How to Prep for a Long-Distance High Desert Hike

Cold winter days and long, dark nights are the perfect time to start planning your next adventure.

We sat down with Renee Patrick, Oregon Desert Trail coordinator for the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), to get some tips on pre-hike prep. Renee has hiked nine long-distance trails and racked up over 10,000 miles on some of the popular trails—and brand-new routes all over the country.

Renee Patrick | Photo courtesy of ONDA

How should someone start planning for a thru-hike?

I like to start by reading a journal or five from someone who has hiked the trail I’m interested in. The websites Trailjournals and Postholer have thousands of journals from long trails all around the world. Next, head to the website of the organization that maintains or manages your trail, and download or buy the resources they have available. On routes like the Oregon Desert Trail or Grand Enchantment Trail, it is especially useful to do a lot of research as there are many more factors to consider on a route that may be unmarked, have long distances between water sources, or contain a lot of cross-country travel.

How does planning for a route differ from planning for a trail?

The biggest difference probably comes in honing some of the skills you will need on a route. Having solid navigation skills is a must. Even with great GPS-based resources like the Hiking Project that can be used on a smartphone in the backcountry, know that electronics can fail or break. It’s extremely important to always carry paper maps and a compass. If you aspire to hike a route but don’t have those navigations skills dialed in yet, consider taking a class at your local REI or check out an online tutorial. Then practice, practice, practice.

Navigation skills are a must. Photo courtesy of ONDA

Water is next. Many of the popular desert routes out there (Oregon Desert Trail, Hayduke Trail, Grand Enchantment Trail) and even some of the trails (Pacific Crest Trail, Arizona Trail) can’t be done without caching water [read: hiding water along your route] ahead of time. Sometimes helpful “trail angels” will cache water for hikers, but unless you place your own water out in the desert, it’s best not to rely on public caches. A caching strategy is key. We’ve developed some caching guidelines to help hikers figure out some best practices, but your water needs could vary drastically from the next person. You will have to do some math. Look at the water resources available, (many routes and trails have a water chart that lists sources, reliability, and location), calculate the distances between reliable sources, and based on your estimated daily average, you should be able to figure out where and how much water to cache.

It’s important to know that the season you choose for your hike could drastically impact water availability and needs. Plan to pack all of your caches out as you reach them. Plastic gallon jugs of water are easy to crush or cut up so you can fit them in your pack.

How do you plan for what gear you’ll need?

Each trail or route will have a different set of challenges, and therefore a different set of gear needs. On desert trips, a sun umbrella could make the experience much more pleasant. Keeping the sun off your head and shoulders while walking can save your skin and keep you much cooler. An umbrella works great in the rain or snow, too.

Look at the temperature and projected weather. If you are hiking in July, you probably don’t need your 20-degree sleeping bag and can take a lighter and smaller bag. Likewise, if hiking in the fall, temperatures could get very cold, so having extra layers or a shelter that can withstand an early snowfall is a good idea. If you think you’ll be hiking in the rain, go hike in the rain. If you think you’ll be hiking in the snow, go hike in the snow. Use your gear, do a test run or two, and make sure all your systems are a go before you find yourself in the middle of the backcountry.

A photo posted by Seth Morgan (@sethanmorgan) on

How do you plan out a resupply strategy?

Some trails and routes have compiled a list of towns and resources you can expect to find along the hike. These resources are a great place to start.

Once you have your estimated mileage figured out (it’s always best to underestimate how many miles you can hike during the first few weeks), and know the distance between trail towns, you can then look at the resources available in those towns. For example, the Oregon Desert Trail has a few stops where a hiker could not buy enough food to last a week on the trail. In that case, it’s a good idea to send a resupply box ahead of time or put together a box in a larger town and mail it ahead to the smaller town. I really like this last strategy as I often don’t know how many miles I’ll be hiking a day, especially along a route where there is a lot of cross-country travel.

Always send your resupply boxes via priority mail, as they can be forwarded on at no charge if your plans change (and it only takes two to three days for delivery). Don’t be afraid to make some calls to find out what is available if the resources are lacking.

A photo posted by Mela Spatz (@feuerspatz) on

Planning for stove fuel is another big resupply issue. Many small towns might not have canister fuel or white gas. I have been using a wood burning stove recently, and love that I don’t have to figure out how to ship or find fuel along the trails anymore.

Any other advice?

A great resource is another hiker. If you can find someone locally who has hiked the trail you are interested in, take them out for a beer and pick their brains. You never know what wisdom will emerge after an IPA or two!

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