The sun shone brightly above us and the red canyon walls shimmered below. Somewhere in between the blue sky and chalky dirt, we hiked along the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park.
Soft, loamy dust sunk beneath my boots as I passed cacti and gnarled wind-blown trees. Here, nature doesn’t have to work hard to show off. It is a breathtaking landscape, in part because it is so stark.
The 37-mile trail traverses some of the most remote desert landscapes in the country. And while there’s life around us, there’s not much to sustain it. The hot days and freezing nights, combined with the lack of water, mark a world where humans were only meant to visit briefly, not survive.
Backpacking in the desert is an amazing experience, but it’s quite different from being in the woods, hills, or lush mountains. Deserts can be harsh, challenging to traverse, and even uninhabitable to humans. But with the right training, preparation, and gear, it is possible to backpack deep into the desert to visit vistas that few people get to experience.
Here are some tips for desert backpacking I used during a recent trip backpacking along the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park.
Backpacking the West Rim Trail: Timing Is Everything
How to survive; (photo/David Young)
When it comes to backpacking in the desert, the time of year is crucial. Summer months are too hot and can be dangerous for backpacking. Heatstroke can occur in the harsh landscape when summer temperatures breach 100 degrees.
Winter can also be difficult in snow without the right gear. Zion National Park in Utah, where we backpacked, experienced record levels of snowfall this year. Some of the trailheads at higher elevations are still snowed in. So, we had to alter our starting point for the West Rim trail and still encountered plenty of melting snowfields along the way.
Not to mention the winter temperatures, which in the desert can plunge to deep below freezing at night.
That leaves spring and fall, which are the ideal times to backpack in the desert. These shoulder seasons are perfect because the temperatures are in the Goldilocks zone — not too hot and not too cold — and the trails are typically clear and in good condition. You can usually check snow conditions and trail openings on National Park websites.
Another consideration is hiking during the cooler parts of the day, which are typically early in the morning or in the evening. You can take a break during the hottest part of the day to avoid overheating. Breaking up your hike can help you stay cooler while still getting plenty of miles in on the trail.
With rapidly changing weather and spring thunderstorms, it’s important to watch out for flash floods in the desert, also. Some canyons and draws, like those you’ll find in Zion National Park, can fill with water quickly — even if it’s not raining where you are. Flash floods are a serious risk in the desert. They can come barreling down a canyon without any warning. And staying out of their way is crucial. Check out this video to see how fast they can happen.
So, keep a sharp eye on the weather when traveling through these canyons, and never camp in these low-lying areas. Always try and place your tent on high ground so you don’t wake up as you’re being washed away.
H2O Is Your Main Priority
Backpacking through the desert presents many challenges. But water should be your main priority at all times. Water in the desert can be hard to find for long stretches. And even if it is readily available, it can be undrinkable even with a filter due to sediment or viruses.
This was the case at Zion National Park. While there was water running throughout the hike with snowmelt runoff, we could not filter from the rivers due to a toxic cyanobacteria bloom in the Virgin River and the Streams of Zion National Park. So, we had to pursue other strategies.
Since hikers could not drink stream water anywhere in the park, we had to carry water into the park and filter directly from a spring when we were able to. Compared to hiking in the mountains or forests where water is often readily available, it required significantly more planning. So, make sure to think ahead when hiking in the desert and consider carrying more water in something like the HydraPak Seeker.
On average you will need about a liter of water per hour of hiking, so based on access to water sources, you may need 3-6 L of drinkable water in your pack.
We used the onX Backcountry App to identify and mark springs of water along our route in advance so we knew where to refill. Having good tools and navigation skills is vital for any backcountry excursion, especially in the desert. Making sure to have a map, compass, and a GPS device such as a SPOT or Garmin inReach is a good idea.
For filtering water, there are an array of options to consider. I used the new Grayl 24-ounce GeoPress Purifier, which can filter water in less than 10 seconds. The new bottle is also compatible with electrolyte mixes by using a new one-way valve in the filter that lets water in and keeps powders out of the filter.
Using electrolyte powders such as Gnarly Nutrition’s Hydrate Powder can maximize your rehydration with electrolytes such as magnesium and sodium, which are crucial for hiking in the desert.
Some other great lightweight filters are the Platypus Quickdraw Microfilter and the Sawyer Squeeze, which will filter water straight from a squeeze bottle. A filter like this can purify 3 L of water per minute and weighs around 3.6 ounces. It’s a fast and easy way to keep access to clean drinking water at your fingertips wherever there’s a natural source of water.
We had the opportunity to filter at two springs on the 20-plus-mile hike through Zion. But one of the springs was dried up so we had to “camel up” (read: get as much water as we could) when we stopped to filter.
Bring Lots of Layers
Hot days and cold nights are the norm for desert backpacking. In between, you can experience wide ranges of weather and temperature swings.
On our trek through the desert landscape of Zion, we encountered rain, wind, and hail. We also crossed rushing rivers swollen from spring runoff and snowfields where we post-holed at times. And with no trees or shelter, exposure to the sun is always a concern when backpacking in the desert.
With such an array of temperatures, it is smart to pack layers that you can add or remove as conditions change throughout the day. Also, anticipate cold temperatures as the sun goes down — a down jacket, a good sleeping bag, and a tent are vital for spending the night in the desert. Check out the 10 essentials for hiking to make sure you’ve got your bases covered.
For my trek through Zion National Park, I wore an Outdoor Vitals Altitude Sun Hoodie paired with a Tushar Rain Jacket and Satu Adventure Pants. This combo kept me dry, cool, and warm enough to hike comfortably. The sun hoodie protected me from the sun as well as the elements. A hat and a good pair of sunglasses are also important to keep the sun out of your face.
Swapping out layers and clothing quickly on the fly is important, as the weather can change quickly in the desert. Often there is no relief from the elements on a stark flat plateau or slot canyon. So, what you carry on you is your only protection from the elements.
Backpacking the West Rim Trail: What’s in My Backpack?
For an even more comprehensive and detailed breakdown of backpacking tools and gear to bring, take a look at my backpacking checklist for the Colorado Trail.
Go Light, Stay Cool
It may seem obvious, but the less you have to carry, the more energy you can save for the trail. Carrying just the essentials leaves room for adding more water, which is not exactly light.
On this trip, I was able to carry a pack with a base weight of around 7.6 pounds, which classifies as ultralight backpacking. Using OutdoorVitals, a Utah-based ultralight backpacking company, I was able to shed weight and get down to an ultralight pack weight which made the hiking much easier.
In general, your total pack should weigh no more than 20% of your body weight when fully loaded with gear, food, and water. The base weight is all your gear minus water and food. Most backpackers will average around 20-30 pounds for a base weight. A lightweight backpacker can get that down to 10-20 pounds, and ultralight backpackers are able to get their base weight below 10 pounds.
Consider using a tool such as LighterPack.com to help dial in your gear. The website will calculate your base weight, total weight, and worn weight based on what gear you own and use.
Some of the heavier items that you typically have to carry are a tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag. For the Zion expedition, I carried an Outdoor Vitals Fortius 1P Trekking Pole Backpacking Tent, Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite NXT Sleeping Pad, and an Outdoor Vitals Stormloft Down Topquilt. All of these items weighed 3.9 pounds and were compacted down into small sizes.
While ultralight gear can cost more, it is worth it when you are hiking 15-plus miles in the hot desert. The ability to go light and fast will pay off in the long run.
Backpacking the West Rim Trail: The Final Word
Hiking and backpacking in the desert can seem overwhelming or intimidating to some. But with preparation and planning it is possible to accomplish safely — even in an area where the weather is harsh and water is scarce like on Zion National Park’s West Rim Trail.
Keep in mind that all nature, especially the desert, is indifferent to us. It is going to do what it wants regardless of whether we are prepared or not.
There are always risks involved when you explore the desert terrain. However, it is well worth the effort. The landscapes and vistas you find backpacking through places such as Zion are incredible — otherworldly — awesome, in the true sense of the word. You will be richly rewarded for venturing into areas that few dare to explore. Just make sure that when you do, you’re going prepared.