MSR tent illuminated from within at twilight in Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona

Desert Camping Tips

Photo: Kurt Budliger/Tandemstock

The Adventurer’s Guide to Camping in the Desert

When midwinter days reach their shortest, there is nothing better than a desert escape. Trading cold and gloomy for warm and dry: It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll get a healthy dose of sunshine balanced with dark, starlit nights to recharge on a camping trip to a stunning landscape. Even seasoned campers will find the desert a harsh environment, though, when it comes to exposed heat, remote areas, and limited services. Consequently, you’ll want to be fully prepared for a desert getaway to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip. 

Pack Water and Stay Hydrated

Natural water sources in the desert are unreliable at best. Don’t count on anything marked on a map. You’ll need to pack all the water you need for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. One gallon per person per day is generally recommended, though it’s always good to have extra. Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration or heat stroke. 

Prepare for Cold Weather 

Even if you’re escaping cold weather, you might be surprised to learn how cold the desert can be at night. Temperatures swing drastically, especially in the winter, and you’ll be glad you brought extra warm layers so you can camp comfortably. Check the forecast before you go and prepare for a range of temperatures. 

Find or Create Shade

When the weather and environment don’t offer much respite from the sun—seek out whatever shade you can find in the natural terrain, especially for the hottest part of the day, and orient your tent accordingly so the first light doesn’t wake you. If there’s nothing in the surrounding landscape, make sure to bring a tarp, umbrella, pop-up tent or structure so that you can get a break from the sun’s intensity. 

Deal With Dust 

The desert is dusty, be prepared to deal. When the wind picks up, dust storms are relatively common. Bring eye protection, where in extreme cases, an old pair of tight-fitting ski goggles will help keep the dust out of your eyes. Protect sensitive electronics in weather-proof cases. Otherwise, don’t forget lip balm, eye drops or allergy meds for dry eyes, plus ever-versatile baby wipes for impromptu hygiene to clean out layers of collected grit and grime.

Prepare Your Vehicle 

Most desert locales will be remote and have limited services. Have a spare tire for your car, or better yet, have two good spares. Make sure your vehicle is serviced, topped off with oil and running well. Carry extra fuel if necessary and always keep the gas tank full. As you go more remote, don’t forget to pack extra tools to service the vehicle in a pinch (plus a proper first-aid kit for you and your crew).

Backpacking under Castleton Tower near Moab, UT. Castle Valley, UT. Photo: Justin Bailie/TandemStock

Have Offline Navigation 

Cell service will be spotty at best. So be prepared for your drive and bring a hard copy of a map for backup, plus download or save necessary maps to digital navigation devices or apps in advance for offline access and use. 

Stay in Established Campsites

The lure of open space for dispersed (and often free) camping is strong. Confirm with local land management agencies that camping is permitted in your area, and always set up in established campsites to minimize your impact on the land. This is especially true in the desert. Even if it looks desolate with plants that look dead, they often come to life when it rains. Pitch your tent or park your camper on hard, durable surfaces. 

Camp on Higher Ground 

When it rains in the desert, flash flooding happens quickly and can be dangerous. Before setting up your camp, survey the terrain and set up camp in higher areas. Avoid ravines and depressions that might look tempting for wind and sun protection. 

Shelter Smart

You might think to skip the rainfly and go with all mesh-walled ventilation, but the best desert tents also have to keep sand from blowing in the tent (look for a bathtub-style floor at a minimum), while providing coverage and vestibules to block the sun and to keep the tent cool in the day. So you need to balance sun and wind protection with airflow. Many committed desert campers see the benefit in canvas-walled tents for their durability, UV protection, and interior cooling abilities. 

Wear Sun Protection

With all that sunshine, you’ll need plenty of protection. Bring a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen and use them. Protecting yourself from sun exposure will reduce the chance of dehydration and heatstroke. Stay hydrated and dress in loose-fitting clothing and light colors. Ironically, the lightweight cotton you might have written off for outdoor activities will help cool you down mid-day much better than any fast-wicking synthetics, especially when dampened with water, as the natural fabric dries slower and holds moisture much longer. 

Be Critter Aware 

With a change of environment, you’ll find it comes with a host of different critters. Scorpions, rattlesnakes, and other desert animals bite and can be painful, deadly, and dangerous. Mind your belongings and always shake out your shoes before you put them on. Leave your tent zipped closed and consider a portable cot to elevate you off the ground. 

Respect the Land 

Tread lightly on the terrain and camp in developed campsites. Skipping the campfire is always an option—there’s a good chance it’s not allowed anyway given how high winds can spread sparks to dry surroundings, it leaves a mess, it’s warm already, plus there’s often limited natural wood to burn. Stay off sensitive biological soil crust and always stay on established trails, or walk on rock or gravel when off-trail. Though a harsh environment, desert lands also have a long history of indigenous habitation. If you find ancient artifacts like arrowheads, leave them where they are. Do not walk on top of or touch rock art. Practice Leave No Trace principles and pack out any and all trash.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.