two hikers talking in desert

How To Plan a Desert Camping Trip

Whether your definition of camping involves staying in an established campground within easy reach of civilization or getting as far away from it as possible, there’s nothing quite like pitching a tent in the beauty of the desert. In this post, we’ve corralled all of our best desert camping tips into one place, and have also linked to some of our favorite in-depth posts on all things desert camping. Interested in learning how to camp in the desert? You’re in the right place.

What Makes Camping in the Desert Unique?

At first glance, deserts may look dry and lifeless. But on closer inspection, you’ll see they are full of unique plants and animal life that’s not found anywhere else. Desert camping offers an opportunity to linger in truly special places, experiencing the peace, quiet, and vastness of these arid lands.

How To Plan a Desert Camping Trip

Epic camping trips don’t happen by chance. Finding a solid place to stay and then packing in the right gear and food requires careful planning. The recipe for an ideal desert camping trip includes the following six ingredients:

1. Choose a Location to Explore

If you love deserts, the United States is an ideal place to find them. There are nineteen desert national parks and counting. And that’s not including a deep bench of state parks, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, and other preserves and public spaces that offer some incredible desert hikes and camping opportunities. What’s more, deserts are anything but monolithic. Each one has its own unique scenery, plant life, and camping opportunities. Locate a place that resonates with you, and you’re ready to start planning! For inspiration, check out a few of our favorite places to hike in Utah and in Southern California.

2. Decide on Your Preferred Level of Comfort

Camping means different things to different people. For hardcore desert rats, an ideal camping setup is a tent pitched miles from the nearest dirt road and many more miles from the nearest paved one. But for other people, camping means a more polished experience in an established campground — or maybe even in a glamping tent or yurt booked on Airbnb. No matter where you choose to stay, finding a place that’s comfortable for you is what’s most important.

3. Make Sure You Have the Right Tent for Desert Camping

If you take a traditionalist interpretation of camping, you’re going to need a tent. The best desert camping tents are lightweight and constructed from durable material that won’t be easily torn by chance encounters with sharp rocks and pointy plants. Tents with ventilation panels and breathable fabric take full advantage of air movement to keep you cool and comfortable. If you’ll be camping on ground that’s rocky or loose and sandy, pegging down a tent might not be possible. That’s why freestanding tents are usually the best kind of tent for desert camping. Freestanding tents like the Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 have an internal support structure that doesn’t rely on tent pegs to keep them standing. Our post on the 5 Best Backpacking Tents for Deserts offers the full rundown on solid desert camping tents and how to choose one you’ll love.

Also, be sure to check out our marketplace for sleeping bags and sleeping pads to level up your desert campsite.

4. Pick a Desert Campsite that Matches Your Level of Adventure

Desert campers are spoiled for choice when it comes to camping options. Many desert national parks, state parks, and BLM lands offer free or modestly priced places to camp. Options include everything from established campgrounds with fire pits, toilet facilities, and a water source to backcountry sites where all of that is DIY. For those interested in more amenities like a pool, rec center, or shared kitchen space, there are many private campgrounds centered around desert hot spots like Moab or Joshua Tree. If you plan to stay for a longer length of time (think two weeks or more), keep in mind that some public lands may have restrictions on how long you can camp in one place.

5. Ensure You Have the Right Gear for Desert Camping

Bringing along the right type of desert camping supplies can make the difference between an epic trip and an epic fail. These are the essentials of desert camping and hiking:

  • Hydration pack: Deserts are dry places that require constant hydration to enjoy safely. Since sweat evaporates off the body quickly, you may not even realize how much moisture you’re losing. Hydration packs are water reservoirs that wrap around your waist, strap over your shoulders, or integrate into a backpack. They come in all shapes and sizes, making it easy to find one that fits your needs.
  • Desert-friendly clothing: Deserts experience a lot of temperature variation, so dressing in layers is key to staying comfortable at all times of the day.
  • Sun protection: With few clouds and lots of blue sky, protecting yourself from sun exposure is very important. It’s much easier to burn in a desert than in other, more temperate places like the Pacific Northwest. Sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses, and a broad-brimmed hat are essential if you don’t want to look like a human lobster. 
  • Hiking boots: Deserts are warm places filled with prickly plants, rough ground, and sharp rocks. But with the right pair of desert hiking boots, your feet won’t even notice. Hiking boots designed for the desert smooth out the challenging terrain and breathe easily to keep your feet cool and dry.

For the complete list of desert hiking must-haves, our Ultimate Desert Hiking Gear List has you covered.

6. Know How Much Water You’ll Need

Staying hydrated while hiking in the desert is not optional. Depending on how “off-grid” you’re planning on getting, you need to be prepared to pack in water. You’ll likely need water for cooking as well as for drinking. You can expect to drink 6-8-liters over a 6-8 hour hike. With this in mind, you could need 2-3 gallons of water per hiker per day. If you’re not going deep into the backcountry or have access to clean running water, then you’ll only need to carry the water you need for the day's adventure. Bringing a hydration system for camping and filter flask for hiking will ensure you’ve got the tools to purify your water when needed.

7. Bring the Right Foods for Desert Camping

Deserts are famous for warming up quickly. This quick heat-up means some of your favorite camp foods may be better left at home. Trail mixes with chocolate pieces can morph from a promising fuel source into a sticky mess when chocolate reaches its melting point — which in the desert is usually sooner rather than later. The same goes for shelf-stable favorites like miniature wax-encased cheeses. 

But all is not lost! There are plenty of great desert-friendly snacks that can keep your fuel level topped off as you hike, climb, or just relax in-camp. Salty snacks like roasted nuts or beef jerky are good for replenishing salt levels as you sweat. If you’ll be hiking a lot, electrolyte powders are a great way to make sure your body chemistry stays balanced, even during periods of heavy exertion. Depending on the length of your camping trip, you may need to consider some options for meals that don’t require ingredients that need to be kept cold, especially towards the end of a longer stay. Our 3, 5, and 7-day meal planning guide offers a full menu of delicious,  desert-friendly meals, perfect for backcountry desert camping on multi-day backpacking trips. 

Desert Camping Tip #1: Buy Hiking Boots Designed for the Desert

Desert camping trips are the springboard for amazing hiking and backpacking adventures. But not all hiking boots are made to face the unique challenges that deserts present. With lots of prickly plant life and highly abrasive surfaces, desert hiking is a different animal. That’s why we’ve designed comfortable, durable desert hiking boots that help you master desert extremes. Every pair of men’s and women’s hiking boots we make are designed for top performance in some of the world’s most unforgiving places. Our boots offer optimal durability, breathability, and unrivaled toughness.

We’re dedicated to passing on the delicate desert ecosystems we love to the next generation in the same condition that we found them in. That’s why Erem boots are crafted using sustainable practices that help protect the Earth’s limited resources. Every pair of Erem Xerocole™ boots is Biocircular. And with Erem’s Reboot program, you don’t have to say farewell to your favorite hiking boots. Just send back your old pair.  We’ll resole, refurbish, and return them in good-as-new condition.

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