By Barb Pringle

McDowell Sonoran Conservancy master steward

Parsons Field Institute at McDowell Sonoran Conservancy certified citizen scientist

Originally published in the Summer 2015 edition of Mountain Lines


Mcdowell Sonoran Preserve visitors often overestimate their ability to safely hike in the Sonoran desert. This is especially true in the summer when daytime temperatures can reach 115°F or higher at trail surfaces. McDowell Sonoran Conservancy stewards play an important role in educating and role-modeling proper hiking methods to Preserve users.*

Let’s examine the four main factors of a successful hike: you, your food and water, your equipment, and your technique.


You can acclimatize yourself in preparation for a desert hike by going out in hot weather for five consecutive days and doing activities that make you perspire. But if this doesn’t seem like a viable option, then take some easy hikes, and gradually extend them as you adjust to the heat. While running/walking inside on a treadmill is a good aerobic workout, it’s not a substitute for walking on a rocky trail in the heat.

Your food and water

Your performance, and even safety, depends on adequate food and water. On the trail, never base your food and water consumption on when you feel hungry or thirsty, as this is an inaccurate indicator. Instead, consume 100 to 200 calories of food/hour and one-half to one-liter of water/hour. In hot summer weather, drink one liter/hour.

Before you leave on a morning hike, hydrate with at least one liter of water, and eat a few hundred calories.

On the trail, eat a little and drink a lot every 30 minutes. Trail food such as energy bars or trail mix provides not only fuel but also critical electrolytes such as sodium and potassium that are lost as we perspire. Loss of these electrolytes is a common reason for many hiking health emergencies.

Your equipment

The single most important item in preparing for a hike is to let someone know where you’re going and when you’re planning to return. In addition to the 10 standard hiking essentials, include these items:

  • fully-charged cell phone (editors note:  Download iNaturalist to identify and document the species you find on the trails and contribute to future scientific efforts that access the millions of data points available here.)
  • extra food and water
  • comb and small tweezers (for removal of cactus spines and other pokey things)
  • duct tape (what can’t it do?!?)
  • hiking poles
  • daypack with a built-in hydration bladder and drinking tube.

Your technique

A good hiking technique requires finding your comfortable hike speed. Speed is your pace (steps/minute) multiplied by your stride (length of each step). A successful hike is one in which you can maintain a reasonably steady pace while adjusting your stride length to fit trail conditions. In level or downhill terrain, lengthen your stride while maintaining a steady pace; for uphill terrain, shorten your stride, again keeping the pace steady.

Don’t set an unsustainable speed. A clue that this is happening is stopping often to catch your breath. In this case, adjust your pace or stride length.


*During the Spring and Summer of 2020, the occurrence of COVID-19 novel virus caused stewards to model from afar and educate online versus activities in the field.