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.