Some dangers, such as getting lost and the possibility of injury, are inherent with hiking in any terra firma. When exploring in desert conditions, common sense dictates that you should anticipate triple-digit heat and the probable absence of fresh water sources. Advance preparation and acute awareness of your surroundings will keep you safe from other naturally occurring perils of trekking rugged and unforgiving desert terrain.
The desert is no place for aimless wandering, and getting lost and running out of water are real dangers. You can avoid these potentially life-threatening hazards by having a concrete plan of action worked out on paper before leaping blindly into the wilderness. It's important to secure area maps and collect regional knowledge well in advance of your trip.
The area chamber of commerce is an excellent resource for explorers, and its employees are usually happy to share their knowledge. You can also contact the park services office or the regional Bureau of Land Management to find out about the terrain, entrance and exit options, what possible routes are available for you to take, as well as any locations where fresh water is available. They'll also have a good idea about the expected weather conditions, and can relay recent comments and reports from other hikers to you.
As with any hiking adventure, it's wise to leave your plan and general itinerary with someone you trust. If he or she doesn't hear from you at an prearranged date and time during your trip, the local emergency department should be contacted right away.
Even advance knowledge of expected weather patterns and conditions isn't a guarantee against sudden drastic changes in the middle of desert hiking trips. Spring and summer rains often crop up abruptly and with little if any warning, delivering torrential downpours and flash floods rapidly in the wilderness. These rains are typically accompanied by violent, dangerous thunder and lightning storms.
Provided that you make it a habit to monitor the skies closely for signs of storms, you may be able to reach higher ground before conditions turn dangerous. If you're caught in a storm, lie down in a flat or low-lying area or under trees that are taller than you are and avoid touching metal objects and puddles of water until the lightning stops.
Dehydration is a real danger in the heat of the desert; don't underestimate its potential to kill you. The condition is the first phase of a rapid progression into heat exhaustion, followed by heat stroke and death. When the human body overheats, it plunges into a downward spiral as internal functions begin to shut down in high desert temperatures. Heat-related deaths are reported in wilderness areas every summer, so you must drink plenty of water frequently throughout the day to keep from becoming an ugly statistic.
Adults need at least 1 gallon of water per person daily, and possibly as much as 2 gallons depending upon the level of physical activity. A hydration pack is a handy water source, and the hose will serve to remind you to drink from it often. A quart of electrolyte replacement fluids daily will help replenish what your body loses through sweating and will go a long way toward fighting dehydration.
Dehydration causes thirst, loss of appetite, excessive sweating, fatigue, lightheadedness, dry mouth and cool, clammy skin and can become a medical emergency. The victim must get out of the sun and start consuming fluids immediately in order to head off serious illness.
Heat-Related Illnesses -- Heat Exhaustion, Heat Stroke
Heat-related illnesses are the body's response to being dehydrated and overheated. They are serious medical emergencies that can quickly result in death. Heat exhaustion occurs from dehydration if water isn't replaced quickly. Symptoms include headache, nausea, decreased sweating and urination, dizziness, headache, impaired judgement, loss of coordination and muscle cramps.
Left untreated, the condition rapidly deteriorates into life-threatening heat stroke. In addition to the symptoms of heat exhaustion, heat stroke produces vomiting, cessation of sweating, rapid pulse, difficulty breathing, confusion, chest pain, seizures, faintness, muscle spasms and unconsciousness.
Consider hiking during the early morning or late afternoon hours to stay out of the extreme heat of midday. Prevent heat-related illnesses by consuming plenty of fluids and by not allowing yourself to become overheated.
Venomous Wildlife -- Scorpions, Spiders, Snakes
North American deserts are abundantly populated with wildlife, including a fair share of poisonous animals. All the venomous desert dwellers are masters of camouflaging themselves perfectly with the native terrain, making them difficult to spot. Bushes, scrub, tall grass, ground debris, rocks and dark, cool crevices are some of their favorite hiding places.
Scorpions and poisonous spiders such as black widows are very small and hard to see. These critters move quickly and sting when disturbed. They're nocturnal hunters that prefer cool, damp, dark areas. Rattlesnakes strike when threatened, cornered or accidentally stepped upon. They don't have to be coiled to strike and deliver a dangerous bite, and many species don't give a warning rattle.
Most if not all hazardous encounters with venomous wildlife can be avoided by using common sense and keeping a constantly wary eye out. Always wear shoes or boots and watch where you're walking to make sure you know what you're about to step on. Have a good look at the ground around you before you sit down. When you're camping overnight, shake your clothing, boots and gear out vigorously before using them. If you encounter a rattlesnake, stop what you're doing immediately and freeze. Back up slowly until you're several paces away, and keep your eyes on the animal.