by Tony Nester, Survival Instructor
Let’s go top to bottom and start with headwear. A wide-brimmed hat is an essential item for desert travelers unless you want your face to turn into a piece of driftwood. There’s a bevy of types from cowboy to Indiana Jones style explorer hats. I have bounced back and forth over the years between using Tilley, Filson, and Stetson brimmed hats. The Tilley hat is ideal for triple-digit weather during the hotter months of the year as it is a lighter fabric. During the cooler months, I will opt for the oilskin Filson or a wool, crushable Stetson cowboy hat. The latter two will cook my head in the summer though and I value my hair.
Many cowboys go without them but if I can reduce the chances of getting cataracts later in life, I will start by wearing sunglasses while afield. Goggles are excellent as well and come in handy when the wind kicks up and can help prevent a corneal abrasion when there’s flying grit (different than True Grit).
Enough said! Especially critical as you climb up in elevation. While teaching at the Desert Medicine Conference in Tucson recently, I had the good fortune of speaking with one of the leading researchers on sunscreen and sunburn. He said that SPF 15 or higher is all that’s needed. The rest is largely marketing hype and adds no additional protection. If you are going to be in and out of the water all day, the Bullfrog brand is superior and provides longer-lasting coverage than the standard brands.
Bandanna or Shemagh
A shemagh is a garment many of our troops and indigenous cultures use in Africa and the Middle East for wrapping around their head and necks. They are usually made of cotton and are larger than a bandanna at about 43”x43”. This is one of my most treasured pieces of desert garb and I’ve used it not only as a scarf but water strainer, sling, dustmask during sandstorms, potholder around the campfire, pillow, and much more. Mostly, it keeps the sun off my neck but can be soaked in water and draped over my hat to keep me cool while hiking.
I also have a large silk bandanna that I was given by some ranching friends and you’d be hard-pressed to find a cowboy without his protective, multi-purpose neckerchief. The latter can be purchased through western wear stores. Get it in Large. Cotton bandannas which sell for a few dollars come in a variety of colors and some with topo maps and star charts printed on them. I usually have one lining the inside brim of my hat which acts as a sweatband and also bulks up my hat’s inside if it’s too loose.
Long-sleeve, lightweight cotton/poly or cotton/nylon material. These are quick-dry fabrics and don’t have the hypothermia-inducing qualities associated with wearing 100% cotton in the outdoors. Columbia, 5.11, and Patagonia are good brands to consider.
For cooler weather, a wicking layer is essential to prevent your core from becoming chilled from sweat. Coolmax, Underarmor, silk, polypro and wool are all outstanding fabrics that will transfer your perspiration away from your body.
Your hands are essential survival tools and you don’t want to shred them on cactus spines or mesquite thorns while gathering firewood or building a shelter. Pick up some work gloves at the hardware store or leather tactical gloves for something more durable. My favorites are the Mechanix brand gloves found for $12 at Home Depot.
I like the 5.11 brand pants as these are a ripstop cotton/poly material and have held up well on punishing fieldcourses over the years. Filson also makes Safari-style desert pants that are extremely lightweight although these start at about $110. The beauty of the 5.11 and BDU pants are all the cargo pockets for stowing my survival gear like firestarters, signal mirror, snacks, and pocketknife. Avoid, at all costs, jeans and 100% cotton materials.
As with the inner-shirt, wear a wicking layer as damp cotton can be harsh on the skin long term. Boxers are much better than briefs which can chafe the groin region- and then you will be walking like a rodeo star.
There’s a plethora of fabrics for socks nowadays- try Thorlos or Smart-Wool. Avoid cotton athletic or tube socks unless you want more blisters than usual.
Again, there’s a lot to choose from but here are a few pointers: avoid black; get ankle high or taller boots as this will help to keep spines and stickers from attaching to your socks and making life miserable; and get some decent insoles which your feet will appreciate after a long day of hiking. My preferred brand is SWAT Original. One pair tends to last for about 8 months of abuse and a few hundred miles of hiking. Danner also makes excellent desert boots. On the low-end but still reliable are the Hi-Tec brand boots.
On overnight or multi-week trips, I will also pack along some Gold Bond powder for applying to my feet and boots at the start and finish of each day.
On overnight or longer trips, it’s nice to have some eye-drops along to wash out the grit and dust from your eyes after a day of being in the wind. Systane eye-drops or other saline based solutions are good.
Electrolyte replacement powder
Water and electrolyte replacement powders are both critical to your body’s thermoregulation ability. Hyponatremia, which happens when too much water is consumed and electrolytes are diluted in the bloodstream, can be life-threatening. GU20, Hydralyte, and Clifbloks are just a few of the electrolyte replacement items available. These replace lost sodium and potassium and are essential during the hotter months of the year when your water consumption rates increase dramatically.
Really, in the desert- you’re kidding! Yeah, that’s right, carry 2-6 quarts in the pack and 10-30 gallons in the truck depending on the time of year and number of people. Even it is was a wet year, even if it rained that day, even if my buddy told me he came upon water in the same canyon last week, I will still bring plenty of it with me as there’s a reason it’s called a DESERT. Those who fail to plan ahead and bring water will become jerky!
And if, for some reason, you do run out of water, then stay put from 10 am to 5 pm and hike during the cooler hours of the evening or morning. People have lasted up to two days without water in triple-digit heat of the Grand Canyon and Death Valley while others, trying to find water in the middle of the day, have perished within 3 hours from heat-stroke. Hole up in the shade like a fox and remaining clothed to cut down on sweat loss. Forget nonsense like getting water from solar stills and cactus. The most reliable water source is found in your kitchen sink as you planned ahead!!
An old desert-rat who had spent most of five decades prospecting in the arid Southwest once told me that his binoculars saved him more sweat than any other gear in his pack. If you can get to a vantage point and scan the land below for water, you can locate water sources more readily and reduce the risk of trekking to what looks like a “suspected” waterhole. I carry a pair of 8×24 binoculars for just this purpose and they have served me well.
A 3′ section of aquarium tubing will enable you to extract water from tiny rock fissures, hollow tree cavities, and sandstone seeps where your water bottle can’t fit. A Ziploc baggy is also handy to have along these lines and I carry several gallon-sized spares in my first-aid kit.
For nine months out of the year, I carry a down jacket in my daypack and scrunches down to the size of a grapefruit. Remember the desert is a land of extremes where it can be 110 degrees during the day and then plummet to 30 degrees at night! A down jacket is low-cost life-insurance against hypothermia if you get stuck out at night. The record temperature drop in Arizona occurred in Yuma where it went from 120 degrees F during the day in June to 34 degrees F at night!
Three other things to take on your desert trips:
In conclusion, dress properly, pre-hydrate prior to your trip, cut out caffeinated/alcoholic beverages the night before, take frequent breaks to prevent heat gain, and suck down those electrolyte drinks every 30-60 minutes in the intense heat. Remember that shade-hunger, as the cowboys call it, is a good thing to possess.
For additional information, check out Tony’s book or DVD on Desert Survival.