How To Survive Your First Mountain Bike Trip to the Desert

Mountain biker riding on remote desert singletrack trail outside of Las Vegas, Nevada

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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 to just 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.

Learn tips on how to stay safe and have fun while enjoying some epic desert mountain biking

How to prepare for desert mountain biking

Everybody has different routines and preferences when it comes to mountain biking and getting ready for a ride. When 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 bottle with you).

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.

Mountain biker riding singletrack trail in Moab Utah
Bring a hydration pack with at least 2.5-3L of water

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?

  • Don’t plan your mountain biking trip to the desert in the summer. Late fall, winter, and early spring are much better times of the year to visit the desert to ride and actually enjoy it.
  • Try to ride early in the day or later in the afternoon to avoid mid-day heat (although if you’re visiting in the winter, you might find that mid-day temps are perfect).
  • Wear a lightweight, quick-drying long-sleeve shirt to protect your skin and reduce the risk of dehydration (see recommendation below).

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!

Mountain biker riding along the edge of canyon rim in Utah
The Good Water Rim trail in Utah

Essential gear for desert mountain biking

Most of this gear is what you’d be using on normal, everyday rides (expect maybe tweezers….) but it’s a good idea to doublecheck to make sure you have these items in your pack when you head out to the desert. For a more complete list of what to have in your mountain bike pack, head over to this post.

Desert Mountain Biking Essentials

Tubeless tire kit for mountain bikes

Tubeless Tire Kit

The desert is full of thorns, cacti, and sharp rocks, so assuming that you run tubless 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.

Osprey hydration pack for mountain biking

Hydration Pack

The desert is unforgiving, so be prepared with lots of water in a hydration pack fitted with a 2.5 or 3-liter hydration reservoir.

POC Clarity mountain bike glasses

Sunglasses

The sun can be extreme in the desert, so protect your eyes with a quality pair of sunglasses. The POC Devour shades are specifically designed for mountain bikers with vents and a brown trail clarity lens that offers complete UV protection.

Patagonia Houdini jacket

Lightweight Jacket

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. (Men’s version here).

REI Sahara Shade Hoodie

Moisture-wicking & sun-protective shirt

Wearing a long-sleeve shirt may sound counterintuitive for mountain biking in the desert, but it can actually help keep you cooler and prevent sunburn or heat exhaustion. The REI Sahara Shade Hoodie offers UPF 50+ protection. (Men’s version here).

Tweezers

Tweezers

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 tweezers to pull the little spines out.

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:

California

Landscape views of desert singletrack trails in southern California with tall mountains in the distance
The Palm Canyon Epic is the epitome of an epic day out on two wheels

Utah

Mountain biker riding on slickrock trail in Moab, Utah
Moab is a must-ride destination for any mountain biker

Arizona

Mountain biker standing on pile of rocks looking out at desert view in Phoenix, Arizona.
Phoenix is home to some of the most scenic desert riding in the US

Nevada

Mountain biking singletrack trail in Las Vegas Nevada with desert landscape and tall rocky bluffs in distance
Ebb n’ Flow trail in Las Vegas

What questions do you have about mountain biking in the desert? Do you have any tips to add? Let us know in the comments.

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Heading to the southwest for some desert mountain biking? Read my best tips and recommendations for staying safe and having fun
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2 Comments

  1. Maybe a comb for brushing off cholla? I could have used a comb when I crashed face-first into one of these things.

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