11 Amazing Desert Camping Tips
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When most people think of camping, they imagine camping in a wooded area. With a lake or stream nearby. Perhaps with a mountain in the distance. You normally don’t think of the desert. Desert camping is like winter camping. It presents its own unique set of challenges and rewards. But if you plan properly you can open up yourself to an entirely new world of adventure.
Whenever you go camping, you should let people know where you’re going and when you plan to return. If you plan on hiking or canoeing or kayaking then make sure people know your general itinerary. This way if something happens and you cannot ask for rescue, then people will know to send out a rescue team. And to be able to give them a general location to search for you.
This is even more true for the desert. Because the desert is unforgiving, remote and it doesn’t have many resources for you to use to survive until help gets to you. In comparison, if you get lost or even sprain an ankle bad enough to need to wait for help, the forest might be inconvenient. But generally, you will make it through the day and night without many problems.
By comparison, with the desert, you need to find shade. To protect yourself from becoming dehydrated and sunburned. You even need to protect your eyes from the glare of the sand. There is not much water. And even if you think you find water, it must be purified. And unless you have a filter or purification tablets with you then you will need to boil it (read our article on how to boil the water without campfire). Which is going be hard to do when there isn’t much in the way of firewood to be found.
Thus make sure that you do extra planning including bringing extra supplies when camping in the desert.
There is no agreement on how much water you need to drink or bring with you camping in general. Though, the general recommendation is to drink about 2 liters per day. But that assumes you’re not in the desert!
If you are camping in the desert you should plan to drink more water. And then bring even more with you. Because remember, you won’t be using water just for drinking. You will need water for cooking and washing. And for general personal hygiene. You may even need to use water to cool off if someone is getting too hot.
However, remember that you don’t need to always drink your water. You can consume water via food as well. Many fruits and vegetables will contain a large amount of water. The benefit of eating our water, is that they can be easier to pack. Plus they add variety. And can provide more nutrients than just plain water.
In addition, make sure that you bring along electrolytes to go with your water. Electrolytes will help you feel better than drinking water alone. Most of the time electrolytes will come in the form of a sports drink like Gatorade. However, if you are counting your sugar calories, make sure to look for sugar-free versions.
Bring A Water Filter And Purification Tablets
As part of your preparation, make sure to bring along a way to make water drinkable. If you are car camping, you should be able to bring plenty of water. And if you’re at a front-country campsite, it should have potable water.
However, you need to be ready in case something happens. A jug can leak. You need to use water to cool off someone. Or heck, you might just end up drinking more than you planned.
While water isn’t easy to find in the middle of the desert, it’s not impossible to find. But as with any water source you find while camping, you need to make it safe to drink first. This can be done with a water filter. Or purification tablets.
Which water filter to bring depends upon your requirements. We have written a complete guide to how to choose one here.
Finally, while you can boil water to make it safe to drink, you shouldn’t plan on this for the desert. It’s going to be hard to make a fire with found materials. You will need a camping stove.
Do Not Plan On A Campfire
Make sure to bring a gas stove with you. If you want to make a campfire, bring your own firewood. Though follow any rules around bringing in the wood. For example, to prevent insects and diseases from being spread.
And many desert-like areas may also institute burn-bans to prevent forest fires because it’s so dry.
This is why you need to bring a gas stove. There are many varieties. Bring along a stove that meets your camping needs. For example, if it’s just you and your spouse, then you can do a single burner. Meanwhile, if you are going with a group of people, you need to bring a multiple burner stove.
While a campfire is more romantic and simpler to roast marshmallows with, it also takes time and skill to build. A gas stove is simpler to start and easier to manage. In particular, early in the morning when you want to get your coffee made.
Bring Your Food
Plan your food carefully. Remember, you’re going into the desert. While modern coolers do a great job of keeping things cold, they can only do so much if it’s over 100 F and directly in the sun.
Plus if you’re hot, you won’t want to eat as much. And you definitely don’t want to stand next to a hot flame to cook.
So plan for food that doesn’t need refrigeration and possibly doesn’t need any cooking. Or at least doesn’t need a big fire to cook.
Canned meat, Ramen noodles, and even hobo meals will work fine here. You can cook fresh meat but remember, you need to make sure to keep it cold. You might even want to bring a cooler just for the meat. And pack it with extra frozen sponges and provide its own shade.
By having a separate cooler, you can pack things tightly so that it doesn’t have much air to keep cold. And it will limit the number of times it opened and closed.
It Gets Cold At Night
Even though you are going to go into the desert, don’t forget your layers and your rain gear. I know the desert will be very hot during the day. And it could go months without any rain. But this doesn’t mean it doesn’t cool off. Nor does it mean there’s never any rain.
Many years ago I read the book “Walking The Bible.” It was a fascinating story about a man following the steps Moses followed in the Old Testament. One of the stories that stand out in my mind, even though it’s been 20 years is about the goats.
At least, I think it was goats :).
But the more important part is that the animals were all dark-colored. It was because they needed to soak up as much heat as possible during the day. Because at night, the desert got cold.
So make sure to bring along your fleece for the evening.
And also pack your rain gear. Because it’s a law of nature that if you forget the rain gear, then you know there will be a record amount of rainfall.
Pay Attention To Flash Floods
Not only can it rain in the desert, but it can also flood. And flood quickly. Thus when you are pitching your tent, make sure you’re not in a dry riverbed. And look for debris that could indicate that you’re in a flood zone.
So make sure that you’re up on a slope. But not all of the way on top to increase your safety in case of a thunderstorm. Be Aware Of Snakes And Scorpions
Besides the fact that it’s blistering hot, without shade and devoid of water or firewood, the desert has one more nasty surprise for you.
Snakes and scorpions. And they prefer to come out at night. While snakes are cold-blooded, they are not very good at regulating their temperature when it gets too hot either. Plus their prey is more active at night.
While the movies make you think you will see these during the day (and you might), they’re more active after the sun goes down. And it’s cooler outside.
So make sure you watch where you step. And don’t reach under any rocks or logs with your hand unless you have used a hiking stick to make sure there’s nothing hiding there.
And in the morning, shake out your boots or shoes before you put them on. To a scorpion, your footwear looks like an attractive hiding spot for the day.
How To Hack Your Own Shade
I grew up in Waco, Texas. My dad grew up in Los Angeles. So every couple of years we would pack up the family car and drive to California. Most of the time we took the trip through the desert of West Texas, southern New Mexico, and Southern Arizona before hitting LA.
One year, I remember as we were driving across Texas, we would see these billboards for “The Thing”.
“Stop And See The Thing.”
They were impossible to miss. Bright yellow background with the words written in dark blue lettering.
The van overheated and dad pulled over to a service station. Where we learned that the van’s radiator was too small for the heat. And we needed to let it cool off before we could leave.
Ironically, the service station, by complete accident, was next to “The Thing”. It was a simple but entertaining roadside attraction.
Then we went on our way. Driving across the desert with the heater on to prevent the van from overheating.
What I remember was that it was hot. And thinking “All of this sand and no beach.”
I don’t remember there being any trees.
Which is what you will discover when you go desert camping.
But you can make your own shade. You can reverse an emergency blanket so that its shiny side points up at the sky and put it over your rainfly. This will reflect much of the sun’s heat back up into the air.
You can also cover your tent with Reflectrix. And of course, make sure to keep the vents open. Heck, if you know for sure there will not be an rain and you have a double-walled tent, you can leave the rain-fly off.
You can also bring along poles to create a shaded area under tarps.
Tie Your Tent Down With Sand
Two of my friends grew up in the Middle East. And from them, I have learned that just like the legend of Eskimos having multiple words for snow, there are multiple types of sand.
While I am not familiar with the types of sand, none of it sounds like it would be good for holding a tent stake in the ground.
We face similar problems with snow.
The simplest solution to tieing down your tent will be sandbags.
You don’t have to bring special bags for this. You could use extra trash bags for this. Though you will have to play around with how far out to put your bags from the grommets. This will be more art than science.
You will also need to tie your rain fly down with sandbags as well.
Keep Shoes Out Of Your Tent
Many people keep their footwear out of the their tent because they don’t want to track dirt and mud into the tent.
When you are camping in the desert, you want to minimize the amount of sand that you bring into your tent.
Thus you must make sure to keep the boots and shoes outside of the tent. But remember to check for spiders and scorpions and even snakes before you put the footwear on.
Use a stick or even your knife to feel for the potential intruders. Do not use your fingers.
Keep A Zipper Kit On Hand
You need to keep your tent zippers free of sand as well. If just few grains of sand get into your zipper, it will get stuck. There are kits that you can buy that will help with this problem. Though rubbing alcohol and a rag will help as well.
Bring A Satellite Phone
Finally, if you are going out into the desert and are out of reach you should consider bringing a satellite phone like a Garmin InReach.
While you don’t need to call home everyday. Or use it to be constantly connected.
It can be used to request help in an emergency such as if someone breaks a leg or gets bit by a snake.