bird and hike
Watch Out!

Watch Out!
Hiking in the wilderness always carries risks, but then so does staying at home, and your safety in the desert depends on your experience, conditioning, and good judgment.

Hiking in the desert can be safe and delightful, or it can be a horrible ordeal with life-threatening consequences. You can kill yourself easily in the desert if you aren't properly prepared and don't understand how to survive out there. Below are some things to think about before and while hiking in the desert. This is not a complete list, and although my tone might sometimes sound a bit flip, this is deadly serious business. Nothing substitutes for experience and good judgment.

If you are new to hiking or new to the desert, find an experienced person or group to hike with on your first few trips. Learn from them and ask questions. The Sierra Club (Toiyabe Chapter, Southern Nevada Group) and the Las Vegas Mountaineers Club offer serious mountaineering and hiking instruction, and the National Park Service at Lake Mead and the BLM at Red Rock Canyon lead group hikes. You can also go to the public library and read books or search the web for information. Whatever else you do to learn about hiking safely in the desert, start by hiking with someone who knows the desert: nothing substitutes for experience in developing good judgment. Local hiking clubs are a good source of local experience. The Around the Bend Friends is a good "seniors" hiking club (caution: these "little old ladies" will kick your butt), and the Vegas Hikers Meet-Up Group is good for hikers of all ages and experince levels.

I put this information out here as a resource, just one of many that you might use. Read my text and judge for yourself if it is worth anything. Ultimately, you are responsible for your actions. If something here seems wrong, assume that I made a mistake. Send me an email; let's discuss it. I do not accept any responsibility for the way people use or misuse the information presented here -- for all you know, this could all be a hoax.

You are responsible for your own safety -- be careful out there (but do have fun).
Tell someone where you are going!
Know Your Limits

Most problems can be traced to exceeding your limits: hiking too far, hiking too hard, misjudging the weather, and using up your water. Know your limits and be ready to stop short of your goal if you think you bit off too much; you can always come back later.


Odd as it might seem, driving to the trailhead probably is the most dangerous thing we do on hikes. Wear your seat belt and assume that the other lunatic really is trying to hit you. If you drive off-highway (but not off-roads) or into remote areas, be sure that your vehicle is up to it. Carry extra water. Carry a shovel. Carry a few hand tools. Check the air pressure in your spare tire. Carry a cell phone, but don't count on it working.


We usually think about high temperatures in the desert, but cold will get you too. During warm weather, wear light-colored clothing, hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen. During cooler weather, wear layers so that you can easily adjust the thickness of your insulation. It is easy to work up a sweat during cold weather, and then freeze when you stop to rest. Know the signs and symptoms of heat cramps (cramps), heat exhaustion (cool, moist, pale or red skin), heat stress (hot moist skin), heat stroke (hot dry skin), and hypothermia (cold clammy skin). One of the biggest problems with heat and cold stress is that it affects your brain and you don't recognize the problem -- so you need to watch out for your friends. Treatment includes moving the affected person to a cool shaded area and drinking water. If heat exhaustion progresses, the body temperature continues to rise and the person may develop heat stroke, a serious condition that requires immediate emergency care. Pour water on your friends to cool them off, even if they don't want it. Two hikers died of the heat on June 20, 2003. Read More...

Drinking Water

During warm weather, carry at least one gallon per person per day. Scale back from this amount depending on the length of the hike and the time of year. Leave extra drinking water in your vehicle so that you will feel free to drink all of your water before getting back to the trailhead. Enjoy, but don't count on, the water you find in creeks and springs. You should, however, purify wild water using iodine tablets (light weight, bad taste) or water filters (heavy, good taste).


They say that everything in the desert bites, scratches, or stabs. Some people say that this applies to plants too. Cacti are an obvious concern, but many other plants will get you too. Don't eat plants that you don't know. Don't try to cut open cacti to get the water (actually, this is a myth, you can't really get drinking water out of a cactus). In addition, it's a good idea to carry tweezers for removing thorns and spines. Use a pocket comb to flick chunks of cholla off your leg.


They say that everything in the desert bites, scratches, or stabs. Some people say that this applies to animals too. The two first rules for dealing with wildlife are: (1) if you leave it alone, it will leave you alone, and (2) don't put your hand or feet where you can't see. Life in the desert is tough and everything in the desert has a hard time just getting along, so there is no sense in picking a fight if you can avoid it. Rattlesnakes are an obvious concern, but they are largely overblown. Since 2001, I've only seen a few rattlesnakes in the desert around Las Vegas -- and I try to find them. Just keep a wary eye out, and if you fine one, count yourself lucky, but don't play with it. Rattlesnakes generally move slowly, and they can only strike about two-thirds of their length, so you can safely watch them from a short distance. Tarantulas are another overblown concern. Yes, they can bite like any other spider, but I usually try to catch them by hand when I find them, and I've never been bit ... yet (knock on wood). If I am bit, it should only be about as bad as a bee sting. Fortunately, the desert generally is too dry for ticks, chiggers, flees, mosquitoes, gnats, and other such biting arthropods, but watch for ticks in the Arrow Range. There are a number of carnivores in the desert. There are no bears in southern Nevada, so we don't have to hang food except to keep it away from rodents. We do, however, have many big cats. For the most part, they want to see us far less than we want to see them, but they are out there. A friend of mine was mauled by an emaciated mountain lion some years ago, but that was such an unusual event that is was too rare to really worry about. Another big cat screamed in the darkness near me one night on the south side of Mt. Charleston, and it scarred the pants off me, but I have never seen one. Some people are even afraid of coyotes, but for the most part, they are just scrawny little scavenging dogs with beautiful singing voices (especially when they sing in multi-part harmony). We also have skunks, ringtail cats, weasels, and other carnivores, but if you leave them alone, they will grant you the same courtesy. Bites and stings may be more harmful to small children. Watch where you place your hands and feet.


Other than driving accidents, you usually only hear about people dying from falls. We loose a couple of people every year at Red Rocks. Know your limits, assume that the handhold really will break off, assume that the surface is slicker than it looks, and use extreme caution any time that you are high enough to get hurt from a fall.

Flash Floods and High Water

Flash floods are rare, but don't get caught in one. Understand that rain can fall miles away from you, and it can be sunny were you are, but you can still get caught by a flash flood. Stay out of slot canyons if there is any chance of rain upstream from you. If you do encounter high water (such as a flooded roadway), don't try to cross it. We loose people every year in the southwest because they tried to drive on flooded roads. Don't do it -- it isn't worth the risk. Also, don't camp in washes of other low ground where you could get surprised by a flash flood during the night.


If there is one thing that scares me in the wilderness, it is lightning. Through my experience, conditioning, and judgment, I feel that I can control or greatly limit all of the other dangers, but lightning is random and abundant. There are things to do to lessen your chances of being hit, but you only lessen the chances. I thought did everything right one day, but I still got hit. The general rule is: don't be the highest object around. Get down from exposed ridges and stay away from the tallest trees. Ground currents (electric currents in the ground) can electrocute you. Stay out of depressions and shallow caves, and stay out from under small overhangs. Hiding in these places increases your chance of being hit by ground currents.


Essential equipment includes sturdy walking shoes and proper clothing. Long pants will protect you from rocks and cactus, and a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses will protect you from the sun. Always carry a basic first aid kit, and carry a jacket and a flashlight in case you don't get off the trail before sunset.

Carry at least a basic first aid kit, which for me is a roll of 1-inch cloth tape and an ace bandage. My shirt will make a good bandage, sticks will make a splint, and the tape will hold it all together. For longer trips, my first aid kit includes: cloth tape, salt tabs, nail clippers, Pepto-Bismol tabs, needle and thread kit, benadryl itch relief stick, band aids, forceps, Motrin tabs, antibiotic, and two Ace bandages. Learn basic first aid from the web or your local library.


In many cases, desert hikes follow deep narrow canyons (e.g., the canyons that cut into the Red Rocks cliffs, Cleopatra Wash, the Lovell Narrows, and Goldstrike Hot Springs). When you are in places like these, consider how difficult it would be for rescuers to get you out, and behave accordingly. Often times, doing something fun might not be worth the risk of injury and rescue. I've been there and done that, and believe me, it is tough on everyone involved, victims and rescuers alike, to do a rescue in a difficult place. Think about it: you fall and get hurt -- you are in so much pain that you can't walk -- a bunch of goons strap you into a litter so tightly that you can't even scratch your ass, and then they start jostling you and bashing you into the rocks. It isn't pretty. Stay safe first.

Holes in the Ground: Mines

Mines are not safe: do not go in them. Stay Out, Stay Alive! Perhaps the most obvious mine hazard is a cave-in, and you might think that if the mine hasn't caved in yet, then it probably isn't going to cave in now. You probably would be right about the cave-in, but one of the real and less obvious problems with mines is bad air (poisonous gasses and low oxygen), which you probably won't realize until it gets you, and by then it could be too late. If you are bullheaded enough to go into mines, don't touch anything: don't touch the walls, don't touch the support beams, and don't touch the ceiling, but do watch for holes in the floor and rattlesnakes near the entrance. If you start feeling light-headed or your pulse rate goes up, get out fast to fresh air if you still can. If you sit at the entrance to a mine and don't feel a breeze (either in or out), assume the air inside is bad.

Holes in the Ground: Caves

Caves aren't that safe either, but they are safer than mines because they don't have the same cave-in and bad-air problems. However, safe caving requires special skills and equipment. The Las Vegas Mountaineers Club does some caving and gives lessons, as does the Southern Nevada Grotto, a local caving organization. If you find an interesting cave while out hiking, don't explore any deeper than where you can still see using natural light from the entrance. After a few minutes underground, your eyes will adjust to the dim light and often you can go quite far without a light. If you want go deeper, get some training, wear a hardhat, and always carry at least three sources of light. Always be careful in caves and don't disturb the cave features or the cave wildlife. Watch for rattlesnakes near the entrance.

Happy hiking! All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
copyright; Last updated 170617

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