So you want to go camping in the desert? Not so fast! If you are inexperienced, camping in the desert can be extremely dangerous, so make sure to educate yourself before doing so by reading these tips.
- There is no such thing as too much water
- Prepare for extremely cold weather
- Set up camp in higher areas
- Use a quality tarp to create your own shade
- Wear looser, lighter-colored clothes
- Don’t go out in the sun between 10 am and 4 pm
- Learn about how to treat sun-related illnesses
- Bring lots of sunscreens (and use it!)
- Do your research about the wildlife
- Bring offline navigational tools
Let’s get into more detail!
- 1. There is no such thing as too much water
- 2. Prepare to freeze
- 3. Always take the high ground
- 4. Use a quality tarp if you cannot find shade
- 5. Wear light-colored clothes
- 6. Stay out of the sun between 10 am and 4 pm
- 7. Wear long-sleeved clothing to protect from bites and sunburn
- 8. Know the symptoms of heat-related illnesses
- 9. Always wear sunscreen
- 10. Familiarize yourself with the wildlife
- 11. Navigational tools are a must
- 12. Do Not have a black tent
- 13. Never travel alone
- 14. Bring some salty snacks with you
- 15. Carry water with you wherever you go
- 16. Be on the lookout for critters
- 17. Don’t leave food out in the open
- 18. Look at the weather forecast
- 19. Keep your gas tank full
- 20. Make sure you're settled in before dark
- 21. Have a spare tire for your car
- 22. Deserts are a dusty place
- 23. Never travel in the rain
- 24. Explore the area around your campsite
- 25. Travel by camel
- 26. Temperatures fluctuate like crazy
- 27. Make a camping checklist
- 28. Camp at previously established campsites
- 29. Always have a flashlight with you
Desert Camping Tips
1. There is no such thing as too much water
Even though you’re most likely aware that bringing water when going on a camping trip to the desert might be a good idea, I cannot stress how important this tip is.
There really isn’t a thing such as “bringing too much water”, as you will need every last drop of it.
When I pack water on my trips to the desert, I usually pack around one gallon for each person for every day that you stay camping as well as one more gallon just for backup or reasons other than drinking such as washing or cooking.
Being dehydrated in the desert is extremely dangerous, so make sure to stay safe by always being hydrated.
2. Prepare to freeze
This may come as a shocker to some of you, however, the desert can be an extremely cool place at night.
Because of the dry air, in a matter of minutes after the sun goes down you can expect a temperature change from a hot 100 °F during the day, to sometimes even as low as 30 °F at night depending on where you are.
How crazy is that?
Bringing a warm sleeping bag is a must, and if you want to keep extra warm at night, I like to pack some thermal and long-sleeved clothing as well.
Better safe than sorry!
3. Always take the high ground
At first, it may seem like a good idea to set up camp in a nice and shady area, right?
However, the only places where I can think of natural shade in the desert would be in a ravine, or next to a cliff wall – both big no-no’s when it comes to desert camping.
The problem with setting up a camp in a low area with shade is that deserts are prone to flash flooding.
When it rains in the desert, the entire landscape can change dramatically in a matter of seconds.
In a ravine, your entire tent and camp can get flooded, whereas behind a cliff wall a hidden waterfall can appear from the rain which can not only flood your tent but may also cause rocks to fall onto you.
In order to avoid getting hurt, learn from my experience and follow my tip of taking the high ground when camping in the desert.
Sure, it’ll be a bit sunnier, but is it worth your life for some extra shade?
Besides, there are plenty of ways to get shade even on higher ground, which brings me to my next tip for desert camping.
4. Use a quality tarp if you cannot find shade
See? I told you that there is a way to get shade even while staying safe and taking the high ground.
A tarp can not only provide you with some nice shade, but also protect you from rain, and overall, it is a very useful tool to have with you, not just in the desert, but anywhere you choose to go camping.
One of my personal favorite tarps is the Mountain Equipment Echo Hexagon Tent Tarp Waterproof as you can set it up absolutely anywhere you want, whereas most tarps have to be tied to trees or rocks (things you won’t really find on the high ground of a desert).
The tarp I linked above has tons of more benefits, just click on it and see them for yourself. It is always important to have shade in the desert, and a tarp is a perfect way to get shade no matter where you are.
5. Wear light-colored clothes
When I was young and went camping in the desert, my father would always call out to me when packing, “Francis, make sure not to bring darker colored clothes!”
Naturally, I would take my father’s advice, but I never found out the reason for this until now.
Well, it’s actually quite simple.
Black absorbs sunlight, while white and lighter colors actually reflect sunlight.
The last thing you’d want to be doing in the desert is absorbing sunlight and causing yourself to get even more heat than you already are, so, this is why wearing white or light-colored clothes is a very useful tip for camping in the desert.
6. Stay out of the sun between 10 am and 4 pm
Another tip I heard from my father while I was growing up was to try to avoid the sun as much as possible between 10 am and 4 pm since that is when it is the highest in the sky and most dangerous.
After doing some research online, it turns out that he was right.
Going out at these times can be dangerous, and may become even more so in the desert where you are making a lot more direct contact with the sun than in your normal home setting.
I like to call the time between 10 am and 4 pm my “resting hours”, as instead of going outside to risk getting a sunburn or other sun damage, I just lay down in my tent and maybe enjoy the view or catch up on a few good books that I brought.
7. Wear long-sleeved clothing to protect from bites and sunburn
After reading the tips above, you’ve probably figured out that I prioritize safety over everything, and that the sun can be especially more dangerous in the desert.
Unless you’re a fan of getting a sunburn and bites from various insects of the desert, then I’d strongly advise you to wear long-sleeved clothing as it is a great protector from both.
If you take a look at traditional Arabic outfits, you will see that they are both long-sleeved and light-colored.
As people who have lived in the desert for millennia, they know best about survival in the desert, so I highly recommend that you follow this tip in order to better your camping experience in the desert.
8. Know the symptoms of heat-related illnesses
Though we all dread illnesses like heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat stroke, whether we like it or not, they do sometimes occur in the desert and you have to be prepared by knowing their symptoms.
If you do happen to be feeling any of their symptoms it is important to take action and ensure that you go back to your tent where you can relax and treat them so that things do not get worse.
9. Always wear sunscreen
If you’re like me, you probably think that the sun will not get to you, and as a result, you never or rarely use sunscreen.
This is not the case in the desert. As I have mentioned above, the sun is much worse due to the direct contact that you are making with it, so I assure you, no matter who you are, you will get a sunburn if you do not wear sunscreen.
Just throw on some sunscreen and you will be safe and protected from the sun’s blazing rays. I recommend using Vichy Laboratories Capital Soleil SPF 60 Soft Sheer Sunscreen, but any of them work, really.
Remember, it is better to be safe than sorry.
10. Familiarize yourself with the wildlife
Knowing the wildlife before going somewhere is always a must, and an excellent tip that should apply to all your camping trips, not just when you are in the desert.
However, in the desert, there is a high chance that you may encounter critters that can kill.
It is very important for you to be able to identify them and keep your distance to ensure your safety. If things do go south, it is crucial to be informed as to how to treat their bites.
11. Navigational tools are a must
When I say something is a must, just know that I’ve learned from experience and that I really mean it.
Getting lost in the desert is about one of the worst things you can do. There isn’t always served in the desert, so relying on your phone is not an option.
You may not be able to find people for miles, so it is extremely important to bring a map and a compass if you want to get back to civilization.
12. Do Not have a black tent
The last thing you want to be doing in the desert is absorbing excess sunlight and heating yourself even more than you already are. The color black just naturally absorbs sunlight, so you can expect your tent to be either completely melted or simply set on fire by the sun.
Even if you have a high-quality black tent that somehow manages to withhold the sun’s rays, you can expect it to turn into a solar oven.
Quite frankly, this means that it will be unbearable to stay inside it due to the extra heat, as well as a high chance that everything you have inside could very well be damaged due to overheating (including food, electronics, and more).
If you have a black tent, your best bet would be to either sell it or get a quality tarp just as I suggested above.
Even if you do get a tarp, I still advise that you swap it out with a light-colored tent for a more enjoyable camping experience.
13. Never travel alone
When I say never, I mean never.
You may be an experienced camper, however, in the desert, you can forget about all the experience you have.
Things can change in a matter of seconds, and you can expect yourself to be lost or in danger.
Having a buddy with you not only makes it more enjoyable but if something happens with you, they are able to call out and get you help.
I can assure you that getting lost will not be as easy as it is in the movies.
The chance of someone coming and finding you is extremely low, so be sure to tag along with a friend or two whenever you decide to go out exploring in the desert.
14. Bring some salty snacks with you
You may be tempted to drink water after consuming salty snacks, however, the benefit of consuming salt in the desert is that they help replace the salt and minerals you lose when you sweat.
It is crucial to always maintain balance in your body system, so trust me on this one and bring a few bags of your favorite chips or salty snacks and enjoy yourself.
15. Carry water with you wherever you go
Wherever you are in the desert, you need to have water with you if you want to live.
It does not matter if you’re going out for just a minute or even a second, water can be a lifesaver in the desert if you have it with you at all times.
You never know what you can expect, so be sure to prepare for the worst.
16. Be on the lookout for critters
Ranging from snakes to scorpions and even spiders, the desert is full of critters.
It is always good to research the wildlife before going camping in the desert, but even more so to just always be on the lookout for critters as some of them can be deadly.
Some simple things you can do to protect yourself is shaking out your shoes before you put them on in case a critter has crawled in or simply just using insect repellent as it really is quite effective.
17. Don’t leave food out in the open
Darn rats! They like to come out at night in search of food, and if your food is not protected, well, then you can bid farewell to it.
All jokes aside, rats really are a problem in the desert, so a simple precaution you can take is just locking your food away in a safe container.
Oh, and try not to leave food in your tent. Trust me, the rats will always find a way to get in, so just put the food safely outside in the shade and seal up your tent.
18. Look at the weather forecast
Always a good tip for camping in the desert, as the weather report can not only tell you the temperature, but it can also warn you about certain natural occurrences such as a flash flood or a sandstorm.
If you do happen to be warned about one of these, just remember to stay calm and keep the high ground to ensure safety.
19. Keep your gas tank full
In the desert, there may not be many gas stations, so when you do see one I advise you fill up your tank to the top just in case.
Gas is usually cheaper in areas near deserts, so make use of that and stay safe.
20. Make sure you’re settled in before dark
The desert can be a scary place at night. You won’t be able to see anything, and even with a flashlight, you will have an extremely hard time setting up camp.
Make sure to arrive on time and get camp ready before sundown, or it will be really difficult and potentially dangerous to set it up at night.
21. Have a spare tire for your car
It’s always good to have a spare tire, but especially more so in the desert.
Remember, safety comes first, so having that extra tire can truly be life-saving if one of yours goes flat.
You never want to be stranded in the desert, as you may not be able to get help for days, weeks, or even at all.
22. Deserts are a dusty place
You may already know this, but do you know how to deal with this issue?
Packing some eye drops, nasal sprays, and allergy medication can go a long way and I guarantee you will appreciate this tip for when you go camping in the desert.
23. Never travel in the rain
As I have mentioned above, the entire landscape of a desert can change within minutes, especially when it rains.
You may get caught when a flash flood occurs and get dragged until you cannot find your campsite anymore.
Remember, if it rains, just stay in your tent and enjoy the cool breeze – do not try to go out and travel.
24. Explore the area around your campsite
It is always good to know your surroundings and where things are located around you, however, remember, never do this exploring alone.
Always bring a friend whenever you decide to leave the campsite, however, it is a good idea to know where things are just in case you get lost.
25. Travel by camel
For those of you who want to try camping in an international desert, I have to say that I highly recommend it and I believe that everyone should try it at least once in their life.
Regardless, traveling by camel is very popular in international deserts. It is an incredible experience, as quite frankly, camels are made to live in the desert and you can really explore a lot with them.
If you ever happen to get stranded, camels naturally know where to go, so be sure to catch a ride with one and pay them back by giving them an apple or a carrot once they take you back to safety.
26. Temperatures fluctuate like crazy
I already mentioned this above, however, it isn’t just temperatures that fluctuate. One moment it can be raining, the next sunny, and then back to rain again.
The climate of the desert is truly unpredictable, so just know to pack for the worst and bring clothing and equipment for all sorts of weather.
27. Make a camping checklist
What is the perfect camping checklist? It all depends on who you are and your style of camping.
For the desert, my tip to you would be to start off with your necessities and then slowly bring things that help bring you comfort.
You always need to eat, so bringing a high-quality knife along with tools that can help you start a fire is a must.
I’ve already mentioned many items that you should bring up above in my list of tips, so write them down and see what you find useful and bring it.
28. Camp at previously established campsites
Even if you are a professional, I still highly recommend camping at previously established campsites.
There is a reason the campsites were established there, and doing this ensures your safety as there will be other people with you, making the chance of things going wrong much lower.
29. Always have a flashlight with you
Always, always, always.
The desert gets really dark at night, so bringing a good powerful flashlight is crucial.
A flashlight I recommend specifically for desert camping would be the GearLight High-Powered LED Flashlight S2000 as it has never let me down, and if you just read the description of it on Amazon, you will truly see its dominance in comparison to other flashlights.
So there you go! Now you know pretty much everything there is to know about camping in the desert.
Stay safe out there, and let me know in the comments if I should include some more tips in case I missed something.
Sean is an accomplished backpacker with over 10 years of experience exploring the great outdoors. He has a passion for hiking, camping and off-grid living.