Safety Tips & Planning

With the hot desert temperatures in full swing, it becomes vital to follow basic precautions when hiking. The human body has its own built-in air conditioning system to keep its internal temperature constant, regardless of the temperature of the surrounding environment. One of the ways the body gets rid of excessive heat is through sweating. As sweat evaporates from the skin, we begin to cool down. However, when the system is overexerted or temperatures are extreme, this mechanism can fail, leading to a heat-related illness

Hiking Safety

Make a hiking plan

  • Make sure someone knows your itinerary: when and where you'll be hiking, as well as when you will be done.
  • Know your limitations. Don't attempt a hike that may be too difficult for your abilities.
  • Pace yourself and take regular breaks.
  • Know the weather conditions. Temperatures can exceed 110 F (43 Celsius) between May and October.
  • Brief and powerful thunderstorms and lightning can occur in July and August. Avoid high points along the trail during storms.

Have the essentials

  • Wear Proper footwear. Sturdy hiking boots that are broken in and comfortable are best.
  • Take at least one quart of water. Turn around when ½ of your water is gone!
  • Wear light-colored, loose clothing. A long-sleeved, lightweight shirt is recommended.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and sunscreen (SPF 15 minimum).
  • Carry a cell phone. In the event of an emergency, take note of your location and any landmarks so the 911 dispatcher can direct first responders.

Stay on the trail

  • You are more likely to be injured or need to be rescued if you stray from the trails.
  • Watch where you step. Keep an eye on the trail well in front of where you are walking, and always consider thepath before bounding forward. The desert has numerous plants and animals that poke, impale, sting, or bite.
  • Snakes, insects, and spiders are part of the ecosystem and a few of them have poison in their defense mechanism. If encountered, give them plenty of room and don't panic. Rarely are they aggressive and in time will move away from you if left alone.

Trail etiquette

  • Learn to share the trail with other trail users. Use courtesy and common sense when meeting on the trail. The universal rule of trail courtesy is for all trail users to yield the right-of-way to horses, and for bicycle riders to yield to all other types of users.
  • Always carry out what you carry in. The first rule with interacting with the environment is: Leave it as you found it. Carry out all of the garbage you carry in, don't feed the animals, and leave only footsteps when you go.
  • Do not chase or harass wildlife.
  • Remember the 3 C's - Courtesy, Communication and Common Sense.

Heat-Related Illnesses

When the body's mechanisms to decrease body heat are overwhelmed and the body is unable to tolerate the excessive heat, illness develops.

High temperatures and humidity, along with excessive sweating, can cause the body to lose fluid and electrolytes very quickly. Illness from heat exposure can take the following three forms: heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are painful muscle spasms that occur after vigorous exercise. They do not occur only when it is hot outside. The exact cause of heat cramps is not well understood but we know that sweat produced during strenuous exercise, particularly in a warm environment, causes a change in the body’s electrolyte, or salt, balance. Dehydration may also play a role in the development of muscle cramps. Heat cramps usually occur in the leg or abdominal muscles. Onset is typically sudden; especially in a hot environment.

Treatment of heat cramps includes removing the person from the hot environment and loosening any tight clothing, resting the cramping muscles and replacing fluids lost. Water or a diluted electrolyte, such as Gatorade, is best. Hydration by drinking a lot of water is the best preventative and treatment strategy.

Heat exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is the most common serious illness caused by the heat. Heat exposure, stress and fatigue are causes of heat exhaustion, which is due to the loss of water and electrolytes from heavy sweating. For sweating to be effective as a cooling mechanism, the sweat must be able to evaporate from the body. Heavy clothing or high humidity will decrease the amount of evaporation that can occur.

Common signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Dizziness, weakness, or faintness with accompanying nausea or headache
  • Onset while working hard or exercising in a hot environment and sweating heavily
  • Cold, clammy skin that is ashen (grey) in color
  • Dry tongue and thirst

Treatment includes removing any excessive layers of clothing, particularly around the head and neck, moving the person out of the heat and/or direct sunlight, encouraging the person to lie down with feet elevated, and if fully alert, encourage them to slowly drink water. If the person does not feel better with rest and fluids or gets worse, seek immediate medical care.


Heatstroke is the least common, but most serious, illness caused by heat exposure. It occurs when the body is subjected to more heat than it can handle and normal mechanisms for getting rid of the excess heat are overwhelmed. The body temperature rises rapidly to a level at which tissues are destroyed. Untreated heat stroke always results in death.

Patients with heatstroke have hot, dry, flushed skin because their sweating mechanism has been overwhelmed. However, in the early stages of heatstroke, the skin may still be moist or wet. Often, the first sign of heatstroke is a change in behavior. However, the person becomes unresponsive very quickly.

Recovery from heatstroke depends on the speed with which treatment is received. If heatstroke is suspected, move the person into an air conditioned area, remove clothing, apply cool packs to the neck, groin and armpits, cover with cool towels or sheets, fan them repeated, and call 911 or transport immediately to the hospital.

Last Updated: Apr 23, 2024

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