Home / Backpacking Skills / Desert Hiking Tips, Tricks and Best Practices from the PCT by Mike Henrick

Desert Hiking Tips, Tricks and Best Practices from the PCT by Mike Henrick

It's not uncommon to see the trail wind its way ahead for miles at a time like this scene at Deep Creek
It’s common to see the trail wind its way ahead for miles at a time like this scene at Deep Creek

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 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 heat stroke 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. Through 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 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 sun screen 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 jack rabbit. 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 to 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 shade less.

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 Mike Henrick

Mike Henrick
Mike Henrick

MIKE HENRICK grew up on the east coast and fell in love with through 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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  1. Recognized my ole stomping groups of some 30 years right off. Well written article and some really good information is provided by the author. May I suggest in additon to the authors suggestions; I always started my trail hikes in this Section by 0400 in the morning using a headlamp to guide myself with…Saw hundreds of gorgeous Sun Rises. I borrowed the idea from the native Mexicans, who also took a break between noon and 4 pm, and then would continue on hiking until just before dark or around 8 pm. But hike your own hike, do not push it. If you find a water source, enjoy it by all means for an hour or so and totally rehydrate your body..Kitchen Creek is a favorite. You can make camp just about anywhere on the trail and I have often slept in the middle of the trail itself. Sun Screen with a rating of SPF 70 is recomended, especially for this Southern part of the trail. The PCT until it reaches the Mojave after Big Bear Lake techniquely passes through the High Chapparel and foothills of southern California. The real Desert is anywhere from 2 miles to 20 miles east of all the sites in the accompanying pictures. Your best source of information for this Section for Water Sources is the PCT Guidebook which also gives you the needed information on elevation raises and falls which the trail is well known for, or undulating… Planning your water use is of the upmost importance since most sources I know, including hidden Tinajas, average 10 – 15 miles apart. For this section I always carried Freezed Dried Main meals, Beef Jerky for its protein and salt replacement and Fruit Punch (not Kool ade, it is just to heavy on the palate and surgarery) or Lemonade flavored drink mixes. This way I figured out my water needs down to the exact number of cups. A little insider information..the air is so dry at times that the water evaporates so quickly from your Stove Top dressing, that it can become a bit dry in only a few minutes….It is also a good idea which I did on a regular basis was to make cache’s along my planned route of travel. There are lots of huge boulder out croppings you can hide your Water under and is kept cool by the shade of the rocks. I always put three gallons of water in each cache..Two to drink and one to wash my body and undies to prevent salt sores and one to share should someone find it..Always write a note with your expected date of arrival to leave with the cache and tell them one gallon is to share..It worked in a couple of instances over the years to find one gone, but two left. (there are lots of illegal mexicans who also use the trail and they hide in the Boulders where the caches were) I know there are still gallons of water out there I left some 10 years ago still waiting for me under a few boulders with a note. So if you see a cache with a note from NOBOCAN it is safe to drink them I don’t think I’ll be back to get them. I also add 2 drops of Bleach to each gallon just for that reason. You will cross miles of Cattle Pastures or former Cattle Ranches which are now mostly burnt over a number of time since 1988. You will also come upon Cattle Guards at crossings, Please close them if they do not swing closed themselves. AND NEVER TRY TO PLAY BULL FIGHTER to impress some Lovely alluring Maiden of the Trail, I guarantee you will lose. Though a majority of Ranchers along the way round off the horns, some do not for a couple of reasons,,#1. Thieves, #2. Mountain Lions and Coyotes, #3. Thieves. Yes there are and have been Mountain Lion Reports and Attacks in the area of the Laguna’s to Big Bear over the last 30 years, so you also must keep that in mind when passing through heavy cover and Boulder sections. It is also not a good idea to camp near the water sources since your presence will keep most animals away, like Big Horn Sheep in the Kitchen Creek Area, and Mule deer anywhere along the trail. The tread is DUSTY, and Rocky, so I always wore Good protective leather boots and knee high gaiters cause the dirt build up below the knee with the short gaiters which made for a dirty sleeping bag because you will have to make a choice of whether to drink or wash… Snakes, this area is well known for Snakes especially the rocky climb up from Inter-State 8, So spend some time either at the San Diego Zoo looking at the snakes on display or some time with a good color photograph. In the Southern Section they can be PINKISH or BROWN and match in perfectly with the surround Chapparell and Rocks…One of the best Electrolyte Replacement drinks I found and I continue to use was originally called “Gookinade” it was created by a San Diego Cardiologist, it is now called “Vitalyte” or “Hydralyte” over the years it sure solved all my issues and most gratefully relieved me of the dreaded night time leg cramps from hiking up all those hills all day. Some Sport drinks will trick your body into thinking you are hydrated when you are not. So another little tip is to drink one Quart of water first, and then follow that up with a Mixed drink.. Heat is a big issue after April 1st and can be deadly. The majority of my hiking the Southern Section of the PCT was done in the months of October – March even though the PCT Kick Off Day at Lake Morena was in April most of us took a trail break and came back via private vehicle for the Opening Day festivities. Aside from Sunscreen I carried a Golfing Umbrella for a number of years attached with clips to my Backpack frame, which I still find cooler to carry in the Desert region than the Mountaineer style pack. I also carried and still do in every one of my packs and on every trip a “Sportsmans Blanket” with an Olive Drab color on one side and an aluminumized side on the other, When resting or in Camp I sat under that blanket with the reflective side facing the Sun, and in colder areas, with the Aluminumized section wrapped around me as a blanket for which it was intended to be used…I do not think in Liters, but Gallons..My favorite water bottles are the 50.7 oz size recycled or reused Smart Water Company bottles, they appear to be to me, from experience, a lot sturdier than regular Soda Bottles which become brittle after a few uses.. For Caches I use the standard Gallon jugs. If you do make a cache, tie the Jugs together and place a flat rock on top of them..Helps keep the smaller critters and others from knocking them over or dragging them away.. The area also has Ticks, for be prepared for those as well. Happy hiking.

  2. Thanks for the compliment and the great advice! It’s hard to cache water ahead as a through hiker so I just lugged it and could do a thorough bandanna bath with about 8 ounces of water. I swapped my sleeping bag for a lighter one 1300 miles in and my folks were surprised the old one didn’t stink when they got it in the mail so I must have done a decent job. The funniest thing was trying to wash your socks on trail (away from the source) – no matter how many times you wring them out that water will come out gray!

  3. “A fit hiker hiking easy will always use less water than an unfit one keeping the same speed.”

    No. For example: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21697517; which is further discussed here: http://sweatscience.com/getting-fitter-doesnt-make-you-sweat-more-after-all/

    • I can’t prove but suspect that the difference in water consumption isn’t from the sweat as much from the more efficient body/system. An in shape individual has underwent physiological changes as part of their training including mitochondria proliferation, and a stronger circulatory system. I would suspect that a more efficient system would use less water for the same amount of output.

      I too have observed first hand that my water consumption has dropped and then rebounded as my fitness level has changed.

    • From your own source “His results suggest that your sweat rate simply depends on how much physical work you’re doing, and how much skin surface area you have.” So if you put on 20 lbs, you’re doing a lot more work to haul it over a mountain and the added surface area is more sweat.

      That article suggests that fitter people can sweat at a higher rate and have a higher tolerance for heat. That is probably true, but they are doing less physical work to move at the same rate if their body weight is less.

      • Hi Mike! I still don’t see what that has to do with fitness and hydration needs. By that logic, a skinny person with no muscle mass will sweat less/need less water than an athletic person with muscle mass who weighs more. Okay, accepting that for sake of argument, it still doesn’t support the claim that fitter people need less water.

      • Hey Lisa,
        I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one!

  4. I’ve talked to Mike about this before, so was responding to what he’s told me is his opinion that one sweats less when one is fitter.

    As for efficient water consumption based on fitness–do you have any science to back that up? All in all, I think the presumption that fitness can somehow decrease your water needs is a bad idea to have floating around, should it in anyway encourage people to think they can get by with less. Good hydration promotes athletic performance, not the other way around.

    • My statement was meant to imply that maintaining a higher fitness will help with water consumption, not to change your expected water use by X% based on your VO2 max.

      It’s been my experience that my own sweat rate is linked with perceived exertion, and the logic follows that if you are fitter you will hike the same speed and perceive less effort and sweat less. Apparently there is a study proving me wrong, but there may be other studies that contradict it and I am not an exercise physiologist. If your own experience contracts mine, then my advice won’t be very helpful.

      • Really it comes down to who you are and any rules about slimming down what you carry is experienced based. Start with way too much and reduce after a few trips if you want.

        I know in peak shape I need 2.5liters for 15 miles of moderate-temperature hiking. When I’m not in peak shape I need closer to 3.5liters.

  5. To throw in my two cents, I’m a bigger guy. At 6’4 and 235lbs. I stay fit for the most part. I do a multi-day backpacking trip once a month, even through the winter. I walk 2+ miles with my dog daily, I do yoga, play in a basketball league once a week and I try to make an appearance at my gym every so often.

    I couldn’t run a marathon and as my wife can attest, I don’t exactly have an Olympian’s physique. That said I recently completed a 3 day backpacking trip on the LT that included multiple 20+ mile days. We’ll I wasn’t sprinting over Mount Killington, I was in good enough shape to go 20.8 miles and then get up and do it again.

    My point is, despite my relative fitness, I often hike with younger, smaller hiking partners. No matter how much I hike or train for hikes, my younger smaller buddies can basically role off the coach and march up a mountain much easier than I can. They don’t drink as much water as I do, they don’t sweat as much as I do and those jerks will even try to carry on a conversation as I’m gasping for air.

    I have always associated this with how much work it takes to carry my 235lbs over a MT vs how little work it takes to carry their 150lbs over a mountain. I have no science to back this up, but Mike’s claims seemed to fall in line with my experience.

    I know we probably don’t have a lot of basketball fans on this site, but Ray Allen is notorious for rigorous conditioning. At age 39 he is constantly moving on both sides of the ball and the announcers are quick to point out that he “hasn’t even broken a sweat.” Again, there is no science behind this, but I think watching a superior athlete work so hard and not sweat much, when I know I can barely walk to the end of my driveway on a cool fall day without breaking a sweat, makes me think there is merit to what Mike is saying.

    • Kevin, I’m gonna see your Ray Allen, and raise you one LeBron James.

      I’m not saying weight isn’t a factor, because yes, all other things being equal, it takes more energy to get 200 lbs up and over than it does 150 lbs. And yes, fitness level is the reason that you are gasping while your hiking companions are chatting. But weight and fitness–while obviously related–aren’t identical variables, and shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

      • Point taken Lisa. LeBron James would be proud.

        I don’t want to derail the comments to much from the original post.

        Mike – Very good post. I spent a lot of time in the desert in 2012 (Southern Utah and the Grand Canyon). Given the struggles we had during the heat of the day, if I could change one thing it would have carried an umbrella.
        After our first day in the Canyon we got beaten up so badly by the sun, that we never hiked during the day again. From that point forward, we were up by 3AM hiking until 10AM, and then we would find some shade, throw our sleeping pads on the ground and wait until about 5PM to resume hiking.

        Night hiking was very enjoyable and getting out of the sun was priceless. The one freaky thing was seeing animals at night. You would like up the trail and just see 2 eyes glowing at you. You couldn’t see if it was a mouse, bird, bat, raccoon or Mountain Lion! It’s not like New England where animals have trees and rocks to hide behind; everything is right out in the open. You just have to move forward with the philosophy that they are more scared of you than you are of them.

  6. it is true that the more you weigh the more calories you burn to move your own weight but you do reach a point where it becomes neutral and then you have to increase the repetitions in your exercise program or add on to the weight of your Backpack. I know when I first moved to California I was constantly thirsty but as my body adjusted to the dry heat, not so much, but my body had to find it’s own neutral spot for that to happen..On the PCT and variious other Trail trips in the High Sierra’s I also experienced the same thing, for the first few days I could not get enough water, and then my body began to adjust. Same with eating. An athelete in good physcial conditons burns calories far more effeciently than a couch potato who suddenly wants to exercise and gets frustrated at only losing 5 pounds the first week which generally is all water weight…That is why so many of those fad diets guarantee you will lose five pounds the first week because their foods will act like a diruetic and if you exercise you’ll sweat more until your body reaches a nuetral position or condition…Now I just worked for 6 hours out in the humid heat from 0800 this morning until 20 minutes ago. I have been doing this since Mid-March since I started landscaping my home with,,hand tools. Iniatially I could not get enough water to drink and I sweated huge amounts of water losing up to 5 pounds a day. but now after a couple of months,,I’m Ok with it, I sweated a bit, but not as profusely as I did in March…So for long distance Hiking the same applies, Your body makes adjustments and after the first 300 miles you get all the kinks worked out..Always dreaded that climb out of Scissors Crossing, but looked forward to a couple of days of Relaxation at Warner Springs Resort.. Is it still Open??

  7. Wind is also a huge factor.

    And so is aersolized dirt that accompanies it !

    The umbrella+sunscreen strategy is weak on both points.

    That’s why there is no consesnus on it.

    That being said, everyone will be covered in dirt !

    But somehow it feels much cleaner without the suscreen gluing it on =D

    But this is always going to be a personal decision.

    I’d say pick your poison and dow whatever works for you.

    The desert is awesome, austere, brutal, and profound.

    Good stuff.

  8. 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. .

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