Summer Hiking in the Desert – Go For It, Cautiously!
By Jeffrey Marshall
When the mercury soars in the Sonoran Desert in the summer, the trails can be almost empty. The winter crowds are gone; snowbirds have decamped for cooler climates, and natives often wait for fall to start hiking again. For many who do continue, summer hiking is for early mornings, before the temperatures start their daily climb. But it doesn't have to be strictly an early-to-rise exercise, as long as you heed a few warnings.
Temperature/exposure: Mornings are clearly the prime time for hiking. Remember that late afternoon is often the hottest part of the day, even if the sun is a bit lower. When the temperature hits the 100s and the sun is blazing, extended hiking brings into play dangers like heatstroke and hyperthermia. Heatstroke can bring confusion, disorientation and even seizures. Hyperthermia symptoms are a bit different, and include shivering, stumbling, fatigue and possibly slurred speech. Both are dangerous and possibly life-threatening - victims should be cooled and gotten to medical attention as quickly as possible.
Besides wearing loose, comfortable clothing, hikers should consider a broad-brimmed hat and apply sunscreen regularly. Know and respect your physical abilities and limitations - and realize that the heat will take a toll even with fairly modest exertion. Seek out shade if you can find it, and rest more often.
Hydrate, hydrate: Water is critical to summer hiking. Experts advise drinking a quart for every 2-3 hours of walking in good weather, and as much as 1/2 - 1 quart every hour in the heat. Drink even if you don't feel especially thirsty. We've all seen movies where people stranded in a desert have to ration thimblefuls of water; they don't usually fare well, and buzzards are often shown circling overhead.
Have contacts available: Ideally, summer hiking should be done with one or more companions. If you do hike alone, let someone know where you are going and carry a charged cell phone for emergencies, especially if you are hiking in a more remote or unfrequented area with little likelihood of seeing others.
Snakes: Hot weather is a prime time for snakes, including rattlesnakes. They are a rare sight, but hikers should always be mindful of where they are stepping. Avoid rocky outcrops off the main path where snakes may be apt to sun themselves. A rattlesnake's striking distance is relatively short, making bites very uncommon. Moreover, modern antivenins are highly effective if a snakebite victim is brought to a hospital quickly. Experts recommend focusing on getting fast medical attention rather than the old-time remedies that can do more harm than good.
Monsoons: Summer thunderstorms are spotty and unpredictable, but can be fierce. Watch the forecasts and then the sky while you are hiking, and if it does rain, avoid washes, where the flooding potential is greatest. Similarly, if lightning is sighted, stay away from high points, like overlooks.
With a few precautions and some common sense, hikers can safely enjoy the beauty of desert trails even in mid-summer. It can be great exercise - done in moderation, and without trying to challenge the elements.