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Understanding Desert Temperatures

Woman in a desert

The desert is a beautiful and often misunderstood place. Many people think of the word and all that comes to mind is endless sand or scrub brush with painfully warm temperatures. In many ways, the iconic image in people’s minds is a sun high overhead, heat waves coming off the ground, and a lurking rattlesnake under the only rock outcropping in sight. There might or might not be cacti in the picture depending on the particular desert that people are used to seeing. The plants are certainly part of the American Southwest desert regions at the very least. There’s more to the desert than just endless heat though. Temperatures can vary intensely and the heat of the desert is a bit more than what most people are quite used to in more humid regions. Those intending to travel in a desert area soon may want to stick around for a brief primer on desert temperatures.

There’s Heat and then There’s HEAT
As we highlighted, overpowering heat is part of the iconic image of a desert. There’s a good reason for this. Outside of cities, there are few places to find adequate shade and the heat gets absorbed or reflects off the ground constantly creating an incredibly dry and warm atmosphere. This is the worst part about desert heat. The dry air leeches moisture away from your body at an incredible rate. Most people are familiar with summer heat. The muggy, humid air feels awful and leaves you feeling sticky and uncomfortable if you don’t have a pool nearby. Desert heat is different. The same temperature that alerts your body that something is wrong in a humid environment seems to be less effective at warning you in a desert. Your sweat just vanishes as soon as it can reach your skin. To truly understand desert temperatures, you have to respect the heat. Always carry water when staying in a desert area. Your body will need it frequently.

The Flip Side
The night is different in deserts. This is especially true in smaller towns and when out backpacking in the wilderness. Heat, despite being so oppressive in the day, has little to cling to in the night. The early parts are often quite warm as what trapped heat of the day there was bleeds away, but after that, the cool chill of the night settles in. Desert nights, depending on the region and time of year, can easily drop to freezing overnight even if the day was oppressively hot. The desert is defined by these extremes ultimately. A constant flow from warm to cold makes it a particularly interesting place to plan backpacking trips through with a competent guide. The chill of the night is cut in larger cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix. Cities generate the heat island effect and tend to remain warm most of the night unless it is winter. This means those visiting one of the two desert cities can enjoy the nightlife without needing to worry about a coat.

Passing through or staying in a desert area is all about awareness. The potential for rapid change means that the season is particularly important when planning your travels. Spring, summer, and fall all readily bleed into one another in deserts. The temperatures tend to be relatively stable in those three seasons and you don’t need to plan as much. However, you’ll want to consider the clothing you pack when it comes time to be in a desert during the winter. This is especially true if you’re from a warmer climate yourself and not used to cool air. Anyone from a colder climate is likely to be fine even into the late night as deserts don’t get as cold as they are going to get until well after midnight. Remember water and remember to pack the appropriate clothing and you’ll demonstrate a good understanding of desert temperatures.

The beauty of the desert is comparable only to its potential extremes. There’s an austere majesty that draws people to the desert even when it has a poorer reputation than some climates. Visiting a desert should be on the list, but you need to remember to take good care of your body and skin when you do. You should especially remember your sunscreen as you can be certain the sun will be out while you’re in the desert.

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