Desert Hiking Safety

Hiking the deserts of Southern Utah – with wide-open spaces and endless routes to amazing landscapes – provides a wealth of experiences for the outdoors person in everyone.   As you plan your adventure, take the time to glean as much knowledge from the locals as possible in order to have an amazing experience.  The following thoughts come from twenty years of hiking these deserts and instructing folks on staying safe in the desert.

As you embark into the desert it is important to know your abilities: not just your physical abilities, but your abilities of reading the weather and terrain as well.   Deciding on a hike that is suited to your full scope of abilities is essential.   This thumbnail sketch of things to consider will help you prepare. 


Terrain Considerations


Routes vs. Trails


The southern Utah deserts have a plethora of routes, which are merely a way to go from one place to another.  Most hikers, however, are accustomed to trails that are planned and maintained.  Far too often, hikers discover that what was described in a guidebook or on a website as a “trail” is actually a hard to navigate route.  In the canyons of the Escalante River, only a few trails have been designed and constructed, a few more trails have become quite obvious because of heavy use, and the rest of the hikes are along routes that are unmarked and trail-less.  Be mindful that routes take a significantly higher level of navigation and hiking skill when compared to a trail.

Rough Terrain

Hiking routes are often over rocky or loose terrain.  Hikers typically find that walking sticks are helpful to ensure proper footing and balance for much of the terrain. Hiking routes also may have sections that traverse along a ledge or cover slopes with loose rocks.  Walk carefully and be careful not to dislodge a rock that may roll and cause injury to yourself or someone below you.


Plan for shorter hikes than your normal.

It may take a week or more for a physically fit person to acclimatize to a new environment and the desert terrain is often more physically demanding than one may expect.  As you plan for your southern Utah adventure, consider these suggestions,

  • Decrease your normal hiking range until you become accustomed to the environment and terrain.
  • Plan a rest day for every 3-4 days of hiking, take this time to explore some of the attractions in town or take a driving tour.


Navigation Considerations


Refresh Your Map and Compass Navigation Skills

Functional map and compass skills are beneficial in this terrain.  Guidebooks, social media or trail descriptor websites rarely provide adequate information for navigating backcountry routes.  Also, would you risk your safety on the advise of a crowd sourced trail description website; who knows the qualifications of the person who put the “thin red line” on the map.  (I have helped numerous confused hikers who are unsuccessfully using internet resources to navigate.)

Map Reading
A proper map for navigating the desert.
Internet Resources
A map obtained from a trail description service on the internet. On a phone, this map would be at most 3″ x 4″. This map lacks enough detail for navigating the desert, and the red line covers the important details. Yet, people rely – sometimes unsuccessfully – on these low level navigation tools to hike the challenging terrain of the desert canyons.


Hike Routes That Are Within Your Navigation Skills

Hiking routes that you are capable of navigating is the way to have a great day.  The desert has confused many a traveler over the years.  Our modern technologies do not provide us a significant advantage, in fact they may create disadvantages since they cause us to lack an awareness of the landscape.  The local visitor centers are able to help you in determining hikes that are appropriate for your level of navigation skill.  

Determine Your Land Navigation Skill Level with this quick assessment.

Popular Day Hikes in the Escalante Canyons is a good starting point to look for hikes that are within the ability of hikers with limited navigation skills.

Leave a Hike Plan

Leave a hike plan with a responsible person letting them know, at the very least, where you will be, when you will return and when to call for help if you have not made contact.   It is also beneficial to note on your hike plan information regarding the car you will drive and where you will park the car.  Other details to include are clothing that is being worn, gear that is being carried and the skill level of members in the party.   Finally, stick to the hike plan unless you notify your responsible person.

Expect No Phone Reception   

Remember that cell phones have limited reception in the wilderness.  Calling for help may not be an option, which means be prepared to take care of yourself.


Weather Considerations


Inquire Locally about Local Weather

Your phone may help you understand what weather to expect. This page, Weather Links for Boulder, has links to the NOAA weather service for specific areas surrounding Boulder, Utah.

Local people, however, will help you understand how to anticipate the local weather patterns and how to avoid disasters.  Chat with a local at the visitor centers, your lodging or eateries.

Canyon Rains
Real time decisions are critical when evaluating the safety of hiking a slot canyon. Local knowledge of weather patterns and drainage boundaries are important. And, knowing alternate routes will help you avoid disasters. I decided that taking the alternate route would be wise.


Temperature Tips

Hike strategically to beat the heat when the daytime high temperatures are expected to exceed above 85°F (30°C).

Strategy 1 – Start Early (I like just after sunrise).

Strategy 2 – Hike in areas with bodies of water to cool down if you get too hot.

Take a Dip
In the heat of the summer, most of my hikes are along waterways. Oh the relief a cool dip provides and the wet clothes provide a portable evaporative cooler when you continue the hike.

Strategy 3 – Carry extra water to soak your clothes.

Water Splash
Where water is scarce and your hike takes you into the high temperatures of the day, carry some extra water to pour on your cotton shirt. The relief is immediate and the your spirit will quickly soar.

When I do a hike that has an approach and then a loop that comes back to the approach – some folks call this a lollipop pattern –  I stash extra water at the start of the loop section of the hike, then when we complete the loop I pour the extra water  on everyone’s shirt – which are hopefully cotton.  This cools us down for the return hike to the car.

Wear Desert Clothing

Plan your desert hiking clothing to help regulate your core body temperature in a variety of conditions – from cool and wet to hot and dry. Desert dwellers prefer clothing that provides full coverage from the sun, is breathable and is layer able.  Short sleeves and pants expose large areas of the body to the radiant heat of the sun and are not as beneficial as one might think. Covering the skin with loose clothing is a far more effective cooling strategy.  See What to Bring on Your Day Hike for more information on clothing and gear.

Version 2
Desert dwellers prefer full coverage. The suns rays are intense in the high desert and absorption of these rays by the body will quickly raise your body temperature. The shirt is cotton and the hat should have a wide brim of 3″ or more.


Carry More Water Than You Think May Need

The common advise to hikers is to have 2-3 quarts of drinking water on hikes.  This amount is often adequate for spring or fall hikes, however it is the minimum you should carry if you will be hiking in temperatures of 85°F (30°C) or higher.  Remember to check the volume of commercially bottled water – many are far less than a quart.


Plant and Animal 



The canyons of the Escalante River have very few plants or animals that are truly of concern to the hiker.


The rattlesnake is likely the greatest animal concern in the Escalante Canyons. Though I have seen very few (possibly 10 in the 20 years I have hiked this desert), I ALWAYS look for them on the underside of brush, rocks and logs. Since they blend in quite well, I rarely see them before I hear them, which is a bit disconcerting. Fortunately, they probably want to have less to do with us than we want to have to do with them, so they warn us if we are closer than they feel comfortable. The key to rattlesnake safety is to leave them alone and give them plenty of space. And, if you see a snake track, be extra alert.


Plants pose the greatest challenge from being hit or poked by them.  Of course deserts are known for pokey plants and this desert is no different; having sharp spines is a key defense for many desert plants.


Hiking through brush and being hit by branches is likely the greatest plant challenge of the area.  When hiking in a group, there are two predominant theories for hiking through brush.  The first strategy is, the person going through first should be careful to not let a branch fly back and hit the next person in line.  The other strategy is that the person behind should keep enough distance that he or she will not be hit be such errantly swinging branches.  I tend to subscribe to the second approach, primarily because all to often I have seen a branch snag a hikers pack, without the hiker knowing, and then release without the next hiker in line realizing.  In this situation, it is best for the person behind to beware.  Of course it never hurts for the person in front to call back about the potential for swinging branches.

The other plant risk is poison ivy.  Poison ivy does exist along the waterways, primarily the more narrow streams.  Be alert to this plant when hiking in its prime habitat.   rinsing the affected area in the stream immediate after contact is a common remedy for removing the oils, and washing with soap as soon as possible is considered a more effective remedy.   If you hike with a dog, be extra careful since they do not always take the time to slow down and recognize the plant before bashing through it and getting the oils on their coat.

When it comes to challenges with plants and animals, the Escalante Canyons are fairly benign. Being alert and learning what to avoid is the best approach. Tune up your nature awareness skills and you will be able to avoid these challenges.


Enjoy Your Desert Hike


            Hiking in the canyons of the high mountain desert is a novel experience for many hikers.  The challenges of such hiking are often different than most hikers expect. Taking the time to learn how to prepare for the hike and how to take care of your self during the hike will help you have an amazing experience.

Savor the day.

An Après Hike at the Kiva Koffeehouse is a wonderful way to savor the day and reflect on a glorious experience.


If you need help planning your hiking adventures in the Escalante Canyons, please feel free to contact us, we are happy to help you create your memorable excursion.

Here is how you can get in touch with us.

Telephone – 435-335-7710

Email – using our contact form

Come home to nature, it welcomes you!