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Desert mountain biking throws a lot at you. Not only do you have to contend with a hot sun and arid conditions, but the desert is also home to a lot of things that want to harm you and your bike: rattlesnakes, cacti, sharp rocks, and flash floods just to name a few.
Now, I’m not trying to scare you or say that you shouldn’t plan an awesome trip to the desert. But if you’re coming from the east coast or you’re not familiar with desert riding, then it’s definitely worth reading through this post. You’ll get a better idea of what you’ll be up against and how you can reduce the risk of mishaps – minor and severe – out on the desert trails.
7 Tips for Mountain Biking in the Desert
Everybody has different routines and preferences when it comes to mountain biking and getting ready for a ride. W
hen you’re heading out to the desert, though, here are a few things that every mountain biker should have:
1. Make sure you have tubeless tires & top up on sealant
Most mountain bikes these days are set up with tubeless tires because they are so much better than inner tubes.
With a tubeless set-up, flats happen way less than in the days of yore and tubeless tires can even make riding more comfortable because you can run a lower tire pressure.
When you’re heading to the desert you want to make sure you have a tubeless set-up or else the thorns, cacti, and sharp rocks will definitely win.
It’s also a good idea to add an ounce or two of sealant before you go just to make sure there’s enough to plug holes (and bring a small bottle with you).
There are a few different tire sealants out there, but I like Orange Seal because it plugs holes fast. You do need to top up more often, though.
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2. Always have a ride plan
Most riders head out for a ride with at least a rough plan of what they want to accomplish. But in the desert, having a solid plan is essential.
Make sure you do due diligence to figure out exactly how many miles your ride is, what the elevation gain is, whether there will be water along the route, when the sun will set, etc…
Depending on where you are, the desert can be unforgiving and the last thing you want is to be miles away from your car with no water left.
I always have my phone on me with TrailForks downloaded and I highly recommend that you do too.
3. Bring more water than you think you’ll need
I’ve seen riders out in the desert with just a single bottle of water. Not smart. I have even run out of water on a desert ride and it’s not a good feeling.
I personally like to bring 2.5-3L of water on every ride because I drink a lot and I like to be prepared.
4. Do not underestimate the heat
You probably don’t need me to tell you that the desert is hot.
Surprisingly, though, every year hikers and bikers die in the desert because of heat exhaustion and exposure. Do not underestimate the heat. How can you do that?
5. Pack salty snacks or electrolytes
Nutrition is important when mountain biking in the desert and the most important micronutrient is salt because we lost salt in sweat.
Pack snacks that are relatively high in sodium like trail mix, pretzels, electrolyte chews, jerky, etc…
6. Check the weather for rain
When it rains in the desert or high in the mountains above the desert, many areas are at risk for flash floods.
Check the weather before heading out and do not enter canyons or low areas if there is any risk of flash floods.
6. Use sunscreen
Sunscreen not only helps prevent sunburn, but it can also help prevent heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Your future 60-year-old self will also thank you!
Essential gear for Riding in the desert
Most of this gear is what you’d be using on normal, everyday rides (except maybe tweezers….) but it’s a good idea to double-check to make sure you have these items in your pack when you head out to the desert.
Tubeless Tire Kit
The desert is full of thorns, cacti, and sharp rocks, so assuming that you run tubeless tires on your bike, you’ll need a tubeless tire kit to plug small holes and a tire boot in case you get a slash.
Shop Tubeless Tire Kit at:
he desert is unforgiving, so be prepared with lots of water in a hydration pack fitted with a 2.5 or 3-liter hydration reservoir.
I like the Osprey Raven (women’s) and Raptor (men’s) hydration backpack because it’s specifically designed for mountain bikers with a tool roll, magnetic hose, and a mesh back panel.
Shop the Osprey Raptor/Raven at:
I sweat a lot, even in the dry arid desert, so I like to always have some electrolytes with me to replenish salt and other nutrients.
The SaltStick FastChews (although I suck on them) have honestly been lifesavers for me. Not only do they replenish salts, but they also help keep me better hydrated and improve my post-ride recovery. I always have a few in my pack on every ride.
Shop SaltStick FastChews at:
The sun can be extreme in the desert, so protect your eyes with a quality pair of sunglasses.
The Smith Shift Split MAG’s are pricey, but specifically designed for mountain bikers and worth the investment if you ride a lot, especially in sunny places.
The lenses can be quickly swapped out thanks to the magnetic design and if you get the photochromatic ones, they actually darken or lighten based on conditions.
They also come in a full rim option if you prefer that look.
Shop the Smith Split Shift at:
You might be thinking, “but I’m in the desert!” True, but the desert can actually get pretty chilly when the sun goes down.
It’s a good idea to pack a lightweight layer like the Patagonia Houdini jacket.
Shop the Patagonia Houdini at:
Last but not least, pack some tweezers. You won’t need them unless you do.
The desert is full of sharp pointy things and if you fall over into a cactus, you’ll want some fine point tweezers to pull the little spines out.
Shop tweezers at:
Desert mountain biking destinations
Now that you know what to expect, how to prepare, and what desert-specific gear to pack, it’s time for the fun part!
Here are a few of my favorite desert mountain biking destinations and trails:
Mountain biking in the desert can be an amazing experience, but it also requires a bit more planning and forethought than heading out for a ride, say, in the lush Pacific Northwest.
The biggest thing to remember is to be prepared. Be prepared with lots of water, a tuned-up (tubeless) bike, a first aid kit with tweezers, sunscreen and sun protection, and salty snacks.
Enjoy your time in the desert!
What questions do you have about mountain biking in the desert? Do you have any tips to add? Let us know in the comments.