Growing up exploring the dense, rain forests of the eastern United States, my first steps in the desert of the Pacific Crest Trail came as an incredible shock.
I had never imagined seeing the trail wind its way down the mountain in front of me, past juniper and pinyon pine, across the sage strewn valley and all the way up the next ridge miles away. The wide-open landscapes often felt like convection ovens when strong winds combined with the burning sun to steal moisture away from me. Shade became a cherished word since few things could grow tall or broad enough to offer it in the arid landscape. Instead, I searched for boulders large enough to cast a shadow all morning long and the cool rock to bask on beneath or risked a sharp poke under the narrow shade of a spiky Joshua tree.
The desert offers an incredible variety of landscapes and an almost alien beauty. The dry weather, free of flying bugs is ideal for cowboy camping under the view of the thousands of stars visible in its unpopulated areas. That beauty comes at a steep cost as the risk of heatstroke and dehydration are unmatched. Water sources, natural and manmade, on the southern California portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, can often be twenty miles apart or more. Santa Anna winds bring hot dry air from the east or westerly winds can bring strong Pacific rain storms to briefly douse the landscape. Thru-hikers, section hikers, and day users need to be prepared to deal with the hot and dry temperatures. Hikers can combat the conditions with their choice of clothing, their ability to gather water, and the timing of activities.
Classic desert wear has always consisted of light-colored, long-sleeve loose clothing. The idea is to keep the sun off the skin but allow for ventilation so sweat can evaporate. This strategy is perfect for riding on the back of a horse or camel, free from the effort of elevation gain. However, all clothing creates a microclimate, and any barrier to the heat lost due to the evaporation of sweat – will prevent cooling, not help it.
Rather than cover up with clothing, consider the use of a reflective sun umbrella and sunscreen on untanned or at-risk skin. Your extremities become your radiator for hot blood sent from the hard-worked core, much like the long ears of a jackrabbit. To help them, wear short running shorts and thin scree gaiters instead of long pants with a thin button down short sleeve shirt or long sleeves that can be rolled up and pinned. The umbrella provides shade to keep the sun of the skin, or if wind higher than about 20 miles per hour prevents its use the sleeves can be unrolled and collar popped up for sun protection. Unbutton the front of the shirt for more venting and breath through your nose to keep moisture loss down.
Water sources in most deserts are scarce so we must be prepared to accept poor quality. Manmade sources can vary from a pristine tank or tap to a stagnant cattle pond complete with dead floating bugs. A pre-filter helps tremendously and can be as simple as a bandanna pushed four inches into a wide mouth bottle with your finger. After the pre-filter, use a modern water filter such as a sawyer squeeze instead of a pump and consider adding chemical treatment on especially poor water.
Experiment with electrolyte mixes until you find the most palatable one, they can cover the taste of chemical treatments and aid rehydration. The worse mistake is not to improperly filter or treat water since waterborne illnesses take days or weeks to germinate, but to either drink too little or to too much causing dehydration or hyponatremia.
Water is scarce in the desert, take your time! Find or make some shade, relax and drink steadily until you are urinating clearly; this is water you can carry without weight on your back and it is easy to believe you are well hydrated without proof. Then budget water until the next source. For hot hiking over variable terrain, four miles per liter worked for me, but I could get as many as eight or more miles out of a liter in the cool night or early morning.
The Best Time to Hike
Of course, night and early mornings are the best time to hike, although a fit hiker can easily hike at an easy pace flat or downhill under the shade of an umbrella and not generate much more heat than sitting still. A fit hiker hiking easy will always use less water than an unfit one keeping the same speed.
Look at the elevation profile of the trail ahead and estimate how long it will take to get to the next climb. Try to time the biggest climbs for the coolest parts of the day and siesta the heat away near water. If you feel uncomfortably hot as the morning fades, it’s too hot to hike! Take a siesta, this isn’t a race, and heat-stroke is a death sentence to be avoided at all cost. It’s not always possible to siesta near water, so budget an extra liter.
For dry camping – also more frequent in the desert – take at least a liter extra, ideally two. Don’t forget to add-on the water to get to the next source!
If you run out or a source is dry, don’t despair. Panicking will only cause poor choices. Wait out the heat, consider off-trail water sources, and slow your pace to sweat less. You can still hike for several uncomfortable hours to get to the next water, though it may take several hours or a day to feel normal again.
About the author
MIKE HENRICK grew up on the east coast and fell in love with thru-hiking across the west coast on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013. Rather than hike for a worthy but external cause, he is raising money for the trail associations that help make the Arizona Trail, Te Araroa and Continental Divide trail possible.