Arizona is a paradise for every outdoor enthusiast, especially hikers. Even though several months of the year are too hot to be outside for very long, for much of the year the weather is perfect for hiking. With hundreds of miles of trails and new ones being built every year, hiking in Arizona is rapidly growing in popularity.
This desert state presents different challenges compared to others when it comes to spending time outside safely. The arid, sometimes barren landscape can be unforgiving for the uninitiated and unprepared, but if you educate yourself before you head out on your trek you’ll be poised to enjoy Arizona in all its glory.
So in this guide I brought to you, based on my own personal experience and hundreds of hours hiking in the state, the most important and essential tips for hiking in Arizona!
1. Bring Plenty of Water
This is the number one important thing to remember when hiking in Arizona. Even in winter, the sun can still be warm and you may get dehydrated even on short jaunts in the desert. You should plan on 20-30 ounces per hour, more if it is humid or especially hot.
2. Add Electrolytes
When you sweat, you lose salt, potassium, and other important electrolytes that keep your body functioning well. Drinking water by itself is fine for shorter hikes, but for longer treks you’ll want to add some kind of electrolyte mix to your liquids. Salt tabs can also prevent muscle cramping.
3. Know Your Route
It’s easy to get turned around when you’re in the backcountry in Arizona, or if the trails are not clearly marked. There are many apps you can download onto your smartphone that show GPS maps, even with no cell service. Research your planned route ahead of time, and be aware of water sources, trail junctions, and points of interest along the way.
4. When in Doubt, Don’t Head Out!
If you are unsure of the route, if the weather is looking nasty, or if you are simply uneasy about hiking in the desert, it’s best to trust your intuition! The deserts and mountains of Arizona can turn deadly quickly, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the terrain and conditions. Most people who get injured or even die on Arizona’s trails are unprepared and overconfident. Scary …
5. Hike with a Buddy
Solo hiking should only be done on more crowded trails and by those who are well-versed in survival skills. Hiking in a group or in pairs helps to cut down on your chance of getting into trouble. For example, men ages 18-30 who are hiking alone are the most likely to run into trouble in the Grand Canyon.
6. Bring Snacks!
Hiking in the heat requires more energy, meaning you should be eating at least once an hour or so to keep up your pace. If your hike has long climbs, be prepared to eat more and stop to eat before embarking on your climb.
7. Beat the Crowds
If your schedule allows it, try to hike during the week instead of the weekends. The trails around Phoenix tend to get very crowded on Saturdays and Sundays and parking can be hard to come by. Getting out for a sunrise hike during the week can be one of the most peaceful ways to start your day.
8. Leave No Trace!
This should be a no-brainer for any respectful hiker. Pack out all your trash, and avoid relieving yourself on or near the trail. Even biodegradable items like orange and banana peels should be packed out, as animals can eat these and possibly become sick. Do not carve your name into rocks or trees, and stay on the trail at all times to preserve the delicate landscape.
9. Don’t Wear Headphones!
Having all of your senses available to you is important while hiking, but especially hearing. Rattlesnakes give a warning shake before they strike, and you may get bit if you cannot hear them. Mountain bikes can come up quickly behind you, so keep an ear out for them for everyone’s safety. Even horseback riders and other hikers can come up behind you quickly, and if you are listening to music you can create an awkward situation.
10. Check the Weather Before You Go
Arizona’s weather is usually bright, hot, and sunny but can also change in an instant certain times of the year. Do not venture into washes or slot canyons if there is any sign of rain, as flash floods can form from storms many miles away. If the temperature looks to be over 100 degrees by early in the morning, considering saving your hike for another time or go at night. Monsoon storms can bring violent lightning, thunder, and rain so you’ll want to avoid exposed mountain peaks on summer afternoons.
11. Start Early
You can hike in the summer months if you start early, and especially if you plan to hike on the western side of a mountain to avoid the sun for as long as possible. Plan on finishing your hike before 10 am, when the heat index starts to climb dangerously!
12. Plan Your Long and Hard Hikes for the Fall/winter
From November to April, the weather is downright fantastic for hiking! With mild temperatures and occasional cloudy days, you could easily spend 6-8 hours on a long hike without being in too much danger of dehydration or being exposed to the elements.
13. Wear Good Shoes
The rugged trails in Arizona are not for smooth-soled Vans and similar, fashion-forward shoes. Wear a hiking or running shoe with a sturdy sole, and higher socks are recommended as well to protect your ankles from bushes, cactus, etc.
14. Sunscreen, Even on Cold Days!
The Arizona sun is relentless year round and you could easily get sunburned even in the middle of winter. Sunglasses will help prevent sun damage to your eyes as well.
15. Appreciate the Beauty
Even the desert can be stunning, and it’s always worth it to stop on your hike and enjoy the views. Sometimes the view behind you can be even better than the one in front of you! Turn around, take it all in, and enjoy the incredible landscapes that Arizona has to offer.
16. Know Your Limits
If the trail looks too difficult, if you start to feel unwell, or if the weather start to turn, head back to the trailhead! Don’t set out for a hike that is beyond your current fitness and skills. Challenging yourself can be fun, but know when you’ve reached your limit!
17. Keep Your Dogs on a Leash
There are so many things that can injure a dog when you’re hiking, whether it be rattlesnakes, coyotes, bobcats or mountain lions, scorpions, or vegetation like cacti or cat-claw. I prefer to keep my dog protected and close to me, on the trail! Other hikers might also not appreciate unfamiliar dogs running uncontrolled up to them or their dogs.
18. Know the Rules of Yielding on the Trail
Signs are usually posted at busy trailheads, but try to remember: hikers yield to horseback riders, and mountain bikers yield to both foot traffic and horseback riders. Also, downhill hikers should yield to uphill hikers. Of course, there can be exceptions to these rules (trail is too narrow, or a biker cannot stop safely) but always try to remain respectful of others on the trails and most importantly, give horses plenty of space to pass.
19. Don’t Play Loud Music
This could potentially be controversial, but I have noticed an increase in people wearing loudspeakers and playing music at annoyingly high volumes. Not only is it disrespectful to other hikers and trail users, but it can also disturb local wildlife and prevent you from hearing rattlesnakes close by.
20. Wear Weather Appropriate Clothing
Both overheating and hypothermia can be dangerous, so always dress according to the weather and how difficult your hike is. I tend to dress “colder” since I warm up quickly while hiking, even on cooler days, but some people may be more comfortable with more layers. In the summer, a hat is a must, and light colored clothing and shorts are best.
21. Take Your Time
Hiking can either be a lovely stroll, a heart-thumping workout, or anything in between. Either way, take plenty of rest and make sure you are staying hydrated and fueled sufficiently!
22. Head to the Mountains!
In the summer, hiking in the desert is near impossible due to the relentless heat. Drive a couple hours north or east, and you’ll find gorgeous hiking trails nestled in the pines in Arizona’s higher elevations. Areas near Payson, Show Low, Greer, Heber, and Flagstaff all contain incredible trails worth exploring during the summer months.
Hiking in Arizona is an increasingly popular activity that many residents and visitors take advantage of year round. In the winter, take to the rugged lower desert trails and enjoy the cacti and local wildlife. In the summer, head up to the cooler mountains and hike under the shade of the pines and aspens. There’s no shortage of routes, views, and vistas for you to take in.
Taking safety into consideration is a sure way for you to really have fun on your hike. Hiking is much more enjoyable when you’re well hydrated, know where you’re going, have the appropriate gear, and are respectful of your fellow hikers. So take all these tips into consideration, and get yourself out there!