The Arizona Scenic Trail is one long walk spanning the entire state of Arizona. It is 800 miles of mountains, deserts, canyons, and forests linking the border of Utah to the border of Mexico. In 1985 a teacher in Flagstaff mapped out a shortened version of the 6,875 mile Great Western Loop to include the Grand Canyon. This projected journey was the beginning of the Arizona Scenic Trail.
On March 30, 2009 The Arizona Scenic Trail was designated as a National Scenic Trail by the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. Cementing it among other thru hikes such as the Colorado Trail, the Florida Trail and many more. After it’s inception only the most adventurous hikers started to tackle this long thru hike.
Because of the extreme desert heat, the rapid changes in seasons and isolated long portion stretches, only about 100 people each year attempt to thru hike the Arizona Scenic Trail. Just figuring out when to start and where to start can be a difficult guessing game. Starting too early in the season up north by the northern Utah terminus means single digit temperatures and rapidly developing snow storms. Start too late in the season down by the southern Mexico terminus means triple digit heat and no water to be found.
After solo hiking 500 miles of the Colorado Trail I was itching for my next challenge. I found myself alone, thru hiking the Arizona Scenic Trail in late October as the first snow storms descended on the Grand Canyon, followed by drastic heat waves in Saguaro National Park. I was surprised by the amount of mountains to climb. I was in awe of the giants of the Saguaro Cactus. Every day presented new obstacles from searching for water caches alongside dry river washes to stepping on needles from burned debris littering the trail. I had not camped much previously in desert environments and found myself up against a steep learning curve of survival. I loved every minute of it. Even when I hated every minute of it simultaneously.
Here are some tips and important lessons about desert hiking on my thru hike of the Arizona Scenic Trail.
Water is foundational for life. When in the desert the obstacle of finding, purifying, and carrying water is in my opinion the most difficult aspect of hiking.
- How Much? A general rule of thumb for hiking is to drink half a liter for every hour of hiking. This is a great guideline for mountains, forests, and cooler weather. But in Arizona’s deserts the temperatures can soar above 90 degrees. With the increased dry heat the need to hydrate increases to 1 liter per hour. In essence you need to drink 6 to 8 liters for a 6 to 8 hour hike. On most desert days plan to carry about 6.5 liters of water for every 25 miles.
- Filter. This amount of water can be difficult to impossible to find along the trail’s route. The river beds are dry and any standing water needs to be filtered or purified for safety. Sawyer makes an easy to use Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System that fits perfectly on the SMART water bottles.
- Water report. The Arizona Scenic Trail Association has an awesome Arizona Water Report available online on their website with as current as possible details of various water spots and the amount (if any) of water available. The app Guthook Guides is another valuable source on any long distance hike of current water conditions. There is a fee for the various map guides, but they provide users input on trail conditions.
I am not a faithful follower of the concept that you must fit the dress code of thru hikers. After spending hours trying out various shoes, hats and articles of clothing, here are a few items I strongly recommend.
- Trail Runners. I used classic hiking boots for years before I timidly tried out a trail running option. I was doubtful that I would get the support I needed without a boot. I was pleasantly surprised with the Altra Lone Peaks with their stone guard, wide toe design and lightweight feeling. They are now my only shoe of choice especially in hot desert environments.
- Gaiters. Another doubtful convert, I balked at the idea of strapping on fabric to my ankles. You clip them onto your shoe as they hug your ankles to prevent stones, sticks, and prickly cactus from entering your shoes. They are easy to slip on and well worth the investment.
- Hat. The sun is hot and relentless on the exposed nature of the desert. Unlike lush forests, there simply is no shade to find solace in. A wide brim hat makes a difference on shielding your face, preventing sunburns on your scalp, and blocking the sun rays from hurting your eyes. A classic baseball cap is adequate but many hikers choose a hat with side and back flaps to protect the neck.
Gear can make or break a thru hike. Some backpackers prefer the ultra light options while comparing low base weights and durability. Others prefer to have more creature comforts and larger tents to spread out in. I find myself personally somewhere in the middle. I like lighter options that are not too expensive yet also look for functional needs to make the hike more enjoyable.
Here are items I used on the Arizona Scenic Trail:
- Backpack. I personally am absolutely in love with my Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack. It was a more pricey splurge for me but has a waterproof design complete with spacious hip pockets and comfy shoulder straps. It is smaller in size but fits my own personal needs. Another close second backpacking pack I have used is the Osprey Lumina 60 Pack. It weighs more but is great for heavier food carrying stretches between restocking days.
- Tent. My go to tent as a solo hiker is the Nemo Hornet 1P Tent. It weighs just a bit north of 1 pound and is a quick and easy assembly. If you need a tad more space the Nemo Hornet 2P Tent is a great option that is not that much heavier.
- Sleeping Pad. When it comes to a sleeping pad I opt for the less is more mentality. I spent under $35 on my Amazon purchased BKS Foam Egg Crate Sleeping Folding Pad. Extremely lightweight, easy to use, and cheap. I am always baffled by just how comfortable it is after a long day hiking.
- Sleeping Quilt. I am finding myself leaning more towards a sleeping quilt than a sleeping bag. A sleeping quilt tends to be lighter in its design. You use the zipper and drawstrings to curl yourself up into a comfy mummy like sleeping position. It is more restrictive in sleep but can keep you warm if you opt to simply sleep under the stars.
- Trekking Poles. I used to be anti trekking poles before I began my thru hiking adventure. But after spending days climbing and descending mountains with my home on my back I find the cumbersome aspect of carrying trekking poles pales in the benefits to your knees, ankles, and legs. My go to poles are from Mountain Smith but after I busted one on a wayward boulder I have my eyes set on a pair from Black Diamond.
The Arizona Scenic Trail is both beautiful and treacherous. Mother Nature will both drain you of all your energy yet comfort you with its healing beauty. I loved my time on the trail even with days where I simply thought I could not take a single step more.
I hope these insights are helpful for your own desert adventure.
Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her tall one husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would be a forever home for all of them they were able to adopt their daughter buckets and are legal guardians of their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus.