With summer’s departure and snowbirds’ arrival in the Coachella Valley, local hiking trails will be busy. Unfortunately, the temperate weather sometimes lulls us into thinking we can just hit the trail and be perfectly safe.
That often leads to a bad hiking experience and in the worse cases even a serious injury.
The Coachella Valley is a desert, and unlike the lush woodlands and prairies in other parts of the nation, it offers unique hiking challenges. That’s no reason to avoid local trails and all the natural wonders the area offers, but you also should prep for your adventure to ensure your comfort and safety.
Whenever hiking the desert, always consider the following:
• Clothing – White and other light colors will better reflect the sunlight than black and dark clothing, which absorb it, resulting in more heat upon the body. Avoid cotton, favoring loose-fitting dry performance shirts. Be sure to don a hat with a brim. A brim provides the extra protection needed to shade your face, not just to avoid sunburn but to prevent being blinded by the sun. Always wear sunglasses with UV protection.
• Shoes/boots – You’ll want footgear with ankle support, that breathes, and that has a soft, flexible sole to ensure traction. To that end, wear lightweight, breathable hiking boots or hiking shoes. Sandals expose your skin to sunburn, thorns and sharp rocks while running shoes lack the ankle support needed for crossing rocky terrain.
• Water – Drink plenty of it but not too much too swiftly or you’ll suffer stomach cramps. You’ll need at least 2 pints of water per person for every hour on the trail. Consider carrying it in collapsible canteens to lessen the weight. Avoid caffeine before hiking as that can lead to dehydration. If children accompany you on the hike, get them a hydration pack, which kids are more likely to regularly use as they can more easily sip water as walking.
• Sunscreen – An SPF 50 is essential as the sand reflects sunlight back onto the body, resulting in a burn. Sweat will wash away sunscreen, so you likely will need to reapply it during rest breaks. Even If walking through shaded areas, use sunscreen, as the sun is more intense than in northern latitudes.
• Lip balm – The lips also can be burned or chapped by sunlight as well a wind. An SPF 30 balm will protect them. Reapply the balm after drinking water.
• Insect repellent – Insects are rare but can be encountered in wet areas such as an oasis or stream. A repellent made with oil of lemon eucalyptus is safest for your skin.
• Snacks – Salty snacks are needed to replenish sodium lost while sweating. Sweet snacks most likely will only melt anyway on a hot day.
• Mornings – Mornings almost always are cooler than the afternoon, sometimes by a good 20 degrees, so plan to hike before 10 a.m. Evening hikes after 6 p.m. also are a little cooler than afternoons.
• Easy – If new to hiking, stick to a trail that won’t prove too challenging in distance or terrain. The more energy you exert, the more likely you are to overheat.
• Breaks – Take more of them, maybe one every 15 minutes, if you haven’t hiked in a while. This also will give you time to ensure everyone is drinking water and getting a salty snack.
• Slow – Reduce your pace to avoid overexertion. You may not cover as much ground as you like, but there are plenty of interesting, short day hiking trails to enjoy.
As a dry, often inhospitable environment, deserts offer both incredible scenic wonders and grave dangers. Because of the former, they make for great hiking terrain…because of the latter, you should be aware of the variety of dangers that you could encounter during a day hike there. Foreknowledge is power.
Among the many dangers a desert environment can present are:
• Sun- and heat-related illnesses – Sun stroke, sunburn, heat stroke, and dehydration are serious, life-threatening ailments that often affect hikers who don’t respect the desert. Hiking during more temperate seasons and hours of the day, drinking plenty of water, dressing properly, using sunscreen, and pacing oneself all can go a long way to avoiding these problems.
• Flashfloods – Often trails head down canyons and arroyos, which are perfect spots to get caught in a flashflood. When hiking in such locations, always keep an eye out for an escape route to higher ground. Also keep an ear out for a roar rising in volume up canyon, even on sunny days, as thunderstorms several miles away can quickly send floodwater roiling down a canyon or a dry run. If you hear such a sound, immediately head to higher ground.
• Creepy crawlies – Spiders, scorpions and snakes all can sting or bite, and some are poisonous. To avoid meeting one, don’t place your hand in holes or pick up rocks where these creatures like to hide and don’t place your feet in grass or brush where you can’t see your toes. Should you encounter one, keep your distance and slowly back away.
• Getting overadventurous – Exploring side canyons you don’t have maps for or climbing up rocks and cliff sides that have no easy way down are all no-no’s in the desert. You don’t want to get lost or become trapped so that your water supplies run out before you can be rescued.
Of all of these dangers, sun- and heat-related illnesses by far are the most common followed by injuries from climbing where one shouldn’t or letting lost by going off the trail. I’ve spent several years hiking the Mojave, Colorado, Chihuahuan, Sonoran and Great Basin deserts, and during all of that time have encountered one rattlesnake, one scorpion, and zero flashfloods. What’s even better is you can prevent sun- and heat-related illnesses and being overadventurous simply by using common sense.
Reducing impact on a desert environment
With so little rainfall, deserts are a delicate, fragile environment. The limited number of plants and animals residing in the Coachella Valley can be deeply affected by even minor changes.
To limit the impact of your hike upon the desert, stick to these simple practices:
• Leave what’s natural in its place – Uprooting plants and moving rocks actually disturbs food and shelter sources for desert animals.
• Walk single file – Doing so restricts the impact of your footsteps to a single narrow path. Stepping off a path can dislodge plant roots, compress soil, or shift rocks about.
• Carry out your leftovers – Rather than decompose, food tossed to the ground often will mummify. Since human foods (such as oranges and bananas) usually aren’t native to deserts, seeing a mummified peeling looks out of place. All other garbage, such as wrappers, should be carried out as well.
• Keep noise down – Our shouts carry farther in the open desert and echoes off rock canyon walls, stressing animals and diminishing the experience for other hikers.