How to navigate desert hiking by Shanti Hodges for Hike it Baby

Last November, my family decided to spend the winter in the desert. Being born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, this seemed like a strange move to all of our friends because who doesn’t love the lush green deep forests and forever falling waterfalls of Oregon and Washington. But I was feeling soggy and tired of the grey. And I wasn’t hiking as much as I wanted. So we went south for the winter and landed just outside of St. George, Utah, near Zion National Park in the little desert town of La Verkin.

Desert living is dramatically different in that the wind blows hard, the rains pound even harder when they do come and there are lots of spiky things. At the same time, the trails can also be silky soft with sand and the rocks are incredible for little kids to climb on. After just a few months in the desert, we decided to make it a more permanent home and so we’ve had to really learn about this new landscape.

 Here are my newbie-to-the-desert tips for those Hike it Baby families venturing into this kind of landscape:

Prepare ahead for safety on the trails

  • Bring more water than you normally would hike with because water is hard to come by.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and any landmarks. It can be easy to get turned around in a vast open desert that goes on forever. Consider carrying a compass that does not rely on cell service just in case.
  • Don’t push it and go further just to reach an end goal, especially with kids. The desert is a harsh environment and there’s little room for error between the heat and open landscape, with little shade from the elements. Keep in mind that if you are hot, your baby is too, especially if you are carrying a child close to your body. Plan to keep hikes short to prevent any possibility of sunstroke.
  • Hike early and late to beat the heat. We often head out for a hike around 4 p.m. so we don’t get baked in the heat of the sun.
  • Bring along a headlamp or flashlight if you hike later in the day. I carry a headlamp much more often now because I feel like it is easy with late starts and really warm weather to find yourself out after sunset. There are plenty of super light, powerful options out there. I actually have one that is so bright, it can light the way for a whole group, just in case I am the only person carrying.
  • Ensure you wear sturdy shoes with durable soles for secure gripping. Sandals are a great option for breathability while protecting little feet.

Navigating desert hiking by Shanti Hodges for Hike it Baby

Respect the landscape while desert hiking

  • Don’t build new rock cairns on established trails or knock down existing ones. A misplaced rock cairn can be dangerous and lead someone off trail quickly. With wide open landscape, this can be fatal.
  • Stay on established trails because footprints on fragile desert landscapes can hurt the growth in the area. As the rangers like to teach: “Don’t bust the crust.” You can see crust when you look on the sides of the trail and see a sort of black tinge to the red sands. That is actually live matter that is growing called Cryptobiotic soil and it’s what keeps desert plants and animals thriving and growing. So protect it!
  • Get to know the cactus plants and other pricklies like tumbleweed and point them out to your kids so they know to steer clear. Picking pricklers out of a kid’s body in the middle of a hike is never fun.

Beware of dangerous moving things

  • Flash flood hazards are something to be aware of in desert regions. If one occurs, don’t cross floodwaters. Climb high to safety and respect road closures during flood events.
  • Learn about the various snakes in the area. Not all snakes are poisonous, and some of the surprisingly bright-colored ones are actually nothing to fear and a great opportunity to point snakes out to your little one.
  • Not all scorpions and spiders are poisonous, but many do bite, so be aware of them. When we moved here, we showed Mason pictures of black widows, rattlesnakes and scorpions so he would be aware of them and know to steer clear.

As much as I love the lushness of the Northwest, the desert is also becoming home for me now, and the love is continuing on here. I hope these few tips help you as you head out into the desert with your little ones.

Prepare ahead for safety on the trails Bring more water than you normally would hike with because water is hard to come by. Be aware of your surroundings and any landmarks. It can be easy to get turned around in a vast open desert that goes on forever. Consider carrying a compass that does not rely on cell service just in case. Don’t push it and go further just to reach an end goal, especially with kids. The desert is a harsh environment and there’s little room for error between the heat and open landscape, with little shade from the elements. Keep in mind that if you are hot, your baby is too, especially if you are carrying a child close to your body. Plan to keep hikes short to prevent any possibility of sunstroke. Hike early and late to beat the heat. We often head out for a hike around 4 p.m. so we don’t get baked in the heat of the sun. This brings us to headlamps. I carry a headlamp much more often now because I feel like it is easy with late starts and really warm weather to find yourself out after sunset. There are plenty of super light, powerful options out there. I actually have one that is so bright, it can light the way for a whole group, just in case I am the only person carrying.

Photos courtesy of Arika Bauer of Zion Adventure Photog and OAKI.

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This post is sponsored by OAKI which is located in Salt Lake City, UT. OAKI offers rain gear, outerwear, fishing and hunting gear as well as sandals for children and rain boots for women.

What are some of your tips for hiking in the desert? Share with us in the comments below.

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