Backpacking in New Mexico: Tips & Trails

Backpacking in New Mexico: Two backpackers on a desert trail in New Mexico

In this post, we'll take a look at:

Backpacking in New Mexico comes with thousands of miles of diverse trails, from desert tracks marked by cairns in the south to rocky, high-altitude forest paths in the north. Popular destinations include the Gila Wilderness and Bandelier National Monument.

In this article, we’re going to discuss backpacking in New Mexico from an ultralight perspective. We’ll share important tips to help you prepare for your upcoming outdoor adventure.

We’ll showcase the TOP 5 trails in New Mexico, divided into two groups: day hikes covering less than 30 miles and multi-day trips with convenient water resupply points every few days.

Key Tips for Backpacking in New Mexico

  • What to expect: Get ready for a mix of landscapes that change a lot, from deserts to mountains. This will test your navigation, endurance, and outdoor skills. Be prepared for tough trails that aren’t well-kept, not much water (you might need to store or clean it), extreme weather like sudden floods and heat waves, and the chance of meeting wildlife—make sure you know what to do.
  • Essential gear: In New Mexico, you’ll need important gear like gaiters, bear canisters, and a water filter due to the tough terrain and conditions.
  • Wildlife: In New Mexico, you’ll find various hazardous wildlife, including black bears in forests, mountain lions in remote areas, rattlesnakes in deserts, scorpions in the south, black widow spiders in shaded spots, and javelina, wild pigs that can be aggressive. Though rare with precautions, it’s crucial to be aware of these wildlife threats.
  • Wild camping is allowed in certain public lands, with rules differing across areas. US Forest Service-managed wilderness areas, such as the Gila Wilderness, permit wild camping following Leave No Trace guidelines. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) parcels generally allow wild camping, but rules vary. National and state parks don’t permit wild camping; designated campgrounds are required. On Native American lands, rules vary, highlighting the need to ask for permission. For the most options in wild camping, explore wilderness and BLM lands.
  • Best time to go: The best times for backpacking in New Mexico depend on the region and weather conditions. Opt for the deserts during fall through spring to escape extreme heat, while the mountains are ideal from July to September before heavy snowfall. For quieter trails, aim for the shoulder seasons in spring and fall. Be cautious of spring winds and summer monsoons that can bring hazardous thunderstorms and flash floods.

Top 5 Day Hikes (Under 30 Miles)

Embark on these day hikes and experience the utility of your ultralight gear:

  1. Wheeler Peak via Williams Lake Trail (8.7 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. Nambe Lake Trail (6.3 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  3. La Luz Trail #137 (15.2 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  4. Alkali Flat Trail (4.4 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  5. Pino Trail (9.2 miles).
    See on AllTrails.

Top 5 Multi-Day Trips

Check out these awesome backpacking trails in New Mexico, where you’ll find water resupply points every two days:

  1. National Recreation Rim Trail (30.5 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. Truchas Peak Loop (30.1 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  3. Deadman Peak (51.6 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  4. Beatty’s, Jack’s Creek, Skyline and Pecos Trail Loop (35.5 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  5. Middle Fork Gila River Trail #157 (40.1 miles).
    See on AllTrails.

Annual Weather Averages

New Mexico has variable weather due to its deserts and mountains. Summers are hot while winters are cold as seasons change significantly. Remember weather details depend on location within the state:

  • Spring (March to May): Mild to warm temperatures, ranging from 60°F (15°C) to 80°F (27°C). Chilly nights, especially in higher elevations.
  • Summer (June to August): Hot conditions, with daytime temperatures exceeding 90°F (32°C) and sometimes reaching over 100°F (38°C). Cooler temperatures in higher elevations.
  • Fall (September to November): Pleasant temperatures ranging from 60°F (15°C) to 80°F (27°C). Cooling temperatures as fall progresses.
  • Winter (December to February): Cold weather with daytime temperatures of 40°F (4°C) to 60°F (15°C) in lower elevations. Freezing temperatures and snow in higher elevations and mountainous areas.

Before making your gear selection, take a look at the weather statistics for New Mexico (Santa Fe):

JanFebMarAprMayJunJulAugSepOctNovDec
High °F414755637281828074635041
Low °F192328344251555547372619
Rain/Snow (D*)23334510106433
Note: This table is approximate; weather can change with altitude.
D* – Days of rain or snow.

FAQ

Can I have a campfire while backpacking in New Mexico?

Campfires are permitted while backpacking in many areas of New Mexico, but there are important guidelines to follow. In National Forests and BLM lands, campfires typically require obtaining a free permit from the ranger station, and may be prohibited during dry conditions when fire risk is high. Within National Parks like Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands, fires are restricted to designated grills and rings only – no ground fires allowed. Certain wilderness areas and state parks may prohibit campfires year-round to preserve the pristine landscape. Where campfires are allowed, it’s crucial to use existing fire rings when available, gather only dead and down wood, keep the fire small, and fully extinguish it before leaving. Portable camp stoves are a great low-impact alternative for cooking meals. By securing permits, adhering to area-specific regulations, practicing leave no trace fire principles, and exercising caution, you can enjoy campfires responsibly during your backpacking adventures in New Mexico’s immense wilderness areas. But always confirm requirements beforehand to follow guidelines protecting the state’s fragile natural habitats.

How to deal with wildlife encounters while backpacking in New Mexico?

When encountering wildlife in New Mexico’s backcountry, stay calm, keep your distance, and never approach or feed the animals. Talk loudly or sing to alert bears, mountain lions, and other large mammals to your presence and avoid surprising them. Give them a clear escape route. If necessary, slowly back away without turning your back. Review best practices for using bear spray safely and effectively if you choose to carry it. Report aggressive animals to rangers.

What are some safety tips for backpacking in New Mexico?

Venture into New Mexico’s majestic wilderness for an adventurous backpacking trip immersed in nature, but be sure to plan and prepare. Acquire a detailed trail map before following winding canyon and mesa paths, and inform others of your intended route. Pack brightly colored clothing, first-aid supplies, flashlights, whistles and extra water to stay safe in the arid climate. Watch your footing hiking over rocky desert terrain. Make noise to avoid surprising bears, mountain lions or rattlesnakes. Stay hydrated and focused to fully embrace New Mexico’s natural splendor while keeping safety a priority. With adequate precautions taken, you can revel in the beauty of New Mexico’s backcountry. Stay vigilant, be ready for the unexpected, and remember prudent planning prevents poor performance on a New Mexico backpacking adventure.

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