Desert hiking safety
June 30, 2006 6:28 PM   Subscribe

Desert hiking safety for a Northeasterner?

I'm an experienced backpacker, but I've only ever been in wet, cold places like New England and New Zealand. Now I've moved to San Diego and have no clue how to hike safely in the desert. What should I carry with me (probably don't need those rainpants) and what habits should I develop?

Also, if any one can recommend some hikes, day or overnight, I've much appreciate it. I'm only aware of Torrey Pines and Joshua Tree. Thanks!
posted by ilyanassa to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total)
Best answer: I live in the desert and my number one rule is: Never hike alone and always leave an itinerary and expected return date with someone trustworthy.

Take plenty of water whenever you're in the desert whether you're on foot or in a car. Also carry at least one extra day's worth of food.

Check the weather report before you leave, the summertime SoCal desert can surprise you with some real gullywashers that can be dangerous if you are downstream. We had a couple of short, but intense storms yesterday that left our roads here in Joshua Tree littered with debris. Lightning is also a summertime hazard.

Stick to your itinerary and stay on the trail. Stay put if you are lost, California has tremendous search and rescue assets (San Bernardino County alone has 18 helicopters) and they can find you quicker if you are near the trail in the area of your itinerary.

Beware of mineshafts, they are deathtraps! Most are in the neighborhood of 100 years old, the timbers are rotted, they're full of snakes and often have bad air that will kill you if you are lucky and don't fall into a vertical shaft. We probably lose a half dozen people a year when they decide to explore San Bernardino county mineshafts.

Know which species of snake lives in the area you're in and be on watch for them. This is especially true in Joshua Tree where you may encounter the Mojave Green rattlesnake. The green is an aggressive rattler that is more apt to strike you than other rattlesnakes and its venom is primarily neurotoxic.

DOn't touch the tortoises when you encounter them. The California Desert Tortoise's numbers are declining and human contact can leave them with respiratory ailments.

Enjoy the night sky.

For destinations, the Indian Canyons of Palm SPrings are nice day hikes, but you'll need permits from the tribe..

Deep Creek Hot Springs between Lake Arrowhead and Hesperia is a another nice spot if you don't mind nekkid people and pot smokers. There are some nice hot springs right next to a cool creek. It's a semi-tough hike but worth it.
posted by buggzzee23 at 6:59 PM on June 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

The small pools in the rocks are a couple of the hot spriings ar Deep Creek.

GIS for Tahquitz Canyon (my favorite of the Indian Canyons)

Indian Canyons info
posted by buggzzee23 at 7:12 PM on June 30, 2006

Best answer: I know that I need to translate this, being an Easterner who has hiked out West quite a bit --

"PLenty of water" means "More than twice as much water as you think would be reasonable under normal conditions back East."

Most hikers in the East don't make it through a gallon a day. Usually 2 quarts is the normally recommended amount. But as I learned the hard way early on, that's nowhere near enough minumuin the dry air of the West. Two gallons a day is the minimum I would head out with in the desert.

Also, plan your hikes to fall early in the day or late in the day, or if you're hiking all day, rest during the hottest afternoon hours.
posted by Miko at 8:00 PM on June 30, 2006

Get a foam pad instead of a Thermarest which are prone to puncture in the desert.

Bring a lightweigh long sleeve shirt (and pants if you're overnighting), even if it's hot. If you get sunburnt you'll be miserable if you can't cover it up.

Get really good at map reading- it's hard to get your bearings and it's really hard to navigate without actually getting the compass out and linig it all up because is a lack of landmarks.
posted by fshgrl at 8:37 PM on June 30, 2006

Don't hike alone. Since you're going to ignore that bit of good advice anyway, spring for a Personal Locator Beacon, so you don't waste search assets when it comes time to find your lost self. If you get lost, sit down, stay put, and don't get even more lost. Have a signal mirror, and maybe a signal strobe. If you use a GPS as your main navigational aid, pack backup paper maps (and maybe a compass) for when the GPS craps out, know how to use the maps, and keep your position checked against your paper maps.

Take very good care of your feet. Be damn careful with fire, and be very afraid of wild fire (smoke you can see is already too damn close). Of those people you do meet in a Western desert, about 1/2 will be armed and suspicious - equip yourself accordingly, and act politely.

Cut your pack load to a bare minimum, except for water. Food you can generally go without for days, but you need significant water within a day in desert conditions. Be willing to drop your gear and take only the water if needs be.

Don't hike alone.

Enjoy your desert hiking.
posted by paulsc at 9:23 PM on June 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

You will need, in addition to the advice above,a wide brim hat,or umbrella for solid shade,The mountains are always farther than they appear and the desert is not as flat as it looks,April and Oct are the best times to go,where I go
posted by hortense at 10:08 PM on June 30, 2006

Your post reminded me that back in 1999, a couple of hikers from out East, went camping near Carlsbad, New Mexico and met a bad end (see here and here.

To the very good advice above, I would add that it can get cold out in the desert, even rain, so don't come unprepared. You are also close to the Sierra Nevadas and I highly recommend that for backpacking.
posted by jabo at 10:34 PM on June 30, 2006

The biggest take-away I got from reading Death in the Grand Canyon is "drink lots of water."
posted by Brian James at 10:40 PM on June 30, 2006

Watch out for flash floods. In the Mojave there are monsoons in the summer that will send down tons of water and flooding can happen fast. It can even happen when it's not raining where you are but there's a storm in the hills and a big wall of water can come down. If you see what looks like rain in the hills stay on high ground and avoid areas called arroyos or washes. These are lower areas where you can see signs that water has rushed through there, even though they are bone dry. Don't ever camp in one.

Watch out for scorpions. Bark scorpions are small flat and straw colored, and live in crevices in rocks or under bark. They are mostly nocturnal but if you disturb their home they will come out and sting you. Be careful when leaning up against trees or rock formations. They are not fatal to healthy adults but they have a potent neurotoxin that could really mess you up for quite a while and make it difficult to get back.

My favorite thing to wear on walks was a long sleeve white man's shirt. Bring a spray bottle of water and when you get too hot spray yourself, especially your hair and shirt. The evaporation is pleasantly cooling. Be careful not to wash off your sunblock.

I live in Toronto now, but spent 2003 and 2004 living in a remote area of the Mojave (Wonder Valley).
posted by Melsky at 6:34 AM on July 1, 2006

Scorpions: I've been stung twice and it was nothing, barely even felt it. But some people are more sensitive or even allergic, especially those who are allergic to bees and wasps so if you are (or if you don't know) definetely bring an epi pen.
posted by fshgrl at 12:07 PM on July 1, 2006

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