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Start Planning Now: An Insider’s Guide to Desert Backpacking

Have you experienced a night under the stars in the desert backcountry?

While the holidays may be on most people’s minds right now, this is also the time to plan a springtime trip to some of America’s great desert wilderness areas.

Backpackers who venture into the desert are rewarded by austere but beautiful landscapes filled with rarely seen and otherworldly rock formations. You can also be surprised by the amazing diversity of plants and animals that thrive in this harsh environment.

grand canyon view

One species that is not especially well suited to the desert is us. We are only visitors. However, with the right planning, we can safely adventure into this not-so-barren landscape.

I am an REI Adventures guide in one of those great desert places, the Grand Canyon. Spring and fall are the best seasons for the Canyon and many desert wilderness areas. Plan now for a trip in March or April to increase your chances of snagging a permit. (Grand Canyon National Park begins accepting permit applications 4 months in advance. Other areas vary.)

The broad steps to follow when planning any backpacking trip are:

  1. research (route, water, campsites, weather, gear, logistics)
  2. talk to a local ranger to confirm current conditions
  3. have a plan (and a backup plan)

Planning is essential to staying safe and having fun. Double-check the distances you plan to hike each day. Confirm campsite conditions and water sources by talking to a park ranger. Springs and oases exist in the desert, but some are seasonal. Don’t hang your survival on a spring unless you’ve confirmed that water is actually running. Otherwise, carry extra water or cache water along the trail. Use a permanent marker to write your name and the dates of your trip on the water bottles and cache them somewhere not visible from the trail.

You might not think you’re sweating much, but that’s because your sweat immediately evaporates. Stay hydrated but pace your water intake to make sure you don’t run out between water sources. Drinking too much water can lead to a condition called hyponatremia, a dangerously low amount of sodium in your bloodstream. Eat salty foods, and alternate between drinking water and your favorite electrolyte mix. The best barometer of proper hydration is the color of your urine. Too dark, drink more. Clear, drink less. Light yellow, bingo!

rock formation

Spring and fall are the sweet spots for desert hiking to avoid the harsh summers and winters. However, temperature extremes can occur at any time of year. In the Grand Canyon, we can get 40’s in April and October up to the 100’s in May and September. Daily temperature ranges can vary widely, too. The desert paradox is that you may have to plan to avoid heat exhaustion during the day and hypothermia at night.

Keep an eye out for thunderstorms. While rare, they can produce flash floods. That’s one reason it’s so important to check the weather forecast regularly up to the morning of your trip. The National Weather Service ( has a great feature that lets you click on the specific location where you’ll be hiking for a detailed forecast.


The campsites we use in the Canyon are some of the most dramatic and beautiful of any I’ve seen but many have absolutely no shade. So, plan to hike in the coolest parts of the day. Enjoy the sights, take long breaks, and arrive at campsites about an hour before sunset.

The best protection from the sun is to cover up. When I first began guiding in the canyon, I noticed that many of the river guides wore long-sleeve, cotton dress shirts. This is now part of my desert uniform. Cotton shirts are great sun protection and hold onto moisture which helps keep you cool, and cotton doesn’t hold in your heat like synthetic fabrics. Tuck a cotton bandana under a wide-brimmed hat to create a shade tent for your head.

Hiking pants protect from the sun and sharp bushes along the trail. I recommend synthetic fabric for pants, as cotton shorts or pants tend to stretch and sag annoyingly.


Don’t forget the sunscreen for any remaining exposed skin, but transfer just the amount you’ll need into a smaller bottle. Every ounce not in your pack adds up to a lighter load.

In fact, keep your load as light as possible and take only the gear that you will actually need. Leave behind bug spray, soap and deodorant. On our trips, we hop in the creeks and the Colorado River, and that’s enough to keep our odiferous-ness under control. Plus, it keeps soap out of the environment (yes, even biodegradable soap can be harmful). The Grand Canyon doesn’t allow soap in side streams or within 100 yards of any junction with the Colorado. Know the rules. Seriously, you can do without it.

The weather forecast will also help you decide the right gear to take. Sometimes, you may have a zero percent chance of rain. When this happens, we leave behind rain gear including our tents. On our hottest, driest trips, we sleep under the stars on a sleeping pad with a cotton sheet. (No sleeping bag.) Nighttime desert skies are stunning, and there’s no better way to fall asleep that counting shooting stars.

Finally, while you’ll probably not encounter any large mammals, smaller ones are relentless in their pursuit of unguarded food. Crows often work in groups, ambush when the coast is clear and can even unzip zippers. (Yes, really.) Use a rat sack and be diligent in camp about keeping all food and trash out of your pack.

So, go but go prepared. Let someone know your plans and route. Have a plan for how to get help in case of an emergency or if you don’t come out when expected. Approach the desert with respect. Deserts hold some of the most remarkable scenery you’ll ever see and prove that life will find a way even under extreme challenges. Your careful preparation will be rewarded with a fun, safe time with great stories to share.

Do you have your own desert backpacking tips or stories? Share them here.

All photos courtesy of Todd Wiggins.

Posted on at 2:30 PM

Tagged: Grand Canyon, Hiking, REI Adventures, Travel, backpacking and national parks

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