Hikers not acclimatized to the desert need to practice special rules.
People who live in, or frequent the desert know the rules and may justifiably regard some of the information in this post as overkill. The difference is acclimatization.
Friends from near sea level, who travel to hike in higher elevations, have the same problem with altitude. Their bodies must work much harder to achieve greater elevations. Living in Calgary at 3,400 ft (1,036 m), the blood supply is thicker to handle the intake of oxygen more efficiently. When traveling to hike in the desert, the assault on the body is significant in this foreign terrain.
Hiking in the desert is a totally different experience from hiking in the mountains of Canada. Some of the very best wilderness experiences have taken place in the hot, arid regions of Utah and Arizona. Following are some common desert practices.
Fluid intake is extremely important. Generally speaking, desert climate is hot and dry. The body will perspire heavily in an attempt to regulate core temperature. The sweat will evaporate so rapidly in the dry air, there is little visible evidence of perspiration and fluid loss from the body.
Without constant fluid intake, the transition into hypothermia may be gradual, but the journey from hypothermia to heat stroke and death can be fairly rapid.
As hypothermia progresses, the mind becomes increasingly confused. You become more susceptible to making gross errors in judgment, to the point of wandering from the trail into terrain where it is less likely you will be found in time.
There are documented cases of hikers descending into the Grand Canyon and taking a dip in the cold, fast water of the Colorado River. Rescuers wait for the body to arrive downstream at the Boulder Dam. It is serious business. These rules may help.
- Stop at the Ranger Station. Log your trip and ask for advice. Build a plan and let your friends or family know your plan. Research thoroughly.
- Carry all the fluid you will need. Allow a minimum of one liter per hour (a quart per mile). Fluid is defined as water plus electrolytes such as provided by Nuun tablets. As you sweat, your body will be depleted of sodium, magnesium, calcium and potassium. These must be replenished. I use hydration bladders in the backpack, with hoses which clip onto the front straps, to make it easy and self-motivating to drink small amounts regularly. I am additionally motivated to drink regularly to reduce the weight of the pack. Trip research at the Backcountry Office or Park Ranger Station provides information about the location of every reliable water supply which is on, or near, the planned hiking route so less needs to be carried and supply can be replenished when necessary. The fluid is very heavy and it is advisable to travel as light as possible without compromising.
- Wear clothing which is light and reflective to cover as much of the skin as possible. I wear light, breathable, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a broad-brimmed hat. The objective is to reduce the environmental assault on the body as much as possible by eliminating the added complication of sunburn. Use a water-resistant, high SPF lotion.
- Prepare the feet. I wear leather hiking boots for protection. They are hot. The night prior to the hike, toenails are carefully trimmed. It takes only a few minutes. An emery board is used to carefully round off the sharp corners on each toenail. This is to prevent sweaty toes from rubbing together, cutting into adjacent toes and causing bleeding. I speak from personal experience.
- Normally, where I live, moleskin to prevent blisters is unnecessary for my toughened feet. If significant elevation is involved in the desert (like the vertical mile drop into the Grand Canyon), damp feet are going to blister without protection. The night prior to hiking, all the moleskin pieces are prepared for vulnerable spots on the feet. These are generally: up the back of the heel towards the Achilles, the bottom heel pad, the large, bottom pad in front of the arch, the outside of the widest part of the foot, the outside of the big and little toes, and the end of the big toe. These are applied the next morning, then covered by two pairs of socks, and packing of feet into the boots with extra attention to detail. eZeefit ankle shims are magic and provide an alternative to moleskin for the ankles and heels.
- Soaking the feet in tea for a few days prior to the hike to reduce perspiration is another approach.
This ritual works well for me.
Hiking in an environment of high temperature and high humidity, creates a vulnerability to heat stress which can become very dangerous.
Grand Canyon Specific
If you decide to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon you will need reservations for overnight accommodation at Phantom Ranch or the campground. Cabins are allocated to visitors on mule trains. Make a reservation for one of the two hiker's dormitories which each house 14 in a common room of bunk beds. These must be made many months in advance via a lottery system. Check the website to determine how slots are allocated and hope for the best. They are hard to get. It may be possible to get a last-minute reservation at the Bright Angel Lodge the morning of your hike but you need to be standing there when they open.
There is an absolutely, fascinating book called 'Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon' authored by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers. It is an entertaining read which catches the attention and motivates proper preparation. There is a similar book for Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks.
When hiking down into the Grand Canyon for 20 minutes, it will take 40 minutes to climb back out. If you are not properly prepared, even for a short jaunt, it can be an ugly experience. Doing it right will ensure positive memories that will last a lifetime. Hiking in the desert can be a phenomenal experience.
Desert hiking: Learn a lot first. Begin with something reasonable for your ability.