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10 Tips for Camping in the Desert

The desert is the perfect, off-the-grid landscape for getting away from civilization. However, the extreme environment can be dangerous if you camp without understanding how to deal with it.

To have a safe but memorable desert camping trip, there are a few things to consider before you hit the road.

Keep reading to learn about 10 tips to prepare for camping in the desert!

Three tents set up for camping in the desert in Utah.

Survival Tips for Desert Camping

1. Stock up on Water

Woman in a desert landscape drinking water while hiking.

The one major necessity for camping in the desert is fresh water. Dehydration is risky in hot and dry environments, so you can never pack too much water. Pack a good number of gallons for drinking, cooking, washing, and bathing.

Should something happen and you lose most of, if not all, your water, you’ll need to collect some. Take advantage of any rain that falls or research creeks or rivers that hold water year-round. Don’t forget to pack a water-filtering device.

Above all, if you leave your campsite, even for a few minutes, always carry water!

2. Prep Your Vehicle

A red pickup truck parked by a creek in a desert setting.

Before you leave for your desert camping trip, make sure you and your vehicle come prepared with certain amenities:

  • Good tire pressure: Check that your tires have decent air pressure before driving through the landscape. You’ll also want to lower the PSI halfway for better traction in deep sand.
  • Extra gas can: You want your fuel tank to be full while camping in the desert. However, keeping an extra can of gas or two is wise because a gas station isn’t guaranteed to be nearby.
  • First-aid kit: Generally, any car should have a first-aid kit in case of roadside emergencies. Add some supplies like nasal saline for dry sinus pain and allergy medication.
  • Other vehicular necessities: Pack items like an air pump, extra engine oil and coolant, jumper cables, spare tire, and tire-changing equipment. If you haven’t learned certain car maintenance tasks, learn them before your trip.

3. Bring Navigational Tools

Person holding a compass with desert scenery in the background.

Camping in the desert means you’re out in the wide open, making getting lost easy. You can’t depend on trails because they’re usually unmarked or washed away.

And if you need to call someone, especially for help, bring a satellite phone. This is a good investment if going on dispersed camping trips is a hobby.

In addition to telling people where you’re going and when to expect your return, bring a compass or a map. Since cell service is rare in deserts, these offline but useful tools will help you find your way.

Informational Tips for Desert Camping

4. Check Weather Reports

A flash flood in Arizona after a thunderstorm.

It’s not just the heat; rain, high winds, and sandstorms can make camping in the desert unbearable. So check the weather in your chosen desert to decide when will be a good time to start your trip.

Even if these conditions occur unexpectedly, remember to keep your gear close by, anchored down, or inside your shelter.

Weather-Appropriate Clothing

You’ve got loose clothing for hot days, but you’ll need heavy clothing on frigid nights to stay warm. In addition, your sleeping bag should aid in warmth and comfort in low temperatures.

When it Rains

The upside to desert rain means more water to stock up on. But the downside is that raging flash floods are common due to dry creek beds filling up so fast. If it rains while camping in the desert, stay inside your shelter.

5. Choose a High-Ground Camping Spot

Two tents set up in the desert on a plateau.

Considering deserts’ flood risks, don’t settle in low areas like ravines or next to cliff walls. Instead, set up camp on high ground. This is to protect you and your gear from being swept away or from being targets for a waterfall.

Established Sites

If there is an established campsite in the desert, take it. When camping on undeveloped grounds, a previously-used site indicates a safe spot for camping. It’s also the best choice when camping in the desert if protected areas are forbidden to campers and tourists.

6. Learn the Signs of and Treatment of Heat Exhaustion and Stroke

Man appearing to be suffering from heat exhaustion.

Desert camping has its share of health risks if you’re not used to the heat. The potential for heat exhaustion or heat stroke warrants bringing a camping buddy should the worst happen.

When camping in the desert, it’s important to know the differences between the two illnesses:

  • Heat exhaustion symptoms: dizziness, confusion, heavy sweating, cool and moist skin, nausea or vomiting, muscle cramps, rapid and weak pulse
  • Heat stroke symptoms: headache; body temperature above 103–104 degrees; hot, red, and dry skin; nausea and vomiting; rapid and strong pulse

Heat exhaustion requires lying in the shade or your shelter, using ice packs, and drinking water. Should the symptoms last more than an hour, call 911—all the more reason to pack a satellite phone!

With heat stroke, don’t wait; you need medical attention. While waiting for help, stay in a shaded area and use ice packs and wet towels to cool down.

7. Research the Desert Wildlife

A coyote howling with desert scenery in the background.

The desert is filled with animals and plants that can harm you if you get too close. Research the wildlife you’ll likely encounter while camping in the desert.

Protecting your Food

Just like bears, desert animals like coyotes, foxes, rodents, or snakes will encroach on your campsite if they sense unsealed food. So store it in a bear box or odor-proof bags or coolers.

Don’t forget to hide the containers under a blanket (or in your car), and keep your site cleaned up.

Avoiding Wildlife and Cacti

Even if you avoid the wildlife, close encounters are still likely. Small animals like rodents and snakes are not ideal desert camping buddies. Close your shelter tight, shake out your gear, and wear bite-proof boots to avoid snake bites.

Protective footwear is also essential if you step on a cactus burr. If you see a cactus, expect a bunch of these burrs nearby and avoid the area.

Gear Tips for Desert Camping

8. Set Up a Desert-Friendly Shelter

Point of view of person in a tent looking out at the desert surroundings.

Some areas in a desert won’t have shade unless you camp in a desert that has a few trees. In either case, your choice of shelter will give you the shade you need.

If you’re tent camping in the desert, set up a tent that’s sturdy, well-ventilated, and can withstand heat, wind, and rain. You could also use your car or rent an RV or camper for shelter for more protection against the desert’s elements.

9. Pack Sun- and Sand-Protection Items

Two people walking in high desert terrain wearing protective sun hats and clothing.

Staying in your shelter or even in the shade and not doing anything makes for a boring camping trip. Still, you don’t want the sun beating down mercilessly on you; that’s where sunscreen and a sun hat come in.

Besides the sun, sand can also harm you—via wind or sandstorms. Include in your camping gear wraparound sunglasses or goggles and earplugs to keep sand out of your eyes and ears. In case of a sandstorm, pack a bandana or dust mask to avoid breathing in the sand.

Finally, to get rid of any sand that makes its way in your body crevices, bring along baby wipes.

10. Bring Extra Batteries

A tent lit by lantern at night in the desert.

For however long you plan on camping in the desert, you’ll need certain powered items to keep functioning. Pack extra batteries for your light sources, fans, and chargers to maintain safety and comfort in the desert.

Beat the Heat while Camping in the Desert!

A woman enjoying coffee and watching a desert sunrise in her tent.

Desert camping is no sweat if you come prepared. Learn all you can about what to expect in a desert, and keep a checklist. And take some notes from your friends and family if they have tips for camping in the desert.

Read up on dispersed campsites to learn about more open lands that are great for camping!