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Tips to Staying Cool in the Desert
If you live in the inland South West United States, then you know that summers here can be extremely hot - we’re talking highs of 100 degrees plus in many areas. But unlike other areas in the country, we have a major advantage in being able to stay cool - that advantage is dry air. It’s become of course cliché, the old adage, “Sure it’s hot, but it’s dry heat!” Although dry heat may not be much consolation if you don’t know a few tricks, it does enable a handful of ways to stay cool in the desert with evaporative cooling. Additionally, being smart about how you dress can have a major impact on your comfort level, or in extreme cases, your survival. It’s worth noting right up front that you should always wear sunscreen while outdoors in the desert, and that the heat of the desert can be fatal, so you must use caution.
Evaporative Cooling - Your Secret Weapon is a Spray Bottle
Evaporative cooling happens when water evaporate from a surface, taking some heat with it. It takes energy to convert liquid water into water vapor, and this energy is heat. This is why we sweat - as sweat evaporates, it takes heat with it. On the East coast, humidity in the summer can be very high, 100% even. This means that evaporative cooling is going to be much less effective than in a desert climate with low humidity. Air can only hold so much moisture, so as the air approaches its maximum capability of holding moisture, evaporative cooling becomes less and less effective. In desert climates we can exploit our dry weather by supplementing our natural ability to use evaporative cooling. This is the biggest trick to staying cool in the desert even when the weather is very hot.
How, you might ask? The answer is quite simple. Use a misting spray bottle. Believe it or not, even “room” temperature water when misted on will evaporate very quickly and have an extreme cooling effect almost immediately in a desert climate. Spray the water directly on your skin surface and you immediately feel cooler. Evaporative cooling can reduce air temperature by up to 20 degrees.
If that hasn't already given you goose bumps from the chill, then try adding ice cubes to your spray bottle. It might sound insane, but in 100 degree weather, getting sprayed with ice water is actually too cold for my taste! Personally I just use air temperature water, but if you need an extra boost, ice will do the trick. Just be prepared for goose bumps, even in 100 degree weather.
Now if you are like me, you won’t be staying in one place in the desert heat. Maybe you’ll be playing a game, going for a walk or doing yard work, so you’ll want a convenient way to carry you spray bottle around with you. You can buy some spray bottles with a strap pre-affixed. I prefer just a simple cheap spray bottle and a small loop of rope. I put the small loop around and under the spray trigger and then run the loop through my belt. Ta-da! Instant spray bottle holster!
Picking the Right Hat
The next trick to staying cool in the desert is in some ways obvious - wear a hat. In fact, if you don’t wear a hat outdoors in the desert, you could be putting yourself at severe risk for overheating and sunburn. All hats are not created equal though. I have a very specific criteria for the type of hat I wear, as follows:
Light in color
Being wide brimmed, as opposed to say a baseball cap with just a front bill, is hugely important. It’s like carrying a little shade tree around with you and protects you neck and shoulders - to some degree - from the direct energy of the sun.
A hat being light in color helps reflect the sun’s energy away from your body. The difference between say a black hat and a white hat can be felt to the touch - and the difference is huge. I strongly recommend staying away from a dark colored hat no matter how well it matches your outfit! Personally, I also stay away from white, as I am perhaps not the most clean individual on the face of the planet, and white gets dirty so easily. I opt for light desert tan in my hat selection.
Breathable fabric or material is a huge boon to a hat that will keep you cool. Often, the desert will have some breeze, if not wind, that will help with the evaporative cooling process of sweat and water you spray on. I am keen on mesh material around the head, but not the top or brim, which should be solid to block the light. Camping and hiking stores often have a wide variety of such hats to choose from.
Finally on the hat front, being water absorbent is a great feature, as it gets back to the evaporative cooling effect. Before I go out in the desert I not just dunk my hat, but I allow it soak in. Canvas is really good for this, as it absorbs water, but slowly, which means it also releases water slowly, which means the cooling effects will last longer. Straw hats, like garden hats work well also, but they are more fragile. Canvas and mesh hats are more expensive but more durable, so in the long run, the larger upfront expense makes up for it in durability.
More than Just a Hat - Add a Headwrap
In addition to a hat, I also wear a scarf around my head. Not like a warm winter scarf mind you, but a light weight breathable scarf. People that have lived in desert regions for many thousands of years often wear a headdress, and that is no accident. A scarf wrapped around your head will protect you neck and provide extra shade. I also use a scarf to, once again, supplement evaporative cooling, by soaking it in water. Wearing wet clothing can be very uncomfortable, but a wet head wrap isn't going to contribute to chaffing or skin irritation, since it is only in contact with your head.
I create head wraps from old tee shirts myself, by cutting off the sleeves and then splitting the side of the body. It’s cheap, easy and you can get some more life out of your old favorite shirts!
Wear Long Sleeves
Wait, what? Wear long sleeves in the desert - did I read that right? Yes you did. Wearing a light fabric long sleeve will keep sun off your skin and reflect the sun’s energy away from you. Light colored clothing is a must. Personally, I like to wear shorts and a white long sleeve shirt. Shorts aren't always the best option if you are going to be hiking in a cactus filled environment, so choose wisely. I like long sleeve shirts because it’s really easy to roll up the sleeves and spray yourself down with your spray bottle, then roll them down again. I like long shorts because I can easily spray my legs down any time and if I am walking around, they are often shaded by my shorts or hat, while my arms are often swinging around, out in the sun.
Words of Caution
I will note that if you do opt for shorts - again, make sure to use sunscreen. Also, most desert areas do have snakes, so consider wearing boots and watch where you step!
Also note that bees in the desert can be attracted to moisture, especially open bodies of water. If you notice bees attracted to your wet hat or scarf, then maybe it is time to reconsider that strategy. I have never had a problem with the occasional spraying with a spray bottle, as long as you don’t overdo it.
Finally, sunstroke can be lethal. Make sure you are plenty hydrated and have plenty of water with you when you are out in hot temperatures.
Staying cool in the desert, despite the high temperatures, can be as simple as choosing what you wear and bringing a spray bottle along. Living in the desert we have the unique ability to take full advantage of evaporative cooling. Stay cool my friends!