How To Camp In The Desert

We were out camping this weekend in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Right now there’s a statewide fire ban, so a campfire in the evening to cook on was not an option. The reason is that it’s too dry. Well, that got me thinking about the desert because a desert is super dry. Can you have a fire there? I don’t know the answer to that, so I’m going to look into desert camping a bit.

Desert camping is not a trip for the faint of heart. You have the sun bearing down on you almost continuously during the day and it’s tough to find any shade to protect yourself during those hours. Food, water, and shelter are tough to find unless you bring the gear yourself. Depending on what part of the world you are camping in, different natural resources will be at hand. If desert camping is a recreation that you are interested in doing, stay tuned and pay attention to this article. It will give you some guidance, some tips, and hopefully a little confidence to help you on your way to a fantastic journey!

What is a Desert?

Deserts, in general, cover about one-fifth of the world’s surface. Extreme environments and lack of precipitation cause these areas to have minimal plant life and animal life. The plants and animals that are there have adapted over the years to survive in such a harsh environment.

Many people have the perception that deserts are very hot and dry areas, and that’s true for the majority of them. But some deserts are very cold and covered in ice and are very barren.

Planet Earth has four main types of deserts:

Coastal Desert

These deserts usually sit on the western coastline of continents. They are generally between 20 degrees and 30 degrees latitude, and the wind blows from the East which prevents moisture from coming onto land. Also, that’s what creates the dry environment. These type of deserts usually have cold winters and warm summers. An example of a coastal desert is the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Cold Winter Desert

The Great Basin and the Colorado Plateau in the red desert are cold winter deserts in the United States. These type of deserts usually have long dry summers and very cold winters with minimal amounts of rain and snowfall. This makes them considered a semi-arid style of a desert.

The minimal amount of rainfall in these cold deserts is often caused by what’s called the rainshadow effect. This happens when the mountains are so high they keep the moisture from coming into the area.

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Polar Desert

There are very few polar deserts. They are only found in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Like all deserts, they get very little precipitation and have very little plant and animal life.

Subtropical Desert

When you think of a desert, a subtropical is what you’re most likely to think about. These are the very, very hot deserts. These are the big boys. They are found in Asia, Australia, Africa, North, and South America. The Sonoran Desert and Mohave are probably the most popular in the United States.

Moisture in these areas comes in such a small amount that when it does fall, it dries and evaporates before it even hits the ground. The plant life and animals have evolved to be able to retain moisture and hunt and move around at night so they don’t have to be out in the sun during the day.

Camping in the Desert

Camping in any of the areas mentioned above is going to be an excellent experience if planned correctly. Anywhere that moisture is between 1 and 16 inches in a year or considered desert-like conditions.

You will need to pack according to wherever you’re going. That means having your warm clothes for the night because in the desert, the temperature can drop 30 to 40 degrees, if not more. It could be a hundred plus in the afternoon and drop down to 50 or 40 degrees at nighttime, which if you’re not packed correctly for, could cause real issues.

Grab your compass here

The desert is relentless and it has killed many people over the years, so be careful. Make sure you let family and friends know where you will be and make sure you’re prepared. If all those things are checked off, you should have a great experience and most likely want to come back to the desert.

Remember always document your expeditions and trips. Take as many pictures as possible and write down in your journals whatever you do to keep those memories. Because, I promise you, in the future, you will want to look back and show your family, friends, and everyone else who will listen.

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What Kind of Gear do I Need To Camp in the Desert?


When it comes to clothing, you want to be careful what you bring. You don’t want to overpack for your trip, but you also don’t want to underpack. You’re going to want to bring t-shirts and shorts and flip-flops, but I’m telling you, you don’t want those for your main attire. The sun is hot, it will burn you, and it will suck the moisture right out of your body. What you need are articles of clothing that will retain the moisture inside. Shirts that cover your arms, your neck, and your midsection and pants that cover all the way to your ankles. Socks that wick away all your sweat and keep your feet dry because wet feet in the desert cause serious issues.

Desert boots from Amazon

You also want to pack warm things like fleece jackets, wool sweaters, and any type of synthetic like a rain jacket. Anything that will breathe well. Here’s a list of a standard pack for a desert camping trip. Certain things are optional and certain things are mandatory. Depending on where you’re going, you’re going to have to make that call.

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Base Layer

  • synthetic undergarments
  • long john set top/bottom medium weight
  • breathable t-shirts
  • synthetic liner gloves
  • wool or synthetic socks (2 per day)


  • waterproof pants/shirts/jackets
  • breathable synthetic or softshell hiking shirts/pants/shorts/
  • large brimmed hat/bandana/beanie
  • hiking Boots/waterproof shoes/sandals


  • water bottles
  • tarps
  • sunglasses
  • sunscreen
  • camera
  • map
  • gps
  • compass
  • paracord 550lb
  • insect repellent

More: 12 Essential Camping Items

Camping Gear

  • single wall tent (protect from dust)
  • first-aid kit
  • personal medications
  • toiletries/shovel
  • hiking backpack
  • sleeping bag (-30° to 20°F)
  • sleeping pad/mattress
  • stove and fuel
  • lighter and waterproof matches
  • cookset/eating utensils
  • lanterns/headlamps/batteries/fuel
  • water filters and additives
  • multitool/knife

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How to Set up a Camp in the Desert?

Another thing to remember about deserts is the flash flooding. The ground is hard and there are a lot of dried-up river banks and ravines. When it rains, where you put your tent could mean life or death. A flash flood can happen in a matter of minutes and if you’re asleep and that happens, it’s trouble. Look for a high spot to pitch your tent.

The desert floor is mostly made of rock. It’s going to be pretty hard. So a pad or mattress is recommended. Your tent or sleeping situation should be stable and able to keep you warm enough for the chilly night. Ultralight Desert tent here


Campfires are nice but not always needed in the desert. They are nice to have for a comforting effect and to keep critters away and what have you. Cooking over a fire is great too if that’s the type of food you will be bringing.

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A fire is almost always a good idea for boiling out the contaminants in water, that is if you don’t have any filtration systems with you. Water can be tough to find in the desert and dehydration is a killer.

The body sweats heavily in the dry climates and can leave you extremely thirsty very fast. The obvious thing to do is drink your water. However, be careful and ration your water when you’re on hikes or out on a day trip in the desert. Try not to drink everything you have on the first leg of your trip. Be smart and make sure you have plenty of drinking water with you at all times.


Lighting is invaluable. If you have battery-powered lanterns and headlamp lights that they make these days, you’re in luck. They are bright and last a very long time. They are handy and cheap enough to stock up on, from setting up camp after dark to walking away from camp to use the bathroom.

Where can you camp in the desert

There are many places in the world where you can plan a desert camping trip. However, here are my favorite five in the United States. They can be beautiful and at the same time, show no mercy to its inhabitants. Respect the regions and wilderness and enjoy what Planet Earth has given us.

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Saguaro National Park

Located in Tucson, Arizona, the giant Saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States. Named after the cactus is the beautiful and relentless desert of Saguaro National Park. The weather here is relatively mild compared to other deserts in the United States, with wintertime temperatures getting as high as 70 and as low as 50, and summertime highs over a hundred down to the mid-80s. The best time to come camping is in the springtime.

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Joshua Tree National Park

What can I say, this place is incredible! It’s open year-round to the public and it’s about 800,000 acres of awesomeness. Joshua Tree is one of the most visited deserts in the United States, with just a few hours’ drive from Los Angeles, Vegas, and Phoenix. It gets almost three million visitors a year. Besides camping, there is also hiking, photography opportunities, and many rock climbing areas. This desert is busiest during the months of October through May when it’s not as hot.

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Canyonlands National Park

This desert is also open year-round with approximately 338,000 acres of land and water. Canyonlands is divided into three different sections by two different rivers. The Green and the Colorado River split the park up. The three parts of the park are Island in the Sky, The Maze, and The Needles, with the Island in the Sky being the most challenging area to recreate in. This desert is among the most challenging on this list as there are very few park amenities.

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Death Valley National Park

Well, this one is not called Death Valley for fun. This desert sits on Highway 190 between California and Nevada. It is hazardous, with flash flooding happening regularly in summer and fall months. Death Valley National Park is the largest national park outside of Alaska, containing almost a thousand miles of paved and dirt roads. Ninety-one percent of this park is protected, so be courteous and play by the rules.

This place is filled with barren salt flats, massive mountains, and deep canyons that get hit with flash flooding. Make sure you check with the local National Park Service to find out if any emergency closures are going on. Prepare and pack carefully so that you can enjoy the situation.

Reserve now – There are no reservations at this desert. It is open year-round and you can pretty much go wherever you’d like.

Great Dunes National Park

This park contains North America’s tallest dunes and is a recreational hotspot for camping and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts. Great Sand Dunes National Park sits at about 13,600 feet and is one of the highest deserts in the United States. Sitting inside of Colorado, the storms in this place can come in quickly, making it very wet and cold very fast. Make sure and pack accordingly.

Summertime is usually the best time to go, with highs averaging in the 80s and lows in the 40s. Springtime is the worst time to go. Weather can range from being blizzard conditions all the way to swimsuit weather. March and April are the two snowiest months in Colorado.

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Is Camping in the Desert Dangerous?

Yes, it is dangerous if you are inexperienced and not knowledgeable about the areas. There are precautions you need to take in any outdoor situation. Know the weather first and foremost. Flash floods, lightning, snow, rain, and anything else mother nature throws your way. You need to be prepared. Also, the only way to be fully prepared is to know all the aspects of the trip.

Animals and critters are also a concern, from snakes to scorpions. These things are killers if not taken seriously and given their distance. Check all your shoes, bags, tents, and anything else they could get into. It happens all the time.

Is Camping in the Desert Fun?

Yes, absolutely.

If done right and with caution, this could be the best experience of your life. The beauty of an early morning sunrise in the desert is a unique sight. The dew on blooming desert cactuses is picturesque. I recommend this recreation for the whole family. It is a memory maker and an extremely fun atmosphere.

Explore. Relax. Have fun.

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