Between towering sandstone cliffs, playful Joshua trees, stalwart saguaros, and boundless night skies, deserts draw curiosity like no other landscapes. But while their remoteness and varied geology is alluring, it also makes them challenging and potentially dangerous places to camp.
Whether it’s the canyons in Utah, the forests of the Gila, the backcountry in Baja, the craggles of the Sky Islands, or the emptiness of the Great Basin, no two deserts are alike, and as such, desert boondocking is an ongoing process of trial and error, luck, and wisdom. Here is some advice, born from camping mishaps and successes over the years.
Preparation and Packing
Many desert locations are remote, so packing thoroughly is key. So is timing. Peak desert months are spring and fall, when it’s not too hot or cold. Summers and winters are more challenging, but each with their own marvels. Here are a few elements to keep in mind when preparing for your desert boondocking trip.
Even the best solar array and battery bank can’t keep up with running an A/C or heater indefinitely, so find creative ways to work with the elements to control your space.
- Install screens on your doors and windows for maximum ventilation.
- Cover the windshield and windows from the outside to deflect sunlight.
- In the heat, use a battery-powered or rechargeable fan to help circulate air.
- Lightweight tarps create shady areas and protect from wind and dust storms.
- In the cold, utilize a propane heater (make sure to follow all manufacturer safety recommendations).
Pack your cooler(s) with block ice. We put two blocks in the cooler, pack food and drinks around them, then top everything with regular ice. This setup typically lasts for about 1 week with a well-insulated cooler.
Be ready for extremes. While desert daytime temperatures can be blistering, nights can be freezing, especially from fall through spring, and hypothermia is possible. Bring blankets, hats, and jackets, especially if you plan on sitting outside at night. Bring sunscreen, sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, lip balm, and a neck tube or bandana. Also, some people like wearing lightweight long-sleeves during the day, even when it’s warm, to protect their skin.
Bring at least 1 gallon of drinking water per person per day, then double that number for safety. Even if you don’t feel thirsty or sweat, you lose water to evaporation. People also need elements and minerals, including sodium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, and magnesium, which you get by eating veggies and fruit, or taking an electrolyte supplement. Familiarize yourself with signs of dehydration and heatstroke prior to camping.
You might be tempted to restock your water if you find a stream or other oasis, but there are a lot of potential poisons in desert water that typical filters or boiling might not remove. There could be elements like nitrates from fertilizer runoff and uranium or heavy-metals leaching from mines.
It’s easy to be tempted farther and farther down enchanting roads, where you might end up having to cross over terrain you’d rather not, for lack of a place to turn around. Plan for getting stuck by bringing extra car repair and safety gear. Check your spare tire and bring an extra, along with a sturdy jack, a come-along, some fix-a-flat, tire plugs, tow strap, jumper cables, a portable air compressor, and a battery box.
It’s also smart to have an emergency first-aid kit, a pair of two-way radios, and secure bags to protect your camera and gadgets from dust, sun, and mud. For fun, bring a black-light flashlight for an entertaining night-adventure looking for scorpions, which glow under UV light. For added safety, bring a two-way GPS messenger.
The remote nature of deserts, coupled with unpredictable weather, harsh conditions, and peculiar plants and animals, calls for a few extra safety steps.
Rain, whether in unseen far away mountains or right at camp, can cause normally dry arroyos (stream beds), playas (dry or seasonal lake beds), and slot canyons to flood. Never camp in a place that looks like it’s had water running through it, even if it’s dry when you show up. Look for telltale signs like stick debris piled up around boulders, and never cross an arroyo that has flowing water in it.
Some roads in the Southwest, especially in Utah, are made of bentonite and other clays that become slick, sticky, and dangerous when it rains. Besides inviting your own demise, driving on wet roads ruts them out, and makes for unpleasant driving for a long time.
Dried-up lake beds and sandy areas are sometimes firm and fun to drive across. Other times they can collapse under the weight of a vehicle or bicycle, turning into a deep layer of fine particles. Airing down your tires helps create more traction (we go from 72 to 50 psi in our van). When crossing, keep a slow-but-steady speed and don’t stop. A set of traction boards can also help get you out of a sticky situation.
It’s likely you won’t have cell phone service, so when hiking in the desert, carry an analog compass, handheld GPS, and detailed topographic maps of the area (download them for free from the U.S. Geological Survey, or pick them up at a local outdoor store or public lands office). Campendium’s cell phone coverage maps will let you know ahead of time if you can expect to have service in the area.
Orient yourself with unique landscape features (take photos for extra precaution), and while hiking, look backwards periodically so you know what the trail looks like going the other way. Remember, some deserts have canyons and cliffs, which can be both disorientating and require substantial detours.
There are a few potentially dangerous venomous animals in the Southwest, including rattlesnakes, coral snakes, Gila monsters, scorpions, centipedes, and spiders. Most of them prefer to leave humans alone so to mitigate risk:
- Wear closed-toed shoes.
- Watch where you step.
- Shake out your boots before putting them on.
- Keep doors closed and tents zipped from the bottom up.
- Bring a snake-bite kit.
As for mammals, you’re most likely to see coyotes or foxes, which aren’t a threat, except possibly to unsupervised pets. Otherwise, keep a clean camp, with food stowed in latched, hard-sided containers to discourage rodents. Also, don’t camp near prairie dog towns, as they can sometimes carry bubonic plague, which is transmitted via fleas. On a rare occasion, you may encounter a mountain lion. If that happens, make yourself appear as large and threatening as possible, and never run. As for plants, don’t try to kick a cactus—it’s happened and it wasn’t pretty.
If it’s hot, hike in the mornings and evenings, and reserve the middle of the day for relaxing at camp.
Being a Good Neighbor
The desert is a hard place to survive, even for the plants and animals that live there. It’s also a delicate ecosystem. To be respectful to the locals:
Don’t Crush the Crypto
Living cryptobiotic soils grow in many deserts. They look like a dark, sponge-like crust and are vital for preventing wind and water erosion. Because they’re very fragile, and take years or decades to heal from footprints, avoid traveling off-trail.
Bring Your Own Firewood
Naturally downed wood is a rare commodity on which many creatures depend, so instead of gathering it in the desert, pack it in. Be sure to buy it in a nearby town, or buy kiln-dried firewood, so you don’t introduce any diseases or insect blights. Always follow local fire restrictions when boondocking.
Arid environments preserve the past well, including dwellings, petroglyphs, pictographs, and artifacts from those who’ve called the deserts home for nearly 10,000 years. Be respectful, as these places are still sacred to their descendants, present-day Native American nations and tribes.
Leave No Trace
As with any wilderness, leave it cleaner than you found it.
Whether you see the most spectacular sunset of your life, or get caught in a dust storm, revel in it. Whatever happens, you’ll have an entertaining story to tell around a future campfire and learn from the experience