An Expert Guide to Camping in the Desert
Dreaming of the desert and wide-open skies? Read this guide by Camping & Hiking expert Kat Smith so you can plan and enjoy your next desert camping trip.
The desert is a unique and beautiful landscape to visit, and there is no better way to experience a place than to sleep on the ground under its vast, starry sky. But with limited resources, an unforgiving environment, and a fragile ecosystem, preparation and planning are key to having a successful desert camping trip!
Before You Go
Careful planning and packing are important for any camping trip, and your preparations will be different for each unique landscape you visit. In the desert, resources such as water, medical care, and vehicle maintenance are limited and cell phone service is often unreliable. Packing correctly and preparing before you head out into the desert can keep your trip fun and safe!
Pack plenty of water
And by “plenty,” I mean pack the amount of water you think you will need, and then pack more! Water is scarce in the desert, and even if you are planning to camp near a water source such as a river or stream, be prepared for it to be dried up. A general rule when camping is to pack one gallon of water per person per day for drinking, plus an extra gallon per day for cooking, washing, and cleaning. When camping in the desert, you should bring at least double this amount.
In addition, I like to bring enough water for each person for one full extra day, because you just never know — a flash flood could wipe out your exit road, or your vehicle could break down and leave you stranded. To save space in your car, consider purchasing a water storage container such as the Reliance Aqua-Tainer. It holds seven gallons of water, has a slim design for easier storage, and has a spigot for convenient, intermittent use!
As you are driving to your desert campsite, fuel up whenever you see a gas station along the way. In some desolate desert areas, there are hundreds of miles between gas stations! Some people will even bring a full gas can to have in case of an emergency — the last thing you want is to run out of gas and be stranded on the side of the road with no cell phone service and very few passersby!
Pack appropriate clothing and essentials
Most people hear the word “desert” and immediately think of hot and sunny weather. While that is true and you need to be prepared for heat and sunshine, the desert also gets cold! Overnight temperatures in the 30s are common, even during the summer months, so it is important that you pack and prepare clothing and gear for a variety of temperatures. Some of the clothing and sun-protection essentials that I always bring with me to the desert include:
- Long-sleeved shirt with moisture-wicking capabilities and UV protection, such as the Black Diamond Alpenglow Hoody
- Hat with a brim
- Breathable hiking footwear with a strong rubber sole
- Fleece and extra layers for when the sun sets and the temperature drops
- Puffy jacket in case it’s an extra cold night
- Rain jacket in case of an unexpected thunderstorm
Other essential items that I always bring include: chapstick and eye drops to protect my lips and skin from that dry desert air, tweezers in case of an accidental encounter with a cactus (it happens more often than you would think!), bug spray, and, of course, my usual first-aid and emergency kit.
Research the wildlife
Depending on where you are camping, there may be mountain lions, rattlesnakes, scorpions, spiders, and plenty of other dangerous critters. Knowing what to do if you encounter wildlife may save your life! Research the area you are going to and make a plan, should the worst happen. I always research where the nearest hospital and veterinary clinic are so that in a time-sensitive situation, I know exactly how to get to safety.
Check the weather forecast
While it is easy to assume that it’s going to be hot and dry, always check the most recent weather report before you head out and lose your cell phone service! If rain is forecasted, be aware of possible flash floods — avoid hiking, standing in washes and slot canyons, and opt for your campsite to be on higher ground. If high winds are in the forecast, use extra stakes and guy-lines when pitching your tent, take extra precaution if you have a campfire — as embers can easily be carried away — and opt for a more sheltered campsite near a rock wall for protection.
If you plan to have a campfire for cooking, for warmth, or simply to hang out by, check the fire danger for the day and the fire restrictions in the area just as readily as you check the weather forecast. You can typically find this information on the Bureau of Land Management website, the National Park Service website, or by calling the local visitor center or ranger station.
Setting Up Camp
You’ve packed all your water and essential items, done your research, fueled up, and you are now surrounded by rock formations and cacti — you made it to the desert! Now comes one of the hardest parts (in my opinion) of the trip: selecting the perfect campsite!
Finding a campsite
While making a reservation at a campground is convenient and may offer luxuries such as toilets, nothing beats the solitude of camping with no sign of other humans. In many desert locations, free, dispersed camping on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands is plentiful and you can truly be alone.
Dispersed campsites are typically located along secondary roads, some of which are rough and may require four-wheel drives or a vehicle with high clearance. Generally, the rougher the road, the more secluded the campsites! However, due to the lack of vehicle maintenance and repair resources in the desert, this may not be the best time to put your car to the test. Only drive on roads you feel comfortable on, and remember, you will have to drive out as well as in!
The BLM recommends that dispersed camping take place in an area that has already been used as a campsite in order to reduce damage and scarring to the land. Dispersed campsites are oftentimes unmarked, but there are some telltale signs to indicate that you’ve come across a site. Look for a flat, disturbed area with a pre-existing fire ring. As you drive along a bumpy, rutted secondary road, you may come across multiple sites, so now you just have to choose one.
Some of the questions I ask myself when selecting a site are: does it have beautiful views? Am I out of sight and ear shot of any other campers? Is there a good tent site? Am I safe from forecasted weather, such as flash floods and high winds? If the answer to these questions is yes, there is no point in getting sucked into the vicious cycle of thinking that a “better” spot is just up ahead. Park your car and start setting up your camp!
Find a tent site
Once I decide on a campsite, I immediately start the search for the perfect spot to pitch my tent. Look for a flat area with even ground and a smooth surface. Rocks and twigs can be moved aside, but don’t uproot small desert shrubs! If your campsite is primarily on slick rock or the ground is too hard to push stakes through, use guy-lines to secure your tent. If possible, find a tent site that offers some protection from the elements — shade from a Joshua tree will help keep your tent cool and a large rock wall will block the wind.
Safely build a fire
Once my tent is pitched and my luxury items such as lawn chairs and my Mountain Summit Gear Heavy Duty Roll-Top Table are set up (with snacks!), I spend time building my fire ring. If you follow the BLM’s guidelines, there will already be a fire ring at your campsite. Due to the desert’s dry climate and unpredictable high winds, always make a tall, sturdy fire ring to contain your campfire and offer as much protection as possible, even if the fire danger is rated as “low.” Bring your own firewood and kindling for your campfire. Many desert trees and shrubs may look and feel dead, but they are very much alive! For more information, check out this guide to building a campfire.
Respect the land
It is extremely important to camp at a pre-existing site if possible and to respect any “no camping” signs. After a season of use, the BLM will often close off previously used campsites to give the land a chance to heal its scars. Camping or even walking on land that is closed off can disrupt the delicate desert ecosystem. For example, cryptobiotic soil, which appears as a hard, black crust atop the dirt, is actually a living organism that protects the desert from rain and wind and allows plants to grow and survive.
Exploring The Land
It is now time to explore this beautiful place! Visiting nearby national and state parks, day hiking in slot canyons or to impressive buttes, swells, and mesas, and studying ancient petroglyphs and artifacts are just a few things the desert has to offer you. But don’t forget, the desert is both fragile and unforgiving. Protect both yourself and the desert while you are on your outdoor adventure.
Avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day
Temperatures easily reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the desert offers little shade. Prevent dehydration and heat illness by planning to hike early in the morning or in the evening.
Bring a daypack
Whether you are going to check out a narrow slot canyon, hike to the edge of a mesa, or ogle at unique rock formations, always bring a daypack stocked with the essentials. Water (and more water!), sun protection, extra layers, snacks, and emergency gear like a navigation tool and headlamp should be with you at all times, regardless of the current weather or time of day.
Stay on the trail
Not only can you kill cryptobiotic soil and small desert plants, encounter snakes or other dangerous wildlife, or injure yourself by wandering off the beaten path, but it is also easy to get lost. Many hikes are on slick rock or other hard surfaces and are marked by cairns. When there are no footprints to guide you in the right direction, it is important to maintain focus and not let too much time pass without seeing a trail marking. A carefully planned sunrise hike can easily become a middle-of-the-day desperate search for the trail.
Watch the weather patterns
Just because the weather forecast was clear before you left for your trip doesn’t mean you should let your guard down. Understand weather patterns, notice when dangerous weather conditions are approaching, and be prepared to end your expedition early to seek safety!
Leave No Trace
When your camping trip is over and you are packing up your gear, do a once-over of your campsite to make sure you leave minimal impact on the land. Pack out all of your waste, including human and dog waste. If there was trash at your campsite before you arrived, give back to the land by picking it up. Leave what you find, including animal bones, antlers, snakeskins, and uniquely colored rocks — they are part of the ecosystem. Refer to The Seven Principles of outdoor ethics and protect the land by leaving it better than you found it!
Reach out to me or another Camping & Hiking expert here on Curated and we'll be sure to get you geared up for your next desert camping trip!