Desert camping is a truly unique experience. With vast landscapes and bizarre formations, deserts provide unparalleled environments unlike any other. Shadows dance across miles of cracked earth, and vibrant hues juxtapose in extraordinary color palettes. They’re a favorite for photographers and adventurers alike.
But, for all their vigor, deserts are some of the most extreme environments on earth. With the right planning and preparation, you can enjoy a safe, fun desert camping trip with memories to last a lifetime. Here are some expert tips for planning your amazing desert camping trip.
4 Tips for Planning Your Desert Camping Trip
There are four major deserts in the United States, all located in the American Southwest.
The Great Basin Desert in eastern California, Nevada, western Utah, and southern Idaho.
The Mojave Desert in eastern California and western Nevada.
The Sonoran Desert in southern California and Arizona.
The Chihuahuan Desert in southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and West Texas.
Ninety percent of having an amazing desert camping trip is planning.
Follow these steps to plan a safe, enjoyable camping adventure in any desert environment.
1. Familiarize yourself with the climate
One of the defining features of desert climates is the considerable swing in temperature from day to night. Desert temperatures are more extreme in the summer and winter, with hot summer days and cold winter nights. In any given month, temperatures can swing 20 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit in a single day.
Daytime temps can be scorching in the summer months, easily reaching triple digits. Most desert climates reach peak temperatures between June and August. The Mojave Desert—where you’ll find popular camping destinations like Death Valley—averages daily highs of 96 degrees Fahrenheit in July.
It’s not uncommon to experience summer temps over 120 degrees in some sections of Death Valley. Most deserts in the United States are pretty dry, so the heat is a little more tolerable. But at a certain point, hot is hot, no matter how arid the environment may be.
In hot desert climates, you’re vulnerable to heat-related illnesses, like heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of heat stress, and pack accordingly. Otherwise, try to plan your camping trip for late spring or early autumn when the climate is a little more temperate.
Conversely, nighttime lows can reach freezing temps, especially in the winter months. The Great Basin Desert averages nightly lows of 15 degrees Fahrenheit in December and January. Winter temperatures can be overwhelming to even the most experienced adventurer.
With fewer natural structures to block the wind, you’ll feel every degree of that chill down to your bones. Desert camping in the winter leaves you vulnerable to cold-related illnesses like frostbite and hypothermia. Familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of both. If you’re planning a winter camping trip in the desert, pack for the cold and know how to stay warm.
Your chances of encountering rain are pretty slim unless you’re summer camping in the Sonoran Desert. While most deserts rarely see more than a few inches of rain over the year, the Sonoran can exceed nine inches in a month. You can still enjoy your desert adventure; just make sure you know how to camp comfortably in the rain.
Keep a close eye on the weather forecast in the weeks and days leading up to your trip. Hazardous weather can sneak up on you when you least expect it. Flash floods are incredibly dangerous and can be difficult to anticipate. As long as you know what to expect, you can prepare for the climate and have an amazing camping experience.
2. Get to know the wildlife
One of the best things about camping is sharing space with wild creatures. Deserts are home to some of the most fascinating and clever animal species in the world. While some of them may be cute or cuddly, many desert animals are on the typical camper’s “hell no” list.
A significant amount of desert species can be dangerous to humans if provoked. Critters like rattlesnakes, scorpions, killer bees, and black widows are some of the more obvious desert-dwellers that can pack a poisonous punch. But deserts are also home to larger apex predators like cougars and coyotes.
The good news is that many of the desert’s more dangerous species are nocturnal, so you probably won’t encounter them much. But if you’re active after sunset, watch where you step, lest you happen upon an unsuspecting critter.
The best thing you can do is familiarize yourself with all the native species, so you know what to expect and how to treat venomous injuries. And if you are lucky enough to see a wild animal, enjoy them from a safe distance of at least 100 feet.
3. Plan the details of your trip
It’s essential to plan any camping trip, but this is especially true when planning a desert camping adventure. Most desert environments are remote. You may be hundreds of miles from the nearest gear shop, food store, or fuel station. It’s important to plan as many details as possible so you know where to find the nearest amenities or emergency services.
If you’re traveling to a remote destination, carry a full can of gas in your vehicle. The last thing you want is that “empty fuel” light flashing on your dashboard, in the boonies, with no cell reception. It’s also a good idea to have a roadside emergency kit in your vehicle, in case you do get stranded for some reason. At a minimum, make sure your kit includes these basic supplies:
- Nutrient-rich snacks
- Plenty of water
- Extra clothes and blankets
- First-aid kit
- Phone chargers
- Flashlight with extra batteries
- Road flares or reflectors
- Jumper cables
- Spare tire, jack, and lug wrench
Keep a close eye on your mileage so you always know how far you are from the nearest service facilities. And find out if you need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to access your campsite.
One of the benefits of desert camping is being off-the-grid, away from crowds and the noise they bring. Many of the best desert camping environments are on federal public land, hosted by agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). As incredible as dispersed camping is, you may not have access to restrooms, potable water, or waste bins. You’ll need to bring enough supplies to get you through your camping trip (plus a little extra).
Once you arrive, keep a detailed account of where you are and where you’ll be going, so you can always find your way back. If you plan on hiking, biking, off-roading, or otherwise enjoying the desert landscape, make sure you have a map and compass or GPS device. And if you’re camping in the summer, try to plan your activities for early morning or evening to avoid scorching temps.
Most desert landscapes are expansive wide-open spaces without signs or guideposts to help you navigate the area. Some desert trails have rock cairns or landmarks to help you navigate, but for the most part, you’re on your own. Make sure you familiarize yourself with the routes you’ll be traveling to avoid getting lost.
Once you have all the details of your trip planned out, share your itinerary with someone—preferably multiple people. Let them know where you’ll be, when you plan to return, and how they can reach emergency services if they don’t hear from you.
4. Pack the right gear
Your full camping checklist will depend on where you’re going, how long you plan on staying, and your recreational activities. But these are the essentials for a successful desert camping trip.
The single most important thing to bring with you into the desert is, you guessed it, water. I can’t stress this enough. Bring more water than you think you’ll need. A good rule of thumb is to have three to four liters of drinking water with you at all times. Add another liter (or two) if you plan on hiking in the heat.
Keep in mind that five liters of water can weigh over ten pounds, so make sure you have the room and strength to carry that much weight. If you know of any local water sources, you should also pack a portable water filter or purification tablets. And pack extra water for things like cooking and cleaning around camp.
Make sure you drink regularly, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Aim for a cup of water every 15-20 minutes and check the color of your urine to ensure it remains diluted. Dehydration is no joke and can sneak up on you when you least expect it.
In addition to water, be sure to pack plenty of food. You may be miles from any grocery store, so it’s essential to make sure you have enough food to get you through your camping trip and then some. Aim for three small meals a day, plus nutrient-rich snacks every few hours.
Your body needs fuel to run smoothly in extreme environments, so try to eat foods with a healthy balance of protein, carbs, and fats. Salty snacks and sports drinks can help replace lost electrolytes. It can be a little harder to motivate yourself to cook when temperatures are approaching triple digits. Keep your meals quick and simple with these 5-ingredient camping recipes.
A Sturdy Shelter
Desert environments can be tough on lightweight nylon tents. The sun’s scorching rays can damage lightweight synthetic materials. And windy conditions carry abrasive sand particles through the desert, chafing and wearing down the fabric.
It might seem intuitive to pack a lightweight tent, but you’ll fare better with a durable canvas tent that can withstand the environment. A nice canvas wall tent will keep you cooler during the hot days and warmer through the cold nights. It will also keep unwanted critters out of your personal space. You can also place a tarp over your tent for added shade and protection from the elements.
It seems obvious to pack shorts and a tank top if you plan on spending time in the desert. But you’ll also want to pack warmer clothes for the chilly nights. Keep a few comfortable clothing items at your campsite, like stretch jogger pants, a t-shirt, and a jacket for nighttime temps.
For daytime clothing, try to wear light colors, like white, gray, and khaki. Lighter colors reflect more of the sun’s rays, keeping you cooler in the heat. Avoid wearing dark colors that absorb heat. You’ll also want clothes that are made with moisture-wicking fabrics to help keep you dry. If you plan on adventuring, bring breathable shoes with durable rubber soles (like trail runners).
Whether relaxing in camp or exploring the desert landscape, it’s important to protect yourself from the sun. Too much sun can lead to painful sunburns, eye damage, heat stroke, headaches, and other debilitating illnesses. Make sure you have plenty of shade at your campsite. If you can’t find a spot that provides natural shade, build shelters for your camp. You can add tarps, porches, awnings, canopies, sun screens, and umbrellas.
Make sure you also protect your body. Your skin, lips, and eyes are especially vulnerable to sun damage, even in the shade. Pack everything you need to protect yourself and any furry friends with you. Aim for a sunscreen with an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of at least 30. Consider wearing a wide-brimmed hat, bandana or buff, sunglasses, and SPF lip balm.
If you’re not a big fan of slathering sunscreen on your flesh, you can opt for a lightweight sun protection shirt. Look for sun shirts with a UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) of at least 50.