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Backpacking In The Desert

August 1, 2021

I was raised in the high desert with a thirst for adventure, so naturally, I gravitated toward the uncharted territory that backpacking could offer me. I was very fortunate that my father sparked my interest at a very young age.  He guided me on my first major backpacking trip at the age of 10.  From then on, I have loved the freedom and responsibility that backpacking guarantees. I recently moved to the East Coast and noticed some major differences between backpacking here and the desert setting where I grew up.  I have created a breakdown of things to consider if you haven’t had the opportunity to explore desert backpacking trails before.  Even if you are familiar with backpacking in arid regions, this might offer a good refresher to make sure your next backpacking adventure is a complete success.

To Tent or Not to Tent?

From my experience, on the much wetter East Coast, ditching the tent is not usually an option.  I’ve found, if there is camping involved, there must be a tent or something that serves a similar purpose. It seems like there is always a chance of rain and the bugs out here are HUGE, so wear a rain jacket. The possibility of a snake or other critter crawling into a boot or part of your wardrobe is much more likely as well. So, for most of my trips through the Eastern wilderness, I have resorted to carrying a lightweight tent.  Sometimes peace of mind is more important than shaving a pound or two off the pack weight.

The next time you happen to be trekking across the Nevada desert, however, to tent or not to tent, becomes a question with much more validity.  Looking over my past experiences, there have only been a few times when a tent was necessary for arid regions.  In the summer there are the occasional thunder bumpers, or perhaps a freak snowstorm of course, but generally, the weather is consistent from late spring into the early fall months.  So, we must ask ourselves if a tent is really all that important when there is a very slim chance of rain or snow.  For me, most of the time the answer is a hard no. A tent just isn’t worth the extra weight. Some people enjoy the feeling of security that a tent provides, but this is just an illusion; if a grizzly bear decides to eat you, it’s probably going to happen.  Tents offer very little in terms of insulation, so I generally try to resort to a lighter alternative.

What is the answer?  For me personally, I always take two cheap plastic tarps.  The main reason for my choice is the price.  I am notoriously cheap, and if it isn’t broken why would I fix it? A plastic tarp is reasonably light (although, there are lighter backpacking specific tarps available) and it is completely waterproof.  I use one as a sleeping pad to keep my bag clean and it provides a clean area to set my backpack.  The other tarp is kept handy in the off chance a thunderstorm, or blizzard decides to swing through. I’ve seen several reviews on hammock camping but I often quickly weed it out of the equation since there usually aren’t that many places to hang a hammock on desert trails. The tarp method is a somewhat backwoods way getting the job done but there are other options available to stay clean and dry. I recommend researching options available since two tarps for protection can be on the slim side of comfort.

What To Do About Water?

I try to learn as much as I can about a new area before attempting to hike into a difficult location.  I enjoy pushing into the farthest reaches of a wilderness area, where people rarely tread.  I realize this isn’t for everyone, but the further you get off the beaten path, the more prepared you need to be.  Cell phone service is often spotty or sometimes, nonexistent, meaning rescue is often not an easy thing to come by.  Preparation is your best friend, and this leads directly to the water dilemma. Where do you get water?  As I see it there are two options: pack all the water you will use during the trip or find the water as you hike. For day hikes, carrying enough water is not much of a challenge; I rarely use more than a gallon per day.  If you will be gone for multiple days though, expect at least one gallon of water per person per day.  Weighing in at 8lbs per gallon, you can see how packing water quickly loses its charm.

If I am planning on staying a night or more, I opt to find water along the way.  It has the major bonus of hugely reducing the amount of weight that needs to be carried in my pack.  Obviously, you should take water jugs for drinking between springs, but you won’t want to pack cooking water unless it is absolutely necessary. This can be dangerous if you haven’t been down the trail before and are not entirely sure where the water is located.  That is why I advocate looking online or contacting the park service for maps that show water sources.  If you end up packing into some uncharted territory, however, Google Earth is an option. Springs will show up as green spots in Google Earth and their locations can be added to your GPS.  Be very careful about trusting Google Earth because the pictures are outdated, and the conditions may have changed since the aerial photo was taken. I cannot stress enough how important it is to research and know where the water is before you pack into an area you know very little about.

Now that we have found the water, what do we need to do with it to make it safe? Since most people did not grow up drinking from mountain springs, our bodies have a chance of getting sick if we drink directly from the source.  I always plan on taking a pump style water filter with me whenever I head into the desert. It serves two purposes; the pump allows me to get the water from even the most minuscule crack in a rock and speeds up the filtration process.  I have found even though they are a little bit more expensive than the straw style filters, the pump type offers the least aggravating way to get a drink when you are high and dry on the trail. Water is a very important aspect of any great backpacking trip, be prepared to do your research because water can be hard to come by.   

Weather Conditions Can be Harsh, Prepare for them.

While weather is often unpredictable no matter where you are, the desert presents its own set of challenges.  Since there is less moisture in the air, the highs and lows are often spread much farther apart.  Make sure to dress in layers and be prepared for sub-freezing temperatures any time of the year, especially in the higher elevations. I generally take a hoody and an over shell as a bare minimum, even in the hottest of the summer months.  The high desert wilderness is often very hot during the day, with the nights bringing cold and windy conditions. It is of the utmost importance to prepare for the extreme conditions that can happen at any time of the year.  I remember one summer; a female hiker froze to death on the mountain behind my childhood home, in July. Be ready for any type of weather. Always hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

Dehydration can come much faster than you might think, even if the weather is cold outside. Make sure water is always on hand and don’t forget to drink it.  The sun can cause fatigue or heatstroke if it is not prepared properly. The UV radiation is much more intense at higher elevations, and sunburn can occur rapidly. I usually wear a long sleeve shirt to protect my arms and back from the sun, and a hat to keep my face from getting burned.  Altitude sickness might be a concern if you are unaware of how your body reacts to being at higher elevations.  Try to take it easy on your first high altitude backpacking excursion, because you never know how altitude sickness will affect you.

Fire

Depending on the time of year, a fire can be a much-needed comfort after a long day of cold hiking.  Nothing seems to pass the time more naturally than sitting beside the fire having a conversation, while you watch the flames dance before your eyes. The allure of a fire can be hard to resist but careful consideration of the possible dangers is required.  Forest fires can burn massive amounts of the wilderness you are trying to enjoy, so always treat a campfire with the respect it deserves.  When I’m packing in the summer, I use a very small fire to cook my meals with, or I use a jet boil to reduce the chance of forest fire.  Jet boils seem to offer the most practical means of cooking when you are packing into an area. The weight of the fuel is almost negligible in comparison to the amount of food it prepares on a single canister of fuel. They are also very safe compared to a campfire in terms of sparking a forest fire.

As far as meals go, I usually stick with dehydrated backpacking food, found in almost any outdoors outlet.  They work very well in tandem with a jet boil system and make cooking easier after a long strenuous hike through the high country.  Dried foods are a must for snacks along the trail, I like beef jerky or any trail mix I can get my hands on to keep the hunger at bay.  Hiking burns a tremendous number of calories, making it important to keep something in your stomach at all times, so fatigue and muscle cramps won’t set in.

Hiking and backpacking in the drier parts of the world offer many unique challenges and opportunities. Although the climate may be harsh at times, its unparalleled beauty is hard to beat.  There are few things that can compare with a long desert sunset, on a hot summer day.  The high mountain peaks offer a unique look into a world with a very short growing period. We are allowed a short glimpse into how vivacious life can be in those few months without freezing temperatures and snow.  Although I do enjoy the wetter side of nature, the dry desert air will always hold an important place in my heart. 

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