Editor’s note regarding COVID-19: Please be cautious and courteous of fellow hikers by maintaining a safe distance (at least six feet) between yourself and others at all times including on the Sonoran desert trails. I was extremely disappointed to find on my most recent hike (on the Gateway Loop Trail) that social distancing was not being practiced by many. Please follow CDC guidelines and instructions of your local authorities in all activities during this pandemic crisis.
What to pack and other tips for an easy and fun hike in the desert
Tips for what to bring along on short easy hikes
Hiking in the desert is an absolute joy. There’s sunshine, big blue skies, amazing flora, great exercise, a sense of adventure, and maybe even a few desert critter sightings. But precautions must be taken even if you’re not doing advanced or extreme hiking. This quick how-to-pack and what-to-wear guide isn’t for long or extremely difficult paths or trails. It’s intended for easy to moderate hikes of one to three hours on marked routes. You will have other needs not covered here for extreme or extended hiking.
You should consider adjusting types and quantities of items to meet your requirements if you embark upon longer and more challenging hikes. These are just suggestions and only reflect what has worked for Mr. TWS and me on the easy to moderate hikes we’ve taken so far.
Getting ready to go on your hike
Your hike will be safer and much more fun with the proper hiking shoes/boots, hat, and sunglasses.
Sunscreen – I use Neutrogena SPF30 which works well for me (although my dermatologist may think that’s not strong enough). Be sure to apply prior to starting your hike.
Hat – Experts always recommend a hat to shield your face from the intense rays of the desert sun. I know …. you’ve seen photos of me without a cap (like the photo at the top of this post). I admit I don’t wear one all the time, but I have one with me all the time!
Sunglasses – Of course! Protect your eyes and look cool at the same time.
Good hiking shoes — The trails of the Sonoran Desert can be very rough and uneven with protruding rocks, loose dirt, and slippery stones. You want to have stability and support for your feet and ankles with a good pair of hiking shoes/boots. I love my Salomon mid-height hiking shoes which are lightweight and breathable.
Walking stick — Many hikers bring one or two hiking sticks (even on very short, easy hikes). I don’t, but it’s not a bad idea for balance and being prepared in the unlikely, but possible, event you encounter desert critters.
What’s in my backpack?
Take a look! I hope that this list will be helpful as a general guide and reminder for you to consider. Of course, you’ll want to customize your contents based on your specific circumstances, needs, likes/dislikes, health, and trail conditions.
Simple backpack checklist for your easy hike
Water, water, water!
It’s super important to stay hydrated as you hike. Take frequent breaks along the way to take a few sips before you actually feel thirsty.
“How much you need to drink depends on a number of factors, such as the activity you’re doing, intensity level, duration, weather, your age, your sweat rate and your body type. A good general recommendation is about a half liter of water per hour of moderate activity in moderate temperatures.” — REI advice about hydration basics
Keep a small case inside the backpack with helpful items
Cell phone — Seems obvious, but it’s really important to make sure that your cell phone is fully charged before you head off on the trial.
Trail map — Signs along the trails of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve are good, but in case you miss them or want to get the overall picture of where you are and where you want to go, bring a trail map. Maps can usually be found at most trail heads, but you can go online to download ahead of time.
ID and money — I carry a copy of my health insurance ID card in a small card holder. Although there aren’t any shopping opportunities on the trail, obviously, it makes me feel better to have a few dollars handy.
Lip balm — I like Nivea lip care products and use one with SPF15 or greater.
Small tube of sunscreen — I don’t usually feel the need to reapply sunscreen, but just in case it doesn’t hurt to carry a small sample-sized tube.
Energy/Protein bar – I carry one good protein bar in case my body needs an unexpected energy boost. In warmer weather, you might also want to bring along a small bottle of Gatorade in case you need electrolytes.
Tissues, hand sanitizing wipes, lens wipes, band-aids, and like items — Use your judgment based on your needs.
Dry mouth spray like Biotene – This is something I rarely use, but it’s a very good way to get quick relief if your mouth is feeling dry. It’s certainly not a must, but a nice addition to the backpack.
Bandana — A bandana doesn’t take up much space so go ahead and throw one in. It can make a great sun shade or be used for any number of other reasons, such as wiping away sweat or adding a stylish touch to your hiking gear perhaps.
Pocket knife — Why would I need to carry a pocket knife in my backpack? Because my father would want me to! You just never know when you might wish you had one.
Attachable sun shield for cap — My Outdoor Research Sun Runner Cap from REI has a lightweight sun shield that can be attached to the cap to shade your face and neck.
Atomizer with water for spritzing your face if you’re feeling heated. It’s very refreshing.
Aspirin (could be a life-saver) — Make sure you’ve got whatever medications you may need with you.
These tips are representative of what I’ve found to be effective in our personal experiences on the McDowell Sonoran Preserve trails of Scottsdale, Arizona. We usually hike between mid-September and mid-May with temperatures ranging from 50 °F to the high 80s. Your requirements may vary depending on personal needs, location, and climate conditions.