American Southwest - Planning and Preparing for Your Trip

Desert heat, narrow slots, poisonous rattlesnakes, cross-country trailess terrain, and big drop-offs (pictured here) are amongst the hazards of hiking the deserts of the American Southwest

Planning and Preparing for your trip to
American Southwest?

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This page covers the following topics:

The American Southwest (as defined in this website) sits within the the US states of California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico so Visa Requirements apply for foreign visitors of most countries. We covered this material in depth on our Niagara Falls page. You can also visit the US Department of State website for the latest on the Visa Requirements.

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There are no mandatory vaccination requirements (as for the rest of the US).

However, there are such requirements for longer-term stays in the country. You can check the US Department of State website for more info on this.

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In order to ensure a relatively safe and hassle-free trip (especially considering the harsh conditions of the desert), here are a few things you might want to consider packing for your trip in addition to your basic toiletries and clothes.

Slickrock hiking

  • Hiking Shoes/Boots - much of the region's outdoor pursuits involves lots of walking and hiking on a variety of terrain from trails to sand to slickrock to even rivers. This allows you to confidently walk through such varied terrain. It will also limit your likelihood of twisting an ankle or knee, which can be especially dangerous if you're deep in nature and help is far away. You can downgrade to running shoes or some other comfortable athletic shoe if you're only limiting yourself to the flat walks located in only the developed touristy areas (e.g. Grand Canyon overlooks, short Zion Canyon trails, etc.), but they're not optimal for going on any of the harder trails outside these developed paths.
  • Hat - don't take for granted the dangers of UV radiation especially out in the harsh desert sun. A hat will at least keep your scalp from getting severely burned. If you're wearing a broad-rimmed hiking hat, it could also help protect your neck, ears, and face.
  • Sunscreen - again, given the sun's harmful UV rays, it's a good idea to protect other exposed parts of your skin from sunburn.
  • Sunglasses - prevents cataracts or other harmful effects of prolonged exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays on your eyes
  • Bug Repellant - this can be controversial because the chemicals contained in these things can be harmful to the environment. However, getting eaten alive by mosquitos or deerflies is not desirable either (especially if there's always that potential of getting some mosquito-born disease). In any case, the most effective repellants contain DEET, but they're smelly and toxic if used excessively. The better way to go environmentally, though not necessarily a comfortable one (especially out in the desert), is to cover your skin with long sleeves and pants. These buggers are generally around from late Spring through the high heat of mid summer as they breed in pools and streams or leftover puddles from accumulated snow.
  • Layered Clothing - even though we think of deserts as hot and dry places, it is also subject to bitter cold temperatures at night. Even though you don't need to be wearing too many layers (unless you're here in the winter), it's still good to prepare yourself with multiple layers that you can peel or add on as needed.
  • Rain Coat - it seems ironic to carry this around in the desert, but monsoonal thundershowers (watch out for lightning strikes!) can drench you so having this will keep you and your equipment dry for the most part (with a rain poncho covering the pack in addition to the body).
  • First-Aid Kit - you'll never know if you need to stop bleeding or remove a tick lodged in a fatty part of your body. It's always a good idea to carry this around in your pack to keep an annoying situation from become life threatening.

Some other things worth bringing to enhance your experience include...

  • Hiking Sticks/Trekking Poles - this is useful for longer and more involved hiking excursions. They provide you 1 or 2 extra "legs" to maintain your balance on stream crossings or alleviate shock to your knees if you're carrying a pack
  • Binoculars or Scopes - this is actually quite useful if you're hiking on terrain where trails involve following cairns (stacks of rocks). Having these tools will allow you to spot them from far away and well before it's too late.
  • Extra Water - water is scarce in the deserts and its worth carrying the extra weight of water to keep the body hydrated and cool. Heat stroke is life threatening so you'll want to make sure you have more water than you think you'll need.
  • Lots of Memory or Film or Portable Hard Drive - the first and third items are for digital photographers. In any case, you'll be taking heaps of photos and you'll want to make sure you can bring all your photos home

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Crime is quite rare in the deserts of the American Southwest, but as development continues to encroach on nature, crime is not far behind. So don't be naive about crime and do not flaunt how much money you have. A money pouch is good for this purpose as are TSA locks if you have to leave stuff in your accommodation while out during the day.

Keep an eye out on the weather for flash floods, especially in narrow canyons such as thisWhen it comes to nature, keep in mind that nature is inherently dangerous and unforgiving. But in order to enjoy what the American Southwest has to offer, you'll have to respect nature and be cognizant of these dangers. Below is a list of things you need to be aware of to stay safe in the outdoors...

  • Hypothermia - as mentioned earlier, this is a silent killer that can catch those who got lost, debilitated, or were unprepared. This can occur even in the deserts if you are still out and about at night (from getting lost or on an overnight hike). Given the desert extremes, night time temperatures can be treacherously cold and thereby increase the likelihood of getting hypothermia. So come prepared with layers of clothing, check the weather, bring a map and compass, and study where you're going so you don't get lost. Do that and you'll be fine.
  • Drop-offs - waterfalls tend to be located where there are canyons, ravines, cliffs, gorges, etc. and this is no exception in the deserts. That means, drop-offs are real hazards, and a fall from great heights can not only break bones, but they'll kill (which is usually the case). Your best defence against this is to stay away from cliff edges (especially if there are no railings) as you don't know how stable the ground beneath you can be. Also be wary of off-trail scrambles down cliffs as you may find yourself unable to get back up! Be prepared to ask yourself whether that better photograph is worth it and walk away.
  • Slickrock terrain like this requires concentration to stay on the trail
  • Getting lost - always stay on the trails, watch for cairns, and heed the signs - for both your safety and to protect the fragile environment (especially areas with cryobiotic dust). Bring a topo map as well as a compass with you if you're on a more involved hike where it's easier to lose the trail.
  • Heat Stroke/Dehydration - needless to say it can easily get hot (especially in the summer) and not having enough water to drink is typically the number one way for you to overheat. But it can be stiflingly hot even if you do have lots of water so if possible, try to avoid hiking during the bright hours of the day and do it at dawn or in the late afternoon. Preparation, lots of water, and avoiding hiking in the height of the desert heat are your best defense against this.
  • Wildlife - some of the hardiest wildlife exist in the deserts, and in order to survive, they've evolved some lethal mechanisms. This is especially true for rattlesnakes, whose venom can kill if it gets into the bloodstream. In other parts of the southwest, there are also mountain lions and coyotes. Deer can be dangerous with powerful kicks if you harass them or don't give them space. They can also pose problems while driving as they tend to run right in front of your car, possibly leading to a fatal accident.
  • Flash Floods - due to the propensity of dry soil and thunderstorm downpours, flash floods can easily occur. This is especially dangerous in washes and slot canyons. Your best defense against this is to try to get your hiking done before thunderstorms build up and dump their contents quickly in the afternoon. Thus, you'll want to avoid being inside slot canyons in the afternoons if you can help it.
  • Lightning - since monsoonal thunderstorms can easily build up in the desert heat and there are lots of open space, this is an underrated killer. Case in point, every year, there are fatal lightning strikes that strike people in the Grand Canyon. You'll want to minimize your exposure to the wide open areas when inside a storm cell (especially in the afternoons), but if you're caught, your best bet is to stay low and hope the storm passes. Definitely don't run to trees or other tall places as usually lightning strikes the highest point in the immediate area. If you can escape into your car, do so as the tires and the metal surroundings forms a Faraday cage that keeps the lightning from zapping anything inside.

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How much time should you spend in the American Southwest?

Many people spend at least a week on a whirlwind Grand Circle Trip taking in the plethora of National Parks, Monuments, and State Parks in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. However, if time is of the essence, you can do what we've done and go on extended weekend trips of 3-5 days (including the drive, which is at least 8 hours from LA to Zion NP; most of the time spent on I-15 traffic with those going to Las Vegas). Naturally, the more time you allow, the more relaxed and flexible your trip will be.

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This is a section I don't really want to write, but I've witnessed shameful acts and seen some of its after-effects. It really sucks that some people are so irresponsible or inconsiderate. I often wish they'd trash their own place but don't ruin sacred places like this for everyone else. Some of the things I've seen include...
  • litter
  • irresponsible off-trail shortcuts
  • people feeding wildlife
  • graffiti on rocks or trees
  • off-road 4wd on sensitive areas without roads
I'm sure there's other things I didn't mention that you'd probably find disturbing if you saw it. So I guess all I have to say about this subject is to please respect nature. Take only pictures and leave with only memories.

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