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How to Walk in the Desert Travel Tip

How to Walk Through the Desert — Travel Tip — Notes on how to travel on foot through a desert or other wilderness area. It is better to step around than to step over, better to step over than to step on. This is the creed of back country travel. If you find a downed [...]

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How to Walk Through the Desert — Travel Tip —

Notes on how to travel on foot through a desert or other wilderness area.

It is better to step around than to step over, better to step over than to step on.

This is the creed of back country travel.

If you find a downed tree, a pile of shrubs, rocks, or any other sort of impediment in your path, it is better to try to walk around it first, and if this is not possible try to step over it. Only when there is no other way should you step on anything other than raw soil, hummus, and earth when walking through wilderness areas.

If a trip, slip, stumble, and a fall can be said to be humorous in a city, it could be extremely problematic in a remote area.

Tempe, Arizona, Southwest USA, North America
Saturday, September 26, 2009
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It is better to step around than to step over, better to step over than to step on.

It is better to step around this dead fall than to step over it, it is better to step over it than to step on it.

It is better to step around this dead fall than to step over it, it is better to step over it than to step on it.

The idea is that injury can better be prevented if you stay squarely on your feet as often as you possibly can. The effects of an injury only grows in proportion to how far out in the wilderness you are.

When walking through the desert of Arizona on archaeology survey, I try to keep my feet in sight and under my body as much as possible — I try to step around every chuck of dead fall, bush, or half stunted tree. If it would break my regular stride to try to step over something out in the desert, I look for an accessible route around it; failing this, I carefully step over it. Only under no-other-choice circumstances, will I step on top of anything that lays in my path.

I want to be able to see where my feet land. I do not want to take a chance that there will not be a rattlesnake on the lee side of that downed log, I do not want to test whether or not that dead fall can support my weight, I do not want to take a chance that those owl and jackrabbit burrows will not collapse under me. I want to keep my boots stomping on solid earth as often as is reasonably possible.

And if you cannot see where your feet land, if you take a chance about what lays on the other side of a log, if you fall through a chuck of dead fall or into a rabbit burrow, you may find yourself in pain.

Or you may step on one of these:

Rattlesnake in Sonoran desert

Rattlesnake in Sonoran desert

I like walking in the desert precisely because the landscape forces me to focus on the landscape that lays right in front of me. If I try walking through the desert without paying full attention to what is around me I WILL get hurt. On my first day out on this archaeology project I lost myself in daydream and ran square into a thigh-high choya cactus — a couple spines stuck into my leg real good. I got hurt, though it was very minor.

Though the consequences could be worse.

I was walking through the Sonoran desert near Quartzsite today on my transect surveying for archaeology sites. We were around 7 miles into a 10 mile survey and felt the rhythm of the walking thoroughly. It is easy to daydream and to allow your gaze to wander after walking for four hours straight in a beautiful desert. I was walking step after unbroken step, until a blemish in the soil manifested itself one footstep in front of me.

I focused my gaze before taking another step. And I saw it: a triangular shaped head connected to a coiled tubular body whose terminus was a threatening set of rattles.

A  Diamondback rattlesnake was coiled up one step in front of me. I stood over the wrapped up little serpent as my concerned climaxed: this highly venomous snake blended into the desert floor — the background — without blemish. I saw the snake this time, but what about the next . . .? If it were not for the little trail of sand that rose up as a palisade around her circumference, I do not know if I would have noticed her.

If I was staring off into the abyss beyond or had my attention occupied for even a mere second, I may not be sitting here ticking out these words. For I would be in a hospital. Or, if I could not have been carried for miles out of the testing area and driven to a hospital in time, I may have even croaked.

It is an amazing feeling when your body steps up to save its own ass. I did not look down and say, “Gee, there is a snake, I better stop walking,” no, somehow the shape of the diamond shaped head discerned itself upon my visual cortex, and my legs instantaneously were told to halt. I had little to do with it, other than the fact that I was watching where I was walking. The odd flood of calmness that comes from being thrust in potentially dangerous circumstances overtook me, and I nonchalantly walked around the little snake. Then the flood of testosterone kicked in, and every stick, leaf, or tubular blemish of the sand all of a sudden began taking on the shape of the serpent.

I would jump a little each time these faux snakes appeared, and then smile in the face of life.

This encounter with the rattlesnake just served to make me love the desert even more. Like an insecure lover, the desert makes you pay attention to it. If your mind strays for a moment, if your gaze sits dreaming into the horizon for a moment too long, if you neglect to treat the desert with the proper respect, it will remind you of its presences with a prick, a stab, an owl or jackrabbit burrow which collapses under your feet, or even a bite.

Desert travel  commandeers you for the NOW, and keeps you there.

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Filed under: Adventure, Deserts, Travel Safe

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • Russ September 28, 2009, 4:51 pm

    Wade, this happened to me on a local trail here in San Diego a few years ago. Being from the east coast I am not accustomed to needing to keep my eyes open for animals that can hospitalize or even possibly kill me. I had the same surprise you did, I came around a corner to see a rattlesnake just 5 feet in front of me. Luckily the one I saw was not coiled nor was it hidden, if it had been buried like the one you saw I may not have seen it. But I did learn the same lesson, and that is to keep my eyes always on the trail ahead of me. And after finding a black widow in my kitchen a few years ago I also learned the valuable lesson of not sticking my hand into shadows I can’t see. Valuable in the kitchen and also out in the wild…

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 2, 2009, 1:04 am

      Wow, Russ, I am glad you were watching where you were going! Good lesson also to not stick your hands in places that you can’t see them. We can add to this: always turn your shoes upside down before putting them on when you leave them outside and check the insides of your clothes if you leave them out in the bush.

      I just heard a story a couple of days ago about a girl who took her sweatshirt off and threw it on the ground when working on an archaeology job in Arizona. When she put it back on a scorpion had made it an abode and stung her a few times real good.


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  • Christina Turpin November 18, 2021, 9:25 am

    I am from NV and do lots of outdoor adventures in NV, AZ, UT & CA. Lots of sneks and Ive had my own close encounter with a little sidewinder sleeping coiled up under a mesquite tree and my husband, a Diamondback up in the crevices of some rocks he was scrambling on. I appreciate your advice & keeping it tucked away in the back of my brain as we head out to the wilderness!

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