A guide to desert clothing, complete with essential tips for hiking in extreme climates.
Published: November 13th, 2019
Hiking in the desert will test you like no other landscape will. Temperatures can drastically fluctuate, sandstorms and flash floods are impending threats, sunburn is a large possibility, and on top of all that, you’re limited on your water supply. However, the desert draws thousands to it every year because its climate allows year-round hiking, its ecosystem is a one-of-a-kind wonder, and the clear night skies are unprecedented for stargazing.
In this post, we're going to show you what clothes to wear and pack for hiking in the desert. You'll learn principles that desert nomads (aka Bedouins) have used for centuries to avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion in arid climates. You'll also discover that heat is only one of many risk factors to consider before setting out on a desert hike. Let's get right into it with the ultimate desert clothing and gear list.
From glacier glasses to rain jacket, your gear will need to adapt to the desert environment. Here's what we recommend to consider outside of your normal (non-desert) gear list.
(Click here to download this gear list as a printable spreadsheet)
© Illustration by Wishva Hettiarachchi
Long-Sleeve Shirt: Wearing a long-sleeve shirt while hiking the desert can cool you down, reduce sweating, and help you conserve more water in your body. Since our body's natural reaction is to sweat to release heat, wearing a long-sleeve, moisture-wicking shirt will take the heat away from your skin so it dries faster. There are a variety of long-sleeve styles available, but a favorite for desert hiking tends to be the classic long-sleeve button up. Many options today come with built-in air vents and extendable neck collars for added sun protection.
Convertible Pants: Having layers that you can easily put on or take off is essential in the desert. Since the weather is unpredictable and can undergo extreme temperature changes rapidly, being able to adjust quickly is vital. A favorite article of clothing among many desert hikers is the zip-off, convertible pant.
Socks: Opt for a pair of higher ankle, merino wool or other quick-dry fabric socks. The higher ankle coverage will help keep sand out and protect your hiking shoes from chafing against your skin, while the wicking fabric will keep your feet dry and protected from moisture and blisters.
Hiking Shoes: The desert ground can be a tough place, so you need to make sure your hiking shoes are ready to handle all the rocks, thorns and other unknowns they’ll be trekking through. Breathability is also an important factor to look for. And, when it comes to color, remember that dark colors draw in heat while lighter colors reflect heat. Pro tip: investing in a pair of gators to wear overtop your shoes can help keep sand and tiny rocks out.
Rain Jacket: Even though rain can be rare in the desert, carrying a lightweight, breathable rain jacket will come in handy in case of an unexpected shower, or worse yet… an unexpected monsoon. But even if you don’t see a drop of rain during your hike, that rain jacket can also be a good shield against sand on super windy days.
Wide-brimmed hat: Applying sunscreen to your face and ears is your first line of defense against sunburn. But, wearing a wide-brimmed hat will take that protection one step further. There are many sun hats that now come with built-in UV protection, mesh vents for breathability, and even neck capes. But if baseball caps are more your style, than pairing your cap with a bandana can be a viable option.
Buff: We love the versatility of buffs. In the desert, you can wear them around your head for keeping sweat out of your eyes or keeping your hair from whipping around in windy conditions. You can also use it to protect yourself during sandstorms by using it to cover your nose and mouth. Lastly, you can also the buff in water before wearing it to help keep you cool.
Recommended Gear: Buff CoolNet UV+ Multifunctional Headband
Sunglasses: Wearing a good pair of sunglasses with a high UV rating in the desert keeps your eyes protected from wind, dust, and yes… even sunburn. Look for glasses with a UV 400 rating or above, as these will protect from both UVA and UVB rays. Polarized sunglasses work well in the desert as they direct light away from your eyes. Glacier glasses are another good option because not only do they protect from strong light in higher altitudes, but they reflect the sun from surfaces like snow and sand. Sunglasses with built-in side panels are also useful, as they’ll block blowing dust and debris.
Gloves: It’s always a good plan to put sunscreen on your hands when hiking in the desert. Many hikers who carry trekking poles will also buy desert gloves to protect their hands against constant sun exposure.
Recommended Gear: Outdoor Research's ActiveIce Full Finger Chroma Sun Gloves
Umbrella: Shade! You won’t find much of that in the desert. But with an umbrella you can create your own. Shade from an umbrella will help keep you cool which will make you sweat less. And because you're sweating less, your body won’t lose as much water. Kind of sounds like a win-win, if you ask us.
Recommended Gear: Six Moon Designs Silver Shadow Carbon
Sunscreen: Choose a sunscreen with an SPF level of at least 50+. When applying sunscreen, put on more than you think you need, and keep applying it regularly throughout the day. Sweat can quickly wash away sunscreen, and proper sun care is extremely important to your success in the desert. A favorite go-to sunscreen for many desert hikers is Joshua Tree Sun Sticks. It has an SPF rating of 50+, is highly waterproof, sweat-proof, freeze-proof, and it can even heal damaged skin.
Recommended Gear: Joshua Tree Sun Stick - SPF 50
Lip Balm: Burnt lips are one painful experience. Ward off the risk by packing hydrating lip balms like Burt’s Bee’s or Carmex that have built-in sun protection and anti-chafe qualities.
Recommended Gear: Blistex Medicated Lip Balm SPF 15
Baselayers: Temperatures in the desert can change drastically. Where the hottest parts of the day can reach well into the three digits, the nights can quickly fall close to, or even below freezing. Packing proper clothing to sleep in, such as moisture-wicking base layers or synthetic wool mid-layers, will keep you warm at night.
Down Jacket: Bringing along a down jacket or even a wool beanie for specifically cold nights isn’t a bad plan either.
Recommended gear: Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer
Beanie: Bringing along a wool beanie for specifically cold nights isn’t a bad plan either.
Recommended Gear: Arc'teryx Rho LTW Beanie
NOTE: Along with keeping warm, it’s also important to stay dry at night. Hypothermia is a real danger in the desert, so making sure that your fully dry from your socks to your undies before you go to sleep will help eliminate hypothermia risks. Packing along extra socks, underwear, and base layers specifically to sleep in is a good measure.
As a hiker, you need to be prepared for a variety of situations since you’ll be put through some of the most extreme weather changes and conditions one can face.
Sandstorms: A sandstorm, or Haboob, is a powerful cloud of dust that rolls through the desert tossing around sand and debris. It is often intertwined with a thunderstorm, and it can be a dangerous and life-threatening situation to get caught in.
How to survive a sandstorm? If a sandstorm hits while you're hiking in the desert, the first thing you should do is try and find shelter. If shelter is not available, then look for a large structure to take cover behind. If this is not an option either, then crouch down where you are, pull the brim of your hat as low as possible to shield your eyes, and wet a bandana to put over your mouth and nose to keep from inhaling flying sand. While crouched, block your head with your hands for protection from any flying debris, and stay in this position until the storm passes.
Flash Floods: Because of how dry the desert ground is, heavy rainfall can quickly cause flash floods in canyons, narrow channels, ditches, and other low elevation areas. Flash floods can happen in a matter of minutes, and many are so strong they can uproot trees and boulders. When hiking in the desert, always keep one eye on the horizon for thunderstorms, and be leery if there’s been ongoing rain. The best defense against a flash flood is to get to high ground as quickly as possible if it begins to rain and to stay up to date on the weather happening in your area.
Temperature Change: When thinking about hiking in the desert, one might assume that tank tops and shorts are the only apparel you’ll need. However, that’s not the case at all. Since the desert has sweltering daytime heat, frigid nightly temps, rain and sometimes even snow, it’s important to pack clothing for just about every condition. Your best options will be wicking base layers paired with loose, airy pieces, and a handful of lightweight, layering options.
© hikinginjordan (CC BY-SA 3.0)
To make the desert even more unpredictable, not all deserts are the same. There are three unique types of desert biomes.
1. Arid (hot and dry): When you picture the Sahara Desert, you are picturing a hot and dry desert system. In a hot and dry desert, the temperatures can get very hot during the day (90-120 degrees), while nightly temps can plummet down to freezing or below. This biome's plant life consists mainly of low shrubs and short wooded trees. Rainfall is sparse, but the humidity of the climate can cause the weather to change quickly resulting in sandstorms, thunderstorms and even flash floods.
2. Semiarid (cold): With fleeting intervals of rain and moderately dry winters and summers, a semiarid desert has the coldest temperatures, sometimes even experiencing snowy winters. In the U.S., this desert is in sections of Utah, northern Nevada, and eastern Oregon. The summer temperatures range between 70-80 degrees, while the winters average in the 20s and 30s. In this climate, you’ll typically find various types of cacti, as their ability to reserve water does well in the dry environment.
3. Coastal: Found along coastlines, near oceans, large bodies of water and even between mountain ranges, this desert has a cool winter and a long, warm summer. The temperatures range from 50s to mid-70s in the summer, and they can fall below 40s in the winter. The rainfall for this desert biome is much higher compared to the other deserts, and the regular rainfall can often cause thick fogs to roll in off the surrounding bodies of water.
From left to right: arid, semi-arid and coastal deserts
Dressing properly for thru-hiking in the desert is important for protecting your skin and yourself from heat exhaustion. The fabrics you wear, how many layers you wear, how those layers fit, and even the overall colors of your garment can all make a difference. Let’s break down some basics:
MATERIAL: AVOID COTTON
In the hiking game, we all know that cotton is rotten, and Polyester, Spandex, and Nylon are where it’s at. But in the desert, does infamous cotton have an upper hand over these favorable fabrics? Well, when it comes to cotton and the desert, the jury’s still out on that one. In hot conditions, dipping a cotton shirt in water can help keep you cool since it takes longer to dry than wicking fabrics like polyester. But, with that being said, wet fabrics run the risk of chafing in areas that might rub, like near your backpack or hip straps. Another downfall is that if cotton stays wet when the desert's temps drop at night, that once refreshing fabric can put you at risk for hypothermia. Yikes.
FIT: FAVOR LOOSE CLOTHES
Wearing full coverage, loose-fitting clothes in the desert can create a cooling effect in between your layers. For example, think of how desert natives have been dressing for hundreds of years. They’re often found wearing long, loose-fitting fabrics and covering as much skin as possible. This not only keeps their skin protected from the sun, but the cooling effect underneath the clothing helps to “trap” the cool air, keeping it preserved closer to the body.
COLORS: WEAR LIGHT COLORS
Darker colors like black, navy or brown draw in the sun and heat. When hiking in the desert, choosing lighter colors like white or khaki will reflect excess heat away.
LAYERS: COUNTER-INTUITIVE, BUT EFFECTIVE
You might think layering up is the last thing to do while out in the desert. However, layering the right way can go a long way in keeping you cool, dry and comfortable. Wearing a thin, wicking base layer made of polyester, fleece or nylon will draw sweat and moisture away from your body. Overtop that, wearing a lightweight long-sleeve shirt will keep your skin protected from the sun. As for the bottom’s, pants are best for sun-protection, but if you must hike in shorts, just be sure to layer on PLENTY of sunscreen. (Side note: go for shirts, pants, and shorts with built-in SPF protection.)
LENGTH: BLOCKING THE SUN, SAND, AND OTHER ELEMENTS
Long-sleeve shirts and full-length pants are great for keeping your skin safe, especially when hiking in high desert areas or along ridgelines. In these high elevation spots, the air is thinner, which causes you to burn much faster than normal. Long-sleeves and pants can also provide added protection against gravel during sandstorms, and from getting scratched up while scaling boulders or hiking through thicker vegetation.
1. Hydrate: With hydration in the desert, it’s important to carry more water than you think you’ll need. For example, if you typically carry 2 liters of water at a time, make it so that your able to carry 4 liters instead. The amount of water sources available on the trail can vary immensely depending on how wet or dry the season has been.
2. Finding Water Sources: A good way to gauge available water sources on the trail is to look up the water report for your area, which you can find easily by a quick Google search. You can download the report to your phone once you reach a nearby town which will give you a better idea of accessible water spots ahead. There’s also a useful app called “Guthook’s” which provides up-to-date information on water sources from fellow hikers. Knowing this information can help you plan how much water you should carry to safely reach your next water source.
3. Electrolytes: Because of how much water your body will lose in the desert, bringing along drink mix packets such as Gatorade, Mio or Propel can help replenish lost electrolytes.
4. Buddy System: Many parts of the desert have surprisingly good cell reception. However, hiking with a buddy is always a good idea, especially when dealing with climates known for heat exhaustion, poisonous spiders and a high population of rattlesnakes. With a buddy, you can have their back while they have yours. Also, if it’s your first-time hiking in the desert, having a buddy that’s familiar with the terrain and climate can be a priceless tidbit of knowledge.
5. Pack your Trash (leave no trace): The desert is a fragile ecosystem, so doing our part to protect it while it allows us exploration of its beauty is the least we can do. Stick to already defined trails and keep fires small and scatter the ashes once done. Since desert soil has very few microorganisms to break down feces, extra sanitation steps are necessary to avoid tainting the environment or water sources. Try to find organic soil near trees and far from water to do your business, and all toilet paper should be carried out.
6. Listen to your Body (Signs of Heat Exhaustion):
If you or your hiking buddy show signs of heat exhaustion, it's imperative that you find a shady spot to rest immediately. While resting, remove any restrictive clothing, take at least a 30-minute rest, drink plenty of fluids and apply a damp cloth to neck and face.
7. Lightning: If you get caught in the middle of the desert with a thunderstorm rolling in and no shelter available, there are a few safety measures you can take to protect yourself from a lightning strike. Move away from any tall objects, have your group spread out, seek lower ground (but avoid area’s that look like they could flood), and in an open area crouch on the balls of your feet with your heels touching, your head down, and your hands on top of your ears. Never lay flat on the ground. And, if able, try not to let your hands touch the ground.
8. Siesta’s: Great news, taking a nap on a desert thru-hike is A-Okay! Actually, it’s advised! Especially when that nap is during the hottest part of the day. Many hikers do this and then continue their hiking in the cooler temps of the evening.
9. Rattlesnakes: Rattlesnakes call the desert home, so we need to do our part to try to not disturb them. Since they like to sun themselves during the heat of the day, there’s a good chance you’ll see them out on the trail. Since rattlesnakes can be masters of disguise, keeping your eyes peeled where your stepping or popping a squat will help you avoid any unfavorable encounters with the critters.
10. Check your Shoes: Speaking of critters, there are plenty of spiders, scorpions, fire ants and other creatures in the desert. So always be sure to check your shoes before putting them on, and it might not be a bad idea to sleep with your hiking shoes in your tent at night.
© Todd Dwyer (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Desert hiking in the U.S. can be found in the Southwest region, with the longest stretches including southern portions of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Each of these trails contains over 700+ miles of hiking through New Mexico and southern California. Shorter desert trails can be found at these popular U.S. national and state parks:
|AZ||Grand Canyn National Park|
|CA||Joshua Tree National Park|
|CA||Death Valley National Park|
|NV||Valley of Fire State Park|
|NM||White Sands National Monument|
|OR||Oregon Desert Trail|
|TX||Big Bend National Park|
|UT||Zion National Park|
|UT||Arches National Park|
|UT||Canyonlands National Park|
By Katie Licavoli: Katie Licavoli is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast who specializes in articles, blog posts, gear reviews, and site content about living the Good Life spent exploring The Great Outdoors. Her favorite days are ones in nature, and her favorite views are any with mountains.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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