How to Plan a Desert Backpacking Trip

by Margaret Hedderman

Mud season in Colorado means prime hiking and backpacking weather in the desert. Whether you’re planning your first overnighter in Canyonlands or venturing into the wilds of Dark Canyon, here are some tips to ace your desert backpacking trip. 

1. Get beta on water and road conditions

Take it from us, you don’t want to rely on a blog from 2012 that provides waypoints for “reliable” springs in the desert. Water conditions can vary dramatically year to year, season to season, and even week to week. Before you hit the trail, call the land management office - whether that’s BLM, Park Service, or Forest Service - to get the most recent reports on water supplies in the backcountry. While you’re at it, ask about the road conditions as well. Big rains and snow can destroy a sandy road and leave you stranded.

2. Pack for hot days and cold nights

Desert temperatures can fluctuate rapidly from blistering heat to freezing cold. We recommend wearing lightweight long-sleeve shirts and pants during the day to protect your skin, and packing warm layers for the evening. If you’re hiking in canyon country, keep in mind that your days will often be shorter as the sun sinks beyond the rim earlier than normal.

3. Grab a wag bag (and use it)

If you haven’t carried your own poop in a bag, you haven’t lived. Human waste takes longer to biodegrade in the desert, so many parks and jurisdictions require backpackers to carry portable toilets - also known as wag bags. Even if they're not required, using a wag bag is good Leave No Trace practice. 

4. Prepare for sand getting everywhere

Whether you’re hiking through a sandy river bottom like Paria Canyon or across desert flats, sand is going to get everywhere. In your tent. In your shoes. Even in your eyes.

  • If you wear contacts, we’d recommend ditching them for the weekend and bringing your glasses.
  • Clean your boots or shoes out after hiking in the desert. We’ve seen footwear come back with sand lodged inside the sole.
  • Brush out your tent or turn it inside out after your trip. Leaving sand inside your tent can cause it prematurely wear out.

5. Take care of your feet

Even if you never get blisters or have trouble with your feet, an extreme change in temperature or trail surface can lead to injury. Wear synthetic or merino wool socks and carry a backup pair. Pack some eNZees Foot Soother in your First Aid Kit in case you start developing hot spots. And remember to clean and re-condition your footwear when you get home as the arid environment can destroy your boots.