What you need to know about biking in the desert

The desert is an excellent place for a biking trip, but comes with specific hazards.

Much of the American southwest is dominated by gorgeous, sprawling desert. Between the iconic red rocks and towering cacti, there are tremendous opportunities for outdoor exploration. Biking through these regions is immensely rewarding, but also carries a specific set of caveats and hazards.

Understanding what to expect when traversing the desert landscape is a good first step in ensuring your trek is a successful one. By planning ahead and packing the right equipment, you can reduce any risk of peril and enjoy the breathtaking scenery. 

The gear
There can be a tremendous amount of diversity in a desert ecosystem, and you may encounter loose sand or stones alongside slick mud or even frost. It's important to do a bit of research and try to learn more about the specific area you plan to explore to better understand what challenges exist.

All the same, bringing along the right tires can help you prepare for your desert bike ride. Schwalbe Tour Plus wire bead tires, for example, offer peace of mind when riding even on serious off-road conditions. A Topeak Road Morph G Pump & Gauge is also a wise investment, as slightly deflated tires are useful when using sandy trails. Likewise, a flat tire in the middle of the desert could represent a serious problem, so having the means to remedy such an issue is also key.

Fitting your bike with lights and a water bottle cage is also a good idea when biking in the desert. Be sure to bring along a first aid kit and a pack full of other helpful survival items, especially when exploring more remote areas. 

The desert is a beautiful and diverse landscape full of unique challenges.
The desert is a beautiful and diverse landscape full of unique challenges.

The attire
It's important to protect yourself from dehydration and sun exposure while in the desert. The strong sun can quickly become a health hazard, but sunscreen, water and long sleeves can keep your body protected from otherwise hazardous UV rays. Sleeveless shirts and other items may seem like a better option, but in reality, these not only increase your sun exposure, but increase the rate at which you lose fluids.

Although the desert is well-known for its parched earth and exhausting heat, the early morning and evenings can quickly become quite chilly. For extended trips especially, having layered clothing is essential. If you are camping and spending the night, the Marmot MINIMALIST Gore-Tex Jacket is light and durable, but can also keep you protected from frigid conditions.

The elements
Because the desert heat is so dry, you can become dehydrated more quickly than in other climates. For that reason, be sure to stop and drink water frequently. Find shade and rest if you have a headache or feel faint, as this can be a sign of heat exhaustion. Even if the daily forecast isn't especially imposing, it is essential to be mindful and to avoid over-extending yourself. By the same token, sweating heavily in the later part of the day can present a different problem, because dropping temperatures and wet clothing can quickly lead to illness or even hypothermia.

Aside from the climate, the desert landscape can present a number of challenges and hazards. You should always bring a good first aid kit whenever traveling in the wilderness, but between dozens of thorny plants, rocky outcrops and sandy conditions that could quickly lead to an infection, it is wise to have adequate supplies close at hand.

Even the desert is not immune to an occasional snow storm.
Even the desert is not immune to an occasional snow storm.

The critters
Even when biking, it pays to be aware of some of the specific cast of creatures that call the American southwest home. Large creatures such as cougars and big horn sheep prowl the desert regions of the U.S. and each could become a problem if you are not being mindful of your surroundings. While it is unlikely you would be ambushed by one of these animals while on the trail, startling a cougar or big ram could lead to an unsafe situation.

There are also many insects that can deliver nasty bites or stings, while some of the nation's most famous venomous snakes can be found in the desert. The diamond back rattlesnake, for example, can surprise hikers and campers, even with its trademark warning system.

Above all else, visitors to the desert should be mindful of the wild animals and other hazards contained within the intoxicating landscape. Exercising caution and planning ahead are your best bets for enjoying the scenery safely. 

About Stephane Marchiori

Owner of
Bike touring since 2003, including:
a 5-Year Bicycle Journey Around The World!

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