What to Wear Hiking in the Desert – Bearfoot Theory

Hiking in the desert is a great way to see and experience incredible landscapes, geology, plants, and even wildlife. But visitors tos arid climates need to pack the right desert hiking clothes and gear to stay comfortable and safe in extreme temperatures – hot and cold!

I’ve spent a lot of time hiking around the deserts of the Southwest and with the right gear, clothing, sun protection, and hydration, you’ll be well-prepared for an amazing desert adventure, too. In this blog post, I share my top suggestions for all of this and more whether you’re visiting Southern Utah’s National Parks, Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park, or another amazing desert destination.

Important Reminder: As it goes in all of the destinations we share, please practice good trail etiquette and remember to Leave No Trace. This means packing out all of your garbage (including toilet paper) and following the established rules. In the desert, this also means learning how to protect cryptobiotic soil and how it has a huge impact on our ecosystems.

Sponsored by REI Co-op

REI Co-op is our favorite outdoor gear retailer and a long-time supporter of our work here at Bearfoot Theory. We appreciate their 1-year return policy, their Member-only coupons, and the fact that REI Members receive 10% back on their purchases every year. We only recommend products we truly love and think you will love too.

Desert Hiking Tips

Before I get into my desert hiking clothes and gear suggestions, I want to share a few important things to be aware of as you pack for your trip.

Pack For Hot and Cold Temps

Desert evenings can actually get pretty chilly. Deserts are known for being extreme, and it’s not uncommon to have really high temperatures and really low temperatures on the same day. So, it’s a good idea to pack extra layers to throw on after the sun goes down.

This is especially true in the colder months when the weather in the desert can be surprisingly wintery. Don’t be surprised if the temps dip into the 30s (or below!) in the desert.

Don’t Skimp On Sun Protection

It’s smart to be prepared with ample sun protection, especially if you’re visiting in the summer and plan on spending your days out having fun in the sun. Rather than missing out on beautiful desert destinations, my advice is to pack plenty of sunscreen and wear clothing that reduces your exposure to the sun.

Stay Hydrated

It’s easy to get dehydrated in the desert because sweat tends to dry quickly due to the arid climate, so you may not realize how much fluid you’re losing. Always bring a hydration pack filled with water or a large water bottle with you on any excursion out into the desert.

Choose Light Colors

Light clothing colors such as white, beige, and pastels will help keep you cooler on desert hikes since these colors don’t absorb the sun’s heat as darker colors do. Also, opt for loose-fitting clothes so you can get nice airflow while you hike.

Get An Early Start

Hiking in the desert can be HOT – spring, fall, and winter are the best seasons to visit the Southwest when daytime temps are milder. If you do plan to visit during summer, avoid hiking during the heat of the day (11am-4pm). Heat can turn dangerous quickly, so we always recommend starting at sunrise, or heading for a sunset hike.

Kristen taking a selfie photo with Utah canyon landscape behind her
A sun hat is essential for hiking in the desert

Desert Hiking Clothes

Short Sleeve Hiking Shirt

Patagonia Capilene Cool Lightweight Shirt

This shirt wicks moisture, dries quickly, and will keep you cool — plus it doesn’t wrinkle. It’s ideal for any desert hike because it has great ventilation and odor control, making it perfect for hot days and long hikes. Plus it’s Fair Trade Certified and utilizes recycled materials.

Long Sleeve Hiking Shirt

Patagonia Capilene Cool Long Sleeve Shirt

I have fair skin and have recently gotten into the habit of wearing long sleeves when I hike in the desert, even on hotter days, in order to protect my skin.

This shirt is quick-drying, prevents odor, and is rated for 50+ UPF sun protection. It also breathes really well, so you won’t get too hot even in the sun. Safe to say, you could wear this on your whole trip and hand-wash it when you need to freshen it up. Plus, like the Patagonia tee above, this piece is made from recycled materials and is Fair Trade Certified.

Hiker smiling for camera wearing hiking gear and carrying trekking poles on trail in Utah with red rock bluffs in background
Wearing my Patagonia Capilene Cool Long-Sleeve Shirt on a hike in Utah
Hiking Shorts

The North Face Aphrodite Shorts

We love these shorts because they’re super comfy and lightweight and they have a wide waistband and just the right amount of stretch to them.

They’re also a perfect length and have pockets which are always handy, plus they dry quickly. We’ve worn these hiking, rafting, and lounging and they’re always a great choice.

Hiking Pants

prAna Halle II Hiking Pants

On cool desert days or when the sun goes down, you’ll want to put on another layer like these PrAna pants. They’re light and stretchy enough for you to keep moving on the trail but durable enough to stand up to the elements.

These pants layer well over a pair of long underwear if you’re visiting in the winter or the desert temps really drop at night.

Light Warm Layer

REI Wallace Lake Flannel

No matter what time of year you’re heading to the desert, packing a flannel or lightweight warm layer is always a good idea. It’s soft on your skin, yet durable for hiking and camping. And, it’s available in several different colors, so take your pick.

A woman sits on a bench wearing smiling away from the camera wearing the REI Co-op Wallace Lake flannel
BFT team member Linda wearing the REI Wallace Lake Flannel in Joshua Tree
Warm Jacket

Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket

If you are traveling in the shoulder season, nights in the desert can get pretty cold and you’ll likely need a warm jacket (you can skip this if you’re visiting in mid-summer). I always have an insulated puffy jacket with me, and the Nano Puff is my go-to. It’s super lightweight, warm, and made with eco-friendly materials (recycled ripstop nylon in this case). 

A woman wearing the Patagonia Nano Puff jacket hiking in Joshua Tree
BFT team member Linda wearing the Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket in Joshua Tree
Hiking Boots

Oboz Sypes Mid Leather Boots

These hiking boots are lightweight yet durable, making them great for desert hiking when paired with lightweight hiking socks (Darn Tough are our favorite).

The mid height offers good ankle support on soft, sandy trails and also helps keep the sand out.

The outsole is super grippy which will help you navigate across rocky and sandy terrain and they’re comfortable from day one, so you won’t need to endure a stiff break-in period.

A woman hiking in Sedona smiling at the camera wearing Oboz Sypes Mid Hiking Boots
BFT team member Linda wearing Oboz Sypes Mid Hiking Boots in Sedona
Hiking Sandals

Teva Universal Trail Sandals

One of the best parts of visiting the southwest is getting to explore the unique waterfalls, rivers, and canyons. Rather than wearing your hiking shoes or flip flops, I recommend packing a water sandal that can also double as a camp shoe.

These Teva sandals are a durable option that will carry you from the trail to the river. They’re lightweight, comfortable, and provide great traction with their Vibram soles to prevent slipping.

Check out my complete review of these sandals for more info.

Desert Hiking Accessories

Wide Brimmed Sun Hat

REI Co-op Sahara Guide Hat

Wearing a wide-brimmed hat in the sun will reduce your exposure and help keep your head cool. The best hat for your desert hiking adventure is a hat you’ll actually wear, so pick one out based on your style – the wider the brim the better out in the desert.

We love the Sahara Guide hat because it’s crushable making for easy packing, has mesh vents that allow for easy airflow, and has an adjustable chin cord that allows you to tighten the hat if it’s windy.

See all of our favorite women’s hiking hats here.

Polarized Sunglasses

SunCloud Patrol Polarized Sunglasses

Another must-have item for a desert hiking trip is a good pair of sunglasses, like these ones from SunCloud. With 100% UV protection, these are great sunglasses for hiking in the desert to protect your eyes from the sun.


Buff CoolNet UV+

Buffs are great multi-functional pieces that are great for keeping your neck protected in hot desert environments. We love this one because it has a cooling technology finish and UPF 50+ sun protection. It’s also made from 95% recycled materials.

If the temps are really high or you feeling some heat exhaustion, wet your buff with water and wear it around your head. This will help keep your body temp cooler.

Desert Hiking Gear

Day Pack

Osprey Tempest 20

Once you get to your desert destination, you’ll need a rugged, durable day hiking pack. With just the right amount of room, this Osprey pack has several pockets to store everything you need for a day outside.

You can attach a helmet or trekking poles to the exterior and integrate your hydration reservoir.

Hiker taking a selfie while trekking through narrow slot canyon with tall cliff walls on either side and standing water
Wearing the Osprey Tempest 20 in Utah
Hydration Reservoir

Osprey Hydraulics Reservoir

One of the most important things to remember when you’re out exploring the desert is to stay hydrated. This reservoir is reliable, BPA-free, and available in 1.5, 2, and 3 L.

I recommend the 3L reservoir if you’ll be heading out for a full day – water sources can be limited hiking in the desert. This hydration reservoir is designed to keep a low profile, so your pack will still be comfortable.

Water Filter

LifeStraw Peak Squeeze

If you’re heading out on a longer hike and you know there will be water sources like a river or creek, it’s a good idea to pack a water filter so you can fill up your hydration bladder and not worry about water.

We love this one from Lifestraw because it’s small and lightweight and very easy to use. Just fill it up and squeeze the water out into your larger container or reservoir.

GPS & 2-Way Satellite Communicator

Garmin inReach Mini 2

Throughout most of the wild places in remote desert areas, there’s very spotty cell service or none at all. You may want to consider carrying a satellite communicator.

This tiny handheld device has 2-way texting, SOS, and tracking capabilities. It could be a life-saver (literally) if you need help and you’re out of cell reception. I feel a little more comfortable when I’m off-grid knowing I have an emergency device like this.

Up-close photo of hand holding Garmin inReach Mini GPS satellite communicator
Having a GPS Satellite Communication device like the Garmin inReach Mini can be life-saving
Sunscreen & Lip Balm

Sun Bum Mineral SPF 50

Last, but definitely not least, don’t forget the sunscreen and lip balm. We’ve been loving this sunscreen because it blends in well and most importantly, it’s eco-friendly, reef-friendly, and free of harmful chemicals.

Also, be sure to pack a tube of chapstick with SPF because there’s nothing worse than sore and blistering lips!

Looking for more desert hiking tips and destination guides? Check out these blog posts:

I hope this helps you dial in the gear you need for your desert hiking adventure! What questions do you have? Let us know in the comments below.

What To Wear Desert Hiking | Bearfoot Theory | Get your desert hiking clothes and gear dialed for your next Southwest trip so you're ready to adventure in any temperature. Learn tips for how to layer, how to protect yourself from the sun, and how to choose the right fabrics and colors to hike in the desert.

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