Dangers of Hiking in The Desert And Safety Tips

Are you anticipating hiking the desert? Are you a newbie in hiking the desert if you just moved around there? Then, reading this post will be for you. The desert is an impressive landscape that consists of a lack of vegetation but has sweeping views that will amaze you and in America, the desert can be commonly found in the southwest states. 

As I’m writing this, this is going to be an exciting topic to discuss because as someone who’s been hiking the Arizona desert for the last 3 years and sharing all of the different trails you can do out here, I know I need to be aware of the dangers that surround the desert. 

As ironic as it sounds with a place that has lots of dangers, I also find that the desert is one of the most peaceful places to be in. I found plenty of healing spending lots of time out there. There’s no place like the desert – with vivid colorful sunsets, tall Saguaro cacti that can only be found in Arizona, hills that are home to sand and boulders, and geological formations that are formed through weathering in the desert over millions to thousands of years.

So despite the number of dangers I will list out here and some stories related to them, don’t let any of these scare you from exploring the desert. I’ve been naive to some of these and I have actually hurt myself a few times from these dangers, but I learned as I lived here and explored it and you can absolutely avoid these by picking up some knowledge here. The desert is a beautiful place to see and it may actually be a place you can find peace in too! 

However, to keep you prepared, I’ve listed out some of the dangers you may run into when choosing to hike in the desert:

1. Animals and bugs

Arizona can be compared to being the “little Australia of America”. Australia has a bunch of wild and poisonous animals and bugs that linger around the country and Arizona is just the same. Arizona’s wildlife here are amazing creatures that call the state home and they can reside by the hiking trails. It’s mandatory to be aware of just what you’re dealing with when you come across one of these and to never approach or provoke them.

Some of the dangerous animals and insects to find in the desert, especially in Arizona are:

  • Rattlesnakes – According to Arizona Game & Fish, there are 13 different species of rattlesnakes in the state of Arizona out of 36 discovered ones by scientists!
  • Africanized bees
  • The Arizona Giant Centipede
  • Blister bugs
  • Scorpions
  • Mountain lions
  • Black widows
  • Gila Monster

Okay…wow that list is LONG! I’m sure there are more, but those are the most common dangerous animals/insects that we have in the state. So far, I’ve only come across rattlesnakes, the Arizona Giant Centipede, the sound of feline noises hiding behind bushes, and Africanized bees on my hikes, but you can avoid getting harmed from those if you’re aware of how far you are and if you are warned ahead, such as rattlesnakes will “rattle” their rattles before you can see them. 

You want to stay calm when anything approaches you. I’ve also come across a donkey face on while hiking a trail, but I’ve talked loud and clear to it and did not turn my back around (which you should never do when facing an animal), and it walked away to the sides.

Also, mountain lions do mainly roam around canyons and mountainous areas in higher elevations but they mainly hide during the day from people. They can see you before you see them. However, they are very rare to spot and are more likely not to be found in high trafficked hiking trails.

Tips for you if you ever get bitten by an animal

  • Call 911 right away!
  • Remain calm. Do not panic.
  • Don’t move around frantically, elevate that area, and remain to slow down your blood flow.

You can watch my YouTube video below to see when I was face-to-face with a donkey on this trail. That part starts at 3:15.

2. Heat

The heat is one of the most dangerous things throughout the desert and it’s so dangerous that many people underestimate just how bad it can get. I had to learn hard from my experience one time when I first moved to the desert and went on a hike in blazing 90-degree weather. You may think “90 degrees? That’s not too bad!” Actually, that mindset is where you can be subdued through underestimation. I underestimated that climate can dehydrate me as it did and it was an insane experience that took me to the hospital to get IV fluids so I can get the electrolytes I lost from hiking that day.

Some of the symptoms I felt when I had heat exhaustion: chills, feeling more tired within short distances, dizziness, drinking lots of water yet it did not hydrate me, and little signs of hallucinations. I learned my lesson and I don’t even want to go hiking again in 90-degree weather, even though my body got accustomed to it. Just not worth it. I had temporary chest pains after that too (this is called costochondritis).

Every now and then, there will be stories of how someone had to be rescued from hiking in a certain place. Not because they were lost, but because the heat was so high and extreme. It is very avoidable to be put in that situation. The consequences of being out in the heat can be deadly as there are many instances when it was too late for hikers because they succumbed to heat strokes, a life-threatening heat illness.

Tips for hiking in the heat

If you plan to hike weather under 90 degrees but don’t feel like you’re used to that, do this:

  • Bring salty snacks or snacks that contain a lot of salt. Some of these would be all kinds of nuts, pretzels, jerky, seeds, dried seaweed, and kale chips.
  • Bring electrolyte packets! My favorite kind is LiquidIV, but there are a lot of other different brands out there. You may also instead just bring regular ol’ Gatorade.
  • Always bring one liter of water for every 2 hours of hiking. More water is always ideal.
  • Wear loose breathable clothes. Good choices for this are nylon and polyester and you may want to avoid cotton as cotton is not good for regulating temperatures. You also want to wear thinner socks and avoid heavy layers.
  • Hike early mornings before sunrise or late afternoon. You may have to wake up very early at 4am-5am (depending on the temperatures that day) to get your hike on or you should go when temperatures cool down, which could be late afternoon or closer towards sunset times.
This is me after my heat exhaustion accident… hooked to IV fluids. You do NOT want to end up like this.
Skyline Regional Park and the desert
The exact trail I got dehydrated on… and I went to do it again after camping out here too but in much better conditions.

3. Cacti

Cacti (plural for cactus) look dangerous from its appearance, and they are. They’re notorious for being all over the desert! Yes, their needles look super scary to touch, and you don’t want to touch them ever, even if you develop a little curiosity. So tell your 3-year-old-inner-child mind to chill. I can tell you how it felt when I got pricked by cacti a few times and they really, really hurt. It’s not just a quick sensation of a paper cut, but more like the feeling of a needle stabbing you.

In fact, one time when I was hiking Camelback Mountain, one of the harder hikes in Phoenix Valley, Arizona, I was climbing up and all of a sudden a cactus needle flew into my thigh (I never even touched the cactus). My friend hiking with me at the time quickly removed the cactus thorn because it was a sudden “OW!” reaction. Later that night, I developed a bump that was as big as a plate (that is huge!) and it was itchy, warm to the touch, and it obviously looked abnormal. What I developed was actually an infection called cellulitis, which is a skin bacterial infection that needs to be controlled by antibiotics ASAP or if it’s too late, the infection can spread to your bloodstream which can then cause sepsis. After being on antibiotics for a little over a week, the infection calmed down and I was good to normal again.

That extreme story above may not happen to everyone, but it is a possibility. You do NOT KNOW how much bacteria is out there in the outdoors. Cacti do not only hurt you from a physical injury, but it can hurt you inside as evidenced above.

Tips when hiking in areas with a lot of cacti

  • Clean your wounds! If you get pricked by a cactus, you want to automatically wash it with soap and water. Obviously you may not carry any of that with you in the middle of a hike, so opt to bring antiseptic wipes.
  • Bring a first aid kit. In fact, just bring a whole mini first aid kit with you and they should include bandaids, tape, cotton, and Neosporin antibiotic ointment.
  • Bring a tweezer. Okay, before you think you’re going to pull off your little grown hairs off your eyebrows, tweezers actually serve a different purpose for hiking in the desert. Tweezers are useful for carefully and precisely taking cacti needles off your skin.
  • Always watch your surroundings or where you’re walking! Don’t be a tree hugger for cacti.
  • Wear the right type of shoes. Do not wear open-toed shoes at all and choose to wear hiking boots or hiking shoes.
Camelback Mountain and the desert
This is me at Camelback Mountain. I got pricked by a cactus needle shortly after… and that cactus needle caused a bacterial skin infection on me (called cellulitis).

4. Weather effects

The weather can change so sudden in the desert when you’re not in super sunny weather and there’s always that chance of rain. A lot of areas in the desert are prone for flash flooding as you’ll find some warning signs on that due to the nature of the areas. 

Flash floods are so destructive and deadly (if you’re caught in one) but they are avoidable. You don’t want to take the risk of hiking in an area when there’s even a chance of rain or if the weather appears cloudy (I knowww cloudy weather is nice, but hiking in low elevated areas, washes, and canyons is not ideal for that). If you ever want to know how to survive a flash flood, this is a good article from Scientific America on how to do just that. The best tip for surviving a flash flood is to try to not get caught in one!

Hiking in Antelope Canyon
Antelope Canyon is a gorgeous popular hiking attraction, but being in slot canyons like this can be very dangerous for possibilities of flash floods. You can read my blog post on this place to read about a story when hikers faced death with a flash flood here once.

5. Valley Fever

A lot of people outside of my state will not know what this is. Many tourists will be unaware, and there is very very little information and awareness on this disease, which is very unfortunate and sad because I am a victim of Valley Fever. Anyone can get Valley Fever and all it takes is one inhale of fungus spores that are known for living in the desert soil. I believe a lot of tourism boards do not cover this disease because it may scare people from visiting the area, but just know this disease is most likely to be found in the Southwest states.

I was a very healthy individual and seeing my blog, I was very active. This disease nearly wrecked my whole body and although I am not as sick as I was initially infected, I am still dealing with the symptoms of it and my lungs are no longer the same. They’re so sensitive and I have so much arthritis-like joint pains, daily. I can talk so much about this disease, but I have put all the information in my YouTube video below. You may also want to check out the description for resources on it if you want to learn more about this disease or if you believe you’re a victim of it too.

6. Be aware of robberies in the city.

“Wait… robberies can happen in the desert?!” Yep, especially if you’re hiking in high-trafficked cities like in Phoenix. I did not know this was something that happens until recently… I’m in a few Facebook groups based on hiking in Arizona and one of the Facebook groups there posted about how a friend of theirs had their car’s windows shattered as someone tried to break into their car. Their motive was obviously to rob/steal from the car and what’s odd about this is that it also happened in mid-day! That is really devastating when you’re having a good time hiking and then you come back, only to find out your car was destroyed by some idiot. I also heard that’s not a one-time case, but it’s happened to a few other hikers.

To avoid this, well, it’s hard to say how, but you are at risk for this if you want to hike by popular city hikes. I’m sure cops are investigating further on why this is happening, and I truly believe that these parking lots should be monitored moving forward!

7. Possibility to get lost

This is not just unique to the desert, but basically anywhere in nature around the world. The desert can be tricky though because areas will start to look very much the same especially when there’s a bunch of boulders, landscapes with repeating cacti, and a lot of intersecting trails on terrain.

You always want to download your hiking maps offline as there’s never a guarantee there’s cell signal coverage in nature. I love my AllTrails app, and I always prepare to download these maps ahead so it’s always worth doing a subscription for. Doing plenty of research on hiking trails is always smart, so that’s why I love reading blog guides of hiking trails as much as I love writing them. This also includes reading the most recent reviews on those trails to see if there was anything that changed in its conditions. 

You always want to tell someone where you’re going too and send them the exact coordinates of that trail and what time you’ll be going and the time you plan to be back (an estimated time). Always stick to your original itinerary and do not switch it up all of a sudden. Keep track of the times you’re going and the weather conditions that day. 

Lastly, invest in a personal locator beacon (also known as a PLB). This is a device to alert rescuers when you’re in a life-threatening situation and this includes feeling lost or finding yourself injured.

Hiking in Scottsdale, Arizona

I know reading all of this can be nerve-wracking to hike in the desert, but let’s face it: Many tourists and new transplants (like I was) do seem unprepared for what the desert is like and nature… well she is such a strong force. 

But as I mentioned earlier in this blog post, the desert is a peaceful place that’s changed my life. It’s made me appreciate the wild things that other places in the world don’t have. Yet after all the times I got hurt, I still kept returning to hike the desert. You will come to appreciate it too and discover all of the beautiful spots to find in the desert, but first things first: Stay safe.


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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Although as you stated above there are many possible dangers involved, I have to agree that hiking in the desert with its vivid landscapes and amazing sunsets seems so peaceful. Maybe one day I will be able to visit Arizona and do some hiking. Thanks for this informative post 🙂

    1. Yes! It’s honestly the best place to feel like you’ve found yourself and to get away from the noise. It’s crazy there are lots of things to be aware of when in the desert, but it just requires you to be more mindful and many of these things, you do not really have to encounter on a daily. I hope you get to see Arizona too – thanks for reading!

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