As the mountain bikepacking season draws to a close, the desert bikepacking season begins. For those of us seeking long rides in big landscapes from fall through spring, the desert is the place to be.
There’s something so special about the wild desert, the way it lays bare the earth’s structure and paints the vitality of life on an inhospitable canvas. As you pedal toward a distant horizon or listen to coyotes howl beneath a massive starry sky, you can’t help but feel part of something vast and ancient.
But the desert will also pop your tires (and your sleeping pad) faster than you can say “rattlesnake,” and it cares not a smidge if you die of dehydration while dragging your bike through sand. The desert commands awe, and also respect.
For all these reasons and more, the desert is a superb place to go bikepacking! You just need to understand a few important challenges and how to deal with them, and you’ll unlock an incredible landscape rich with bikepacking adventure opportunity.
Desert Bikepacking Season
Here in the US (and many other places), desert season is fall and spring with lower elevations also accessible through winter. Each region can have unique considerations, but generally we’re trying to avoid the scorching heat of summer. Here’s a quick overview of each season:
Summer: Typically too hot to go adventuring in the desert safely. Even if you can stand the heat, it may be impossible to carry enough water.
Fall: Summer temps ease, making late September through early November a great time to go bikepacking in the desert. Water sources can be a challenge depending on the year and how much monsoonal rain fell during the summer.
Winter: Can be feasible for lower elevation routes, but remember snow still falls in the desert, and it especially falls in the mountains that often punctuate otherwise desert-focused routes. If a route’s elevation profile reaches above, say, 5000 feet, you’ll want to check on snow conditions. Temps can be very chilly even at low elevations, and daylight hours will be short.
Spring: March through May is classic desert season and a beautiful time to go bikepacking. Water sources are at their best and if you’re lucky, wildflowers will be blooming.
The idea of a stark and dry landscape might seem straightforward, but deserts can actually be quite subtle and varied. I’ll make some generalizations in this post, but it’s important to know that not every desert shares every quality mentioned below. In reality each region has a unique character.
If you have a specific trip in the works, research your destination and find out what it’s like at that time of year. Plants, animals, water, weather, and road surfaces are all good things to learn about. A basic understanding of geology and history can be fun too.
Tires: Spikes and Thorns
The most pressing advice I have for anyone planning a desert bikepacking trip: have a plan for punctures! It is always the desert – most memorably the high desert of Central Oregon and the arid expanses of Northern Arizona – that tests my tubes and tires to their breaking point. Cactus spines might come to mind first, but in my experience the less obvious goat head thorns do the most damage.
Run tubeless tires, if you can. If your rims are tubeless-compatible and you’re still running tubes, make the change and never look back. I’ve installed my own tubeless tires since the beginning – it’s not that hard – but it’s a quick job for your local bike shop if that helps you make the switch.
Carry extra tubeless sealant (at least 4 ounces) and a way to inject it into your tires through the valve stem. In Arizona on the Western Wildlands Route I added 3 ounces of sealant in two days and wished I’d brought more.
Even with tubeless tires, carry worst-case-scenario supplies: a spare tube or two, a good patch kit, and pliers. The pliers are for removing the hundreds of thorns that will be stuck in your tire in the unfortunate event that you damage or unseat a tubeless tire and need to put in a tube. Good luck!
If you must run tubes, use all the tricks: tire liners, sealant in tubes, and/or thorn-resistant tubes. I’ve had good results in central Oregon with tire liners similar to these, but you need to install them carefully or they can cause more problems than they solve.
Watch for spikey things. It may be a losing battle, but if running tubes be extra careful about pulling your bike off the road and into foliage. Know what goat head thorn plants look like (innocuous green ground-cover) and try not to run over them for no reason.
Tires: Sand and Rocks
In addition to thorns and spikes, deserts can be full of sand and rocks. Both lend themselves to larger volume tires that “float” across sand and help absorb the bumpiness of endless rocks. Details depend on your specific route, but for a rugged desert route (the Baja Divide is a classic example) it’s not unusual to run 29 x 2.6″ or even 3″ tires.
Rocks can be dealt with, but pay special attention to sand when making your tire choice for a desert bikepacking route. If a route has only short sections of sand it’s reasonable to get off and hike when your tires sink in. But sandy hike-a-bike is a special kind of hell, and if a route has long sections of sand you may struggle to stay on schedule without suitably wide rubber.
We all know deserts are dry, but nothing drives it home like having to carry a two day supply of water on your bike. Water sources may be few and far between, especially during fall, so desert bikepackers need more water capacity than usual. It’s not unusual to carry 8 – 10 liters of water at a time on a remote desert bikepacking route.
Many of us – especially smaller riders – struggle to fit all this water on our bikes. It IS possible though, even without a rack. See 9 Ways to Carry Water While Bikepacking for a rundown of the options.
A few other points about desert water sources:
First, it’s more common to drink from human-made water sources in the desert than in the mountains or other water-rich areas. Desert bikepackers may find themselves drinking from stock troughs, cow ponds, wells with windmill-powered pumps, rainwater collectors, and storage tanks.
Second and relatedly, many desert sources are not the most pristine. You may encounter cow poo, dead bugs or animals, and filter-clogging silt. A good water filter (I use the Sawyer Squeeze) will take care of the first two. Occasionally you’ll want to pre-filter and/or let water settle overnight to deal with silt and debris. Be sure to backflush or clean your filter often, depending on its design.
Finally and critically, desert water sources are often unreliable. They may dry up quickly after monsoon rains stop, or a rancher may move cattle to new grazing land and stop filling a tank. When bikepacking in the desert, always carry more water than you think you need and don’t skip an opportunity to refill. You never know when your next source will come along.
The desert is my absolute favorite environment for camping. For me the clear view of the night sky, silence of a treeless landscape, and lack of (most) large predators add up to a peaceful night under the stars.
Camping on a desert bikepacking trip isn’t too different from any other camping, but here are a few specific tips that will make your night more enjoyable.
Don’t camp in washes. When you see an area that looks like water sometimes flows through it, assume that is indeed the case. Even distant rainfall can cause flash floods in the desert, and your cozy campsite could transform into a flowing stream while you sleep.
Protect inflatable sleeping pads from spikes and spines. Avoid camping right next to cacti or thorn bushes, check your site thoroughly before setting up, and for extensive desert camping consider a thin foam underpad. A closed-cell foam pad would also be a good choice, if you can sleep comfortably on one. (More: Sleeping Pads for Bikepacking)
Camp away from water sources. It’s always a treat to camp near a water source in the desert, but set up at least 200 feet away so animals aren’t deterred from drinking. It might be their only nearby source.
Camp on durable surfaces and avoid cryptobiotic soil. Desert ecosystems can be fragile, so follow Leave No Trace techniques carefully. Camp on durable surfaces and away from plant life. Some desert areas have cryptobiotic soil, a top layer of dark and lumpy crust that helps prevent erosion and enriches the soil for hardy plant life. It contains living microorganisms, can be destroyed with a single footstep, and takes up to 100 years to regrow. So “don’t bust the crust!”
Sleep with your water filter. Desert nights are notoriously cold and can easily drop below freezing even in spring and fall. Hollow fiber filters like the Sawyer Squeeze and Katadyn BeFree are damaged by freezing, and there’s no way to know it until you get Giardia. To be on the safe side, make a habit of tucking your filter into your sleeping bag each night.
Bring reading material for the tent. If you’re bikepacking between late fall and early spring, daylight hours will be short and nights will be chilly. You’ll probably spend a lot of time cozied up in your tent, so bring a good Kindle or audio book to pass the time.
Sleep under the stars at least once. If you usually feel a bit safer zipped up inside a tent, the desert is the perfect place to experiment with sleeping tentless. If it’s not too cold, sleeping in a bivy or on top of a tarp (or at least with your tent rain fly off) can be surprisingly liberating. You might find you enjoy feeling a bit more “one with the landscape.”
Enjoy breakfast in bed. In the desert you can feel free to do things you wouldn’t dream of in bear country, like sleep with your food and eat in your tent. A hot breakfast and coffee in bed takes the edge off those cold desert mornings. But remember, deserts have rodents, so it’s still worth storing your food carefully and keeping things clean.
Deserts are known for their wide temperature swings, sometimes varying by over 50 degrees F between a sunny afternoon and the dead of night. Add in the mercurial tendencies of shoulder-season weather and the contrast between climbing and descending on a bike, and it can feel like you’re always either too hot or too cold.
I use a similar layering system for all my trips, but for desert rides I make extra-sure to wear breathable fabrics that can handle a wide temperature range. For me that means merino wool, which is perfect for bikepacking thanks to its anti-stink tendencies. A lightweight (around 150 gsm) merino t-shirt or merino sun hoodie is my base layer, and a mid-weight (around 250 gsm) long sleeve merino shirt with zipper neck (key for fitting over a helmet) makes a great cool weather riding layer and sleep shirt.
In addition to merino wool, I like to have a series of lightweight layers with easy on / off for fine-tuning my body temperature. I’ll layer a lightweight wind vest over my midlayer to take the chill off, and if that’s not enough I’ll add a rain jacket (usually a lightweight one like the OR Helium for the desert).
For really cold days I’ll ride in Smartwool Merino Fleece Wind Tights, which are especially great for variable temps because they’re so breathable and hard to overheat in. Pearl Izumi Lobster Gloves are the only way to keep my fingers functional in the 40’s or below. I always have a puffy jacket for camp (my Arc’teryx Cerium) and occasionally I’ll ride in it if the weather is cold enough.
No matter how dialed your layer system is, desert days can feel like a constant process of “layers on, layers off, repeat.” Try to pack layers in accessible places and be patient. It’s worth a couple minutes of futzing with clothes in order to ride comfortably at the right temperature.
On a desert ride you might go days between patches of shade! That’s a lot of sun exposure, even in winter. If you want to protect your skin, here are a few good ways to do it.
Arm sleeves: Pair with a t-shirt and cycling gloves to prevent arms and wrists from getting crispy. I like the ActiveIce Sun Sleeves from Outdoor Research better than others I’ve tried, but they still slip down and leave a gap which is partly why I’ve switched to…
Merino sun hoodies: Popular among thru hikers, a lightweight merino wool hoodie is perfect for bikepacking too. I like the Smartwool Sport Ultralight for hot weather and the Ridge Merino Solstice for cool weather. The hood is great for protecting my neck from sun when riding (can go under or over a helmet depending on the design) and adds a bit of extra warmth when it’s cold out – perfect for those big desert temperature swings.
Da Brim helmet visor: Looks goofy (or kinda cool, depending on your sense of style) but definitely keeps the sun off your face. I wore one for a few weeks on the Great Divide. While I appreciated the sun protection in New Mexico, it wasn’t very comfortable in the wind and I eventually mailed it home.
Good sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen are also obviously key.
In addition to heat and cold, the desert throws a few other weather-related challenges at us.
Sometimes desert soils are sandy and rocky, but sometimes they’re high in clay content. When clay soil gets wet, it turns to Death Mud. Death Mud isn’t confined to the desert, but I’ve encountered it there most often. When Death Mud strikes, you’ll have to set up camp wherever you are and wait for it to dry. There’s no arguing with Death Mud.
A quick sprinkle isn’t usually a problem, but you’ll want to avoid these types of roads in heavy rain or during a period of prolonged snowmelt.
Deserts, by definition, don’t get much rain. When water does fall it tends to flow along the dry surface instead of soaking deep into the soil. This leads to all those sandy dry (for now) washes you see in some desert areas.
If heavy rain is in the forecast, it’s worth considering the possibility of flash flooding. It’s not a good time to go hiking in a slot canyon or set up your tent in a wash. Though rare, there are some areas where flash flooding can wash out dirt roads and leave you temporarily stranded. Don’t be alarmed, but do keep one eye on the weather forecast as usual.
Desert miles sometimes offer a reprieve from big elevation change, but that doesn’t necessarily make them easy riding. One common challenge of wide-open spaces: strong winds.
Whether out on the open plains or deep in a canyon, wind blowing the wrong way can slow progress to a crawl. I love the Windy app for this (and for weather forecasts in general). You can’t change the wind, but you can get an early start if you know it’s coming in the afternoon.
I generally feel pretty top-of-the-food-chain in the desert. No bears, no wolves,
no mountain lions (ok there might be mountain lions, but try not to think about it).
But there are a few small desert critters it’s wise to be aware of. Fortunately none of them want anything to do with bikepackers, so our job is simply to avoid surprising them. Here are a few critters of concern in the deserts of the American Southwest, though their population numbers, aggressiveness, and venomousness vary from region to region.
Rattlesnakes are often seen sunning themselves across the road or hiding between rocks. Keep an eye out and don’t put hands or feet in places you can’t see. You’ll know them by their distinctive rattle tail, which makes noise if they feel threatened. Simply give them a wide berth and move along.
Scorpions like to hang out in cozy nooks and crannies, like between rocks, in your shoes, or in the rolled up flap of your tent fly. Their sting is painful and potentially, though rarely, dangerous. Again, avoid reaching fingers into small places you can’t see.
Spiders generally won’t hurt you, but a handful of desert dwellers (most famously black widows and brown recluses) do have dangerous venomous bites – another good reason to shake out your shoes in the morning.
So, the real question: is it safe to cowboy camp in the desert with all of these deadly creepy-crawlies running around? Will you wake up to a friendly snake seeking warmth in your sleeping bag?
The answer is a matter of personal preference. Personally, I prefer my Borah Gear Bivy when camping tentless in the desert. But plenty of people sleep out on nothing but a ground sheet, and most of them never have an uninvited guest.
Hygiene and Personal Care
Backcountry hygiene basics don’t change in the desert, but the dust, sand, and lack of flowing water can make things feel grittier and grubbier. Here are a few minor tweaks to consider.
Wet wipes: When drinking water is scarce, you’ll have to skip the full post-ride splashdown at camp. The next best thing is to bring some wet wipes or – if you’re in the mood for luxury – these “shower wipes.” An even lighter alternative: compressed dry wipes that only need a small amount of water to rehydrate.
Water sources: If you’re lucky enough to find a water source for your washing, take extra care to not pollute it for the sake of wildlife and the overall ecosystem. Carry water away from the source and do your washing there, so the runoff can filter through dirt before returning to the source.
Spare chamois: I always try to rinse my chamois before wearing it again. If dealing with limited water I’m more likely to pack a second chamois so I have a spare to tide me over between water sources.
Bathroom routine: Pooping in the desert is similar to pooping in the woods, except you may have a harder time finding a good hidden spot. Decomposition takes a long time in microorganism-poor desert soil, so it’s especially important to bury your business well (a potty trowel can be useful) and pack out used TP. Never poop within 200 feet of a water source, and try not to poop in dry washes since they flow to water sources when wet.
Chapstick and lotion: If you have problems with dry skin, the desert is the place to carry a tiny bottle of hand lotion and some thick petroleum jelly lip balm.
Eye drops: If you already have problems with dry eyes, the arid windy desert can make them worse. Contact lens wearers especially might need some relief.
Desert Bikepacking Routes
If you like the sound of all that and can’t wait to get yourself to the desert, here are some routes I personally recommend with links to more info on my experience there:
- Grand Staircase Loop (160 miles, Utah)
- Western Wildlands Route in Arizona
- GDMBR in southern New Mexico
- New Mexico Off-Road Runner (500 miles)
- Arizona Trail (I’ve hiked it, but it’s a world class bikepacking route too)
And here are a few desert bikepacking routes that are high on my wishlist, with links to their route descriptions:
- Baja Divide (Mexico)
- SoCal Desert Ramble (California)
- The Fool’s Loop (Arizona)
Have fun! I wish you endless views, minimal punctures, and many clear starry desert nights. And tailwinds, definitely tailwinds.
More Bikepacking Resources
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy these:
- Bikepacking Food Guide
- Revelate Mountain Feedbag Review – Worth the Money?
- Drop Bars on Mountain Bikes: How and Why (or Why Not)
Or visit the bikepacking section for lots more!
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2 thoughts on “Desert Bikepacking: Skills, Gear, Inspiration”
There are many desert areas in the U.S, let alone the world. Each has its own unique character. Too often, “the desert” is used to refer to anyplace that is hot & dry in the summer. Much as “drugs” doesn’t discriminate among those that cause no problems versus those that are the #1 or 2 killer in the US, or those that motivate you to sell your body or your children.
The “desert” of central OR does have goat heads (almost always on land disturbed for or by cattle). But the broader desert of eastern OR (the northern extreme of the Great Basin desert) has few such nasties, and in fact very little vegetation that is prickly or thorny; what exists is usually easily avoided. Our desert has more timid & less poisonous rattlesnakes than the Chihuahuan or Sonoran deserts of the Southwest. And our scorpions exist but are rare and not significantly toxic.
My point is that it helps to know the character of the particular area you’re traveling in, and not use overly generic characterizations in your preparations.
That’s a great point, and I’m going to edit the article to include something to that effect. I’m guilty of blending several distinct desert experiences in this article without always clarifying where they apply, and of course there are many deserts I haven’t experienced. Sometimes we have to make generalizations to get points across, but I agree that it can be misleading and even harmful in some cases.