Thousands of people enjoy the beautiful mountains and deserts of the southwest every year. Some of these people become needlessly injured, crippled, or even die. Deserts and and mountains can be very unforgiving environments and are not places to be careless or unprepared when visiting. Arizona is one of the hottest places on earth from May to September and heat-related illnesses are especially common during the summer. In addition, if you plan to engage in technical or specialty sports such as climbing, mountain biking, or backwoods hiking, then you need to seek competent instruction before to setting out on your adventure.
Please visit the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention Extreme Heat web page where you’ll find tips, information, and resources to help you stay safe in the extreme heat. And click on any of the topics below to learn more about other important things to consider when hiking in the Tucson area or anywhere in the southwest.
Prepare for the unexpected and emergencies
There is an old saying: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail." and it holds especially true in the environments of the desert southwest. Pleasant conditions and clear trails can lead to overconfidence and danger when the situation or weather suddenly changes. Think about possible emergencies before you leave home and take positive steps to prepare for them:
- How far do you plan to go and how will you know when you get there?
- What if someone gets hurt?
- What if the weather changes unexpectedly?
- What if you are caught out after dark?
- What will you drink?
- What will you eat?
- How will you stay warm?
Although cell phones are a great emergency asset, they are often unreliable in primitive areas and should never be considered a substitute for emergency preparedness and common sense!
If you find yourself in an emergency situation, do not panic! If possible, sit down, think things through before you take action, and consider all of your alternatives. Allow yourself to rest if you become fatigued, don’t press on to the point of collapse – this can be very dangerous. Plan an extra margin of safety into your activities and you’ll enjoy them even more!
Carry plenty of water and drink it
The desert environment can be extremely hot and dry, and can extract tremendous amounts of water from your body very quickly. You will need at least one gallon of water per person per day when temperatures are above 90 degrees, and even more when they get above 100 degrees. Light cotton clothing covering your body and a hat will also help to slow evaporation and protect you from sun exposure.
If you are caught without sufficient water, then shade and rest will be critical for your survival when temperatures soar. Studies have shown that there is no point trying to ration water; drink what you have when you get thirsty. More importantly, bring enough in the first place! Avoid strenuous activity during the day and, if you must travel, then do so at night or in the early morning when it is cooler.
Beware of flash floods
Water actually causes more outdoor deaths in the desert than falls, heat, or hypothermia. The desert soil absorbs so little water, even a short rain can produce a massive runoff resulting in widespread flash flooding. Flash floods strike without warning and can be caused by rainstorms that occurred hours earlier and many miles away. Roadways, culvers, and even bridges can be totally submerged by water in a matter of minutes.
Moving water is very powerful and a strong adult or even an entire automobile can be carried away by rushing water that is only shin-deep. Do not try to drive or wade across a flooded area. Stay out of swiftly flowing streams and washes and do not stand or allow children to play on the banks of washes as these can collapse suddenly. If there has been rain in the mountains, it is best to avoid narrow canyons and waterfalls until the danger of flooding has passed. If you do become stranded in a vehicle, try to stay with the vehicle until rescue personnel arrive to help you.
Do not hike alone
Although it can be tempting to strike out on your own on the spur of the moment, this practice leaves you helpless in the event of sudden illness or injury. Even minor injuries can turn into life-threatening situations if you have no one else to help you. Groups of three or more persons provide the best margin of safety if things go wrong.
Tell someone where you are going
No matter how large your party, it is important to tell someone reliable WHERE you are going and WHEN you plan to leave and return. This will allow rescuers to be dispatched in the event that an emergency occurs and you are unable to summon help yourself. A cell phone is not enough to ensure safety in areas away from cities.
Avoid cliffs and waterfalls
Falls kill and injure thousands of people each year; a vertical fall of 35 feet or more is usually fatal. Loose rocks and boulders can also cause fatal accidents. Hikers frequently do not realize that scaling a cliff or waterfall is often more dangerous and time-consuming than simply going around. The easiest and fastest routes through the mountains are on trails even if they do seem to be longer. If you climb or scramble on rocks, then carry appropriate ropes and technical equipment and learn how to use them properly. Needless to say, alcohol or drugs reduce coordination and judgment and make falling easier.
Be prepared for cold weather
Although southern Arizona is generally mild, hikers should not underestimate the potential for weather extremes. The combined effects of wind and cold, (wind chill), can kill in a matter of minutes, especially if you are wet. The weather in the mountains contrasts sharply with that of the milder valley climate. Temperatures at the higher elevations are typically 30 degrees cooler than those in the valley and windy conditions are common. Rainfall is normally more than twice as heavy in the mountains and winter snows can slow or trap travelers and hide trails.
Some winters are mild, but do not let pleasant conditions make you forget that severe storms can strike suddenly. Listen to weather reports before setting out and carry extra warm clothing and rain gear even if good weather is forecast. If caught in a storm, do not wander and struggle aimlessly. Seek or make shelter and stay warm and dry. Wet clothing acts as a heat drain on the body and should be removed and dried out as soon as possible. Eat plenty of high calorie foods to generate heat and energy. Always know where you are so that you can pick the quickest route out of the mountains during a storm.
Carry proper equipment and use it
Carry equipment to support you in the event of an emergency. Each person should carry at least two independent sources of light, a whistle, a small first aid kit, plenty of water and food, (what you think you’ll need plus extra), and a jacket or other warm clothing. Comfortable, properly fitted shoes or boots are a must and should be selected with your intended activity in mind. Your backpack or rucksack should be large enough to hold all of your supplies and should fit comfortably for extended periods. A sleeping bag, stove, and tent or bivvy sack are needed for longer trips. Never discard your equipment if you become tired of carrying it. Instead, rest until you are able to continue.
If you are a climber, wear a properly fitted helmet at all times and inspect technical equipment frequently in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations. Discard broken or damaged ropes and technical devices regardless of their cost; your life and safety are always worth more! Specialized training is always essential before you engage in climbing and rappelling sports.
Learn key outdoor skills
Knowledge doesn’t weigh an ounce and is always there when you need it. The conveniences of modern life allow us to live day-to-day without many of the basic skills that were well known to earlier generations. Instructional courses in first aid and outdoor skills are available from many community colleges as well as local recreation clubs. Take the time to learn the following outdoor skills:
- How to read and use a topographic map.
- How to apply first aid to injured or ill persons.
- How to use a signal mirror effectively.
- How to improvise shelter.
- How to start and control a fire in any weather.