Safety Tips for Desert Athletes

Safety Tips for Exercise in Hot Dry Desert Weather

Athletes who are active in remote, dry, hot desert climates, have a unique list of essential items that vary slightly from the standard 10 essentials hikers carry on a typical day hike. Adventurous athletes have endless possibilities for exploring remote canyons, mountains and even sand dunes. The desert terrain can be unpredictable and weather changes quickly, so athletes need to be prepared for almost anything.  The following checklist can help you prepare for remote, desert exploring, trail running, biking or hiking.

Plan Ahead and Ask the Experts

Badwater Saltflats, Death Valley, N.P.
Badwater Basin salt flats, Death Valley, N.P. Photo � E Quinn / Badwater Saltflats, Death Valley

Any desert hiking trip -- like the sort you find in many areas of the American Southwest -- should always begin with a trip to the Visitor's Center, ranger station or local experts to ask for recommendations, to check current conditions and weather forecasts. Once you have a plan, consider including the following items.


Hydration Pack
Hydration Pack. photo courtesy of PriceGrabber

When hiking in a dry, desert environment you’ll need to drink more water than you might expect. The Death Valley Park Service recommends hikers carry at least 2 liters for a short day hike in cooler temperatures, and up to 1 gallon or more for longer, or warm season hikes. It’s also important to drink frequently to avoid dehydration.



Energy Food for Hiking
Energy Food for Hiking. Photo (c) Thomas Northcut / Getty Images

Hiking is an endurance sport and what you eat in hot arid weather is important. Energy-loaded food is essential for endurance -- but how much to eat depends upon your fitness level, exercise intensity, and hiking time. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, endurance athletes should consume 30 to 60 grams (100 to 250 calories) of carbohydrates per hour while exercising.

If exercising longer than two hours, particularly in the heat, you'll also need to replace electrolytes lost through sweat, so salty snacks or sports drinks can be helpful. Some favorite hiking trail foods include energy bars, gorp trail mixes, nuts, dried fruit, bananas, apples, bagels, etc.



Rudy Project Sunglasses
Rudy Project Sunglasses. photo courtesy of PriceGrabber

The desert sun can be intense, so be sure to protect your eyes by wearing sunglasses to reduce glare and sun reflection off the sand or canyon walls. I prefer the wrap-around style to reduce glare, but also found they helped keep blowing sand out of my eyes during the intense and abrupt windstorms that are common in Death Valley.

It's also important to use sunscreen and avoid sunburn. Even a minor sunburn decreases your body's ability to cool itself and causes fluid loss. Use sunblock with SPF 15 or higher and wear a brimmed hat that provides shade and allows ventilation.


Hiking Shoes | Boots

Merrell Hiking Boots
Merrell Hiking Boots. photo courtesy of Pricegrabber

While you may be tempted to wear sport sandals while hiking in the desert, sturdy hiking shoes or boots are recommended. Loose rock and gravel fills most of the side canyons and washes, and the ridge trails along the mountains are equally loose and rocky.

Don't wear new boots on any hike or you may end up with foot pain, blisters or other problems. It's best to wear your hiking boots on several easy hikes near home and build up your mileage before heading out in any remote area.


Water is essential for athletes
picturegarden / Getty Images. picturegarden / Getty Images
Hiking in the desert may make you more susceptible to a variety of heat-related illness including dehydration, heat exhaustion, sun stroke and heat stroke. If you know the warning signs of early heat illness and take quick action, you can often avoid a serious or life-threatening situation. Be a responsible desert hiker and learn the warning signs and basic treatments for the most common heat-related emergencies before you go.


First Aid Kit

First Aid Kit
First Aid Kit. Getty Images
A basic first aid kit can be your best friend if minor cuts, scraps or other injuries occur. In the event of a major emergency, your first aid kit can be your lifeline. A basic kit may include: elastic bandages, Ace wraps, first aid tape, a pocket knife, itch relief stick, band aids, moleskin, over the counter anti-inflammatory or pain medications, antibiotic wipes, fire-starter (matches or a lighter), a small headlamp or flashlight, a whistle and a small roll of duct tape.

Map and Compass

map & compass
map & compass. Getty Images

If you are going into the unmarked trails of the desert, a topo map is a must have. You can find maps at the Vistor Centers or Park Service stations or even on the internet. General free topo maps are available at

A map along with a compass (or a handheld hiking GPS) can keep you from getting lost even if the trails are unmarked or confusing. But the compass and map combo is only helpful if you know how to use them, so don’t wait until you are lost on the trail to practise compass and map-reading skills.


Dress for the Desert
Dress for the Desert. Getty Images

Desert temperatures can change drastically and quickly. The best way to be prepared is to dress in layers. Start with a wicking base layer, such as an active t-shirt and bring a warmer midweight layer and a waterproof/windproof top layer for unexpected winds and rain.

Choose lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing for the intense heat of the sun and to allow sweat to evaporate. A brimmed hat and sunscreen are also essential desert attire.


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