thing around and shade is in short supply, carrying your own shield from the ferocious sun can be pretty crucial, saving your skin and keeping you that much cooler.

2. Bring a strong stomach—and a good water filter

Photo by Scott Rinckenberger.

I like to say any water in the desert is good water. You may be surprised at the quality of water sources you will need to drink from on a long hike, but you don’t have to choke down chunky muddy water.

Use your shirt, a bandana or a coffee filter as a pre-filter to get the biggest chunks out. Then pass the water through your filter. Finally, if there’s a risk of viruses, use a chemical treatment to render the water safe. If the odor and taste still turn your stomach, consider bringing a lemonade or fruit punch packet to flavor your water. And after a while you won’t think twice about drinking out of a muddy cow tank. Any water is good water in the desert!

Learn more about water treatment basics here.

3. Cowboy camp

A great way to save time when camping in the desert is to forgo setting up your shelter. You will be hard pressed to find many bugs when hiking in dry climates, so why not give yourself a better view of the night sky and sleep out in the open? Use your tent’s ground-cloth (or many hikers like to use Tyvek® because it is a waterproof barrier) to protect yourself from getting too much dirt in your gear, then spread out and enjoy the view.

4. Wear tall gaiters

Deserts are home to many prickly and pointy plants, so when hiking (or bushwhacking) through tall brush, save your legs and wear some tall gaiters. You will be able to walk with much more confidence without worrying too much about loosing blood to large sagebrush or cacti.

5. Look closely

Life in the desert may not be as obvious as in alpine environments, and you can easily miss some of the more interesting desert creatures. Take some time to look closely as you are hiking or on breaks and you could be rewarded with a glimpse of a member of the desert fauna, like this horny toad above.

6. Air out the feet

Blisters happen. Blisters happen no matter how long you have been hiking or how many miles you have under your belt. Introduce a hot, sandy environment, and even the toughest feet may become painful. Air those puppies out. At each break, take your shoes and socks off, let the sun and wind dry out your feet, and eventually those blisters will harden into calluses and provide a protective barrier. Good, strong hiking feet are rarely summer beach feet, but you will be prepared to go the miles.

We hope that these tips help keep you comfortable on those desert excursions. If you have any tips of your own to add to the list, let us know in the comment section below - and happy trails!

This article was published in collaboration with MSR Gear.


I don't use an umbrella since I prefer to have my hands free for my camera, binoculars or scrambling through bush and rocks. I use a floppy UV rated sun hat; sweat bandanas or those water soaked/polymer beads cooling neck wraps. I wear UV rated long pants and long sleeved shirts to keep my skin covered and prevent sunburn. My old mesh ventilated light weight hiking boots and socks that wick moisture from my feet are essential. Also take frequent rest stops, drink plenty of water, nibble on snacks and don't hike through the heat of the day; instead take a siesta, have a simple meal--morning and evening hikes are better for continued comfort and health/ safety; enjoy those beautiful surroundings.
Have updates, photos, alerts, or just want to leave a comment?
Sign In and share them.

At MSR, we are engineers, tinkerers and passionate outdoor users–each with strong perspectives on how a product should work based on our own experiences in the wild places we love. But collectively, we believe that innovative solutions are bred by challenging convention, and that functionality, simplicity and reliability are the governing elements of enduring design.

More content from MSR