How Camping in the Desert Works

By: Mark Boyer
camper in desert
Camping in such an unforgiving environment like the desert requires a good deal of preparation. See more national park pictures.

Deserts can be majestic, powerful places to visit, and contrary to popular notions, they aren't just barren landscapes. Deserts are very much alive, and they host a wide range of fascinating plants and animals. But the landscape shouldn't be taken lightly, and it requires hikers and campers to follow a different set of rules than they might in more mild environs.

Most scientists consider deserts to be any place that receives less than 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rainfall per year. Why would anyone want to venture out into such a forbidding landscape, let alone go camping there? Because deserts are unique, beautiful places that are unlike any other climatic or geographic region. Think of some of the most iconic natural places in the American West, like the Grand Canyon, Death Valley or Monument Valley in Utah -- all of them are deserts [source:].


The desert is a place of extremes. Many desert regions get very hot during the day, but they can also be quite cold at night, meaning that you'll have to plan and pack for both. Staying hydrated and finding enough water are the most obvious and pressing concerns when you're spending a significant amount of time in the desert, but there are other things to keep in mind. For one thing, landmarks can be few and far between, and trails can be difficult to find, making it easy to get disoriented and lost. Many deserts are also home to a number of hazardous creatures, like venomous snakes, that can really spoil your vacation [source: Johnson].

Because of their natural beauty, deserts can be great places to visit, but desert camping requires a good deal of preparation, and above all, respect. If you make one careless mistake in the desert, you could find yourself in serious trouble. In this article we'll walk you through some of the basics of desert camping, from dressing like a cowboy to dealing with snakebites.


Desert Camping Safety Precautions

The desert can be a harsh environment, but if you know what to expect and take the right equipment, you can be just as comfortable in the desert as any other place. Hyperthermia -- or heat stroke -- is one of the most serious threats you'll face when camping in the desert for any length of time. Although it doesn't get much media attention, approximately 400 Americans die each year from exposure to excessive heat. If you spend the entire day out in the desert sun it can be easy to overheat; and in extreme cases, too much heat exposure can result in heat exhaustion or heat stroke, which is when the body is unable to cool itself down.

Some common symptoms of heat stroke include chills, confusion or dizziness, slurred speech and even hallucinations. If you or a member of your camping party appears to be getting heat stroke, the best thing to do is rest in a shaded area and to drink plenty of water [source: CDC].


Staying hydrated is the most important thing you can do when camping in the desert. Most experts suggest drinking at least 1 gallon (3.785 liters) of water each day you spend in the desert. But the amount of water your body needs really depends on your physiology and your level of exertion and exposure. For that reason, Wilderness Medicine Institute founder Buck Tilton suggests following conventional wisdom by drinking enough water that your urine stays clear [source: Tilton].

To cut down on water loss, you can try breathing through your nose and avoiding fatty foods (they take more water to digest). But the best way to avoid dehydration is to simply drink plenty of water. And no matter how much experience you have living in the desert, it's always a good idea to pack more water than you think you'll need.

Because deserts tend to lack major landmarks, it can often be very easy to become disoriented or lost -- and the desert is one of the last places where you want to lose your bearings. If you plan to go hiking in the desert, it's always a good idea to bring a good map, a GPS unit, or a cell phone (if you get coverage). And if you're traveling alone, tell people where you're going and when you'll return [source:].


Preparing for Inclement Desert Weather

One of your biggest concerns when camping in the desert will be limiting your exposure to the sun's harmful rays, and because there aren't many naturally shaded places, you should pack a hat with a large brim, and a well-ventilated temporary structure. The desert's powerful sun won't just leave you with a nasty sunburn, it can also permanently damage your eyes, so high SPF-sunscreen and UV-filtering sunglasses are a must.

The heat and sun aren't the only things you'll have to worry about when camping in the desert, though; because the air is very dry and the skies are often clear, it can also get very cold at night. Temperature swings of as much as 40 degrees within a single day aren't uncommon in the desert, so you'll want to take a lot of layers for warm and cool weather when packing for your desert camping trip [source:].


It's pretty counterintuitive, but the desert can be one of the most dangerous places for you and your tent to be washed away by a flash flood if you camp in the wrong place. Washes are dry beds of intermittent streams that are typically located in the bottoms of canyons. When there is no threat of rain, a wash might look like a pretty inviting place to set up camp, because the flow of water can flatten the soil, creating a relatively level plane on which to set up a tent. However, if there's even a hint of rain in the forecast, a wash is the absolute last place you want to find yourself. Because desert storms can be so powerful and unexpected, drowning and fatal injuries caused by flash floods are among the leading causes of death in the desert [sources: Johnson;].

You'll also want to make sure that your car is equipped for desert travel before taking it out into the harsh environment. Car failure in the desert can leave you stranded and vulnerable, so it's a good idea to have a mechanic give your car a thorough inspection before heading out for a desert camping trip. And if you're going to a place that will require you to drive on off-pavement trails, you'll want to drive a car that has high clearance and four-wheel drive.


Desert and Wildlife Camping

The desert is home to a frightful assortment of creatures that can ruin your camping trip with a single sting or bite, like this rattlesnake.

Although it doesn't contain as much wildlife as, say, a rainforest, the desert is home to many wild animals, birds and insects. Desert animals are supremely adapted to their surroundings, and many of them have adapted to manage their body heat and to blend in with the landscape. Signs of desert wildlife are typically much more subtle than in other regions, with temperature and time of day playing a big role in whether or not animals and other creatures will be out and about [source:].

Because the daytime heat is so powerful in the desert, many animals are nocturnal and spend most of the day sleeping in burrows or shaded areas. That can make it difficult for people to observe them without night-vision goggles. The best times to view mammals like prairie dogs, rabbits or even coyotes, are in the early morning and late evening, or in the spring or fall. Birds and reptiles are seen more commonly during the day than mammals, and many desert regions are home to a rich variety of both.


It's impossible to discuss wildlife without mentioning the many venomous insects and snakes that call the desert home, though. From scorpions and rattlesnakes to venomous spiders like the black widow and brown recluse, the desert hosts a frightful assortment of creatures that can ruin your vacation with a single sting or bite. The insects that have caused the most incidents in the American Southwest in recent years are Africanized bees, which are known to attack without provocation. If you encounter these hostile bees, your best recourse is to hightail it out of there [source: Megroz].

American deserts are home to several types of venomous snakes, including rattlesnakes, coral snakes and copperheads. Most of those species aren't aggressive unless they are provoked, so the best thing you can do to avoid having your camping trip cut short because of a snake bite is to be aware of your surroundings and to steer clear of any snakes. And don't even bother laying a ring or rope around your campsite; the myth that snakes won't cross a rope line has long been debunked [source: Tilton].

Rattlesnake bites, though usually not fatal, can be very painful, and hospital bills can cost thousands of dollars, and a bite can leave you with long-term tissue damage. Even if the weather is mild, it's a good idea to sleep in a tent and to keep the tent properly sealed in order to prevent snakes or other creepy crawlers from entering your sleeping bag. And if you know you're going to be camping in snake country, it's a good idea to carry a snakebite kit, which contains an extractor pump to remove venom. (Most snake venom pumps are also effective in treating bee or wasp stings) [source: ScienceDaily].


Adapting to a Desert Environment

hiker in desert
Most experts suggest you keep as much of your body as possible covered while you're in the desert, but opinions differ on exactly what type of clothes to wear.

Whether you're setting up a tent or sleeping in an air-conditioned RV, camping in the desert will require some serious adaptation on your part, because, let's face it, the desert is an environment where most people aren't very comfortable -- except for cowboys. And what makes cowboys so special? For one thing, they wear a lot of clothes, like jeans, long-sleeve shirts, bandanas and big hats, which limit their skin's exposure to the sun and reduce the amount of sweat they lose to evaporation [source: Megroz].

As far as clothing is concerned, most experts suggest keeping as much of your body as possible covered, but opinions differ on exactly what type of clothes to wear. Conventional wisdom says that synthetic fibers are the best type of clothes for any backcountry trip, in the desert or elsewhere, but some prefer cotton, because it retains water, which can help you to cool down on a hot desert day. While a cotton shirt might feel good when you're sweating in the midday sun, keep in mind that it won't feel so great once the sun goes down [source: Grubbs].


Getting acclimated to the intense desert heat typically takes about two weeks for most people, but staying in good shape and doing regular outdoor aerobic exercise in a hot climate is a good way to prepare for desert camping. No matter how fit you are, it's a good idea to pace yourself and to take regular breaks when doing anything strenuous in the desert -- there's a reason that many desert creatures move slowly.

As we mentioned earlier, staying hydrated is the key to desert survival, and that means drinking more water than you're used to -- as much as 6 quarts (5.7 liters) per day. One good way to prepare for your time in the desert is to practice drinking water when you don't feel thirsty, because that's the only way to stay hydrated in a desert climate. And if you plan to carry a backpack, you can prepare by training with a heavier pack than usual, because you'll have to carry more water in the desert than in cooler and wetter climates [source: Johnson].

During the day, temperatures in the desert can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.78 degrees Celsius), but at night it can often get quite chilly. If you're camping in a tent, you'll need a good three-season tent to keep you and your things protected from the elements. But keep in mind that because daytime temperatures are so high, that heat can become magnified in some tents by the greenhouse effect, so you'll want to remove things like cell phones and other valuables that can be damaged by excessive heat.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Camping in the Desert Works

I've done a bit of hiking in desert climates, and the thing that always surprises me the most is the extreme swing in temperatures each day. I love that dry heat and scenery of American deserts, but I have a healthy respect for the dangers they hold.

Related Articles

  • University of California Museum of Paleontology. "The Desert Biome." (July 12, 2012)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Emergency Preparedness and Response." (July 13, 2012)
  • Grubbs, Bruce. "Desert Sense: Camping, Hiking & biking in Hot, Dry Climates." Backpacker Magazine. Jan. 10, 2005 (July 10, 2012)
  • Johnson, Mark. "The Ultimate Desert Handbook: A Manual for Desert Hikers, Campers and Travelers." Ragged Mountain Press. March 26, 2003. (July 12, 2012)
  • Megroz, Gordy. "Rip & Live: Survive Desert Extremes." Backpacker Magazine. Aug., 2011. (July 11, 2012)
  • National Park Service. "Joshua Tree Guide." (July 10, 2012)
  • National Park Service. "Mojave National Preserve: Nature & Science." (July 10, 2012)
  • ScienceDaily. "Venomous Snakebites Can Be Painful and Expensive, Says Expert." April 16, 2012. (July 12, 2012)
  • Tilton, Buck. "Ask the Expert: Staying Hydrated in the Desert." Backpacker Magazine. April 15, 2011. (July 12, 2012)