Have you ever been hiking in the extreme desert heat—and found yourself in trouble, because you weren’t prepared?
Maybe you took a wrong turn and got off the trail for a bit, and the next thing you knew, you’d run out of water. “How did this happen?” you asked yourself.
I remember one day in late September 2012. My hiking buddy and I were out on the desert trails somewhere between Palm Springs and Palm Desert. We got an early start—around 6:30 a.m.—so it was cool at the time. It must have been around 9:30 a.m. when we were hiking along a wash and rounded a corner to find a herd of bighorn sheep, nearly 100 of them. They were scattered all throughout the wash and along both hillsides.
You’re not supposed to disturb peninsular bighorn sheep—it’s an endangered species—so we had to scramble up the hillside to get around them, and then drop back down into the wash on the other side. However, by the time we scrambled around the herd, we couldn’t find an easy way to get back down to the wash. We found ourselves in rugged terrain with steep drop-offs, and we had to continue for a while before reaching a safe place to descend back into the wash. Now we know that we should have turned around and went back the way we came.
By this time, it was mid-morning—and getting hot. We had three liters of water each, and it was getting low, so we had to ration. We ran out of water with a little more than a mile to go, but we made it. We were lucky to come out of that hiking experience without needing a rescue.
I’ve been on many trails where I have simply taken a wrong turn and lost an hour or two before getting back on track. While one never knows what they might encounter when heading out on a hiking trip, it is essential to do your research first: Know the trail; check the weather; and properly prepare yourself for the trip.
Heat-related hiking rescues start around the months of April and May and go through September. Temperatures rise quickly throughout the day during these months, so it’s a good idea to get out early and do shorter hikes so you can be off the trails by about 10 a.m. on the hottest days.
Here is a list of things to do that I’ve learned over the years, supplemented with some help from Happiest Outdoors. Take these tips to heart; they will help keep you safe while out on the desert trails:
• Pack electrolytes, salt tablets and energy gels or chews—and take extra snacks. This simple step has saved my friends and me many times.
• Take more water than you think you should need. I suggest carrying at least one liter of water per hour for hikes during high heat (above 90 degrees), and drink about one liter of water before you get started. During the hike, take frequent sips of water, rather than drinking a lot of water at once.
• Wear a wet bandana or cooling towel around your neck.
• Wear light, breathable clothing, proper shoes, a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen.
• Seek shade whenever possible (a great tip that I learned from my running mentor years ago).
• Pack a map and compass. Don’t rely on cell service or your cellphone battery. You may lose cell service, and if you don’t have your phone on airplane mode, the battery will rapidly drain while the phone is searching for service.
• Remain calm, and don’t panic if you get off track or lost. If you panic, it will cause you to drink more water—at a time when you really need to ration water.
• Know the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion (dizziness, headache and clammy skin) and heat stroke (dizziness, nausea, vomiting, a lack of sweat, confusion and disorientation). If you start experiencing any symptoms, get out of the heat; drink water; and eat a snack.
• Always carry a first aid kit.
• Always use a buddy system. Don’t hike alone, and make sure you tell someone (at least one person) where you’re going.
A great resource for hiking in the desert is the aforementioned website, Happiest Outdoors. While the site is maintained by a hiker from British Columbia, it offers a wealth of information on hiking, camping and enjoying life in the great outdoors that is applicable down here in the desert. For example, the website explains the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke—both of which can happen in a matter of minutes, and both of which can be deadly.
I also recommend checking out the list of 10 essentials for desert hiking at the Friends of the Desert Mountains website. This resource frames desert essentials as systems to use rather than just a list of specific items.
Whatever you do, you don’t want to be the subject of a search and rescue operation. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Aviation Unit Facebook page is already full of rescue reports this year—including three rescues on May 6 alone.