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Travel Plans to the Desert & Higher Elevations: Pack a Survival Mini-KitBy Vicki McClure Davidson
I've lived in the desert region of Arizona for so long that any day during the summer months that is below 100 degrees F is like a cooling spell. Quick, where's my pullover sweatshirt?
If you've never been to the desert or at a higher elevation, you likely have little to no idea how dry and uncomfortable-feeling the climate can make you if you travel there on vacation (or move there) from a damper, cooler climate. Even the high desert, which can be significantly cooler at night, can present physical dangers during the day most of the year. Caution is always important. To be more comfortable during your trip, and to keep your body healthy and out of danger, here is list of things you should pack and take along as a "desert and high elevation survival mini-kit."
How Dry I Am...
Except for the short-lived rainy season, the desert regions and places at higher elevations are much drier than other parts of the United States. Your skin, lips, nasal openings, and eyes can become painfully dried and chapped if you don't take precautions. Be sure to have the following:
- Extra-Strength Moisturizers: The air is so dry at times that if you don't moisturize regularly, even oily skin can flake and chap. "Lizard skin" is a reality if you don't prepare. Your skin will soak up moisturizers and lotions like a sponge in the desert. Be sure to bring plenty of your regular moisturizer (which you'll use much more than usual), or buy something with extra emollients. One with sun protection added is a good idea, too.
- Lip Protection: The thin membrane of skin on the lips is especially prone to chapping and peeling if unprotected. While name-brand chapsticks are adequate, they don't hydrate. They merely seal in whatever mositure is already there and shield from the drying effects of wind. Be sure to get a lip product that has emollients and hydrating properties. Something with sun block protection is the best, because lips easily burn.
- Saline Nasal Spray: When your nasal membranes dry out, it's not only uncomfortable, but it can also cause nose bleeds. Not only is the air dry, but there is a great deal of dust in the air much of the year. This can be irritating to thin, delicate nasal tissues. A few quick spritzes of this saline, or salty, solution, which is an over-the-counter remedy, can relieve your inner nose tremendously. Not only will it moisten and clear any debris, but it also improves mucous membrane function. Some brands have all-natural ingredients. I've seen various brands of saline nasal spray at the dollar stores, so look around and don't feel you must buy a pricey one.
- Artificial Tears or Eye Drops: Your nose and skin aren't the only things that will dry out in the desert and high elevations. Eyes are very sensitive to dry conditions. Also, as we already mentioned, there is most dust in the air in the desert than in other, more foliage-covered places, so having something on hand to soothe irritated eyes or flush out dust is important. Buy the individual packets of artificial tears or a small vial of eye drops to take with you to use when your eyes begin to feel scratchy.
- Water Bottle Carrier: Drinking water only when you're thirsty is dangerous in the desert. The amount of water that transpires from your body is at a much faster rate than elsewhere, so it's important for you to drink water frequently, whether you think you're thirsty or not. By the time you're thirsty, you have lost a great deal of precious fluid and dehydration can be dangerous. You can buy the water once you arrive, and having a carrier for the water bottle will make it convenient to carry when you're out sightseeing.
Sun & Environment Protection
- High SPF Sunscreen: A sun protection lotion or cream with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher is one of the most important things to include in your survival kit. The sun is bright in the desert; at higher elevations, the air is thinner, so burning is more likely. Overcast days are no protection, either. Avoid sun tanning oils. While they do offer some sun protection, they're limited as their SPF range is well below 15 (some don't have any SPF). A total block of SPF 30 or higher is best for total protection if you're going to be out in the sun for few hours, especially if you're fair-skinned. A waterproof product is good to have so that if you perspire, it continues to protect. And don't scoff at using sunscreen because you're not planning on hanging out at poolside. The reflection from buildings, rocks, pavement, and water can burn you even if you're sitting in the shade. And burning leads to prematurely aged skin and potential skin cancer. You don't have to buy an expensive product, despite what the ads claim. If the SPF is displayed, rest assured that you can get a tube that will frugally do the trick for as little as a dollar at any of the dollar stores.
- Wide-Brimmed Hat: While baseball caps are popular and they will shade your face, they leave your exposed neck unprotected to the sun's burning rays. A hat with a brim all around is far better for protecting both your face and neck.
- Sunglasses: Sunglasses are very important to wear to protect your delicate eyes from the desert's bright sun. Higher elevations are also more damaging to eyes in sunlight. A pair of sunglasses with UV protection is recommended.
- Triple-Antibiotic Ointment: You have no idea what you may brush up against that will tear into your skin—a rusty nail in an old board, a jagged rock, a shard of broken glass. It's best to have something with you to kill germs and promote healing immediately rather than waiting to get home to tend to an open wound. Avoid infection at all costs.
- Bandages: If you get cut and need to use the triple-antibiotic ointment, you'll also need a sterile bandage to cover the wound. Slip a few of varying lengths and widths into the survival mini-kit.
Additional Items for the Desert Only
- Long-Sleeved Shirt: A light-colored, long-sleeved cotton shirt will keep you cooler than a tank top or sleeveless shirt because it blocks the sun from your skin. The long sleeves will protect you from heat as well as the burning rays of the sun. The lighter color will reflect the sun's heat away from you, where a dark-colored shirt will absorb it.
- Cooling Neck Band: Filled with a water-absorbing gel, these cloth (preferably 100-percent cotton) neck bands are soaked in water, then tied around your neck. They'll keep you much cooler for hours by evaporation. While you can buy these at local sporting goods stores, they are easy and cheap to make.
- Tweezers/Needle-nose Pliers: Cactus are crafty critters. They have a way of sneaking up and lodging their painful spines in your skin when you aren't looking. Some cactus have hair-trigger reactions if they're inadvertently brushed up against—these are nicknamed "jumping cactus." If you're going to be walking about outdoors, it's prudent to take a pair of tweezers or needle-nose pliers with you as a precaution.
If your travel plans include venturing out of the city and into the desert for a day of hiking or overnight camping, the survival kit you need to take to be safe is far more extensive.
The desert can be extremely dangerous. Each year, many people die from the elements when lost or stranded because their vehicles break down. Consult an authoritative book or website that will give you more information on the additional items you need to pack. An excellent website to explore for tips and guidelines on what to take in a "desert maxi-kit" is Simple Survival.
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Malloy, Betsy, "Desert and High Altitude Travel Kit," About.com, (gocalifornia.about.com/od/topcalifornia /a/desertaltkit.htm).
Simple Survival website, (www.simplesurvival.net/desert.htm).