Desert Hiking Tips, Tricks and Best Practices from the PCT

Desert Hiking Tips for the PCT

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.

Desert Hiking

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.

Man-made shade is just as nice.
Man-made shade is just as nice.

Sun Protection

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.

No need for blazes here.
No need for blazes here.

Water Sources

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.

Typical PCT tread, smooth, dry and shadeless.
Typical PCT tread, smooth, dry, and shadeless.

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
Mike Henrick

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. 

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4 comments

  1. John p. Good reading and some facts are great. However, I have considerable experience in Southern California Deserts and the Grand Canyon (re: Colin Fletcher did his thing north side, I did mine South side from Desert Tower to Havasupi the same year. But that was a while ago.

    I recently started the first jump of the PCT from Campo to Morena Lake, and then on to Canada later this month. I hand carried a gallon jug and packed three 800ml stainless bottles. I found another 200ml in an old water bottle along side the trail which I purified. So, I had about 2 gallons of H2O for two days. At Hauser canyon I had about 500 ml left and I was NOT drinking heavily. I decided to push on to Morena and if necessary drop my pack go on hydrate and come back for the pack. This since I wasn’t sure if water was available at Cottonwood. I practiced an old Indian trick of taking a small sip every time I rested, and then holding it in my mouth for about two minutes slowly swallowing sips as I walked until the next rest. Each sip I calculate was about 2.5ML. SO, I though I could make it all the way. I ran out 1/4 mile from the camp! My point is: I developed a blister on each big toe at the ball of the foot. This slowed me down. My point:There will be circumstances where you are pout of control of factors which can severely affect your hydration efforts. I think I would have tried to carry another gallon jug. Lighter pack (65#), and no sleeping bag or tent. Rather a silk mummy liner and silk long johns and my “snuggle blanket” laid out on my poncho with a tqarp over me if necessary. I talked to three other people who came in before me and they ALL had the same problems with water (ran out about a 1/4 mile up trail). I am taking 5 “zero days” to recuperate and lighten my pack to around 35-40# and change shoes. Sweaty socks probably precluded the blisters. I think I may try sandals. You are right about the long sleeve light weight shirt and pants. I wear a standard wide brimmed hat, but sometimes I think it retained heat, so am shifting to a mesh style bush hat to allow my head to cool. A few facts: protein takes a large quantity of water to digest and absorb in the intestines, carbohydrates (snickers, etc.,) would be better calorically speaking. Also, for the math majors, a calorie burned is a calorie burned, no matter how long it takes to burn it. Lifting a weight one foot takes the same calories if done in 1 second or two days. This is my two cents for what it is worth. .

  2. Hi Mike – nice article. I started the PCT the third week in May, and to say it was HOT is an understatement! I quickly began hiking at night until I reached Kennedy Meadows.

    Water was always an issue and a tremendous weight for me. I never depended on caches and found natural sources generally more dependable. I rarely use a cache.

    I’m also an umbrella user, not only for the sun but for rain when I’m on breaks, blocking the end of an open tarp, sword fighting rattlers (kidding – kinda), etc.

    Finally, to further derail your article, :-) I drink a liter at every water break, and find that I definitely need less water when I’m fit regardless of my weight. I think the machine just may be more efficient, but I have no sports science background so I really don’t know.

    Well done – Hike on! :-)

  3. Never hiked PCT but I grew up in Tucson. Important point to make here is you don’t sweat in the desert! You evaporate. It is hard to determine how dehydrated you actually are. I always drank as much as possible at a water source and carried as much as I could. I took small sips constantly and moderated my pace so I did not over exert. I live in Virginia now and we do sweat here. Much easier to monitor hydration.

  4. Good article Mike. I started the PCT this year but got off trail when the PCTA asked us to stop. Hopefully next year I’ll try again and your insights will be helpful.

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