The majority of people don´t have desert camping ranked very high on their list of places to pitch a tent. Though thanks to popular movies in recent years like Tracks and Queen of the Desert, many travelers have become charmed by the idea of romantic jaunts into barren wastelands with nothing but a water bottle, a sunhat and their precious thoughts jotted down in a leather bound journal.
However despite the stunning landscapes and the promise of adventure at every turn, the reality of such an excursion requires serious planning.
That being said, camping in a desert can be a unique and rewarding experience! I´ve personally roughed it in 4 different types of deserts on 3 continents (two of them as a solo traveler) and each of them presented their own special challenges and beauty.
So to get started, here are some things you need to know before grabbing your tent and heading out for the land of endless sun.
Deserts have different climates and seasons.
You´re likely thinking, say whuut? Though strange as it may seem, deserts have actual seasons and just like snowflakes, no two are the same. The Australian Outback, for example, has a dry and wet season; where the harsh lands that stretch from western Queensland through the Northern Territory and into the Western state become oases with numerous seasonal lakes and rivers teeming with life. Another example would be the desert that stretches south of the Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia), where even summer temps can get chilly at night, but dip well below freezing in the winter. (Like -20 C or more)
It´s important to know about the season and climate of the desert you plan to camp in so you can be prepared. Even in less extreme conditions, a good rule of thumb is to be ready for blistering hot temps during the day and potential hypothermia temps at night.
Cover. Your. Skin. Seriously!
There´s a reason the Beauduin people, who have survived in the Sahara for thousands of years, keep themselves covered and it has nothing to do with religon.
It has everything to do with survival.
Sunburned skin dehydrates you twice as fast and if you´re spending a lot of time outside or hiking, it pays to keep as much of your skin covered in light weight fabrics (Linen or ultra light synthetics), as possible.
I personally prefer linen since it drys very quickly (despite being a cotton product) and handles sweat better than synthetics. One day of sweat leaves most synthetic materials reeking like a dead warthog.
But I digress.
Also keep in mind that sunscreen helps protect you, but your skin still loses a LOT of water under direct sunlight even without being burned.
Rain can quickly become life threatening.
The deserts may miss the rain, but I guarantee you won´t! Since most deserts measure their annual rainfall in centimeters vs. inches, you can imagine how hard and crusty the earth is in these places.
So when the rains do come (and believe me, they do), even a couple inches more than normal will cause quick and massive flooding, turning arroyos and box canyons into death traps in the blink of an eye.
It´s important to consider the topography of the area you plan to camp. Make sure you aren´t pitching your tent near any dry river beds or in a narrow area that can funnel or increase the size and strength of any potential flood waters. (i.e. a gorge)
It doesn´t take days of rain in a desert to create flooding, so be mindful of where you take shelter in case the clouds start to roll in.
You won´t know you´re dehydrated until it´s too late.
While hiking in most places on a hot day will leave your clothes drenched in sweat, the desert will leave you drier than expected.
This is a sneaky little trick it likes to play on unsuspecting travelers: Letting sweat evaporate directly off your skin, leaving you suspiciously dry until you suddenly get dizzy and collapse from dehydration.
Due to the over all lack of moisture in the air, your perspiration won´t linger on your skin as it would in most hot climates. You can easily become critically dehydrated without even realizing it, so plan on drinking plenty of water regularly. Electrolyte enhanced water is even better.
If you can´t find prepackaged electrolytes, just a pinch of sugar and salt added to your water (1 small pinch of each per liter) can also do the trick.
Dont´t ever assume you´re not losing vital fluids because there isn´t much evidence of it. It´s a rookie mistake that could cost you your life.
Dust storms happen out of nowhere. Be prepared.
My arrival to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in the Australian Outback happened to be on the day they got hit with a terrible sand storm. As I was landing at the tiny airport of Yulara, I looked out the window and saw what looked like a big grey cloud approaching from the south and quickly realized we were in for a serious dust storm.
Sure enough, before I even left the airport the village was under siege by tiny particles of grey and red dust being whipped around at about 30 miles per hour.
Super fun start to a camping adventure, right?
Locals told me later it was the worst one they´d seen all year and it collapsed more than a few tents at the campsite where I had planned to stay.
The important thing to remember is this can happen without any warning and you need to take quick action.
- Have something to tie over your nose and mouth to prevent you from inhaling too much of the dust/sand.
- Try to find a natural barrier from the wind (i.e. A big rock, trees, bushes), but only if one is close.
- Drop your gear and set up camp immediately. Taking shelter as quickly as possible is important. Be sure to stake your tent when it is flat, before raising the roof, or you´ll lose it in the wind.
- Don´t try to push through. It´s easy to get off trail or lost in these conditions, which can last for hours or even days.
Keep in mind that dust storms often arrive on perfectly sunny, calm days without any notice. Be sure to have your shelter related gear packed in a way where you can access it quickly.
You should get to know the local wildlife.
And by this I mean before you go. Most people think only Coyotes, Snakes and Scorpions live in deserts, but you´d be surprised at the number of predators slinking along beside you in the shadows.
Many deserts have Lions (i.e. Atlas Mountains, Morocco) , Wolves (i.e. Northern Mexico), or Dingos (obviously Australia). Even wild Camels can be quite dangerous, so it´s important to know what predators or aggressive animals you may be facing on your journey.
Once you have this list factored into your planning (and you´ve made peace with the fact you´ll have sand in everything you own for weeks after), you´re ready for an unforgettable camping experience!
Until next time, keep wandering folks.