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Five ways to keep cool while hiking in the desert

One of the keys to desert hiking is staying cool. The most obvious way to do this is to limit your desert hiking to the cooler months. But for some places, there aren’t exactly many “cooler months” to begin with. As someone who has spent my own fair share of adventures in the triple-digit heat of the Sonoran Desert, here are my five go-to tips for staying cool in the summer heat.

Bring your own shade

Part of the reason it feels so hot to hike in the desert is that there is often little shade. The constant pounding of the sun can really wear you down. The easiest way to avoid this is to bring your own shade. And the easiest way to do that is to carry an umbrella. Umbrellas are great because they keep your skin and clothes cool, and they can help you avoid sunburn. Even if you don’t want to carry one while you’re actively hiking down the trail, they’re great for creating some temporary shade during breaks and lunch.

A couple quick notes on umbrellas. Don’t worry so much about buying an expensive umbrella made especially for trekking. They work slightly better to reflect sunlight and are a bit lighter; but for most people, I don’t think they’re worth the extra money. The desert is full of things that poke, snag, and stab—and you shouldn’t be surprised to find a tear in yours at some point. It’s a good idea to bring some duct tape on any outdoor adventure you take, and this is just another one of those reasons.

Stay covered

It might be counterintuitive to those visiting the desert to catch some sun, but you’ll stay cooler by covering up rather than stripping down. Again, it’s all about keeping the sun off your skin. The best endorsement you can find for this is from those that spend their workday outside. Drive some neighborhoods and see what the folks doing landscaping work are wearing. Invariably, you’ll find they’re donning lightweight long pants, loose long-sleeved shirts, and either a wide-brimmed hat or (especially if it’s windy), a baseball cap over a bandanna that’s covering their neck and ears.

The added benefit of this approach is that you don’t need as much sunscreen (you’ll still need it for exposed skin like your face and back of your hands), which most people don’t reapply nearly often enough anyway. And as mentioned above, the desert is full of things that poke and scrape; after wandering through the brush, you’ll appreciate the long pants and long sleeves. Trust me on this.

Get wet

The first rule of hiking in hot weather is to bring far more water than you think you’ll need.

Don’t break this rule.

One of the best ways to stay cool is to dampen what you’re wearing. I use the extra water I’ve brought with me to do this regularly throughout the day. I add some water to the inside of the hat I’m wearing, letting it soak through to the outside before tossing it back on my head. If you have a quick-dry hat, you might want to toss a cotton bandanna inside to capture and hold the water longer. You can also wet the bandanna and drape it across your neck.

Ice your water

Not all of that extra water needs to be in a drinkable form, however. I often like to freeze a water bottle or two the night before a hot weather hike. You can use these as ice blocks in your pack to help keep your lunch and/or snacks cold (side note: a frozen snickers bar is an amazing snack in hot weather).

Feeling a bit hot? Take a break and snag the frozen water bottle from your pack. If your hike goes long and you start to run out of water, this becomes a very nice backup option as it melts. Otherwise, toss it back in the freezer when you get home and it’ll be ready for next time.

You can also add ice cubes to the water bottle (or water bladder) you’ll be drinking from. I usually transport my water to the trailhead in a cooler to help keep it as cold as possible before starting the hike. I also keep some cold water (as well as a post-hike beverage, like a soda or a “yay we did it!” trail beer) in the cooler, along with a snack that’ll help cool me off. There’s nothing like arriving at your car after a hot hike to find a cold beverage.

Time it right

Finally, when you hike is an important consideration during the hot summer months. Early morning is the best time to be on the trail, followed by after the sun starts to set. The desert is really alive at night, and not much wildlife will be out in the middle of a hot day. You shouldn’t be either. Bring a headlamp and explore the desert at night—just remember, it’s harder to navigate in the darkness, so be prepared.

Most of my mid-week summer hikes involve hitting one of the mountain preserves here in Phoenix right after work and just before setting sun. You get the gorgeous sunset, get to watch the desert come alive, and get to see the city lights at the summit before you head back down. And since the desert breeze kicks up around dusk, your hike will be far more comfortable than it would have been just two or three hours earlier.

Have another tip for staying cool? Tell me in the comments!

6 thoughts on “Five ways to keep cool while hiking in the desert”

  1. Hi Scott, to your reasons for an inexpensive umbrella, you might add gusty winds (they destroyed mine one afternoon). Also, “Bring a headlamp and explore the desert at hike” should be “night.” I’ll wave to you from some high point while visiting Phoenix this weekend!

  2. You’ve offer some great tips!

    One of the most important areas to protect by cooling is the back of the neck! If you keep this area cool, keeping a “bubble of coolness” around the head, is my main goal. I generally use a microfiber cooling scarf AND a wet cloth draped off my head and held into place by my hat.

    The large head drape can be a microfiber synthetic “chamois” for drying cars. I picked mine up at Home Depot.


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