Backpacking in the Desert: Essential Skills and Gear

There’s something magical about backpacking in the desert. Perhaps it’s the big views, naked geology, and stubborn otherworldly flora. At night, clear starry skies evoke feelings of insignificance and meaning at the same time.

There’s something else though… Maybe it’s the way the desert doesn’t make any effort to hide its sharp edges and harsh expanses. I can see it for miles, just being itself: spacious and wild.

Now that I think about it, that’s exactly how I would describe the ideal qualities of my own spirit: spacious and wild. Maybe that’s why I love hiking and camping in the desert. It reminds me of who I want to be.

More practically speaking, the desert is what’s available as I write this in the depths of a northern hemisphere winter. Through fall, winter, and spring, we go backpacking in the desert to get our nature fix when mountain trails are blocked by snow.

Wide open desert landscapes can make a backpacker feel very small, which is part of the appeal and the challenge.

Desert backpacking has much in common with backpacking anywhere else, but deserts also require a few special considerations. Setting out into the desert without this knowledge can be unpleasant at best and downright dangerous at worst.

In this post I’ll share the most important differences between backpacking in the desert versus other environments, and the gear and skills needed to cope with them. I learned most of this on my Arizona Trail thru hike and a number of shorter adventures in the deserts of southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Perhaps you’re dreaming of a thru hike on the Arizona Trail or the southern reaches of the PCT. Maybe you want to enjoy a weekend backpacking trip in Death Valley or southern Utah. Whatever your desert dreams entail, read on to learn what it’s like to backpack in the desert and how to do it skillfully.

Bonus tip: Don’t hug the cacti, no matter how huggable they look.

When to Hike in the Desert

Let’s start with this critical safety information: many deserts are dangerously hot during summer. Sadly, hikers die from heat exposure each summer in areas like Death Valley. With temperatures often topping 100 degrees F, no shade in sight, and few water sources, it’s all too easy to get in over your head during summer in the desert.

I strongly recommend, along with pretty much every other experienced outdoorsperson, that you do not backpack in lower-elevation deserts during the months of June, July, and August (in the northern hemisphere). Even the shoulder months of April to May and September to October can be uncomfortably hot. Certain higher-elevation areas can be ok; check the average temps for the precise location.

Outside of summer, deserts can be accessible for many months of the year, though each season has its challenges.

Spring: Often ideal! Reasonable temperatures, good seasonal water sources, maybe wildflowers.

Fall: Good if you can find water. Manageable temperatures but seasonal water sources are often dry.

Winter: Depends. Low elevations are usually snow-free but might be very cold. Snow can be problematic at higher elevations.

Summer: Dangerously hot at low elevations (avoid!), can be nice at higher elevations.

This winter day in Death Valley was mostly snow-free, but you can see a light dusting of white on the ridge in the upper left.
Bright red cactus flowers
Springtime can bring vibrant colors to the desert landscape.

Water in the Desert

By definition deserts are dry, but as backpackers we often rely on natural water sources. In the desert we need to pay extra attention to how we plan water refills, carry enough water, and treat dirty water so it’s safe to drink.

Backpacker climbs ladder to get water from tank in the desert
Sometimes desert water sources can require some creativity! (Arizona Trail)

Plan Water Refills Carefully

In the desert you can’t count on crossing a stream every hour or two. You’ll need to research water sources in advance and plan your days and camp locations around them. You can often find water reports online at trail organization websites, Facebook groups, or guides like Guthook / FarOut depending on the trail and area.

Key tips: Always be sure a water report is recent before relying on it, have a backup plan in case it’s dry, and update the report with your own findings to help future hikers. Be especially skeptical of seasonal water sources during fall.

Caching water is an option on some trails. You can either cache your own or – on popular trails like the southern section of the PCT and the Arizona Trail – benefit from the generosity of trail angels. For more on the etiquette of water caches, see Water on the AZT.

Always have a backup plan in case your planned water source is dry.

Carry Extra Water

Desert water sources are highly seasonal. Many deserts have flowing streams during spring as snow is melting up in the mountains, but most dry up during summer and fall.

Depending on the trail and season, you could easily end up carrying 4-6 liters. More remote and adventurous desert routes might require 8 liters or more!

Consider your strength. At 2.2 pounds per liter, water is heavy! Carrying more than 6-8 liters is too heavy for most people to bother with, so only the hardiest of hikers will take on routes that require it. Honestly consider how much water you can carry without it taking all the fun out of your hike.

Pack light. Everyone likes a lighter pack, but desert backpackers especially benefit from lightweight backpacking strategies that leave more headroom for all that water weight. Since desert weather is often dry, sometimes it makes sense to save weight by carrying less burly rain gear and shelter (within reason – it does sometimes rain in the desert) than you might in the mountains.

Monitor your water needs. Desert air is typically very dry, which means sweat evaporates quickly from your skin. You might not even notice that you’re sweating, but you’re still losing water. It’s important to keep drinking to avoid dehydration in these conditions.

Add extra water capacity: You might need to add a few liters to your typical backpacking hydration system. To keep things as light and compact as possible, consider collapsible soft bottles or dual-use items like the dirty bag from your gravity filter system.

Backpacking pack with two Platypus foldable bottles in back pocket and foam pad strapped to back
A couple collapsible bottles add extra water capacity for desert hiking.

Treating Dirty Water

If you backpack in the desert for long enough, you will sooner or later – probably sooner – filter and drink some really, really disgusting water.

In the ranch lands of the American southwest, water sources are often human-made. Windmills power pumps that draw water from deep in the ground, and cattle troughs quench the thirst of grazing herds (and hikers). The few natural sources remaining through summer are often small, algae-filled puddles with abundant “floaters” and “swimmers.”

Yup, we’re going to filter and drink this.

Backpackers have several good options when it comes to choosing a water filter, but the demands of desert hiking make some better than others. Here’s what I recommend:

Choose a high flow-rate filter like the Sawyer Squeeze instead of the slightly smaller but more easily clogged Micro and Mini models.

Prepare to backflush or clean your filter often, sometimes multiple times per liter.

Prefilter with a bandana, buff, or square of old pantyhose to prolong the life of your filter.

Avoid UV treatment because it’s not effective in cloudy or silty water.

Avoid chemical-only treatments; you’ll definitely want something to filter out the gunk.

Carry chemical treatment as a backup (ideally chlorine dioxide) or to double-treat extra gross water.

Let very silty water settle overnight if possible to avoid clogging your filter.

Sawyer water filter gravity setup with prefilter fabric
Your filter will clog less quickly if you pre-filter that nasty desert water. Just screw a thin piece of cloth into the threads where the filter attaches.

Important: If using a hollow fiber filter like the Sawyer Squeeze or Katadyn BeFree, sleep with your filter at night to prevent damage from freezing. Overnight temperatures can be colder in the desert than you might expect based on other environments.

Camping in the Desert

Campsite Selection

If you’re accustomed to forested campsites blanketed in soft pine needles, you’ll need to make a few adjustments for desert backpacking. Here’s how to think about choosing a campsite.

Don’t camp in washes (dry waterways) or canyons if there’s any chance of rain, even far away. It doesn’t rain often in the desert, but when rain does fall it flows quickly into washes and can cause dangerous flash foods even many miles away.

Look for wind shelter if you can find it. Deserts can be blustery places, especially in large flat areas or along ridgelines.

Avoid trampling cryptobiotic soil. In some places, including southern Utah, this living organism plays an essential role in the desert ecosystem and takes a long time to grow back.

Camp at least 200 feet away from any water source, so you don’t discourage animals from visiting the only pond / trough / puddle for miles around.

Avoid camping near plants with spikes or thorns. If you must, check the area thoroughly before laying down your tent.

Gear suggestion: Inflatable sleeping pad users, take care to avoid punctures! Put a thin foam pad beneath your inflatable one – ideally a lightweight one like Gossamer Gear Thinlight – for extra protection.

Desert plants are fascinating…
… But watch out for your gear and skin!

For many backpackers, the desert lends itself especially well to “cowboy camping” – sleeping out under the stars without a tent or tarp. Infrequent rain, clear skies, and lack of dense trees overhead make for an appealing openness. If you like the idea but worry about creepy-crawlies, look into a bivy like my favorite from Borah Gear.

Deserts are an especially nice place to sleep with a clear view of the stars.

Rocky or Sandy Soil

This isn’t only a desert problem, but in some desert areas you’re more likely to find hard-packed rocky soil. When it comes to backpacking, this causes problems in two ways: pitching shelters and digging cat holes.

Here are two pieces of gear I use specifically for desert backpacking in rocky areas like the Arizona Trail:

Titanium tent stakes: Upgrading to sturdy titanium stakes will help prevent bending and breaking as you pound them into rocky desert ground.

Bathroom trowel: In other areas I use a trekking pole or stick, but in rocky desert regions a titanium trowel makes digging cat holes so much easier.

This aluminum trowel wasn’t sturdy enough for the rocky and partly frozen ground of the Arizona Trail!

Sand: If you’ll be camping in a particularly sandy type of desert landscape, consider wide tent stakes like the MSR Blizzard or even Big Agnes Blowdown anchors. In my experience though, many deserts (especially in North America) are more rocky and less sandy than you might expect.

Cold Nights

Overnight temperatures can be quite cold in the desert, even when days are hot. It’s common to have sub-freezing nights even in spring and fall.

In these conditions be sure to pack a warm sleeping bag or quilt (ideally rated to 20 degrees or below), midlayer top and bottom, and an insulated jacket at minimum. These other tips on how to keep warm while backpacking will help with those chilly nights.

Key tip: Sleep with your water filter (if using a hollow fiber filter) if there’s any chance temps could dip below freezing. A filter that’s been frozen may not do its job and you’ll have no way of knowing until you end up sick.

The desert can be chilly even in springtime, but at least we can enjoy breakfast in our frost-covered bivvies without worrying about bear-aware cooking practices.

Clothing for Desert Backpacking

Your current backpacking clothes probably work for desert hiking too. But to be as comfortable as possible, consider these three issues that are especially prominent in the desert: big temperature swings, cold nights, and extreme sun exposure.

Temperature Swings

Because sandy soil and dry air don’t retain heat very well, variations in temperature can be extreme in the desert. You might not expect a 30 degree F night following an 85 degree afternoon, but it’s not uncommon. Changes in elevation, wind, and cloud cover can also lead to big swings in perceived temperature.

This makes it hard to get that “just right” feeling. You’ll sweat hiking uphill in the sunshine and then shiver while sitting down to snack as a cloud passes in front of the sun.

To help regulate your body temperature, use a flexible and breathable layering system and keep your layers easily accessible. A breathable layer, like the Icebreaker Merino 260 midlayer (women’s, men’s) or Patagonia Houdini wind shirt, will have a wider comfort range than a rain jacket or puffy.

Cold Nights

Nights in the desert can be downright frigid. If you’re used to camping in the mountains you might not expect such cold temperatures at relatively low elevations.

Keep in mind that if you’re hiking in spring or fall, when deserts are at their best, you’re also dealing with cooler shoulder-season temperatures. On top of that, days are shorter so you’ll have fewer hours of sunlight to keep you warm.

To pack: If cold nights are expected, be sure to bring your full set of backpacking layers for around camp and sleeping: a warm insulated jacket, midlayer top, midlayer tights, gloves, hat, and thick socks.

Sun Exposure

Unless you count huddling in the shadow of a lone cactus, it’s often hard to find shade in the desert. Even if you love sunshine as much as I do, it can quickly start to feel relentless.

I like to wear shorts and a t-shirt for comfort but cover my arms and hands with sun sleeves to reduce the risk of sunburn and skin cancer. Some people prefer long pants and long sleeves, with sun gloves for their hands (which get a lot of sun if you’re using hiking poles). Light colored clothing reflects sunlight better than dark colors and will keep you a smidge cooler.

Hats normally bug me, but I always wear one when hiking in the desert. I even recommend the kind with full coverage, not just a brim in front. Sunday Afternoons has some great hat options.

To pack: Remember plenty of sunscreen lotion, SPF lip balm, a hat, and sunglasses with big lenses and good side coverage.

Backpacker reaches up to high-five a giant saguaro cactus
In this part of Arizona, Saguaro cacti are the only things big enough to offer a sliver of shade.

Desert Clothing Recommendations

Here are a few personal favorites from my desert packing list:

Hat: Sunday Afternoons Ultra Adventure: Good coverage without obscuring peripheral vision or interfering with top of backpack.

Sun sleeves: Outdoor Research ActiveIce: Good coverage for arms and hands, grippy upper prevents slipping down.

Neck gaiter: Buff headwear is a must-have for any backpacking trip, but especially useful in the desert where it helps with sun protection, warmth, and even the occasional dust storm.

Midlayer: Icebreaker Merino 260 (women’s, men’s): Breathable and stink-resistant, adds warmth without clamminess.

Two pairs of feet in trail running shoes and colorful gaiters

Gaiters: If you hike in trail running shoes (which I recommend), Dirty Girl Gaiters prevent desert sand and grit from getting in and causing blisters. Plus they’re stylish.

Related: My Arizona Trail Gear List

Desert Critters

Some people worry about snakes and scorpions, but I actually find desert critters to be fairly low-stress. No bears, wolves, or cougars (mostly) to worry about here! In the American southwest we’re mostly just dealing with annoying rodents, harmless coyotes, and cute bunnies.

Here are a few desert critters that sometimes concern people:

Snakes and scorpions: They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them. Avoid sticking your hands or feet into places you can’t see (between rocks, into your rolled up tent flap, into your shoes without shaking them out first etc.) and you’ll be fine.

Coyotes: The sound of a pack calling out in the night can be unsettling at first, but once you realize they pose no danger you can learn to enjoy the music.

Rodents: These little guys can be a real pest. Since bears aren’t an issue in the desert it’s common to sleep with your food, but tarp sleepers and cowboy campers may find their food bags thoroughly gnawed in the morning. An Ursack Minor critter bag may be worth it for those without a tent.

A desert hare beside a Cholla cactus in Joshua Tree National Park.

Toiletries and Personal Care

Backpacking is always a little rough on the skin, but the dry air, gritty soil, and aggressive foliage of the desert can be extra challenging.

Sand, Grit, and Dry Air

If you hike in trail running shoes, gaiters are extremely helpful for keeping sand out of your shoes where it can cause blisters.

In certain types of desert environments that are prone to sand storms, a buff makes a convenient face covering among many other uses.

If you’re prone to dry skin or dry eyes, backpacking in the desert might make it worse. Consider adding small containers of these soothing items to your lightweight toiletries kit:

  • Extra-dry skin lotion
  • Carmex lip balm
  • Lubricant eye drops

First Aid for Cactus Spikes

It seems like every time I hike in the desert, I or someone in my group gets attacked by a cactus! As my husband says, spikes are just how desert plants say hello. Jumping cholla are his nemesis, and I’ve had a couple ugly run-ins with agave plants.

Aside from learning to be careful where you step and swing your arms, I recommend adding these to your desert first aid kit:

Plants like this…
… do not mess around!
Don’t touch!

Hygeine

I’m not usually too uptight about staying squeaky-clean when I backpack. A quick splashdown on arrival at camp is all I need, plus rinsing out my socks and underwear every couple days on a “wear one, wash one” alternating schedule.

But in the desert where water is precious, my usual quarter-liter hygiene allotment is too much to waste.

When backpacking in dry areas where my water capacity is already stretched, I make these additions to my packing list:

  • 1 additional pair of socks, for total of 3 pairs: one for hiking, one for sleeping, and one for extra warmth and/or for hiking if the first pair becomes too dirty and I can’t wash it.
  • 1 extra pair of underwear, for total of 3 pairs: wear one, ideally wash one, plus one extra if washing isn’t an option
  • Baby wipes: 1 per day, helpful for cleaning up without using extra water.

Trails and Lack Thereof

When thinking of a hiking trail, most of us picture a narrow ribbon of human-built tread winding intentionally through the landscape. You’ll find plenty of these trails in deserts, but thanks to particularities of desert topography you’ll often find other types of walking paths.

Washes and canyons: Dry waterways make convenient hiking paths. Whether walking along a sandy wash or squeezing through a slot canyon, many popular desert hiking routes follow the path of water rather than trail crews.

Safety tip: Never hike in canyons when there’s rain in the forecast, even if it’s many miles away. You don’t want to be caught in a dangerous flash flood!

This canyon was created by water and still floods regularly. Don’t be in it the next time this happens! (Cathedral Wash, Arizona)

Cross-country travel: Thanks to open sight lines, relatively flat ground, and sparse vegetation, walking “cross-country” (without a trail) is a feature of some desert routes. Sometimes you can navigate by sight – “head across the alluvial fan toward the mouth of the canyon” – but most people should have a GPS navigation system to be safe.

Road walking: Sometimes the most efficient way to traverse a large expanse of desert is to follow rugged ranch roads and other existing vehicle tracks. Large sections of the CDT in New Mexico in Wyoming, for example, are dirt road walks through desert landscapes. The going can be faster, but also sometimes monotonous, and unmarked junctions can make navigation a challenge.

In the American southwest, some desert hiking routes follow remote dirt roads (often gated to keep cattle where they belong).

Important: A GPS navigation app is essential for safety when traveling cross-country, following a branching canyon system, or navigating a maze of unmarked dirt roads.

One final tip about desert trails: Deserts are NOT always flat! Anyone who has hiked through the “sky islands” of southern Arizona, the Grand Canyon of northern Arizona, or the basin-and-range country of Nevada can confirm.

The southern half of the Arizona Trail, despite being primarily desert, is definitely not all flat.

Worth It?

Freezing nights, filthy water, dangerous plants, and relentless sun… Is a desert backpacking trip really worth it?

In my opinion, absolutely! Dry desert nights are perfect for sleeping out beneath gorgeous starry skies, the kind that beg for contemplation of the universe. Desert sunsets are especially gorgeous, and wide open spaces are soothing for the soul.

Plus, no bears (yay for breakfast in bed) and no mosquitos! If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.

Desert sunsets are my favorite.

Desert Backpacking Trip Ideas

If you’re craving desert expanses after reading this post, here are a few trip ideas to whet your appetite:

  • Death Valley National Park (Marble Canyon, Bighorn Gorge)
  • Arizona Trail: 780 miles from Mexico to Utah
  • The Grand Canyon, Arizona
  • Southern California section of the Pacific Crest Trail
  • Southern Utah’s canyon country (many wonderful options)

More Backpacking Resources

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For much more, visit the hiking and backpacking resources page.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the US and abroad. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more or say hi.

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Pictures of desert trails and cacti

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