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Clothing for desert hiking
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Stephen Komae
(skomae) - MLife

Locale: northeastern US
Clothing for desert hiking on 05/12/2014 14:17:10 MDT Print View

Looking at hiking Escalante in southern Utah around July/August and thinking about what kind of clothing is appropriate for high desert hiking.

There seems to be several schools of thought -- wear long cotton shirts and pants to minimize moisture lost, or wear breezy lightweight synthetic clothing to reduce heat build-up. I'm not sure which is better since both sound reasonable. What do BPLers recommend?

And, what about hats? I'm debating between a wide brim cotton hat or a hat with a ear/neck cape. There's of course always the shemagh/keffiyeh wrap as an option as well.

Coming from the humid, boggy Northeast, I'm not able to test how these clothing systems work extensively so I'm turning to the BPL community at large for opinions. I don't burn too readily, but some of my hiking partners do. Any other desert travel tips are welcomed too.

Edited by skomae on 05/12/2014 14:18:46 MDT.

Jason Robichaud
(j4design_build) - MLife
clothing: on 05/12/2014 14:28:03 MDT Print View

I'm from the NE but moved to Utah a few years back. What I've learnt so far is, Escalante is a huge diverse swatch of land. You can either be on sandstone/red rock or sage brush mountain sides. What type of hiking/backpacking do you plan on doing?

My general rule of thumb is always carry a wind jacket. It seems to always be windy in the desert and no matter how hot it is out, the wind will suck the heat away from you quickly.

Unless you plan on doing a lot of bushwhacking, I always wear shorts. Mainly running shorts or nylon zip off types.

If I know i'll be backpacking in washes, and or hiking in a lot of sun exposure I wear a poly long sleeve type shirt like an exofficio airstrip.

I love my goofy kavu chilba hat for long sunny days.

Stephen Komae
(skomae) - MLife

Locale: northeastern US
Re: clothing: on 05/12/2014 14:35:51 MDT Print View

> Escalante is a huge diverse swatch of land. You can either be on sandstone/red rock or sage brush mountain sides. What type of hiking/backpacking do you plan on doing?

I don't know yet, as I am still in the planning stages and haven't begun to look at detailed maps yet. My guess is that there will be a mix of both as I am aiming to do a 5-7 day loop. I was told there would be water, so the plan will likely be to not stray too far from easy reach of water. I do expect a lot of sun exposure. When we were in Canyonlands we rarely ever had shade, but it was also cooler temps.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
Re: Clothing for desert hiking on 05/12/2014 14:42:55 MDT Print View

The Escalante in July/August is brutal. 100+ easy between 10 and 5. It's a good time to do wet hikes.

I prefer shorts in summer, but there is enough pricky stuff in some areas to make the case for pants. I would probably go shorts, use sunscreen, and deal with the blood.

I go back and forth between a wicking LS top and a cotton/poly dress shirt. The later would probably get the nod for summer desert, because the low humidity makes chafing less likely.

I like a ball cap with a sun curtain made from a piece of bandana. Big brims are nice, but they don't do so well in the wind. There is also Sunday Afternoons, aka the ultimate dork hat.

Jason Robichaud
(j4design_build) - MLife
desert tips: on 05/12/2014 14:58:17 MDT Print View

If you are down in escalante, try to check out buckskin gulch, hackberry canyon, golden cathedral. And so many more spots. Venture to Parunuweap Canyon if you have the time. If you do any technical canyoneering, Neon Canyon into the golden cathedral is amazing.neon

Dan Goggins
(hjuan99) - MLife

Locale: Mountain West
escalante on 05/12/2014 15:04:39 MDT Print View

Yeah...escalante is beautiful. Last April me and some hiking buddies packrafted the river for about 6 days. Neon is awesome, and we really enjoyed the later canyons closer to coyote (like the canyon immediately up river from stevensons arch).

Actually my profile picture is us on the river.

Edited by hjuan99 on 05/12/2014 15:05:15 MDT.

Valerie E
(Wildtowner) - M

Locale: Grand Canyon State
RE: Re: Clothing for desert hiking on 05/12/2014 15:13:53 MDT Print View

I have lived/hiked/backpacked in Southern Arizona (both high and low desert) for a dozen years now.

David C. gave you excellent advice (he is very experienced with this climate). Do not underestimate how hot it will be. In the sun, at mid-day, it could easily be 115F.

Personally, I prefer cotton shirts (with a collar to protect the back of the neck), nylon shorts, and a ball cap with bandanna sunshade.

The keffiah-style head wrap is ok if you grew up with it, but frankly, wrapping your head in that way will make you feel hotter if you're not used to it.

Finally, do NOT forget that July/August is our Monsoon season. That means:

(a) You'll have some humidity to add to the extreme heat (oh joy!);
(b) The water may mean mosquitoes/other biting insects; and
(c) Watch out in those slot canyons. Flash floods are REAL.

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Re: Clothing for desert hiking on 05/12/2014 15:24:40 MDT Print View

For day hikes, I go for a cotton, long-sleeve, collared dress shirt - typically one I have retired from office wear. Or $4 at Goodwill. It keeps the sun off and you know how "Cotton doesn't keep you warm when wet"? - that's a good thing in the desert. I much prefer to apply water to my shirt, bandana and hat from water sources or even from my water bottle than to sweat out the same water. My clothes aren't so salty, I didn't have to treat so much water, and especially if I'm crossing streams, it's quick and easy.

On overnight trips, I still might bring that cotton shirt, but I'd change out of it as the sun sets and go towards synthetic layers and/or a puffy to keep warm. I've got a loose fitting, LS, collared nylon shirt that feels good (air blown into the fibers?) and not clammy. Ex Officio, I think.

A baseball-style cap and a cotton bandana is one of the most compact, lightweight hat options but it doesn't allow as much breeze around your face and neck as a broad-brimmed hat. I'm Celtic and I just accept that I need to wear stupid-looking hats. I haven't tried them on a hike, but I note that Mexican gardeners and my geologist co-workers in SoCal wear those huge straw hats that shade you all around. $6 at the garden store. Get one with or add a chin strap string for the wind.

I've liked using my Chrome Dome silvered umbrella. It feels about 15F cooler under it. I use it more at high elevation where the UV is more intense, but portable shade is great in the low desert, too. I can position it hands-free through a backpack sternum strap and an epaulet on my shirt's shoulder. Don't forget that you can position it on a thinly-leafed desert shrub to create solid shade underneath during a nap or lunch. Your tarp or rainfly can do that as well, but only when you're stopped.

START SLOW if you're not from a hot climate. Your body will take 1-3 days to adjust to sweating so much more. I've been hurting on a few trips to New England in the humid summer or the tropic when escaping an Alaskan winter. If I do 2 days of low-intensity or town-based activities without spending all my time in air conditioned cars and buildings, I do better once I hit the trail. Coming from the NE, I'd say expose yourself to the heat of the day at home prior to your trip. You may find the "dry heat" easy in the comparison.

Jason Robichaud
(j4design_build) - MLife
chapstick on 05/12/2014 16:17:27 MDT Print View

you'll wanna bring an SPF rated chapstick too. Because of elevation, sun exposure and dry heat you'll get burnt lips quick if you aren't used to those environmental conditions.

I find I use more chapstick in the desert than the Wasatch.

TKB 1979

Re: Re: Clothing for desert hiking on 05/12/2014 16:53:58 MDT Print View

"... cotton/poly dress shirt."

I agree. This is my favorite & you can put the collar up to keep the sun of your neck, & roll/unroll sleeves. That with loose long pants is what I normally do.

For me, straight cotton shirts in the summer are fine during the day, but once wet after hiking all day + long dry time = too chilly at night with typical temp swing.

Brendan S
(brendans) - MLife

Locale: Fruita CO
Re: Re: Re: Clothing for desert hiking on 05/12/2014 18:12:48 MDT Print View

I usually work in LS dress shirts during summer but for longer days backpacking chaffing does become a problem. I'm a fan of the arcteryx motus or outdoor research echo fabrics. Take your pick of short or long sleeve. Shorts are nice but as Dave mentioned some lightweight pants are nice at times (hard to find these days...outdoor research treadways aren't bad at about 7oz).

Escalante's actually a pretty great summer destination but it'd be tough to make 5 days of it without some long hot dry stretches (or just hanging out in one place for a while). Lots of good 3ish day trips that are pretty wet the whole time.

Just In Time
(ArcturusBear1) - F
Re: Clothing for desert hiking on 05/12/2014 19:53:28 MDT Print View

Don't know about that specific area, but last time i was in the desert (parts of Nevada and also Zion NP in Utah, end of August/beginning of September), i thought my very light colored, about half linen about half cotton button up shirts and long pants did well, but i pretty much only experienced dry heat.

If it will be more humid than usual, i would go with all linen or all hemp (provided they are softish). I think hemp is a little more UV protective than linen per same weave, thickness, and color (and in turn linen is a bit more than cotton), but linen tends to be softer if higher quality. Warmer/more insulating clothes for night.

I like David's idea of the Chrome Dome if it's not too windy. I had used an umbrella for the above trip, which helped, but wished i had a reflective one like the Chrome Dome--imagine it would make a big difference as compared to no umbrella at all.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Re: Clothing for desert hiking on 05/12/2014 20:19:20 MDT Print View

Doesn't Ray Jardine use aluminized umbrella for desert?

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Re: Re: Re: Clothing for desert hiking on 05/12/2014 20:33:28 MDT Print View

>"Doesn't Ray Jardine use aluminized umbrella for desert?"

No, that's to keep the government from scanning one's brainwaves.

Derek M.
(dmusashe) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Re: Clothing for desert hiking on 05/13/2014 02:53:50 MDT Print View

@David Thomas,
First, thanks for introducing me to the term "epaulet." I had no idea what that was before you mentioned it.

Secondly, I'm having trouble visualizing how your hands free Chrome Dome setup works. Could you explain it in a little more detail (or just show a pic instead)?


Stephen Komae
(skomae) - MLife

Locale: northeastern US
Thanks, keep it coming on 05/13/2014 08:40:20 MDT Print View

I do already have a Chrome Dome. I hadn't initially considered bringing it but that certainly seems worth considering.

Regarding slot canyons and flash flooding, are there usually warnings before a storm approaches in the Utah desert? Will there be sufficient warning to know not to enter, to hike outside of, or exit a slot canyon?

Or is the weather as fickle and fast as in Denver-area Colorado?

Marko Botsaris
(millonas) - F - MLife

Locale: Santa Cruz Mountains, CA
Re: Re: Re: Clothing for desert hiking on 05/13/2014 08:44:27 MDT Print View

@stephen, you picked a harsh time of year to go :-)

Back in the days before the chrome dome I did exactly what Jardine suggested - cut some mylar space blanket to the shape, and attached it with rubber bands to the tips. I worked at NASA at the time, so maybe I was channeling my inner martian lander. That thing really did look far out but it worked great. Other people always laughed at it at first, and then an hour later expressed envy.

I'm definitely not an expert on the area, but the thing about rain in the Colorado plateau I have repeatedly noticed is is can be very spotty. There can seemingly be violent looking thunderstorms off in the distance, in multiple spots, for days at a time and not a drop will land on you. But the canyons can really concentrate the localized water, especially the narrow ones. I think its more like if there might me a storm in your area think twice rather than "oh, that front will be here in 30 minute, better get out of here". I know, not really what we wish it would be. It depends a lot on the particular route.

On the clothes, I remember a journal article a few decades ago (maybe in Nature?) and a popular version in Physics Today (physics professional rag) about the physics of the loose fitting robe worn by may desert dwelling peoples, especially why the hell so many of them were black. The answer, as I remember it, was active convection under the robes driven by the temperature gradients - like a fan up you skirt I guess. Any way, you could decide to go dressed as Lawrence of Arabia. I always wanted to see if it worked in the heat. The combination of robe and the mylar umbrella would probably have the added benefit of scaring away some of the people.

The Escalante system is amazing. One of the handful of places I might choose if I had to pick only one area to backpack in for the rest of my life. Enjoy.

Edited by millonas on 05/13/2014 09:09:21 MDT.

Link .
(annapurna) - MLife
Re: Re: Re: Clothing for desert hiking on 05/13/2014 09:02:54 MDT Print View

Umbrella rigging
Umbrella Holder
How to Attach an Umbrella to your Pack
Backpacking Umbrellas
umbrella look ma no hands
Backpacking and Hiking with an Umbrella

Edited by annapurna on 05/13/2014 09:16:34 MDT.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
Re: Thanks, keep it coming on 05/13/2014 09:39:07 MDT Print View

There aren't any simple answers to predicting flash floods. The late summer ones are almost always triggered by brief, intense thunderstorms, but they're not nearly as predictable as mountain storms which (often) seem to occur around the same time everyday.

The real concern with flash floods is being down in a constricted canyon with no high ground, having a storm trigger a flood out of sight, and getting nailed by a wall of water when the sky is still blue above you. Not enormously likely, but it certainly happens.

The first prioroity is to keep an eye on the weather and on the drainage basin of what you're hiking in. A big drainage with unstable weather would merit extra caution if you're going into an area with limited escape options or high ground. In the Escalante, places like the Box and Death Hollow come to mind, as do the technical slots like Neon, Choprock, the Bakers, etc. You might see a flood come through a place like Coyote, Harris, or the main river, but you'd almost certainly be able to get out of the way with plenty of time to spare.

Don Morris
(hikermor) - F
Re: Re: Thanks, keep it coming on 05/13/2014 16:25:03 MDT Print View

The only predictable aspect of summer flash floods is their unpredictability. My experience has centered on Canyon de Chelly, where I did archaeological projects for about six years in the 1970s. Working away in our rock shelter, we would see the wall of water rolling down the canyon and know that we would have fun and games getting home that evening. My crew would identify the tributary canyon by the color of the water. Usually there was not a cloud in the sky.

The worst flood I experienced was at a popular party spot near Tucson - Tanque Verde Falls. We had responded to an injured person,fortunately somewhat upstream from the falls. No clouds were in sight. A wall of water came upon us and we were rescuing people everywhere - pulling them from the stream, rigging up to get them off of midstream rocks. We realized that just downstream the canyon slotted and poured over a ninety foot high lip (hence the name). We spent the next week recovering all the victims. Seven people died in about five minutes.

I recommend caution when dealing with slot canyons.....