Let's go top to bottom and start with headwear. A wide-brimmed
hat is an essential item for desert travelers unless you want
your face to turn into a piece of driftwood. There's a bevy of
types from cowboy to Indiana Jones style explorer hats. I have
bounced back and forth over the years between using Tilley,
Filson, and Stetson brimmed hats. The Tilley hat is ideal for
triple-digit weather during the hotter months of the year as it
is a lighter fabric. During the cooler months, I will opt for
the oilskin Filson or a wool, crushable Stetson cowboy
hat. The latter two will cook my head in the summer though and I
value my hair.
Many cowboys go without them but if I can reduce the chances of
getting cataracts later in life, I will start by wearing
sunglasses while afield. Goggles are excellent as well and come
in handy when the wind kicks up and can help prevent a corneal
abrasion when there's flying grit (different than True Grit).
Enough said! Especially critical as you climb up in elevation.
While teaching at the Desert Medicine Conference in Tucson
recently, I had the good fortune of speaking with one of the
leading researchers on sunscreen and sunburn. He said that SPF
15 or higher is all that's needed. The rest is largely marketing
hype and adds no additional protection. If you are going to be
in and out of the water all day, the Bullfrog brand is
superior and provides longer-lasting coverage than the standard
Bandanna or Shemagh
A shemagh is a garment many of our troops and indigenous
cultures use in Africa and the Middle East for wrapping around
their head and necks. They are usually made of cotton and are
larger than a bandanna at about 43”x43”. This is one of my most
treasured pieces of desert garb and I've used it not only as a
scarf but water strainer, sling, dustmask during sandstorms,
potholder around the campfire, pillow, and much more. Mostly, it
keeps the sun off my neck but can be soaked in water and draped
over my hat to keep me cool while hiking.
I also have a large silk bandanna that I was given by some
ranching friends and you'd be hard-pressed to find a cowboy
without his protective, multi-purpose neckerchief. The latter
can be purchased through western wear stores. Get it in Large.
Cotton bandannas which sell for a few dollars come in a variety
and some with topo maps and star charts printed on
them. I usually have one lining the inside brim of my hat which
acts as a sweatband and also bulks up my hat's inside if it's
Long-sleeve, lightweight cotton/poly or cotton/nylon material.
These are quick-dry fabrics and don't have the
hypothermia-inducing qualities associated with wearing 100%
cotton in the outdoors. Columbia, 5.11, and Patagonia are good
brands to consider.
For cooler weather, a wicking layer is essential to prevent your
core from becoming chilled from sweat. Coolmax, Underarmor,
silk, polypro and wool are all outstanding fabrics that will
transfer your perspiration away from your body.
Your hands are essential survival tools and you don't want to
shred them on cactus spines or mesquite thorns while gathering
firewood or building a shelter. Pick up some work gloves at the
hardware store or leather tactical gloves for something more
durable. My favorites are the Mechanix brand gloves found
for $12 at Home Depot.
I like the 5.11 brand pants as these are a ripstop cotton/poly
material and have held up well on punishing fieldcourses over
the years. Filson also makes Safari-style desert pants that are
extremely lightweight although these start at about $110. The
beauty of the 5.11 and BDU pants are all the cargo pockets for
stowing my survival gear like firestarters, signal mirror,
snacks, and pocketknife. Avoid, at all costs, jeans and 100%
As with the inner-shirt, wear a wicking layer as damp cotton can
be harsh on the skin long term. Boxers are much better than
briefs which can chafe the groin region- and then you will be
walking like a rodeo star.
There's a plethora of fabrics for socks nowadays- try Thorlos or
Smart-Wool. Avoid cotton athletic or tube socks unless you want
more blisters than usual.
Again, there's a lot to choose from but here are a few pointers:
avoid black; get ankle high or taller boots as this will help to
keep spines and stickers from attaching to your socks and making
life miserable; and get some decent insoles which your feet will
appreciate after a long day of hiking. My preferred brand is
SWAT Original. One pair tends to last for about 8 months of
abuse and a few hundred miles of hiking. Danner also makes
excellent desert boots. On the low-end but still reliable are
the Hi-Tec brand boots.
On overnight or multi-week trips, I will also pack along some
Gold Bond powder for applying to my feet and boots at the start
and finish of each day.
On overnight or longer trips, it's nice to have some
eye-drops along to wash out the grit and dust from your eyes
after a day of being in the wind. Systane eye-drops or other
saline based solutions are good.
Electrolyte replacement powder
Water and electrolyte replacement powders are both
critical to your body's thermoregulation ability.
Hyponatremia, which happens when too much water is consumed
and electrolytes are diluted in the bloodstream, can be
life-threatening. GU20, Hydralyte, and Clifbloks are just a few
of the electrolyte replacement items available. These replace
lost sodium and potassium and are essential during the hotter
months of the year when your water consumption rates increase
Really, in the desert- you're kidding! Yeah, that's
right, carry 2-6 quarts in the pack and 10-30 gallons in the
truck depending on the time of year and number of people. Even
it is was a wet year, even if it rained that day, even if my
buddy told me he came upon water in the same canyon last week, I
will still bring plenty of it with me as there's a reason it's
called a DESERT. Those who fail to plan ahead and bring water
will become jerky!
And if, for some reason, you do run out of water, then stay
put from 10 am to 5 pm and hike during the cooler hours of the
evening or morning. People have lasted up to two days without
water in triple-digit heat of the Grand Canyon and Death Valley
while others, trying to find water in the middle of the day,
have perished within 3 hours from heat-stroke. Hole up in the
shade like a fox and remaining clothed to cut down on sweat
loss. Forget nonsense like getting water from solar stills and
cactus. The most reliable water source is found in your kitchen
sink as you planned ahead!!
An old desert-rat who had spent most of five decades prospecting
in the arid Southwest once told me that his binoculars saved him
more sweat than any other gear in his pack. If you can get to a
vantage point and scan the land below for water, you can locate
water sources more readily and reduce the risk of trekking to
what looks like a “suspected” waterhole. I carry a pair of 8x24
binoculars for just this purpose and they have served me well.
A 3' section of aquarium tubing will enable you to extract water
from tiny rock fissures, hollow tree cavities, and sandstone
seeps where your water bottle can't fit. A Ziploc baggy is also
handy to have along these lines and I carry several gallon-sized
spares in my first-aid kit.
For nine months out of the year, I carry a down jacket in my
daypack and scrunches down to the size of a grapefruit. Remember
the desert is a land of extremes where it can be 110 degrees
during the day and then plummet to 30 degrees at night! A down
jacket is low-cost life-insurance against hypothermia if you get
stuck out at night. The record temperature drop in Arizona
occurred in Yuma where it went from 120 degrees F during the day
in June to 34 degrees F at night!
Three other things to take on your desert trips:
In conclusion, dress properly, pre-hydrate prior to your
trip, cut out caffeinated/alcoholic beverages the night before,
take frequent breaks to prevent heat gain, and suck down those
electrolyte drinks every 30-60 minutes in the intense heat.
Remember that shade-hunger, as the cowboys call it, is a
good thing to possess.
For additional information, check out Tony's book or DVD on
Desert Survival on our