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Your desert hiking clothing should be a lot different than what you wear in most other climates due to the high heat and super low humidity. Due to this low humidity, your sweat can evaporate so quickly that the cooling effect from its evaporation off of your skin can be nullified. In this post, we’ll walk you through what to wear in the desert heat so you can maximize the benefits of your body’s natural defenses against the extremes of this unforgiving environment.
This post covers hiking in the hot parts of the year only, as opposed to the winter (Big Bend National Park can get into the nineties as early as April). There are plenty of posts on other sites out there that will cover your hiking clothes checklist in the winter-time, so I won’t cover it here.
I recommend cotton clothes in a lot of areas in this post, but keep in mind that cotton kills in cold weather, and it’s swampy in humid climates. My recommendation of cotton clothing is specific to only hot, dry desert climates.
You should also remember when picking out your desert hiking clothes, pick light colors which may help reflect some of the sun’s UV rays.
Don’t buy camouflage clothing. That’s great if you’re in a war-zone and don’t want to get shot at, but it’s not helpful if you’ve gotten lost and want to be found. Try to wear colors that contrast with the desert environment. Solids also help to not break up your silhouette.
* Elizabeth – Since Cory is only recommending desert hiking clothes for guys, I’ve gone through and added some comments in italics after each section with what I like to wear. I don’t really like to look like a dude just because I’m out hiking.
I know its hot outside, but a sunburn on top of the sweat in all the scratches you’ll get from the thorns is not a pleasant feeling. You’ll need the protection from the sun, which can burn you even on milder days due to the extreme UV rays in a low humidity environment.
You should pick something that fits loosely, and contrary to the “cotton kills” mantra, I prefer cotton in hot, dry climates (more on this in a bit). Loose fitting clothing allows some airflow between the layers which has a cooling effect. Think of the loose, flowing, clothing that you see some desert cultures wearing, like the Bedouins. They have thousands of years of experience in the desert heat and you won’t see them wearing shorty shorts while stomping through the sand, in fact, they generally cover as much skin as possible with their desert clothes.
I prefer the 5.11 Tactical Pant (get the khaki, not the black) because its one of the only brands that carries quality cargo pants that are 100% cotton (they are also reasonably priced), and generally buy it at least one size too big so that its a little baggier than intended. I also make sure to use a good belt to hold them up since, being over-sized, they have a tendency to want to fall down around my ankles (not one of those woven belts, the holes have a tendency to wear out quickly).
* Elizabeth – I don’t really like the way the 5.11 Pants fit me. I do like the fit of the Columbia Camden Pants though (don’t forget to get light colors).
Long Sleeve Cotton Shirt
Just as with the long pants, your first priority should be protection from the sun. You can work on your tan from your back yard or the beach, Its not recommended in the desert, miles from the nearest roof.
And, again, baggy is good. You want that airflow to help cool your body down. Again, as with all of your desert hiking clothes, try to buy the lightest colors you can. Light colors will help reflect some of the UV rays.
Also, just like with long pants, cotton can actually be beneficial in the hot, dry desert climate. In cold climates, cotton (when wet with sweat) can sap body temperature as much as 240 times faster than not wearing any clothing at all. This is because sweat evaporates very slowly in cotton as opposed to some synthetics. You can use this to your benefit though in desert climates.
The purpose of sweating is to cool your body down by the effects of evaporation. In the desert, sweat can evaporate so quickly that it nullifies this cooling effect. Cotton will hold your sweat longer, allowing it to perform its biological function properly. You’ll want to be dry by nightfall though, temperatures can swing dramatically in the desert. That awesome cooling effect can turn into hypothermia in no time.
The Columbia Bonehead Long-Sleeve Shirt was actually designed for fishermen, but works great for desert hiking.
* Elizabeth – I also like the Columbia Bonehead shirt, but get the Bonehead II for women, the regular Bonehead shirt is too open at the neck and can cause your chest to burn.
Underwear is important in any hiking situation. Chafing can make what would otherwise be a pleasant hike into completely miserable experience. If you’re not an experienced hiker, one day hiking in a hot climate will make you a believer in the importance of wearing the right underwear.
Unlike your shirt and pants, I don’t recommend cotton underwear for hiking. The ability of cotton to hold so much moisture can increase chafing and potentially cause a fungal infection like jock itch. I would recommend “moisture-wicking” synthetics.
Try not to wear loose boxers or tighty-whitey type underwear because they can bunch up and chafe in some fairly uncomfortable spots.
I recommend wearing nylon boxer briefs like what Ex Officio makes. The nylon/spandex blend will help keep you dry, and wont ride up or fall down on a long hike.
* Elizabeth – Again, I agree with Cory on the brand, but the women’s version is far better. Nobody wants a soggy butt while hiking.
Broad Brimmed Hat
Your head is the most important tool you have in any situation, so you need to protect it well. Additionally, the back of your neck and shoulders are some of the most exposed areas of your body when you’re outside. If you head out for a desert hike without protective head gear, you’re asking for trouble.
Baseball caps aren’t going to cut it either. They leave your ears, neck and shoulders exposed. You need a hat with a broad brim that will give you as much coverage as possible.
If you just love your baseball cap and just have to wear it, consider adding a bandanna to it French Foreign Legion Style, just make sure that your ears are covered too. Covering the back of your neck only, and not your ears, could end up being a painful decision later in the day.
I prefer to use a broad brimmed hat as opposed to the French Foreign Legion style. I use a Tilley Hat (don’t get the dark ones, light khaki is best), but a cheap one with UV protection will work in a pinch (like the Columbia Booney II Sun Hat). Just make sure that whatever you get has a chin strap, or you’ll end up spending a lot of time picking it out of the brush after the wind blows it off your head
Straw cowboy style hats (never felt) will also work.
You should be certain that you put sun-block on any exposed areas of your skin, especially if you’re fair skinned.
While I don’t usually wear a base layer (other than the underwear described above), some people like to wear a cotton T-shirt underneath their long sleeve shirt to help keep moisture on their body.
You can give it a try, but I find that its a little too hot. If you get hot like I do, you can always take it off and stuff it in your backpack.
But, its hot!
It may not be in the evening. Desert temperatures can vary wildly between the day and night, sometimes swinging as much as 40 degrees. The reason for this is the moisture in the air is what typically holds the warm air near the ground (the greenhouse effect). With relatively little moisture in the air, the heat radiates back into space very quickly, as opposed to a jungle setting where the temperatures vary only slightly between day and night.
Even if you only plan on a day hike, its a good idea to stuff a light jacket or flannel in the bottom of your pack. If something happens and you get stuck out there overnight, it can help ward off hypothermia. A badly sprained ankle sucks, it sucks even more when you have hypothermia.
Being prepared for an emergency can mean the difference between life and death in the desert. Take it seriously. Mother Nature doesn’t care whether you live or die, she just sees you as fertilizer.
You should also consider tossing a space blanket in the bottom of your pack. They weigh almost nothing and take up very little space, but can save your life in an emergency.
I can’t stress this enough. Rocky soil and murderous thorns are hell on your feet, and your feet are the only way you’re getting home without somebody carrying you. If you’re going to spend a lot of money on any single piece of desert hiking clothing, spend it on your boots.
I recommend wearing hiking boots as opposed to hiking shoes. The high tops will give your ankles a bit more support when walking over rocks and will protect your ankles from thorns at the same time. Very little of the ground in the Desert Southwest is easy on your feet, especially if you’re going into areas like Big Bend National Park.
Your boot soles should not be overly flexible since this can hurt your feet when walking over uneven rocks. They should also have a good enough grip that you wont slip and slide, but not be so soft that they wear down quickly. Also, don’t buy black colored boots unless you want your feet to bake.
I used to wear Keen hiking boots, but when my feet took a battering after a long hike, a friend recommended that I try Lowa Hiking Boots. After one hike, I’ll never switch back. I’m a heavy 235 pounds, so my feet and ankles need all the support they can get. They have a snugger fit than my previous boots, so my toes and heels don’t take as much abuse now.
Again, don’t skimp on your boots. It’s very easy to get a foot injury and very hard for it to heal.
Be a dork and wear socks that go up past the top of your boots. They don’t need to be knee socks, but they need to protect your legs and ankles against chafing from your boots.
Also, like underwear, you don’t want cotton socks. You need to keep your feet as clean and dry as possible. Its a good idea to throw an extra pair in your pack in case your feet get wet or you have an unplanned overnight trip.
Wigwam makes superb socks for hot weather hiking, but you can also pick up cheaper ones (although not as good) from REI or Academy. Don’t go too cheap though. The elastic in some of the cheaper ones has a tendency to wear out quickly. You’ll end up having to constantly fish your socks out of the bottom of your boots.
If you want a little extra protection from blisters, take a look at getting some sock liners. They’re not foolproof and they make your feet a little hotter, but they’ll stop some of the rubbing from your boots. The toe socks from Injinji work great for me.
Take care of your feet and they’ll take care of you.
Sunglasses are important in the bright desert since there is very little moisture in the air to mitigate the effects of the sun. You could actually become snow blind from the harsh UV rays reflecting off of the rocks and ground.
I would recommend buying the wrap-around kind that protect both the front and sides of your eyes. Make sure that they offer good UV protection or they can do more harm than good by allowing your eyes to dilate and let in more UV rays.
If you wear prescription glasses, a good pair of prescription sunglasses would be nice, but if you don’t have the time or money, you can get some clip-on sunglasses or, even better, sunglasses that can go over your prescription glasses.
* Updated based on conversations with S. Tolley and Rosemary (See comments below). Thanks guys!
Yes, I know that water isn’t clothing, but its one of the most important things you can carry in the desert.
I don’t even step foot on a short trail without a hydration pack on, with the reservoir completely full. Hydration packs are important, because you won’t carry enough water by hand, and you won’t drink enough if you have to keep taking your backpack off to get to your bottle.
The problem with hydration packs is that the bladders can sometimes fail. It is recommended that you store the majority of your water in a more durable container, such as an MSR Dromedary Bag, which you can slide right into the main compartment of your pack. Just keep enough water in the hydration pack bladder to ensure that you won’t constantly be having to refill on your hike.
If the weight bothers you, drink enough to lighten your load.
Don’t be a statistic. Remember, at least one gallon per person per day and drink before you get thirsty.
Bean Davidson says
Great article, sir. I am interested in your opinion on the Lowa boot that you recommended.
I don’t do much hiking, my boot options are actually based on a recommendation of my podiatrist. I recently found out that I have a partially formed club foot on the left. Throughout my military time that foot always gave me grief on long marches and runs. I always assumed it was because of my high arches. The doc told me no more of the orthopedic shoes that I am used to. He reciommends a high quality, mid height hiker with excellent stability.
I work long hours on my feet on concrete floors. The malformation of the bones in that left foot has become near-unbearably painful as I am getting older (and fatter). The doc recommended a quality hiking boot for the solid sole for stability for the foot and good ankle support. I found your article looking for a good mid height non-insulated option.
I recently ordered a beautifully designed Salomon Men’s Quest 4d 2 Gtx Backpacking Boot, Iguana Green/Asphalt/Dark Titanium, 11 M US.
The only complaint I have with these boots is that they apparently do not come in a wide of any size. A great boot, so that is a shame.
Very interested in your recommendation.
Cory Doggett says
Of course your doctors advice should come way in front of any advice I could give.
The boots you bought should be good and sturdy being backpacking boots, as opposed to a regular hiking boot. Probably a bit heavier duty (and weigh a bit more) than the Lowas I recommend. Salomon is a high quality brand and I’ve got no complaints with their product at all. I’ve just spent a lot more time in my Lowas.
An additional item you might consider is what kind of insoles you have. I’m a big guy myself (250 lbs. and 6’4″), so I need all of the support I can get. I switched my insoles out for a brand called Superfeet which have helped quite a bit.
You can buy Superfeet on Amazon (http://amzn.to/2vWukmu), but I would recommend trying them in person. I’m not sure if you live near an REI or not, but its a great place to go for things like that. You might even need different insoles types for each foot.
As with any medical condition, I recommend working with your doctor on what your best option is.
Bean Davidson says
Thanks much. Absolutely love the design, look and quality of the Salomon boots I ordered but they are just way too tight; I even ordered large enough to leave an inch at the toes but still no good. A great boot, just cannot believe they do not offer a wide size.
Definitely checking out your recommendation. Thanks, sir!
Bean Davidson says
Actually the doc was who recommended going to the boots. ??
Dwayne Sargent says
I totally agree with Cory about what he said concerning your doctor’s advice.
“Your doctor’s advice should come way in front of any advice I (and others) could give.”
Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop you from searching for more information about a condition so you could be enlightened.
About foot pain, I discovered that it’s more frequent if our hiking shoes are not broken after buying it.
Here’s an article that might help you to be more informed on what to do to avoid/eliminate it:
Cameron Bennett says
I like how you mention to wear pants and long sleeves because it is one of the best ways to protect against the sun when you’re spending a lot of time outside. I’m from southern Arizona, so I am very familiar with how to handle the heat and what to wear. When it comes to camping and doing outdoor activities, it really comes down to being prepared and finding the right gear and clothes long beforehand, so you’re not hard pressed to find supplies right before you leave.
So Cal Hiker Girl says
The color of what you wear makes a huge difference. When hiking the desert, I try to wear all white as much as possible, as white reflects and even a light tan absorbs the sun’s heat a little. My desert hike friend likes loose shirt and shorts; I wear wicking running type stuff – usually long sleeve top and leggings, unless on a really hot day I will wear shorts and a tank underneath if heat gets extreme, both light/white. I started hiking the year I lived in AZ, and the other day was in full sun a couple miles north of the border in a remote section of bouldery mountains off the 8 freeway east of San Diego. Anyone who knows the area knows it can be a furnace, and while we were lucky to have a breeze, I was just fine in my white stuff incl my Heat Gear leggings from Under Armor that really did help keep me cool and my white full cool gloves I just got from Amazon for my hands too. Friends have thought I was crazy until we hiked and they were overheating and I was just fine! It makes that much of a difference! BTW the desert does eat hiking shoes – my brand new trail runners’ edges are already serrated after a few long off-trail/use trail treks in Anza-Borrego and off the 8 near Ocotillo.
Lastly, bring more water than you think you need and prehydrate (drink a few liters the 1-2 days before). I put electrolytes in my water and carry electrolyte dummies too. Also consider “moist” food like grapes, raisins, blueberries – dry stuff like crackers, nuts, pretzels, etc. can taste like dust. Pack salty stuff as well; I even stuff in some salt packets from restaurants to use in a pinch. Happy hiking! The desert is not nearly as bleak as it first appears and is delicate and incredible!
Agreed with everything you said. To add to your moist foods comment, I also try to avoid foods that can melt, like a lot of energy bars. Trying to lick the melted sticky mess out of the wrapper is a pain. You also don’t want to have to waste your water trying to get the sticky off of your fingers and face.
So Cal Hiker Girl says
Yes I found grapes were the most ideal and were delish on a warm day! Also if you crave chocolate, bring M&Ms 🙂
So Cal Hiker Girl says
I also have removed single cactus needles from my shoes with my bare hands, but tweezers are the recommended approach (I love cacti and am fascinated by them). For cholla balls, I’ve been able to extract a rogue one I did not see using a hiking pole to “fling” it to the side. Yucca also can be found in the deserts here and are their own hazard – the points of their blades literally are needle-sharp! My friend said if you throw an orange at one, the blades will impale it; I have yet to remember to bring an orange so cannot verify but believe it and friend is xp hiker. Steer clear of them – they can scrape skin and clothes. I have found my Gore-Tex jacket seems to repel them, and I wore my snake gaiters (again from Amazon) on a hike notorious for them. The gaiters repelled just about everything including cacti, as I gave them a good test. On everyday desert hikes, I use regular gaiters (I love the Dirty Girl ones) for the sand and gravel and stuff. One time I forgot them, and boy did I regret it!
Oh deserts often have rocks and boulders, so the long shirt and pants help protect you if you have to do some climbing, too. Enjoy!
So Cal Hiker Girl says
Lastly a cheap plastic comb with thin tines can help remove needles if you get them stuck in your skin. Lay it flat on your skin next to the needles and pull it upward to loosen the needles is what friends have said.
They’re great for getting under cholla balls that have gotten stuck to you.
Perfect advise. I do a lot of south Western Hiking. I wear synthetic pants (under and over) and a synthetic tee under a long sleeve cotton tee. I alsso wear wool socks. For me they dry in a hurry. The biggest mistake I’ve seen people make in the desert is underestimating how cold it can become at night.
Just a thought – One recommendation I do not agree with is the hydration pack. There have been enough failures of hydration bladders in the field to cause concern. Their seams fail.
I am a wildlife field biologist, tracker and also a wilderness navigation and travel instructor. I spend over 300 days a year out in the field, half of that in the Sonoran Desert. I recommend carrying lightweight but durable water containers that won’t fail – such as Kleen Kanteen. I carry up to two gallons of water in 1/2 gallon stainless steel bottle, or carry two 1/2 gallon bottles and the rest of my water in an MSR dromedary bag that is much more durable than a standard water bladder.
S. Tolley says
I was born in southern AZ and have lived the past 25 years in southern NM. I can attest to the validity of your suggestions across the board from personal experience. You have clearly done your homework!
Thank you Mr. Tolley. I was born in West Texas and spent a lot of time out here. The suggestions are not all trial and error by me though. I’ve taken a lot of advice from a lot of different people over the years. I’m just passing on suggestions from others.
S. Tolley says
They are giving you pretty sound advice, except for the water storage. I must agree with Rosemary’s assessment of hydration bladders.
I actually agree somewhat.
Where people run into problems in storing a bottle in their pack is they won’t drink until they’re very thirsty, due to the nuisance of getting to it. If you’re thirsty in the desert you’ve waited too long and are likely already getting to the point of dehydration.
Additionally, people new to desert hiking won’t carry enough in hand due to the weight.
As I do agree, I’ll update the post to include the majority of carried water in an MSR Dromedary Bag.
I do feel that somebody new to the area keep at least a portion of their water in a bladder with a bite valve, as they will drink more during their hike due to ease of access.
Thanks for your input.
Like all the equipment I take on a hike I check and clean the hydration bladder before each trip. I also carry water in collapsible bottles. 1200+ miles last year and 361 so far this year and I’ve never had a bladder problem.
Rez Kid says
Great article, can’t agree enough with long layered clothing! Here in the Navajo Nation I noticed kids would wear hoodies in the middle of summer where the temps average high eighties to low nineties; and at work my coworkers would wear thick cotton hoodies. I finally asked one day if they were cooking in those things, but each reply was the same. “It’s cooler than wearing a tee shirt.” Another example is AZ/NM highway workers, if you’ve ever seen them then you’ve probably seen their hoodies, they even wear the hoods under their hard hats. I’ve seen many tourists with short shorts and low cut hiking shoes. These two items are the worst. Living in the desert you’ll quickly find shorts are uncomfortable when going off trail and suck when near bushes or rock climbing, not to mention the painfull sunburn.
High ankle boots are a must! Broken ankles in the desert can be very dangerous, and yucca or thorn bushes can really hurt your shins without high tops. I agree with bladder tech, I find it more comfy than canteens worn on the waist or shoulders. Speaking of dehydration, Pedialyte is a life saver! It helps with headaches, cramps, basically any symptom of dehydration. I also recommend a desert scarf, it has a thousand uses besides being able to cover your head and face completely. One thing myself and friends don’t like is bright clothing. I guess we go camping to get away from everything, and everyone else, so being highly visible kinda defeats the purpose.
Alice Smee says
Hi – – No-one has mentioned insect repellent here – I am planning a Sahara Trek in Feb. 2020 and have been advised to take Deet as the flies are a major problem. What is your experience of this please ?
Question: what do desert rats think of very light weight wool clothing for the desert? Does it protect against sunburn adequately? Is it comfortable after being sweated upon? Are these just ridiculous questions from a Pacific Northwest hiker?
I prefer cotton as far as shirts and pants go.
I wouldn’t do wool socks, but a shirt would be fine if it’s warm enough outside. As far as a shirt goes, having it retain some sweat is a good thing. Sweat evaporates too fast on a dry day in the desert, so it doesn’t efficiently cool your body. If the shirt retains some moisture, it’ll slow the evaporation process down enough to help cool you off. Just be certain that it’s dry by nightfall. Temperatures can drop rapidly as the sun goes down. Sometimes as much as 30-40 degrees.
As far as sunburn, it really depends on the weave of the material. As long as it’s not a mesh, you should be fine.
Remember also that billowing is better than tight. Airflow plays a critical role in proper evaporative cooling.
One system that hasn’t been mentioned here but is popular in the ultralight community, where hikers may cover thousands of miles in a single expedition, is the sun hoodie + ball cap. This is my go to for hiking deserts. The sun hoody is something like black diamond’s alpenglow pro (thin, stretchy, synthetic, vented, neck zip, thumb loops, hooded, silver) and you hood up over the top of a ball cap. Add some sunnies, UV gloves and plenty of hydration and you can hike indefinitely under blazing sun. The hoody also acts as a coccooning windshell as conditions cool off. Wide hats are nice and airy but protect the sides poorly from late afternoon sun and the brim may butt up against your pack. Happy trails readers 🙂