The desert environment is unlike anything else on the planet. Beautiful in its own way, it is also dangerous, and not only because of the snakes, scorpions, and other creepy-crawlies that live here. The sunshine, as much as we all love it, is harsh in the desert. The air is bone-dry, most of the time with humidity under 10 percent. All these factors pose hazards for those brave enough to hike in this unique environment. Here are some of the things I’ve learned during my own desert adventures.
Hiking In The Sonoran Desert
The Sonoran Desert, home to the city of Phoenix, Arizona, is the greenest desert in the world. Though it might not seem like it in the middle of the summer, it is obvious in the winter and the shoulder seasons. Giant saguaros, teddy-bear cholla, prickly pear, and other varieties of cacti alongside green palo verde trees, desert shrubs, and bushes turn the desert hundreds of shades of green.
These are the times most people venture out into the desert in and around Phoenix, be it for a short walk among the desert plants or a longer hike up a mountain. This was also the time of year, during a beautiful spring day, when, during our first year as Phoenix residents, my husband and I began spending time in the desert around our new home.
Searching For That Perfect Saguaro
We had just bought a new home in Phoenix that needed landscaping. So when we learned that as the city was clearing a patch of desert for another development, we could get a permit to dig out a saguaro, we felt the need to do it.
The giant saguaro cactus, the state plant of Arizona, is protected, so under normal circumstances, you cannot get one for your yard. We felt lucky to find out about this opportunity.
As soon as we got the permit and a map of where to search, we rushed out into the desert. Being new to the environment, or just young and thinking we were invincible, we did not prepare for spending time in the desert midday.
It was close to noon, and the late spring sun was getting hot, but we didn’t notice it right away. We weren’t even sweating. In the desert, with no humidity in the air, your sweat evaporates as soon as it’s formed. So I didn’t realize I was overheating. Wandering through the desert plants, admiring the cacti, but not finding even one saguaro young enough to fit in our yard, I kept walking.
Without warning, I started feeling weak; I could hardly lift my legs to take a step. I didn’t even feel thirsty or hot, just tired. Exhausted. Then I was lightheaded and dizzy and realized I might have a problem. When my husband looked at me, he knew we had to get back to the car as soon as possible.
By then, we’d been walking through the desert for over an hour, under the midday sun.
Every Phoenix resident knows not to do that. However, being new to the desert environment, and not realizing that you won’t feel hot or thirsty until it’s too late, we had no clue what we were doing.
Since the patch of desert we covered wasn’t large, I got back to the car in one piece. And, as strange as this sounds, we were lucky we drove a car without air conditioning since we always kept a frozen water bottle handy. That saved me from a trip to the emergency room.
I had a drink and held the cold bottle (while we’d been gone most of the water melted) on my temples and forehead. That cooled me down, and while sipping the water, I got back to feeling almost normal again.
It could’ve been much worse. Residents know better, but visitors to the desert often find themselves in the same situation. At larger trailheads, you’ll see signs posted on how to keep hydrated and cool while hiking. But in more remote areas, you need to rely on your own safety knowledge. Though I read about the desert, I had to learn the hard way that it was no joke.
The following are other things I’ve learned since my first outing in the Sonoran Desert.
Always Carry Water, No Matter How Short You Think Your Outing Will Be
You might not feel thirsty, but it is important to drink enough to keep hydrated. And water is the beverage of choice. Whatever you do, do not drink alcoholic beverages, sodas, or sugary drinks in the desert. They make you more dehydrated.
And dehydration is a real danger in the desert, more than anywhere else, because even the air has no moisture. Watch your water intake, and turn around when your water bottle is half empty so you won’t run out.
Always use sunscreen. With skin cancer awareness, everyone knows this. But while in a temperate zone you might get away with walking outside for a short time without sunscreen, in the desert you can get burned in a matter of minutes.
And this is a danger in the winter and in the shoulder seasons, too, not only in the summer months.
Wear A Hat
The sun is very strong in the desert, no matter the time of day, but especially midday. Besides sunscreen, a hat is always important to protect your head not only from sunburn but from sunstroke, too.
Avoid Being Outdoors In The Desert During Midday
No matter what you do, it is best to stay out of the sun midday, between noon and 2 o’clock, when the sun is at its highest and strongest. Avoid being outside during this time. Instead, try to hike early in the day or late in the afternoon. Better yet, choose a sunset hike, so you can see the desert in the best light possible.
Stay On Designated Trails
It is easy to get lost in the desert, even in national parks or nature preserves. Vegetation and rock formations look similar; landmarks like mountain ranges or hills seem to be at the same distance for a long time. So it is important to stay on designated trails.
But sometimes the trails may not be obvious, especially if they cross rocky terrain. In most places, you’ll find signs in those areas, but just in case, carry a reliable map if you venture far (even a few miles) into the desert. Don’t rely on GPS. You might lose signal even on a trail in the city of Phoenix when you cross a ravine or other rocky terrain. Or, instead of carrying a physical map, download one on your phone so it’s always there.
Don’t Touch That Cactus
I know most people are not tempted to touch them, but some cactus varieties look harmless and seem to be needle-free. That is most often an illusion since their spines are tiny, almost invisible, but will still get stuck in your skin.
Also, stay away from the cute teddy-bear cholla and the jumping cholla. Both varieties will get stuck in your shoes if you step off the trails and get too close to them.
Always Wear Proper Hiking Shoes
Even the shortest and easiest trail can go through rocky areas, where sandals or flip-flops just won’t cut it. Proper hiking shoes will protect your feet no matter the terrain. They might also help if a jumping cholla gets on the trail. Though it’s hard to get it off your shoes, it would be painful to get it out of your skin. Good shoes might even protect you if a desert tarantula or scorpion gets in your way.
Watch Out For Rattlesnakes And Other Creepy-Crawlies
Though not dangerous if left alone, rattlesnakes are deadly if startled. Hiking in the desert, you might come across one, though it is less likely if you stay on the trail. Over the years, I’ve seen a few but never felt unsafe since I noticed them from a safe distance and tiptoed away. Avoid stepping off the trails into hidden areas.
Other poisonous creatures of the desert include scorpions and spiders, and their bites are painful, though not life threatening. Encounters with any of them are rare (in over 20 years of living and hiking in the desert, I rarely ever seen one), but you should still stay alert.
Be aware of your surroundings and stay on the trails, and you won’t see any of them.
Want to get out and enjoy the Sonoran Desert? Opt for one of these easy Phoenix hiking trails to experience the desert environment.