Desert Hiking Tips

Day hiking on desert lands in the Inland Northwest offers much in the way of wild, natural beauty and solitude — but it also presents challenges that don’t exist on higher elevation, forested lands.

Desert Road Conditions

The primary roads on desert BLM lands are comparable in quality to those found on USFS lands: good, graded gravel routes passable by any passenger car in almost any weather. But these desert routes rarely receive as much regular grading as their USFS counterparts, so washboards are more prevalent and travel speeds are slower.

However, it’s the secondary roads on desert BLM lands that require the most caution when trip planning, as these are rarely maintained and their travel quality is quite variable. Nearly all BLM secondary roads are built over thin desert soils, which once eroded down to exposed rock, have no extra dirt available to re-grade or improve the roadbed — so driving over exposed rocks becomes the only option.

Further, because these desert secondary roads are built of native soils and not the imported, easy-draining cinders of their USFS counterparts, the top 1”-4” becomes quite muddy and slick after every rain.
Even a brief afternoon thunderstorm can render most desert routes impassable for hours afterward. The only solution is to wait for these dirt roads to dry out. Our rule of thumb is, for each day of rain, to wait an equal number of days in camp before resuming travel on them.

Vehicle for Desert Travel

Many of the desert hikes we feature are accessible from good graded gravel (or even paved) primary roads, which can easily be traveled by any passenger car. However, to reach the more remote desert trailheads, one often needs to travel for miles on rutted, rocky back roads that, though not requiring 4-wheel drive when dry, do require a sturdy, well-maintained vehicle with high clearance and excellent tires.

At remote desert trailheads, one may not see another traveler for days or weeks. Extra personal responsibility is needed to ensure that roads are dry and passable, one’s vehicle is in good condition and it is well-prepared for contingencies (e.g., getting lost, breaking down or getting stuck). We recommend at least 6-ply tires, on both the main vehicle and any trailer. 4-wheel drive is also a good backup insurance policy.

Desert Heat

Not only are daytime summer temperatures much higher in the desert than on higher elevation USFS lands, but desert hikes usually offer little in the way of tree cover or shade for relief from the heat. However, there are at least three good strategies for successfully dealing with desert heat:

Plan low-elevation desert hikes for the cooler months of June and September. These are good months to visit the Pueblo Mountains, the Guano Valley, the Owyhee Canyons or other low-elevation hikes. In the Columbia Basin of Southeast Washington, with elevations generally below 2,000’, day hiking can begin even earlier in the season, starting in April and May. During the hot, mid-summer months of July and August, plan to enjoy the cooler, higher elevation desert hikes at Steens or Hart Mountains.

For desert day hikes, be on the trail by 6 AM. This means enjoying morning temperatures in the 60s and 70s and avoiding the searing afternoon temperatures in the 90s and 100s. With a 6 AM start, most day hikers should get back to their vehicle at the trailhead by noon, allowing them to spend the hot afternoons at their camp under shade tents or canopies.

Wear proper clothing and carry plenty of water. A good shade hat is a must and light, long-sleeved, cotton shirts and pants will keep the sun’s rays off your arms and legs. Also essential is a high-SPF sunscreen, re-applied a couple of times daily. Plan to carry about 2 quarts of water per person on a normal morning day hike.


Rattlesnakes are found in most desert areas of the Inland Northwest below about 6,500’ elevation. However, the fear of these creatures vastly outweighs the objective risk one is taking by hiking in rattlesnake country. Records show that hikers are nine times more likely to die from lightning strikes than from rattlesnake bites!

Rattlesnakes by nature are not aggressive toward humans and rarely bite unless provoked. Nearly all rattlesnake bites are caused by human carelessness, either blundering onto them or trying to play with them. The secret to staying safe is
to always be aware of where you place your hands and feet, on the trail or around camp, 24 hours per day (as rattlesnakes are often nocturnal in the hot summer months). Many desert hikers also carry a light willow walking stick, probing it ahead into the brush or rocks as they walk.

If a rattlesnake is encountered, they usually give plenty of warning by rattling or buzzing their tail. The best procedure is simply to walk around them and leave them alone, giving them at least 5-6 feet of clearance. There is no reason to harass them. After all, rattlesnakes are fascinating creatures and deserve their important and rightful place in the desert ecosystem.

Finally, in the rare instance of an actual snake bite, try to keep the victim calm. Wash the the affected area and immobilize it, if possible. Pain and swelling are natural reactions to a snake bite. It is important to get the victim to medical care as soon as possible, but avoid fast hiking that might elevate the victim’s heart rate. Lancing the punctures, suctioning out the venom or applying tourniquets are no longer recommended first aid practices.

Antelope Hunting Season

Most hikers are generally aware of the rifle hunting season for mule deer that begins around October 1 throughout the Inland Northwest — and they try to avoid hiking trips during this season, as there’s just too much pressure on campsites and trails with so many hunters flooding the backcountry.

Less well-known are the rifle hunts for antelope that occur over one week in late August or early September throughout the High Desert. Though the number of antelope hunters is not overwhelming, they do add pressure on desert campsites and trails. Hikers shouldn’t necessarily avoid the desert during antelope season, but it’s smart to check the dates for the hunting unit you plan to visit, so you can expect the added commotion.

Page last updated: 3/28/13