Desert clothing is a kind of hot weather clothing. It’s very different than what you would wear in most other climates. That’s because it’s hot, it’s dry, and you’re likely sweating like a son of a gun. And that’s before we consider other factors like snakes, shrubs, and the general pleasantries you may encounter when you’re out in the desert.
Does that put you off? It shouldn’t – for all its challenges, when done right, there is nothing on the planet quite like desert hiking. It’s stark, it’s desolate, and well, for many people, it’s a way of life. So what desert clothing is essential, and how do you dress for success when your only companions are 100°+ days and a few thousand cacti?
Let’s look a little closer at desert clothing and how to prepare when things get hot.
What Kind of Clothes Do You Wear in the Desert?
The short answer to that question: in the desert you wear light-colored, light fabric layers during the day, and a change of warmer clothes with a jacket if you’re going to be there at night. You’ll want layers because you’ll be sweating, and the desert can quickly get hot and, surprisingly, cool – especially after dusk.
Cotton – This is hotly debated in the hiking community because cotton is heavy, it chafes, and it can make you smell like a Sunday Roast left out in the sun since two weeks ago. Rough translation, it holds sweat and it gets stinky. However, it’s those same traits that make cotton attractive to many desert hikers. The damp, sweat-filled cotton actually has a cooling effect against your skin on a hot day.
So, does cotton make good desert clothing? It can – provided you have a change of clothes. You might also be interested in bamboo fiber cotton, which is lighter than traditional cotton and feels like poetry against your skin on a hot day. Check out our own Abenaki Cross Trainer for a bamboo shirt that might be of interest.
Polyester – Polyester is another good option for desert clothing. It has moisture wicking properties (and ‘moisture wicking‘ means it draws sweat away from your skin and into the fabric, where it evaporates, without cooling you down, by the way).
As well, polyester is water-resistant, it dries quickly, it’s fairly durable and it’s easy to wash and dry – all of which make polyester one of the better fabrics for desert clothing.
Merino Wool – Wool has a sometimes-deserved reputation for being itchy. Merino Wool largely escapes that because its fibres are smaller and more flexible than traditional wool. That’s a good thing when you’re in the desert. It’s also stretchy, helps cool the body, odor-resistant and can be worn for days without causing a stink.
As for the sometimes heated debate about bamboo vs merino wool, think about merino for long trips because it’s more odor-resistant, and bamboo for activewear, because it stretches better. They both help wick moisture and have anti-bacterial properties.
Desert Clothing: The Essentials
Now you know some of the better fabrics for desert clothing. Here comes the fun part: choosing your desert hiking wardrobe.
Oh goody, I get goosebumps just thinking about how stylish you’re gonna look!
Please note: these are affiliate links to Backcountry.com. If you buy a product through them, I will receive a commission (no additional cost to you). Opinions are my own and based on my totally wicked sense of style and what’s gonna keep you comfy and looking slick among thousands of cacti.
1 – Long Pants
Yes, I know it’s the desert, but hear me out on this. Anyone from Arizona, Death Valley and/or any place that’s hot as f**k knows you don’t wear shorts here. Desert clothing begins with long, preferable ultra-light hiking pants, that you can easily put on or take off as required. This does several things: first, it protects your skin from burning up like a steak on your barbecue.
Second, it protects your skin from cacti, the bush, sand and/or some of the more punishing factors of hiking in the desert.
Don’t go hiking in the desert without long, lightweight pants. Got it? Cool.
Just like you’d protect your legs with long pants, a long-sleeve shirt does the same for your upper body. A long sleeve shirt that wicks moisture is a good option here. That’s because it reduces sweating and helps you conserve water – which you’re gonna need (more on that later). A moisture-wicking shirt should also dry faster than a heavier garment.
While there are many options, the classic long-sleeve, button up shirt is a favorite with desert hikers. You might also want something a little on the baggier side, so air circulates better, and a light color at that.
You know how much it sucks to walking around all day in soggy socks, right? (Insert cringe here). This is where moisture-wicking comes into play. Go for a pair of high-ankle merino wool socks. The ‘High Ankle’ part of that is to keep sand out of your shoes and protect from chafing.
The ‘Merino Wool’ part of that is because, as we’ve already discussed, its moisture wicking will help keep your feet dry and should help to reduce blisters.
Your feet take a beating in the desert. That’s all the more reason to go in protected – quality hiking shoes are a must for desert clothing. You want hiking shoes that are durable enough to handle rocks and thorns, and with enough breathability to keep your feet from sweating. Opt for a light color hiking shoe to repel heat rather than a darker shoe, which has the opposite effect. Pro tip: add gaiters over your shoes to further protect from sand and pebbles.
The sun don’t play favorites. It will punish every inch of your hair and scalp if you head into the desert without a hat. Your move? Wear a wide-brimmed hat – preferably with built-in UV protection, mesh vent (for breathability) and even a neck cape so you don’t turn into, well, a redneck. Wide brim hats not your style? Wear a cap over a bandana.
You’re protecting your legs, arms, feet and head. Any guesses what comes next? Here’s a hint: you need them to see. Protect your eyes in the desert with a good pair of sun glasses with a UV rating of 400 or higher. Yup, 400 – that’s to protect your eyes from both UVA and UVB radiation. Good sunglasses also protect against wind, dust, and even sunburns. Most glacier sunglasses meet these prerequisites by default. Polarized sunglasses are a little cheaper and they’re another good option.
Sunburns, age spots, skin cancer….you get the idea. Slather on plenty of waterproof sunscreen with a UPF of 50+. Apply it often – as in every two hours and/or after sweating or getting wet,
Desert Clothing: Extra Gear
We’ve just reviewed the basics of desert clothing. You’ll want extra gear if you’re in the desert overnight. That’s because desert temperatures can change dramatically, and faster than you might imagine. Staying dry is also important. Yes, hypothermia is a major risk in the desert at night.
Even if you’re not going to camp in the desert, you need to be prepared for what it can throw at you. Think sandstorms, flash floods and extreme temperature changes. The following gear is good to have:
1 – Base Layer (Moisture-Wicking)
In some parts of the desert, you can go from 40 degrees Celsius to zero in less than 12 hours. A good base layer can help keep you warm and it’s light enough for sleeping. A merino wool base layer is a good base layer option for desert clothing at night.
Your hands take plenty of abuse when desert hiking. You should always cover them in sunblock, and many hikers find that a pair of sun gloves is money well-spent. Some hikers call these ‘Cool Gloves’ as well.
OK tough guy. You’re stocked up with these essential desert clothing items and added the gear for good measure. Is there anything else you need to know before you apply shoe to sand and make acquaintance with the almighty desert? You bet there is…
Bring a Water Container (NOT A Hydration Bladder) – It goes without saying you need water in the desert. Bring plenty of it (and note, you’re at higher risk of kidney stones in the desert if you’ve ever had one). Put that water in a durable water container rather than a hydration bladder, which can sometimes fail in intense heat. They’re cheaper too. Bring more water than you think you’ll need.
Bring Grapes and Salty Snacks – Food allergy permitting, grapes are a good, light and moist snack on a hot day. Raisins and blueberries are another good option. Bring some salty snacks too – they help replace some of the sodium you’ll lose through dehydration. Pretzels, mixed nuts and crackers are options.
Bring a Lightweight Hoodie – While not essential desert clothing, some hikers find that a lightweight hoodie can keep you cooler than a t shirt. I like the Columbia Terminal Tackle Hoodie for its moisture-wicking and breathability. It’s a light color too, which helps deflect the sun’s intensity.
Hike With a Buddy – The Buddy System saves lives. It’s not smart to hike on your own in the desert.
Pack Your Trash – Pack it in, pack it out. The desert is a fragile ecosystem. Don’t leave your garbage in the desert.
Listen To Your Body – Your body will never lie to you. If you have a headache, muscle weakness, dizziness, confusion, cold, clammy skin, dark urine, muscle cramps, nausea or diarrhea, those are all signs of heat exhaustion. Look for shade – fast – and rest for at least 30 minutes when you find it.
Remove any tight or restrictive clothing while you’re at it, and apply a damp cloth to your face. Drink plenty of fluids – they’re your friend in the desert.
Check Your Shoes – A little on the creepier side, but essential regardless. Check your shoes before you put them on in the morning for ants, scorpions, and yup, even snakes and spiders. You’re in their home – and your shoes make a nice house.
3 Types of Desert
You’re kitted out and you’re ready to go. Now, uh, where’s the desert?
The term ‘Desert’ is a very broad term that simply means a barren area with little precipitation. Well that’s helpful. Let’s narrow things down a little: for desert hiking, we are generally looking at three types of desert.
Arid (Hot and Dry) – This is probably the epitome of ‘desert’. The Sahara desert is a perfect example – it’s hot and dry, and temperatures get, well, a little crazy, between 90 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the day before they plummet at night. Low shrubs and even less rainfall, yet susceptible to flash floods and sandstorms, when you think ‘Desert’, it’s likely Arid.
Semi-Arid (Cold) – A cold desert? Yup. Well, kind of – a semi-arid desert gets sporadic rain and even the odd snowfall. In the United States, Utah, southern Oregon and northern Nevada are good examples of semi-arid desert (and the Okanagan desert if you’re a Canuck like myself 🇨🇦).
Temperatures range from 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. That plunges to a chilly 20-30 degrees in winter. And yup, there are plenty of Cacti in semi-arid deserts. Their ability to preserve water helps them thrive in this type of dry environment.
Coastal – As the name implies, a coastal desert is near a body of water. Winters are cool and summers are both long and warm. Coastal deserts get more rainfall than the other two desert zones and can even get the odd fog patch. Temperatures hover from 50 to 70+ degrees in summer and below 40 in winter.
Examples of coastal desert include Africa’s Namib desert and the Atacama Desert in Chile.
Desert Hiking Ideas
Want an easy(ish) way to get into desert hiking? If you’re American, hike the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) along the Pacific coast of the United States. Over 700 miles of the California section alone take you through desert zones and can easily be called ‘desert hiking’.
It’s a popular route and with plenty of water stations and support along the way.
Alkali Flat Trail (New Mexico). Skill level: difficult
Conclusion: What Desert Clothing Do You Need?
For desert hiking, at a minimum you will need a long shirt, long pants, moisture wicking socks, a wide-brimmed hat, hiking shoes, sun glasses and sunscreen. Think about extra desert clothing too if you’re there over night or on a longer/ more difficult trail like Chester Park Loop.
Light base layers, a down jacket, sun gloves, gaiters, lip balm and a beanie are also good to have.
Hiking a very long trail, like the PCT, will need much more than that – but that’s a topic for another day.
Take care to buy quality with desert clothing. Remember to stick with light colors and light-ish, loose-fitting fabrics with moisture wicking when possible. Desert hiking is a different kind of journey – and a highly rewarding one if you give it a chance.