Sandstone monoliths and strange canyons rise and fall from the horizon. You’re miles from civilization with nothing but a tent and a few close friends, maybe a dog. Are you prepared to survive in this desolate landscape? Take a look at this ultimate list of desert camping tips and tricks that will make your experience one for the history books.
As a full-time freelance writer for the outdoors and avid climber, I spend a lot of time camping in the desert. In fact, I’ve even written about the topic for major outlets like the REI Co-Op Journal.
I travel to the American Southwest at least six times a year for a desert camping adventure. Throughout the years I’ve learned a few things about how to comfortably safely camp in this unforgiving landscape. So here’s a look at a few exlcusive tips to make the most of your desert getaway.
About this Guide to Camping in the Desert
Camping in the desert, especially without any amenities (called disperesed camping) is a bit of an art form. In this list of tips for desert camping we’ll cover:
- How to leave it better than you found it
- Safety tips for camping off the grid in the desert
- What to pack in your car
- How to navigate in the desert without cell service
1. Count Your Miles While Desert Camping
Most of the BLM land in the southern US involves vast distances between gas stops. The San Rafael Swell offers some of the most remote areas in the Lower 48. After Green River, there’s a sign that reads, next services 204 miles, and they aren’t kidding. Be sure to keep tabs on how far gas stops are between destinations and plan accordingly. You can reset the mile counter on your vehicle so you know just how far you’ve driven and how far you have until empty.
2. Bring Plenty of High Quality H20
You drink more in dry environments, if you travel during the heat of the day, you’ll want even more water. Depending on the season, plan on budgeting between four liters to one gallon per day per person out here. Aim high during the summer months. This includes cooking, washing and drinking water.
3. Pack that Gas
Whenever you head into the desert it’s always a good idea to pack an extra gas can (make sure it’s full!). If you run out of juice, you’ll want that can. Be sure to keep it away from passengers in the vehicle to avoid any unwanted smell. You can purchase an external carrier for your vehicle, and some gas cans can even strap to the roof of cars.
4. Find Free Camping
One of my favorite desert camping tips is never to pay to camp! It’s one of my favorite budget-friendly desert road trip hacks. Anyone who pays for camping in the desert simply isn’t doing it right. Free camping is EVERYWHERE.
BLM land even has established camp areas (with toilets) that are free of charge. Simply type in your destination (trailhead, national park, what have you) and use Google in terrain view to find spots. Be sure to camp ONLY in previously established sites. For fun sites, look for camping with a rock feature or a point of interest nearby. Always have a few backup coordinates just in case.
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5. Source Firewood Locally
Firewood is at a premium in a land where nothing grows. However, there are juniper trees and other vegetation out here that you can scavenge. Check in washes or dried river beds for viable firewood. Never cut live trees or try to dig a tree up (even if it looks dead, it likely isn’t). Always have a few bundles of locally-sourced wood as a backup.
6. Check Your Tires
Be sure you know how to change a spare in a jiffy. Often times, rocky roads can cause serious problems to your vehicle. Understand how to change a tire, otherwise, you’re looking at a long, lonely walk to the nearest busy road.
7. Have a Plan
Be sure to tell someone where you are going. Write down a personal description, vehicle description and rough idea of where you are headed and when someone should hear back from you (don’t forget to check in!). Leave your point person a description on who to call (local sheriff) in case you don’t return.
For more info on how to create a comprehensive trip plan that will get you rescued, check this out.
8. Never Travel in the Rain
If you haven’t experienced the desert in the rain, it’s a magnificent butterfly. Waterfalls appear out of nowhere, rivers rage from nothing and the entire landscape changes. However, it’s extremely dangerous to get caught in the desert rain. Avoid slot canyons, washes cliffs (think falling rocks) and other areas during the rain. If you do get caught, seek high ground immediately to stay out of harm’s way.
Driving becomes nearly impossible over many desert roads for days after a big storm. Plan accordingly. If you do get caught in the wild for a brutal storm, plan on staying put for several days. Roads need to dry before they become passable again.
9. Watch for Washes
Don’t set up camp in low spots. Sandy areas or washes come to life with weather, and you don’t want your tent to become flotsam in a rainstorm or be inundated with a hidden waterfall. Seek high ground when it comes to setting up the tent.
10. Explore Your World
One of the best parts of the desert is exploring cross-country. With some navigation know-how, you can head to a prominent rock formation or explore around camp. Remember, what goes up must come down, and down climbing is always harder. Never ascend a rock you aren’t certain you can get down.
11. Give Your Adventure Vehicle a Once Over
Before you embark on an off-the-grid expedition, give your vehicle a little TLC. Check your oil level, battery life, coolant, power steering, and wiper fluids. Examine your tires. Make sure your first aid kit is up-to-date. Give the girl a good grooming before you head into the wild.
12. Download the Maps
Cell service in the desert is next to none. Be sure to save any waypoints, camp spots or trailhead locations to Google Maps and your GPS prior to heading out. Download both the Google Maps for your region (downloads usually stick around for 30 days) and your GPS app or device. Stay prepared out there!
13. Bring on the Dust
So big surprise here I know, but deserts are dusty. Dust often acts as an irritant for your lungs, sinuses, eyes, and nose. Always pack some nasal spray, allergy medication, and eye drops. You can thank me later.
14. Keep Camp Cozy
A cozy camp is a happy camp. Bring an extra pair of footwear, tons of socks and any other creature comforts to make camp great. My personal favorite is my bouldering pad, which I lean against my cooler for a camp couch. Whatever it is for you, bring it and be merry!
15. Wear Layers
Weather changes on a dime in the desert. A sweet, warm day quickly turns into a frozen wasteland at night. Temperature swings can vary up to 30 degrees a day in the desert so be sure to pack accordingly and layer up.
16. Watch the Sun
The sun both kills and saves in the desert. If you’re adventuring during the hotter months, seek shade. Apply sunscreen regularly and wear a hat. If you’re super ambitious, you can even wear a sun layer to protect yourself from the mighty UV rays.
17. Tool Up
One worthy desert camping tip: keep a healthy too box. Don’t leave home without a few things to help you MacGyver something in a pinch. I never leave home without the following:
- Duct tape
- electrical tape
- needle nose pliers
- bailing wire
- ratchet set
- screwdriver (flathead and Phillips)
- zip ties
- allen wrench set
- medium sized channel locks
- Tent repair kit
- 4 – 6 pieces of accessory cord (3-5mm) various lengths
18. Bury (or Pack Out) Your Human Waste
Human waste is simply unsightly. Always bury your waste (and pack out your TP). In the desert, the hole should be a bit smaller, think four inches instead of six. This is because waste takes longer to break down here. I’ll also bury grease waste from cooking. Do so at least 200 feet (70 adult steps) from camp.
Pro Tip: If you can, use bathrooms at campgrounds. Poo is a problem in the desert and one of the biggest camping tips is to properly deal with your deuces. Always travel with a wag bag if you’re out hiking or backpacking and dispose of your waste properly.
19. Leave It How You Found it
The desert is filled with many wonders, including artifacts and relics from ancient cultures. It is illegal to remove these items. In order to preserve the tales of history, you can examine these items, but leave them where you found them. The same goes for any geological features that may be tempting to pick up and take home (this includes Moeraki boulders, the little pebbles that look like musket pellets).
Related: Learn to Leave No Trace
20. Pack it Out, Pack it in
So let me begin (see what I did there?), nothing ruins the desert landscape like trash. Pick up any and all trash from this pristine landscape. Animals will dig up your waste (especially TP…gross!) so be sure to put it in a trash bag and bring the trash bag all the way home.
Don’t overwhelm the rural communities here with your waste, bring it back where you can dispose of it properly. Also, be sure to put your trash in your vehicle at night, unless you want a pack of desert foxes to rip into and scatter it about (speaking from experience here).
21. Wash Up
Dirt, dust, and sweat make for an itchy mess after a few days. Be sure to wash your tender bits (frankly, anywhere where pubes grow) and keep clean. You can either use wipes or some warm water for the job.
22. Don’t Bust the Crust
Be on the watch for cryptobiotic soil. This delicate soil helps break down organic waste in the desert. It takes quite a long time to grow, so take note and avoid any lumpy, black soil. The desert thanks you!
Now you’re ready to rock your next desert camping trip! These desert camping tips are designed to help you thrive on your next rendezvous in this spectacular landscape.
23. BONUS: Search for Shelter
The desert is a brutal place. If it’s not freezing, it’s windy. If it isn’t windy, it’s insanely hot. Look for a place to camp that has some landscape features to protect you from the elements. Nestle yourself on the leeward side of a cliff, find a spot with afternoon shade, or
Plan the Perfect Desert Road Trip
Get the most out of your desert trip with these handy articles: