Warm Up to Desert Camping This Winter

monument valley desert

Outdoor camping is a great way to get out of the city and let the world take care of itself while you get back in touch with nature. While America’s mountains and forests are among the most popular destinations for campers, fall and winter conditions can make these places less than welcoming to visitors for much of the year. Even dedicated camping enthusiasts hesitate before heading out into woodland rain and mountain snow on their own. Unfortunately, difficult cold-weather conditions lead many to pack up their camping gear and wait for the first rays of spring before enjoying their favorite pastime again.

This year, extend the camping season by exploring the desert southwest. Beautiful state and national parks welcome visitors from all over the country to explore the beauty of the desert landscape. If you have never camped in the desert before, these established, well-traveled campgrounds are an ideal place to start your adventure while you learn to navigate new topography. There are important differences between desert camping and camping in a Tennessee forest or by a Michigan lake, however. Much of the gear needed for desert camping is the same gear used for camping anywhere else, but desert campers must keep some special considerations in mind.

Water Is Vital

Water is perhaps the most important item you need to pack. Find out if the area where you will be camping has access to water and plan accordingly. One gallon of water per day is recommended for each camper, and those hiking or exercising in any way should consume even more. Never hike in the desert without water. A good rule of thumb is to pack one water bottle for each person in the group for excursions away from camp. Bring the largest ice chest you can travel with, and fill it with block ice rather than ice chips. Block ice melts much slower than chips, and it keeps the water cool longer.

Hot Days, Cold Nights

Another consideration is the widely varying day and nighttime temperatures in the desert. December finds much of the desert southwest with very pleasant average daytime temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but nighttime temperatures can fall into the 30s and occasionally lower. A three- or four-season tent that can withstand the high desert winds is essential. Bring sleeping bags rated for low nighttime temperatures, and be sure to pack loose-fitting, light-colored clothing that can be layered for warmth at night. Lightweight long-sleeved shirts offer the most protection from the sun.  Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed sunhat are all must-haves in the desert, as is a good moisturizer. The dry desert wind seems to extract moisture from the skin in an instant and must be countered.

Selecting a Campsite

painted desert
Image courtesy Skinned Mink on Flickr

Locate your desert campsite in the shade of trees or rock outcroppings. If natural shade is not available, set up a canopy to provide relief from the intense desert sun. Because flash floods are an unfortunate reality of desert life, avoid low-lying campsite locations, and brief everybody in your party on an evacuation plan in case it does flood. Desert winds are also quite strong, so protect your site with a good windbreak.

Once you select the site and set up the tent, put an air mattress or elevated cot under your sleeping bag to help regulate the temperature inside your bedding. Whether nighttime temperatures are still high or they’ve fallen to the other extreme, the insulation from the ground temperature that a mattress or cot provides makes sleeping much more comfortable.

Other Desert Hazards

Aside from the dangers of dehydration, sunstroke, and flash floods, there are a few other risks when camping in an extreme environment like the desert. Cactuses cover the ground in many places, seemingly just waiting for unsuspecting creatures to step or sit on them. Good hiking boots and socks offer some protection from spines. If you accidentally come into contact with a cactus, remove the small spines with tweezers from your first-aid kit. Thick-spined cholla cactuses, quite common in the desert southwest, require a slightly different approach. Use a fine-toothed comb to remove cholla sections from the skin. Those biking in the desert should prepare for tire punctures caused by cactus spines by packing a tire repair kit.

Familiarize yourself with any potentially hazardous wildlife inhabiting the area where you’ll be camping and plan how to avoid undesirable encounters. Venomous snakes, scorpions, spiders, and ants all thrive in a desert environment. Anti-venom kits and venom extraction pumps are essential gear if snakebite is a big concern in the area where you camp.

Rewards for the Adventurous

Campers who are well prepared for the challenges of desert camping will be rewarded with some of the most breathtaking landscapes on Earth. Beautiful canyons and brightly colored rock formations provide a backdrop for blooming wildflowers that begin as early as February in some regions, and no view of the night sky compares to the twinkling blanket of stars visible in the jet-black darkness of the desert.