Thursday, February 29, 2024

Desert Winter Thru-Hike: Advice to Future Hikers

The Desert Winter Thru-Hike occupies a special place in my heart. I hiked all of it in 2024, and half of it in 2021. Here are a laundry list of opinions and considerations for the prospective WTH thru-hiker.

Fast Facts:

  • Name: Desert Winter Thru-Hike 
  • Creators: Brett "Blisterfree" Tucker and Melissa "Treehugger" Spencer
  • Length: ~784 miles
  • Eastern Terminus: Saguaro National Park, near Tucson, AZ
  • Western Terminus: Joshua Tree National Park, near Palm Springs, CA
  • Season: December-March 
  • Experience Level: Expert
  • Physical Difficulty: Moderate

If you have not already read everything Brett has written on the WTH, stop now and go read it. The rest of this guide assumes you've already done so, and won't rehash things already covered elsewhere in the WTH corpus.

Seasons and Timing:

Brett covers the ideal start date pretty well in the literature - mid-January, hiking westbound. It's best to wait until much of the winter rain has already fallen and recharged the water sources along the route.

That's all good in theory, but there's clearly a temptation in the hiking world to start the route earlier. I suppose it's natural to try to squeeze a winter hike around one's existing plans, even if it means the weather window is a bit sub-optimal. Following a couple unusually wet monsoon seasons, a few hikers have successfully hiked the WTH in late fall (late October, November, and December).  

Judging from the few years of water data exist for the WTH, I think it's fair to conclude that most of the sources along the WTH (specifically the guzzlers) are less seasonally-variable than one might assume. Off-hand, I can recall only a handful of guzzlers noted in the water chart as completely dry. That said, most isn't really a useful standard. Averages are cold comfort if you were banking on this source that turned out to be dry, and the next potential source is 20 miles away. Depending on the weather, your hydration, and how far the next source is, a dry source can be anything between annoying and fatal. If you choose to hike the route before Brett's mid-January recommendation, be prepared for a few of those unpleasant surprises along the way. In particular, you'll probably have to carry 50 miles of water with 6-7 days of food on your back, up and over some of the WTH's hardest terrain in Section 6. It's tough stuff. 

The other reason to wait until mid-January is perhaps a bit more straightforward: it's cold in the Mojave! The last few sections of the WTH in California have a lot more "high" (3,000-4,000') terrain than does Arizona. A mid-January start allows the Mojave to emerge from the dregs of winter before you arrive, potentially minimizing the storm systems and brutally cold wind. 

Expert-level Backpacking:

The WTH is a route. As such, there's no trail tread; you have to navigate. There are no trail angels; you have to be self-sufficient. There's enough water, but only just enough. Climate factors are tough, even in the middle of the winter. And you're entirely alone out there.

None of this should be a surprise to WTH hikers; they've all done other Brett Tucker routes, after all. But even for experienced hikers, it's easy to get lulled into a false sense of complacency. If you're looking for a relaxed, wintertime trail to chill out on, go hike the Florida Trail. While parts of the WTH are pretty cruisey, you still need to bring your A-game, particularly when storms blow through.


All previous WTH finishers have taken between 40 and 50 days to complete the route. It could certainly be done faster by the hundred-day-CDT crowd, but keep in mind that daylight is very limited during the depths of winter. Night-hiking is not always possible, particularly in areas of complex navigation or trail-less terrain. I budgeted 40 days for my 2024 thru-hike, and would have greatly appreciated another few days to wait out storms, lessen the amount of night hiking, and take more detours to check out off-route water sources. 

Don't be fooled by the amount of "road" on this route. While there's certainly plenty of 3-mph terrain, not all road is fast walking. Many of the roads are nothing more than ancient, abandoned mining tracks. They may provide a convenient handrail for navigation, but often the travel is not any faster than pure cross-country is. 

All of this suggests that a 20-mpd pace is probably right for most folks (adjust for your own pace as necessary). Add in some extra time for towns too, since several of them require significant bonus miles to access. The route definitely gets harder as you progress west, though that may be offset by more daylight hours as spring approaches.

Vertical Gain:

The WTH is pretty mild in terms of vert. Remember, it stays rather low for climatic reasons. Some of the uphills can be short-but-steep, a few hundred feet perhaps. There's some occasional scrambling, usually a class II. There's maybe one spot of brief class III in the Turtle Mountains, but it's no biggee; if you've done the northern half of the AT, you're fine.

The only huge climb on the WTH is up and over the Harquahalas. It's steep, long, and unrelenting. It follows what used to be a jeep road a million years ago, but now is mostly just a rocky ditch with occasional catclaw to dodge. It'll slow you down. Other than that, most climbs on the WTH are either short or gradual.


The walking surface contributes to the WTH's difficulty far more than vert does. It's often hard to predict how easy progress will be. Surface type (road vs. trail vs. cross-country) tells you almost nothing. Remember, most of the roads the WTH follows are unimproved, and thus are no easier or harder walking than the adjacent terrain. Similarly, cross-country can range from 3mph on the delightful desert pavement west of the Turtles to a rocky hellscape in the Woolsey Peak Wilderness. Brett sometimes warns you about tough terrain that may not be obvious from looking at the map; other times, it's a surprise.

In general, it all kind of evens out. Buck-30 has lodged some pretty bitter complaints about the WTH's rocks. I share his opinion only partially. True, the rocks were horrifically bad at times (especially in the Woolsey Peak Wilderness, the Turtle Mountains, and the Pintos), but the agony was usually short-lived. Many more miles were kinda rocky, but not twist-your-ankle-and-scream-at-the-sky rocky. I say that as someone with a surgically-reconstructed foot and a well-known loathing of rocks.


With as few as 10 hours of daylight during the depths of winter, it's tempting to assume you'll do a bunch of night-hiking on the WTH. Sometimes, night-hiking is peaceful and pleasant on the WTH. Particularly when crossing unremarkable desert basins, it's useful to do those easy road miles in the dark.

But here's the thing - navigation on the WTH often entails following subtle washes, faint mining tracks, or ephemeral burro trails. Or you might follow nothing but a compass heading. That stuff is just plain hard at night. There were definitely times on the WTH where I wished I could night-hike, but it just wasn't practical. My advice: if you need to night-hike (say, to get to the Wenden Post Office before it closes), plan ahead, so you can do easy road miles in the dark, not complex navigational problems.

One fringe benefit of the WTH is the sunrises and sunsets. I generally hiked an hour before dawn until sunset most days, so I saw every single desert sunrise and sunset. And magical they are! Savor this unique aspect of winter hiking.


On one hand, the WTH crosses the lowest, driest, hottest deserts in North America. On the other hand, it's a Brett Tucker route. If you hike during the recommended season, you'll probably never have to carry more than about 30 miles of water. I consistently found myself carrying 15-20 miles of water, and sometimes more than that. 

As far as quality goes... it's the desert. You will only encounter 1 or 2 naturally-flowing sources on the entire 800 miles. The rest are cattle wells, potholes, and wildlife guzzlers. With stagnant water comes the potential for truly nasty water, of course. You'll almost certainly have to drink out of a source that has a dead animal floating in it. Your water will very often be noticeably green and have a funky taste. If you're not OK with this, the WTH is not for you. On the other hand, not all of the water is nasty. I carry Fruit Punch flavor packets in the desert, reserving them to mask the taste of only the most vile sources. Over the course of 40 days, I think I used 4 or 5 of them in total.

One benefit of hiking in the winter is that you don't need to drink nearly as much as in the summer. Everyone's water needs are different of course, but I frequently found myself drinking only a single liter over the course of a day. Even though 20-30 mile carries were common, I rarely found myself toting a heavy water load.


One key benefit of hiking a Brett Tucker route is the top-notch quality of navigational resources. WTH hikers will already be familiar with his conventions from other Tucker routes. I prefer to navigate primarily by paper maps. I found this a challenge on the WTH for the following reasons:

  • Sometimes the base maps (USGS quads) just didn't have enough detail on them. The contours were illegibly faint, or inappropriately-sized for the terrain (e.g. 40-footers, obscuring a delta of 20-foot-deep washes). 
  • Sometimes Caltopo likes to put labels directly on top of the route, obscuring valuable topographic data underneath
  • Often, the route is a maze of faint vehicle travel corridors. What counts as a road/two-track/vehicle-accessible-wash is entirely subjective. The USGS base maps will say one thing, the OpenStreetMap layer will say another, Brett's waypoints will say a third thing, and your own observations will say a fourth. In short, it's an undefinable anarchy.

None of this is really Brett's fault; it's just the nature of hiking in an environment of braided washes and vehicle mayhem. I've provided all this feedback to Brett already, and I have no doubt he'll continue to refine the mapset in future iterations of the WTH resources. But there will always a degree of unavoidable "What the heck??" inherent in hiking a route like this. And for that, it's imperative to make sure the digital resources are teed up.

Now, perhaps you read the previous paragraphs and shrugged it off since you don't carry paper maps anyhow. In that case - yikes. I won't go off on a rant here, as I'm clearly on the losing side of the Great Paper Maps Debate. I'll just note that my battery pack shorted out in the Sheephole Mountains, and with it my phone. Had I not carried and used my paper maps daily, I would have been utterly lost, in exposed terrain with a massive storm approaching. GPS is a useful supplement, but cannot and should not abrogate the hard work of understanding your surroundings with the paper mapset.

On the topic of GPS: 

  • Avenza Maps works just fine for the majority of the route. It still suffers from text-atop-the-data issue, but usually you can muddle your way through just fine.
  • Occasionally, Avenza just isn't zoomed-in enough to really understand what's happening. In such cases, satellite imagery is really helpful. Download it before you leave home. Sometimes there's no substitute for a photo from space when trying to make sense of a maze of faint roads, washes, or burro trails.


The WTH is murder on inflatable pads. I think Recon managed not to pop his, but he might be alone in that regard. After the WTH put15 holes in my pad in 2021, I opted for a foam pad in 2024 - even though I hate foam pads and sleep poorly on them. This was a prudent choice. The only downside to a foam pad is that I had to strap it to the outside of my pack, so my load was a bit bulkier when pushing through catclaw and other nasty desert plants. The pad got pretty beat up. Whatever, it's a foam pad.  

The WTH is an extremely windy trail. It's strong, it's relentless, and it's freezing cold. I wore my windshirt nearly every day until I lost it in the middle of Section 6, and I wished for it every day thereafter. Yes, windshirts are delicate. Yes, you will certainly tear it up on catclaw. Yes, it's still worth it.

I recommend some form of mild bug protection on the WTH. On both my 2021 and 2024 hikes, I had a couple nights of annoying bugs in the lower elevations (near Parker and Amboy, to be specific). Anything will do - a fully-enclosed shelter, or even just a headnet to wear while sleeping. I only used my headnet maybe three times, but it was sure better than waking up to a dozen mosquito bites on my forehead! As long as you're not completely defenseless, you're fine.

Just because the WTH is a desert trail doesn't mean it's hot. Temperatures regularly dip down into the 20's on the WTH. As a cold sleeper, I carried a 10-degree bag in 2021 and 2024. Given the length of winter nights, I appreciated the extra few degrees (and ounces) of fluffy downy goodness. 

There are enough rocks on the WTH that it really makes sense to replace your shoes a little earlier than normal. I generally get 500-700 miles out of a pair. On the WTH, I found that they were pretty much done after 400. I endured a couple weeks of tired and achey feet on the WTH until I replaced my shoes.


On the whole, the towns on the WTH are pretty bad. A solid half of the resupply stops are nothing more than a remote station and maybe a post office. Parker is a good town and makes for an excellent place to take a celebratory halfway-there zero. Buckeye's alright. The rest are pretty primitive. A typical resupply plan:

  • Arizona City: Buy (Dollar General)
  • Buckeye: Buy (Dollar General)
  • Tonopah: Skip. Carry from Buckeye to Wenden (120 miles total)
  • Wenden: Maildrop (PO, though note the limited hours) OR buy in Salome
  • Parker: Buy (Walmart or Safeway)
  • Fenner: No great solutions. Maybe bribe a driver going to Needles to take you.
  • Amboy: Maildrop (Roy's)

Red Tape:

There's basically zero red tape on the route, and none that's particularly burdensome. In brief:

  • Joshua Tree National Park requires non-quota backcountry permits. If you're already in the town of Twentynine Palms, you can get one in person. If not, you'll have to pay your blood money to Wreck-Dot-Gov. 
  • There's no camping in the western unit of Saguaro National Park, which really isn't a problem as you're only in the park for a few miles. It's easy enough to just keep hiking until you get outside the park boundary


The WTH is designed as a stand-alone route, and its termini in the two National Parks are certainly worthy objectives. They also provide easy access to other long-distance trails - the AZT and PCT on the east and west ends, respectively. In both cases, Blisterfree has mapped short connectors to those trails. The WTH therefore plays the role of the PNT in its ecosystem, facilitating all sorts of exciting journeys. Want to hike from the Divide to the Pacific Ocean? A combo of the GET, AZT, WTH, PCT, and SDTCT is your ticket.

Limited Circulation:

The WTH is amazing, but it's not for everyone. Buck-30 covers this very well in the "Should I Hike This Route" section of his WTH overview post, and I'd encourage you to really read and consider whether the WTH is for you. In my opinion, there are a couple factors that contraindicate broad popularity with the hiking masses:

  • Inaccessibility. The WTH is beautiful, but not in the classical sense of green trees, snowcapped peaks, and sparkling lakes. The route is remote, stark, and forbidding, and yet those precise qualities lend the WTH its beauty. The towns suck, the water sucks, the wind never stops blowing. But it's enormously rewarding, in large part because you're scraping together an existence - however meager - in a most hostile environments. Not everyone's a dyed-in-the-wool desert rat, a prerequisite trait on the WTH.
  • Fragility. Footprints last forever in the desert. Potholes and guzzlers only collect a finite amount of water, and a large crop of hikers could easily drink them dry. Gates, wells, and fences are decades-old, and might break if not treated with extreme care. The Wenden Post Office is roughly the size of my tent, and cannot handle a flood of resupply packages. In short, the WTH is a particularly fragile route.

I think of the WTH as a delicate manuscript in a library's rare book collection. Unlike an ordinary paperback (the AT, PNT or whatever), it can't be circulated in an unrestricted fashion, as it'd quickly suffer an ignominious fate. On the other hand, it does no good to lock it away entirely and prevent all access - what would be the point in even having it?

Of course, libraries have already solved this dilemma already. They generally limit:

  • Who can access the rare book collection (researchers with a demonstrated need of the materials and with experience handling them properly)
  • Under what conditions they can access the collection (on-site in a special reading room; no checkout available). 
Brett's solution for the WTH is similar. The WTH resources are available only to veterans of at least one of his other routes (400 mile minimum), under the condition that they not share those resources with others. You can find more details on his site. I think of the WTH as a nice little treat available to those who have already proved their desert route-hiking chops, and who've demonstrated their ability to be exemplary citizens of the route-hiking community by giving back (particularly in the form of water information).


Brett's stuff is required reading, and I'd recommend reading Buck-30's summary post at the end of his journal. If you want to dive deeper, you can also peruse Buck 30's daily entries, as well as Recon's.

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