Arizona is blessed with thousands of miles of beautiful trails. Most hikers complete their treks without injuries or other adverse events. However, you can get into serious trouble—even life-threatening—if you don’t know what you’re doing. The most common hazards are related to weather, water, and falls. Our goal with this guide is to help you thrive and survive on southern AZ’s low desert trails. It’s only a start; learn more on your own from authoritative sources.
“Low desert” refers to elevations of roughly 1,000-2,500 feet above sea level, although many low desert trails may take you up mountains to 3,500-4,500 feet. For instance, Scottsdale’s elevation is 1,200 feet and Tucson’s is 2,400 feet. In contrast, the Mogollon Rim (e.g., Payson, AZ) is around 6,000 feet and Flagstaff is 7,000. At these higher elevations the climate, flora, and fauna are often radically different from the low desert.
Before your trek, it’s critically important be honest about your physical coordination and fitness level. If you haven’t walked more than two miles non-stop during the last year, don’t try a four-mile hike. Learn all you can about your proposed trail before you start. Trail descriptions will often note whether it is easy, moderate, difficult, strenuous, or “expert level.” A “primitive trail” will be easier to get lost on and usually have worse footing. Also pay attention to “elevation gain”; a 500 foot or more gain in elevation increases the difficulty. Scottsdale’s famous Camelback Mountain peak is at 2,700 feet, but the Cholla trail starts 1,300 vertical feet below that. That’s not a stroll in the park.
The farther away you get from civilization, the potential adverse outcomes of hiking increase. For any but the easiest and crowded urban trails, tell someone which exact trail you will be on and when to expect a call from you after you finish. That way they know where to send the search party when you don’t check in. On remote or uncrowded trails, hike with a buddy who can help if you become injured or disabled.
Numerous rescues and several deaths occur yearly on AZ’s trails. Are you scared yet? Let’s alleviate that fear and minimize risks! What follows pertains mostly to day hikes on established trails, not bushwhacking or overnight backpacking.
Heat kills. From mid-May through late September, high temperatures in the low desert often hit 105 to 110° F or even higher. Low temps in summer may not drop below 95! Most Arizonans will NOT be on the trail in the sun when it’s above 95 degrees. We’ll hit the trail at sunrise and be off it by 10 AM. Memorize and avoid these signs of Heat Illness: muscle cramps, feeling faint (dizzy), goosebumps, unusually high pulse, extreme fatigue, nausea, headache, rapid breathing. If ignored, these can lead to heat stroke, which can be fatal. Adequate hydration and perhaps salty snacks or electrolyte packets help prevent Heat Illness.
Some trails will have almost no shade, so you should avoid them in summer after 10 AM unless high temps under 95° are predicted.
High temps are not much of a problem in late fall, winter, and early spring. Low temps are easily manageable with the right clothing. But always check the forecast for temps, rain, snow, and thunderstorms before heading out. The higher the elevation, the cooler it tends to be.
AZ has a season called “monsoon” from June 15 to Sept 30 when overall humidity is higher than usual. It’s characterized by occasional violent storms with rain, high winds, lightning, and flash flooding. Don’t get caught outside in a monsoon storm. Be very careful to avoid creeks and dry creek beds (washes or arroyos) when rain is in the area or even miles away, or you could die in a flash flood. From the Centers for Disease Control : “Lightning often strikes outside of heavy rain and can strike as far as 10 miles away from any rainfall. Many lightning deaths occur ahead of storms or after storms seemingly have passed. Remember, if you can hear thunder, you might be in danger of a lightning strike.”
Dehydration kills. Especially in the hot months. Adequate hydration will help prevent Heat Illness. How much water you carry with you depends on body weight, length of hike, humidity level, temperature, personal preference, etc. Everybody should start out well-hydrated and take more water than you think you’ll need. One rule-of-thumb is that, when a third of your water is gone, it’s time to turn around unless you’re half-way to your destination. For hot summer hikes, Arizona Hiking Shack (phone 800-964-1673) advises adults to take one liter of water for every hour you’ll be out, plus and an extra bottle “for whatever.” There’s a fair chance you’ll run across someone on the trail who needs water. You may need water to cleanse abrasions or wet your neck’s cooling towel. Another rule-of-thumb from the Shack is: “When your water’s half done [gone?], your hike is half done.”
Clothing and Gear
If a trail is labelled as “easy,” you’ll probably be fine wearing sneakers. “Easy” usually means fairly flat and smooth. Avoid sandals because they don’t provide much protection against cactus needles, scorpions, rocks, etc. For a “moderate” level trail, you might get by with sneakers but specific hiking shoes or boots are better, which is what you’ll want for “difficult” trails. Moderate, difficult, and primitive trails usually have more rocks, and your feet need protection from them with a thicker or stiffer shoe sole.
Use your judgment and dress for the weather. You may fall or rub against bushes, cacti, and rocks, so sturdier clothes beat flimsy. White or light-colored clothing will keep you cooler in the summer. A broad-brimmed hat protects against the sun.
Sun Protection Options:
Sunscreen, long pants, long-sleeve shirts, gloves, sunglasses, hat.
Size depends on individual needs and preferences. A comfortable one is worth the money. A pack with a hip belt will make heavy loads (water!) more comfortable by shifting some weight onto the hips. Built-in water-carrying bladders are popular.
Trekking poles (optional):
Helpful for maintaining balance on uneven, unstable, or slanted surfaces. They take pressure off arthritic or weak knees when moving downhill.
First aid kit, communication devices, maps, navigation aids, multi-tool, cooling towel for neck (requires water).
First Aid Kit
Commercial kit or DIY (do it yourself). You need tweezers to remove cactus needles and splinters, an assortment of band-aids, antibiotic ointment, 1% hydrocortisone cream, antiseptic towelettes, steri-strips, 2-inch gauze wrap, “2nd Skin” or other blister remedy, medical tape, 4×4” gauze pads, 2×2” gauze pads, small scissors or paramedic shears, latex or nitrile gloves. Barebones kit: tweezers, band-aids, 4×4” gauze pads, 2-inch gauze wrap. Optional: acetaminophen, NSAID such as ibuprofen, Benadryl (for itching). [sterile needle or other device for help removing splinters?]
A few trails are so obvious and/or crowded that you won’t need any navigation aids. Unless you’re sure about that, be prepared to prevent getting lost. Use a trail map and keep track of your location on that map. If you are in a remote area, strongly consider a handheld GPS navigation device (Garmin brand is the market leader), topographic map, and a compass. Learn how to use the compass and map before you need it. Hiking with someone familiar with the area could be life-saving.
Lions and tigers and bears, Oh My! AZ has no wild tigers but there are a few jaguars. Here are some problematic critters you may run across:
From the list above, if you have a scary animal encounter it’s most likely to involve a rattlesnake, scorpion, or bees. Odds are, you won’t have any problem at all. Search for information at trailheads about which dangerous animals are in the area and advice on avoidance and defense.
The desert is home to many spikey and prickly plants that are not always obvious upon inspection. Be vigilant. Watch young children closely.
How to Request Emergency Help
A cell phone is the usual first option. But remote areas often lack cell phone service. If service is marginal, try moving to a higher location and/or send a text message. If you’re disabled by injury, someone in your party can hike back to civilization for help, if time allows.
Another option is an emergency whistle. The idea is to get the attention of someone in the area. The whistle is louder and will transmit farther than shouting, up to a mile or so, and takes less energy. A common distress signal from a whistle is three blasts (2-3 seconds each) in succession, rest for a bit then repeat. Or use the old Morse code for SOS: three short blasts, three long blasts, then three short blasts.
After cell phones, a satellite phone is the next most reliable and quick-response option although financially out of reach for most of us. Less expensive options are PLBs (personal locator beacons) and satellite messengers. PLBs solely send an SOS with your location to rescue agencies via satellite and do not have a subscription fee. Alternatively, satellite messengers allow you to send SOS signals, plus text messages to friends or loved ones and have additional features like navigation. A subscription fee is required. Examples are Garmin inReach, SPOT, and Bivy Stick.
Prepare for the Worst?
Imagine planning on a four-hour afternoon hike alone on a remote trail, but you trip and fall into a ravine, fracturing your leg, losing your ability to walk. And you have no way to call for help. Assuming a search party is planned, they may not find you until 12-48 hours later. You’ll have to spend the night in the wild and it’s getting cold. Are you prepared? Items to consider packing: tarp for making a shelter, 550 paracord, flashlight, space blanket for warmth, knife, method for purifying water, method for making fire (matches, lighter), firearm for protection, warm clothes, and food. Before heading out on the trail, take a full-body photo of yourself in your hiking clothes and send it to a loved one; this will help rescuers quickly identify you.
Be prepared, not scared.
Steve Parker, M.D.