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Desert hiking
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Ankar Sheng
(Whiskyjack) - MLife

Locale: The Canadian Shield
Desert hiking on 06/13/2010 00:31:15 MDT Print View

I've never traveled in a desert before, there's over 110,000 lakes in my province so getting water is never an issue. How do you survive where water is scares? I imagine there's some careful planning of the route, carrying a reservoir, ect. But I'd like to hear the details of how it's done.

Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Re: Desert hiking on 06/13/2010 00:41:36 MDT Print View

Some options:

1. Store quantities of water in your car and combine driving with hiking -- using the car as a sort of home base for different 1-2 day hikes.

2. Cache water beforehand.

3. Suck it up and carry more water -- within reason.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Desert hiking on 06/13/2010 01:35:31 MDT Print View

Depending on which desert, there might be more water than you think, but it is hidden.

I was doing a one-day ascent in Death Valley National Park. We started with 3 quarts of water per person. After about ten miles, we knew where a good water spring was, so we filled up water there, leaving with at least 6 quarts per person. That lasted us for the next 13 miles to the finish. I think I had about a quart remaining.


David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: water on 06/13/2010 07:09:49 MDT Print View

Do lots of homework. Know where the definitive water sources are, then carry what you need. In the Grand Canyon I routinely carried six liters.

Having a light pack is rather nice here, not only to make room for water, but to let you hike further in a day and thus link up sources faster and more easily.

Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Re: re: water on 06/13/2010 19:21:39 MDT Print View

Yeah, what David says.

I rarely hike anywhere in Southern California without knowing in advance where the water sources are and what the water situation is like at the time of year I plan to go. Some years are drier than others and somewhat reliable sources can dry up.

A topo map will show you intermittent water sources, but you have to find out when they have water and when they don't, and additionally get an idea of this year's water availability. Topo maps will also show springs. Sometimes these springs barely drip.

Good to bring a filter if you have to drink from an algae-filled or scummy source. Don't be surprised if a lot of your water will come from cattle troughs, too. These are often really good sources. Look for what is feeding the trough and get the water from the source instead of the trough. Another man-made source is called a guzzler. This is a type of rainwater cistern.

You could probably ask a ranger about water sources in the area you plan to visit, or locals if you can find a web site.

Doug Johnson
(djohnson) - MLife

Locale: Washington State
Re: Re: re: water on 06/13/2010 19:53:08 MDT Print View

I'm like you Ankar- I grew up hiking in Washington where water is a non-issue. But after 20+ desert trips and living in Bryce Canyon for a summer, I've learned to respect the H2O.

I always inquire locally when I can and get the best topo maps and read all the guide books and online reports I can find. Usually the maps show some water sources but I mark them with other local spots and find out all I can from rangers and other hikers. A the same time I'm looking for cool camping spots, side trips, slots, secret routes, ruins, rock art, and whatever cool secrets I can find. From my experience, there are always more cool secrets in the desert and that's part of the fun.

You carry LOTS of water, depending on the hike and location. And you have to hike smart, filling up at every opportunity when it's scarce and keeping your eyes peeled for water holes. If the water is minimal, it definitely makes sense to stay within hiking distance of the water source (or a vehicle cache) but I've rarely had this necessity. I have hiked 8+ miles to get water though. You have to plan ahead.

My gear changes in the desert a bit. For one, I ditch the frameless pack for one with a frame for carry multiple liters of water. My Gossamer Gear Mariposa is my go-to desert pack for this reason.

In the end, though, the water question is a small part of what makes desert hiking an absolute joy and a severe contrast from what I'm used to at home.

Best, Doug

Edited by djohnson on 06/13/2010 19:57:10 MDT.

obx hiker
(obxcola) - MLife

Locale: Outer Banks of North Carolina
"Desert hiking" on 06/13/2010 20:04:05 MDT Print View

And for inspiration or maybe just because it is very well written try this:

The Secret Knowledge of Water : Discovering the Essence of the American Desert by Craig Childs (Paperback - May 1, 2001)

"A tinaja is so specific in its shape that any alteration changes even the condition of the water. Nearly each time I have seen human improvement attempted ..."

Tinaja: love that word.

Edited by obxcola on 06/13/2010 20:06:52 MDT.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Desert hiking on 06/13/2010 21:48:17 MDT Print View

I never cache water, because something could happen to it... like someone taking it. I don't want my life to depend of something that could be removed.

I hike mostly in deserts. I live in the Lower Colorado Desert, where some years we go zero inches of percipitation. Average is around 5 inches. Water here is the difficult to find. In the Mojave Desert (high desert), water is usually easier to find.

First know your water needs. Everyone's body is different.

Desert water sources are not usually 100% accurate. Verify before leaving on your trip.

In really hot weather, rest during the heat of the day (noon- 3 PM). A tarp helps, because trees may not be available.

Limit cooking with water. However, cookless meals may weigh more than the water needed to cook something. So plan accordingly.

In hot weather, you are going to sweat away salt and minerals, replace them. Salty food is good, but you will drink more water.

Drink frequently, do not wait until you are really thirsty.

In warm/hot weather, you need little gear. Sub 3 lbs or even 2 lbs is possible. But you will carry lots of water to make up for the light base weight.

Water weighs ~ 8.3 lbs. I have carried up to 3 gallons on desert trips.

Wear a wide brimmed hat.

Wear light colored clothes. Long sleve shirts and pants, not shorts. It will help reduce evaporation and protect your skin from the sun. Critical if you have a long hike between water sources. For short hikes between all my water sources, I wear a T shirt and shorts.

I have been hiking in my desert for over 30 years, without getting into a critical situation. But almost every year someone dies from heat exhaustion when hiking in the area. Plan, plan, plan.

On most of my desert trips, I will not see anyone else. That is what I like best about the desert.

Alex H
(abhitt) - MLife

Locale: southern appalachians or desert SW
Re: Re: Desert hiking on 06/14/2010 05:52:13 MDT Print View

Nick is right on with all of his points.

I have cached water and never had any problems but I do worry about it some.

The hardest part is getting reliable water reports and I usually don't rely on any reports older than a month unless it is for a very reliable/perennial spring. Especially in the national parks the rangers seem to be trained to act like they have no knowledge of water sources, probably a liability protection.

I have hiked all over the desert southwest for nearly 40 years, many times in Big Bend and it can be challenging at times to plan a trip. They used to have a spring reports book at Big Bend NP and you could give reports and look at it before heading out but they have stopped that practice years ago. I too have had to start out with up to 3 gallons on trips, so a light pack really helps.

"On most of my desert trips, I will not see anyone else. That is what I like best about the desert."


Paul Wozniak

Locale: Midwest
Will umbrella reduce water need? on 06/14/2010 13:01:26 MDT Print View

I just did a first day-hike (May) in the Superstitions near Phoenix, 16 miles - 8 hours, 92F. Took 3.5L, drank 3L. WhiskeyJack, I understand your question well. If you haven't hiked the desert before, many things are in question; first and foremost is water.

It occured to me that a reflective umbrella would be cooler than a hat, and may cut down a little on the need for water. Maybe not too manly but I doubt the Hell's Angels are hiking out there. Otherwise, what do the desert rat's think of an umbrella?

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Will umbrella reduce water need? on 06/14/2010 13:41:31 MDT Print View

Yes, I think that an umbrella could be helpful. But deserts typically can be windy.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Will umbrella reduce water need? on 06/14/2010 13:43:09 MDT Print View

Theoretically, a reflective umbrella might help keep your body temperature safer.

Some years ago, some guys did a hike from the northern end of Death Valley National Park to the southern end. They had vehicles for support (camping each night) since they were doing this in summer. They used aluminized reflective umbrellas to hold some of the sun off, and they claimed that they worked fine.


Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Re: Will umbrella reduce water need? on 06/14/2010 14:57:28 MDT Print View

I an absolutely vouch for a reflective outer/black inner umbrella making a big difference in very hot sunny weather. However, as mentioned above, they won't work in windy weather which you often find in the desert. I'm also not sure an umbrella would actually conserve water, as it allows more evaporative cooling compared to a hat. More cooling feels nice, but uses more water...a hat, though sweaty, could reduce water loss at the risk of overheating.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Re: Re: Will umbrella reduce water need? on 06/14/2010 15:09:30 MDT Print View


sounds like we need a double blind research project with an adequate sample size :)

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Will umbrella reduce water need? on 06/14/2010 15:56:26 MDT Print View

> what do the desert rat's think of an umbrella?
Mate of mine does a lot of walking in the desert in Australia. He uses an external frame pack with a custom sunshade/verandah mounted on the frame. Swears by it.

He also siestas under a large aluminised space blanket in the middle of the day.


Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Re: Will umbrella reduce water need? on 06/14/2010 16:10:15 MDT Print View

"He uses an external frame pack with a custom sunshade/verandah mounted on the frame. Swears by it."

Ditto. LuxuryLite frames are ideal for attaching an umbrella.

"He also siestas under a large aluminised space blanket in the middle of the day."

Ditto. We carry a heat sheets for summer trips and shelter under this for a rest.

Paul Wozniak

Locale: Midwest
partner? on 06/15/2010 07:00:52 MDT Print View


Summary from above:
1. Get recent water conditions on-line and from locals (BP shops?).
2. Caching is risky.
3. Siesta
4. Big hat, full clothing (or umbrella, scientific study pending)
5. Take lots of water, up to 3 gallons
6. Tank up at every opportunity

Being inexperienced in the desert myself I would be very cautious going more than a day's hike in and would take enough water to walk out in the event of a blown water source. That's if going solo (which makes for a nice trip) or with others inexperienced in the desert. Be cautious about over-extending yourself initially in a new environment. Our comfort level in the north is accumulated over time. Imagine a lifelong desert rat taking on a trip with 2 feet of snow and -5F.

Another possibility; how about trying to find an experienced partner to join you? That would provide the added benefit of learning the local flora and fauna, routes and myriad tips unique to desert travel that would otherwise have to be learned by trial and error. Cat's Claw comes to mind; looks harmless (whoops).

BTW, do you have a trip in mind?

Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Re: Re: Re: Will umbrella reduce water need? on 06/15/2010 11:41:39 MDT Print View

I think the umbrella helps, but not as much as you hope it will. It's still going to be really hot. A lot of heat comes up from the ground.

One thing I created this weekend was I took a long sleeved shirt and sewed mesh all along the seam of the sleeves and the side seam. May also sew the mesh onto the back. Much more air gets in now.

drowning in spam
(leaftye) - F

Locale: SoCal
Re: Re: Re: Re: Will umbrella reduce water need? on 06/15/2010 15:17:33 MDT Print View

Nice, a myog Ecomesh. I like that. Maybe I should look for my old wool military dress shirts and do the same thing.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Will umbrella reduce water need? on 06/15/2010 16:08:14 MDT Print View

I think an umbrella with reflective material may do more than we think. The extra shade will do a lot. In the heat of the summer, the difference between direct sun and shade is significant, especially if one could shade a large portion of the torso from direct sunlight. For me, it would probably get in the way, more than it would help. But one needs to consider that I have lived in one of the hottest deserts in North America for over 30 years and am well aclimated.