10 Must Haves When On A Photography Trek in the Desert

Hiking in the desert southwest posses certain risks that are not found in other areas of the United States. Good planning for a safe hike is essential to having an enjoyable and rewarding time out in the deserts of the southwest.
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10 Must Haves When On A Photography Trek in the Desert

If you are like me, you do a lot of backpacking with your camera equipment into the great outdoors. For me it is the desert regions, where you have incredible temperature extremes, and harsh conditions.

I always carry the following items with me if I am going to traipse out beyond my car or off the beaten path:

1. Water
2. Food
3. First Aid Kit
4. Fire starting tools (matches or flints)
5. Map and Compass and GPS
6. Flashlight or headlamp
7. Appropriate clothes
8. Signal Mirror and/or whistle
9. Knife and/or multitool
10. Space blanket


First up is water. In the desert water is critical. You will hike and not seem like you are losing too much water by sweating, but in reality you are losing a lot. Because the deserts here in Arizona tend to be hot much of the year, the amount of water loss is high, and you don’t have the visual and tactile cues of a more humid environment, where sweating lets you understand how much water loss you are actually experiencing.

Here in the hot and dry heat, your sweat evaporates once it reaches the air, so you never really get drenched in sweat like you would in other locations. Do not use the amount of sweat you can see as a guide!

You will get dehydrated very quickly and encounter heat stress. You don’t want to be several miles away from your car and be in heat stress, it can be dangerous and potentially life threatening.

You should plan on bringing enough water for your planned hike. Typically a liter per hour you plan to be out and about. Even if you are not hiking, you still need to keep yourself hydrated!

One trick that my doctor (an avid hiker) told me about was to do half coconut water and half water. The coconut water has electrolytes and minerals that our bodies need while under such conditions. And the coconut water flavors the water, making it a satisfying drink on a hot day out.


Second, you should bring something to eat while out and about in the desert. You will be hiking up and down into gullies, washes, ravines, along canyon walls, etc. The amount of exertion you will spend navigating will quickly deplete your strength.

I take some snacks along to help fuel my body as I hike along the trails. The food is always welcomed, and will help replenish some of the salts and electrolytes that are lost by the body through sweating. I try to bring foods that are useful to my body, high in carbs (for energy) and high in protein (satisfies hunger).

First Aid Kit

This almost goes without saying. Please bring a first aid kit along with you, it doesn’t have to be much, just something to help you if you hurt yourself while out and about.

I have a small kit that has those things that I would need if I was to hurt myself while out on one of my adventures, from tweezers to band aids to bandages to antibiotic ointment.

I can hear you! “Tweezers?” you ask!


Ever step on a cholla cacti ball? You will need tweezers to get the needles out of your foot! Or hand!

And if I am camping out, I also have bug spray and aspirin. You can either buy a small kit at Dicks Sporting Goods or put one together yourself. But bring one, you’d rather be safe than sorry.

Fire starting tools (matches or flints)

You never know what will happen. Sometimes we will find our wonderful plans going out the window, and will have a need for a fire, either to heat food, or to warm ourselves, or even as a signal so others can find us if for some reason we are lost or unable to hike out of where we are.

Again, some waterproof matches or a titanium stick with a knife to create tinder and sparks will come in handy. And they weight almost nothing and easily sit into a pocket in our backpacks.

Map and Compass and GPS

I always say this, if you are going out into the desert alone, even if you are hiking on a well-known trail, bring a map. And if you want to be safe, bring a compass to you can navigate from wherever you end up at.

There have been a number of times I have either lost the trail – especially scrambling across bare rock where there are no footprints or even a hint of a trail, or I have been turned around by a landmark I thought I remembered seeing, or just plain lost.

A map is always handy and will help you to figure out where you may be. And a compass can help in terms of which direction to head off in.

I also have a GPS, but I consider it to be a luxury and not my primary means of navigation.

Seriously, batteries don’t often last long in the brutal temperatures of the Sonoran desert, where temps can reach 120 degrees. And if my GPS fails (which it has on occasions), I still have my map and compass.

Flashlight or headlamp

I always have a headlamp in my pack. I can remember the times I have been out and about and it has gotten dark, and I suddenly find myself trying to hike out in the dark.

We all want to get those sunset shots, which means that we have to hike back in the dark.

Do everyone a favor, and carry a headlamp. You will be glad you did!

Appropriate clothes

I find that many people have difficulty with this one. I find that many people will either overdress or under dress for the location.

What I find is that most people will typically under dress for the desert. They will wear t-shirts and shorts, and figure that because it is hot, this is the preferred dress.

But these same people forget about the sun. Even with sunscreen, and a hat, unless your shirt is SPF-50, you will get sunburned after a day hiking in the desert, and at night the desert cools off quickly.

I have hiking shirts that have rolled up sleeves and are rated at SPF 50. I also have hiking pants with zip off legs to convert into shorts. I also have a leather hat I wear to protect my bald head.

And I also bring a small portable umbrella. Often times you won’t be able to find shade, and the sun beating down is incredibly hot. But I bring my own shade. And under the umbrella, the temperature can be as much as 10 degrees cooler than in the open sun. Well worth the little extra weight!

Signal Mirror and/or whistle

Again, just a no-brainer. And easy to store in your pack with no weight penalty. I always have a signal mirror – just a little plastic thing – but I figure that if I get lost, I can always try to attract attention with the little mirror!

I don’t carry a whistle, but my wife does. She doesn’t leave home without it!

Knife and/or Multi Tool

One of those things you don’t think about, but when you need it you wished you had it.

I carry a multitool as it has a saw as well as a knife and other tools. I just wished they made one which had a hex wrench to work on my tripod fittings!

Again, you never know when you might wish you had a multitool, to help cut brush for fires, or to have it for whatever emergency situation that might arise.

I have even used it to help tighten parts on my tripod, not the best tool for the task, but it did keep my tripod in usable condition. Which made the difference for my photography trek!

Space blanket

It gets cold in the desert. I have never gotten lost and worried that I might have to spend the night in the desert. But it is a possibility that isn’t far from my mind when I do go out and hike.

So I carry a space blanket. It is small – smaller than a flat wallet – and it can help to keep you warm in the cold evening desert.

I carry it as an insurance policy. In the desert, you will always need water, food, and some way to keep yourself warm. And it can be used for shelter if you find yourself in a monsoon situation, to help keep you dry and warm.

Other Things I Bring

Other things I carry with me include gloves (for early mornings or late evenings when it gets cold), some rope (about 15 feet, you never know when you would want rope to get down a rock face or a steep slope), and trekking poles.

And I always wear hiking boots that provide ankle support. There have been times that if I had been in sneakers I would have twisted my ankle, which would not have been good. But I have an ace bandage in my first aid kit for that possibility!

I always go out assuming the worst, and hoping for the best. So far I have been lucky, and all this safety gear (other than water) takes up less than an 1/8th of my backpack, leaving plenty of room for cameras, lens and filters!

P.S. So far, I have gotten lost once – only for about an hour, I was able to use both my map and compass to get me a familiar landmark (my GPS died on me 🙁 ).

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A little bit about me . . .

Back in 1982, my Air Force roommate was in desperate need of some cash, and he had a camera. And I was in the market for a camera as I had TDY (Temporary Duty) orders for Cyprus and was looking for a good camera to take with me. So over some beers and some negotiations with my roommate (and a few hundred dollars later), I found that I had become the owner of a brand spanking new Canon AE-1 camera with an assortment of lens, including a Canon 50mm, a 35mm lens, as well as a telephoto lens.

Fast forward to today, and I am now an owner of a Canon 5D Mark II (looking to upgrade, but can’t decide on my next camera) and a bunch of Canon glass and I am primarily a landscape and travel photographer. Yea, that means that I get up before the sun rises and am out after the sun sets. Makes for interesting times!

Thank you for joining me on this photographic journey and hope to hear from you!