A desert can be defined as a region having an annual rainfall or precipitation less than ten inches or a region where evaporation rate is double than the precipitation. Deserts cover almost 30% of the Earth’s land surface. They can be divided into hot deserts and cold deserts. Even some mountain ranges, coastal regions and snow covered polar regions also fall into the definition of desert.
Hot deserts include subtropical deserts and cool coastal deserts. Subtropical deserts are the hottest deserts in the world, whereas cool coastal deserts have comparatively moderate temperatures due to freezing offshore ocean currents. Cold deserts include cold winter deserts and deserts located in the Polar Regions. Cold winter deserts go through extreme temperature variations ranging from 38 degrees Celsius in summer to -12 degrees Celsius in winter. Arctic and Antarctic polar regions are also considered as deserts. Each desert has its own unique topography or terrain. Variety in landscapes, environment, flora and fauna makes the experience of desert hiking memorable and distinctive.
Desert hiking can be pretty different experience compared to hiking through other terrains. Considering harsh and unfriendly terrains and extreme weather conditions, one may wonder why hike the desert. However, desert hiking can offer a great sense of adventure and deep connection with nature. Each desert with its unique topography offers panoramic views spread over acres of land. Variations in landscapes include sand dunes, sand hills, gravel plains, rocky highlands, salt flats, mountain ridges, canyons, arches, and glaciers. Desert hiking also offers the thrilling experience of off trail hiking. At some places, vast landscapes of deserts have no trees or major landmarks such as ridges etc. As a result there are no trails at all. In this case, a hiker has to keep a distant destination in sight or he has to use maps and compass. Sometimes, hikers have to cross the obstacles such as steep, rocky slopes, cliffs, deep canyons or areas covered with brush.
Canyon hiking is another challenging experience offered by desert hiking. Sometimes, deep narrow canyons are used as trails. However, it can be risky as flash floods may occur due to sudden change in weather. A strong current of water may pull the hikers in the flooded water. It is essential to check weather forecast before entering a narrow canyon. Deep and narrow canyons make it easier to stay on the route, but it is difficult to judge if you have reached the destination. Extensive use of maps, altimeters and help of other landmarks are required to find out if you have reached the destination. While hiking through the canyons, you may come across hurdles such as large boulders, dry waterfalls or standing pools of water. These obstacles require special skills to cross them and proceed further. Pools of water may be too cold or too deep to wade or swim. It may require a small raft to cross the water. Dry waterfalls may require climbing skills and sometimes climbing gear. While hiking the desert, you may have to carry a number of gears.
While hiking through deserts, hikers may have to face extreme weather conditions. Severe sandstorms may block the visibility ahead. During such sandstorms, it is advisable to get off the road and park the vehicle till the storm subsides. Flooding and thunderstorms can also occur frequently during the summer. Flash floods may occur during the winter also. As the desert ground absorbs water minimally, flash floods occur as a result of thunderstorm. As the gushing waters carry boulders, trees, and rocks, the hikers should avoid canyon hiking during the flood season. They must also avoid crossing the flooded roads. Weather-wise summer is not an ideal season for desert hiking. Except for the mountains, the temperature may rise to the extremes. Dry parched air and low humidity cause continual thirst. Surface water dries up due to high evaporation rate. Wide gaps between day and night temperatures make you feel uncomfortable. So, spring, fall and winter are the best seasons to go for desert hiking.
Another interesting feature of desert hiking is the flora and fauna. Most of the desert vegetation comprises of thorny shrubs and cactus. Some species of hawks, owls and sparrows can be found in the deserts. You may come across scorpions, rattle snakes, poisonous spiders, lizards, and coyotes during the hike. However, variety in flora and fauna depends on topography and environment of the desert. They do not harm you, if you leave them alone and pass on your route. Carefully inspect your clothing and shoes before putting them on for insects and reptiles. Also check your bedding also before going to sleep as dampness attracts these creatures. During summer evenings, scorpions scrawl around desert floors and up the branches looking for food. If bitten or stung by any poisonous reptile or insect, the best course is to apply ice and ligature and consult a doctor. You may find poisonous reptiles during hot summer days. Winters are comparatively safe for desert hiking.
Before embarking on a desert hiking, it is essential to be familiar with some desert hiking tools. Desert hiking is not an expensive sport. You can find good quality camping gear, backpacking and other tools at a reasonable price. Some light weight tools such as bandana, collapsible hiking poles and waist pack that holds essentials for day hikes are useful during the hike. Compass, topographical maps or GPS with in-built tracking feature, digital camera, comb, wind jackets and pants, and COLORED chalk are practical items to be carried with while hiking. Carry energy bars, lightweight food and plenty of water even if it is heavy to carry. Always notice landmarks and if possible make some marks on them with coloured chalk. Let your team leader decide the routes and destinations while hiking in the desert. Never go alone for a hike in nearby surrounding areas after camping and always inform someone about your whereabouts. If you get lost, do not panic. Keep your calm and take stock of the situation. Climb up a high spot and see if you can find a way back to the camp. Try to retrace your steps and you may find your way back.
Desert hike may sound risky at first, but proper planning, preparations and a few precautions may make the hike an enjoyable and unforgettable experience.