Hiking on the Colorado Plateau has its own set of challenges that are different from hiking in other areas of the United States. Of course, every area seems to have its unique ways of experiencing the outdoors.
My native New England tends to be rainy, humid when sunny, and tick-borne illnesses are an understandable concern. And the Colorado Rockies means more sun exposure, adjusting to the altitude, and the possibilities of lightning during the summer.
But, what I think makes the Colorado Plateau, and the areas around Moab, in particular, more challenging is that the ecosystem around here is an unknown for most people. Something outside their scope. When I went from the Whites of NH to the Colorado Rockies, my readjustment period ended up being easy. My hiking took me to higher altitudes. But wearing a hat and long sleeves ended up being the primary adjustment. Exposure, type of hiking, and even the terrain ended up being very similar.
However, I had to learn new skills and technique when exploring the Colorado Plateau over the years. Sure, the Colorado Plateau is desert, but with lots of technical challenges even when “just” hiking. Throw in the heat, the relatively high altitude, and the pervasive red dirt, and some concepts may not occur to some people.
So here are those idea, techniques, and gear items I’ve learned be it from my experience or from other people (my rather experienced partner comes to mind!).
Are these ideas universal for all people and situations? Probably not. But these are ideas I find works for me. Adjust as appropriate for you!
Moab, UT is relatively high up at 4,000 ft above sea level. The nearby Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands averages 6,000 ft in elevation. Not higher elevation hiking compared to Colorado, but certainly higher than where many people from all over the country and world hail.
Throw in the heat, the lack of shade, and exposure, some sort of sun protection is a must!
So what to do?
- Prime hiking is in ~late-September until about early November or so. And then from about late February to about ~mid-May.
- Moab winters are rather lovely in my opinion but can be cold. And those below freezing temps often take people, forgetting it is a high desert, by surprise! You may even need traction devices. And you’ll still have sun exposure and the relatively high altitude.
- Summer? Many people still come here despite temps routinely pushing pass 100F! If you must hike here then, PLEASE start early in the day, stop by 10 AM and do not think of hiking again until after 6 PM to be safe. As pointed out to me, your chocolate will melt in the Summer, too. However, I’d rather be in the nearby La Sals and not the desert floor. Cooler AND I can enjoy my chocolate. 😀
- If you are coming from sea level or thereabouts, you should be fine with the altitude overall if you go slower at first. But a day to take it easy in town won’t hurt.
- As mentioned, the constant sun exposure and higher altitude (and the more intense UV rays that go with it) means sun protection is a must!
- Sunscreen or clothing, of course. I prefer clothing to sunscreen as I find the sunscreen clogs my pores and gets dirty esp. on multiday trips.
- I like my dorky sun hat personally. There are other options, but cover up that noggin! Joan enjoys a Sunday Afternoon hat for complete neck and face protection, for example, esp when it is not winter.
- I am blessed (cursed) with oily skin common for my ancestry. So it goes. Good for the dry weather out here, though. If you have dry skin, some moisturizer and lip balm might be a good idea be it for your hands, face, or lips.
- The long-sleeve collared shirt provides excellent sun protection. I like the ventilation and neck protection the shirt provides too.
- Long pants work well. As a bonus, they protect the legs better than shorts for the scrambling typically done or off-trail hiking. Help keep you a bit cleaner from all the red dirt that abounds, too!
- Sunglasses are vital for cutting down on glare and providing UVA/B protection for the eyes. After many years of hard use, I’m all about my Nemesis Safety Glasses.
- See my recent article for more details on the gear.
- If you are more prone to burning, sun gloves are an excellent item to take. Light, keeps the sun off the hands, and even functions as a very light wind layer.
- UPDATE: And, based on the comments, I did not include an umbrella as I do not use them as I tend to be off-trail. For on-trail use with non-scrambling routes, an option. One option I wrote about before if you need more details. And, as stated, this is what gear and techniques work for me…not what works for everyone else. 😉
Hydration and Food
Carry and drink lots of water. A good rule of thumb is one liter every five miles during temperate conditions. Take more water for hot temperatures and increased exertion.
As for the water containers, lots of “pokey” things in the desert; baby those water bladders! Or use a water bottle instead as your primary drinking container. My preferred combination is a wider mouth sports drink bottle, a 1-liter platypus that I decant into the sports drink bottle and fold up when not using, and a Nalgene Cantene. I have a durable water bottle for primary use, a secondary bottle to carry more water, and a larger water container for dry camping that easily fills. I do not like Smart Water bottles or similar as I find the narrow opening makes it difficult to fill when accessing the typical trickle, shallow, or slow-flowing water sometimes found on the Colorado Plateau. Serendipitously, Joan ended up with the same system, too!
There is nothing special about food for hiking on the Colorado Plateau. Some ultra runners will stock up on electrolyte caps for their runs esp. during hot weather. However, I think the typical hikers’ pace, and diet with a generous dose of salty snacks, will help keep hyponatremia (not enough salt to body fluid ratio) away. Drink generously and eat those Fritos! 🙂
Beefier packs and shoes
The red dirt, rocks, scrambling, water crossings, and mud eats up the gear. I can’t put it more plainly. Gear gets chewed up, spat out, and destroyed quickly.
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The Colorado Plateau – Where gear goes to die I did a 600 mile or so walk across southern Utah last Fall. In that time I went through four national parks, two national monuments, and other recreation areas. I saw sites still seared into my memory over a year later. And in a little over thirty days, I went through two pairs of shoes. This past summer, I hiked the Great Divide Trail through Canada. Though one pair of shoes did not last long, I did buy a pair of Salomons near Banff that did last the last half of the trail and then some. Now after nine weekends of hard use, these shoes are showing their abuse. It wasn’t the scree and talus hopping of the mountains in September. It was the sand, water, and red dirt of October that is hastening the demise of my shoes. “Unbreakable” Kevlar laces are snapping. Mesh holes are appearing. And the uppers are starting to separate. Red dirt gets everywhere. And acts like sandpaper. Stream crossing only add to the “wear and tear”. And shoes aren’t the only gear just showing the wear. The zippers on a favorite car camping tent needed some TLC. And my socks are getting holes. And at our humble abode we dubbed The Homestead, we seem to sweep all the time. And have become thankful for non-carpeted floors! Our gear room will never be completely clean. Despite our best efforts. A bit of grit seems to be ever present with all the packing and unpacking that takes place in that room. So we love where we live. And we are thankful for what we see even from the window of our home. We just realize that the price is a (seemingly) constant purchase of shoes and socks! … #hiking #camping #backpacking #coloradoplateau #utah
For shoes, I’ve become a big fan of the Salomon Ultra series. I can scramble, go off-trail, and they are light enough where I don’t mind them on-trail either. A rugged shoe that reminds of my Montrail Hardrocks of an earlier time. Of course, shoe fit is very specific and what works for you may not work for me. Joan has excellent luck with the Keen Targhees that is a favorite shoe sold at most REIs. If you stick to on-trail but want something aggressive, a popular suggestion is the Altra Timps. I have not used them personally, but I have used the less aggressively soled Altra Superiors. Very comfortable, but, again, probably best for on-trail. And not everyone can comfortably hike in minimalist shoes.
Packs are the other area where I suggest getting something beyond minimalist gear that is perhaps more ideal for well-maintained trails. I’ve tried other packs over the years, but I keep on coming back to my ULA CDT for personal use. Stripped down to 19 oz, I used it on 600+ miles through Utah, many smaller trips over the years, and another 600+ miles trip through the lightly maintained Great Divide Trail in Canada. ULA packs are, in my opinion, an excellent weight to durability ratio. I’ve used their ULA Catalyst for years as my guide and winter pack, too. No surprise, ULA is a Utah based company! I also enjoy the simplicity that seems to be missing from too many packs currently made. I go lightweight to be minimalist; complicated packs (even if light) do not work for my mindset or style of hiking.
For day packs, there are many, many, many choices. Both Joan and I have had excellent use with our Gossamer Gear Type II Utility Packs that are, alas, no longer made in quite the same way. Whichever day pack you get, try to get something similar in terms of material, craft, and simplicity. The REI Flash series continues to garner good reviews as a simple, reliable, and not overly expensive pack. And as of this writing (Feb 2019), on clearance for less than $40!
Sleeping pads and ground cloths.
Your sleeping pad of choice is fine for use in Utah and on the Colorado Plateau. However, always take special care with your fragile pads. “Pokey” things, dirt, and being negligent with your gear can cause issues. If you cowboy camp, be sure to take a ground cloth.
On a related note, if you strictly hike on maintained trails and go for the absolute lightest gear, you may want to re-think using ultralight titanium tent stakes. Their holding power is often inadequate for the soft sand and wind combo. If you are accustomed to off-trail hiking and camping, your stake of choice will probably be fine. Knowing how to set up some form of dead man anchor is also useful.
Red dirt gets everywhere. And one item I noticed that takes a subtle, but potentially troublesome beating, are zippers. Especially on the lighter weight shelters, puffies, rain gear, etc. that many of us (myself included) use for backpacking and in general. I can not stress enough, try to keep your zippers clean. Inspect them after a trip or during a town stop if on an extended trip. A little preventative maintenance prevents some major PITA gear failures in the field. Clean those zippers! Some zipper lubricant every-so-often-from a fabric shop, or a more expensive gear specific type, are an excellent preventative measure.
Water Treatment methods
I am not going to bring up the debate about water treatment.
What I will say is that for extended use, newer style mechanical backpacking filters such as the Sawyer Squeeze die. Too much sediment, mineral content, silt, and other crap (perhaps literally with all the cows! :D) around to expect reliable use. They clog and tend to break down. Did I mention gear goes to die on the Colorado Plateau? If you prefer mechanical filters, older style (if heavier and expensive) ones such as the Katadyn Vario with an easily cleaned pre-filter work well. Chemical treatment, such as Aquamira, (and perhaps coupled with a bandanna for gritty water) seems to work best if price, weight, and utility are your main criteria. A Steripen appears to be popular among many, but with all the caveats of electronics in the backcountry.
Navigation on the macro level is easy; on the micro level is more difficult esp when off-trail. Getting in and out of canyons means following a simple compass bearing may not be the best course of action. Not only do you need to read the map, but you’ll probably have to find the best line in and out of a canyon. There are many resources for quite a few canyons and some social trails however. Always do your research ahead of time and learn to micro-navigate!
To continue a theme, the sand gets everywhere! Taking a phone, or even an external battery for recharging in the field, seems to be a de facto standard in 2019. Maps, camera, notes, star chart, guidebook, etc. Electronics can be useful indeed and are a standard tool in an outdoor person’s kit.
Keep your phone in an Otterbox or similar case, keep that phone in a Ziploc when not in use, and be very careful when pulling out cables or your battery. Keep the micro USB ports clean on those devices and your phone. Sand is an issue with zippers, packs, and shoes. Grinding a USB cable into a delicate port? Even more so!
These are some items I found useful after many years of recreating in Utah, and now living here. I don’t claim these are the definitive answers. But I do know I found these tips to be personally useful.