I barely slept my first night of backpacking in the desert. Howling winds unrelentingly assaulted my tent poles, bending them close to their breaking point. I knelt for hours with my back against the tent wall, arms pressing upward to support my only shelter. I must have dozed off eventually as the gusts subsided, because I woke up at first light and started my second day of backpacking in the desert by brushing sand off of everything I owned.
I was naive to the extremes of the desert on that first spring break trip. I was coming out of a dark, damp Pacific Northwest winter, and I had imagined drying out in sunny, pleasant weather like a lizard. I was unprepared for the wildly fluctuating spring conditions I experienced in March.
Since then I’ve spent months traveling, camping, and sleeping in arid climates like Moab and Red Rock Canyon. I now call the Mojave Desert home, living in Joshua Tree for eight months of the year. Along the way I’ve figured out how to adapt to the heat (and cold!), coexist with desert creatures, and keep most of the sand out. With a little planning and some expert tips, it’s possible to live comfortably in the stark landscapes of the desert.
Characteristics of a Desert
If you take a road trip across the American southwest, you won’t see a homogenous landscape. Desert ecosystems share some commonalities, but you’ll find unique plants, animals, and geology depending on your destination. The “red desert” of Southern Utah, characterized by its sandstone cliffs, looks quite different from the monzogranite rock formations of Joshua Tree.
A common variable across deserts is the amount of precipitation and how it falls. Rain doesn’t typically fall evenly throughout the year but can hit all at once in monsoon-like storms. This means that a lot of the water isn’t able to soak into the soil. Most days see very little cloud cover, which causes wide temperature swings. With nothing to block the sun’s rays, days are hot, and moisture evaporates easily. At night the heat radiates back upward, causing rapid cooling. The big temperature swings contribute to frequent high winds.
Not all deserts are hot all the time; elevation plays a role in air temperature. At 5000’ in Hidden Valley, the upper part of Joshua Tree National Park is considered “high desert.” You’ll find warmer weather and a different ecosystem near the Cottonwood Campground, 2000’ lower in elevation.
How to Stay Comfortable During Warm Days & Freezing Nights
My favorite times of the year for camping in the desert are during the fall and spring. Day time temps are typically between 60 and 80 degrees, depending on your destination. After a balmy day, it’s possible for overnight weather to dip below freezing. I’ve woken up many times to discover frozen water jugs. Being prepared for a wide temperature range is essential on a desert camping trip.
1. Layer Up & Down
Pack a variety of adjustable layers to stay comfortable as conditions change. During the day, I almost always wear a long-sleeved sun hoody to protect my skin, even when it’s hot. Some desert locals like to use UV sun sleeves under a t-shirt; these help keep your arms cool while avoiding sunburn. I also like to stash a light wind jacket in my day pack to throw on if gusts pick up during the day.
When temperatures drop after sunset, it’s time to pull out the down puffy pants. I’ve also been eyeing Therm-a-Rest’s Honcho Poncho for my next camping luxury item. If I’m car camping, I like to bring my canvas overalls; they’re more durable if I’m splitting wood or sitting near sparks from a fire, and they’re roomy enough to fit my wool base layers underneath.
2. Choose Your Desert Backpacking Gear Wisely
Overnight freezes after a warm, sunny day can be a shock to the system, but choosing the right sleep system makes a big difference. For most spring and fall desert trips, 20 degree bags like the Parsec 20F/-6C or the Questar 20F/-6C are great options. If you run cold, you can add warmth with a sleeping bag liner or upgrading your sleeping pad to a higher R-Value.
Some low-cost remedies also help in a pinch. On a recent group camping trip in Moab, temperatures fell to 20 degrees overnight, and some members of our crew didn’t have adequate sleep systems. Before going to sleep we boiled water and filled bottles to keep everyone’s toes toasty inside their bags. Sleeping bags act more like a thermos than a microwave; do some jumping jacks or crunches before you hop in your bag to retain body heat.
3. Chasing Sun and Shade
Waking up to frozen water jugs is easier if the sun floods your campsite first thing in the morning. When camping and backpacking in the desert, choose your campsite wisely. Pay attention to where the sun rises and sets. During colder months, an east-facing spot can help you thaw out after a cold night. Closer to the summer, morning shade may be preferable.
Use a similar strategy for your daytime activities. During the late spring in Joshua Tree, it may be unbearably hot in the sun but comfortable in the shade. The reverse is usually true during the winter. Finding a shady climbing area during hotter months or hiking early in the day when the temps are cooler will be more enjoyable and safer. If you can’t find shade, make your own! Shade tents can make an exposed camp more comfortable, and some desert hikers recommend carrying a lightweight shade umbrella.
Wind-proof Your Desert Campsite
I’ve spent weeks camping on glaciers and backpacking through the Alaskan tundra, and nothing has destroyed my tent like the wind in the southwest desert. Blustery days come without warning; days of persistent 25 mph wind with gusts of up to 50 mph are not uncommon where I live in Joshua Tree. What’s more is that sand is corrosive and takes a toll on your tent’s fabrics over time. But there are some steps you can take to protect your gear.
5. Use Your Tent’s Guy lines
Remember how I spent my first night in the desert crouched with my back against the tent wall to prevent the poles from snapping? Most tents are constructed with pole supports called “guy-lines.” Look under your rain fly for Velcro loops or snaps that fit around the poles. On the outside of the fly there will be loops that are intended for your guy lines.
Many tents come with some guy lines already attached to the fly but have several empty loops that you can utilize for more attachment points, to create more support. The idea behind guy lines is to add tension to the fly to make the barrier around your tent as taught and rigid as possible. When the fly is flapping less it means it’s shedding wind better, or more aerodynamic, thus the poles are bearing less strain from the wind.
Pull the guy line away from the tent in the way that creates the most balanced tension. Often that’s in line with the pole or directly opposite an opposing guy line. Anchor the line to the ground with a stake. Sometimes when backpacking in the desert you may be going ultralight and carrier a minimum of stakes to cut weight. Attaching the guy line to a sturdy tree or stump is a solution. In the desert, trees can be hard to come by. Use a large rock instead. If there isn’t a heavy enough rock to maintain tension all night without slipping, use a small one but bury it to keep it in place.
6. Find a Natural Windbreak for Your Tent
Before setting up your tent, take a look around the campsite. Is there a spot that is more protected? Are there any big boulders in your site that would block the wind? As long as you’re not crushing fragile desert plants, being a little choosy with your tent location can make a big difference.
Some campgrounds are more protected than others; the Red Rock Canyon campground outside of Vegas is infamous for its wind exposure, while Joshua Tree’s Hidden Valley offers plenty of sheltered nooks created by the massive rock formations.
Regardless of your wind exposure, you should pitch your tent in the most aerodynamic way possible. Depending on it’s shape, this typically looks like pitching it with the head or the foot of the tent pointed into the wind. This gives the tent a narrower profile than if the broadside were catching all that wind.
Wind directions change, so do your best, and use your guy lines!
7. Don’t Leave Your Shade Tent Up in the Wind
I learned this lesson the hard way. Having a shade tent at your campsite to block the sun is a great idea, but be sure to take it down if you’re leaving for the day. Wind can pick up unexpectedly, especially if you don’t have phone service to check the forecast. After a windy day of hiking in Moab, I returned to my campsite to find our shade tent upside down on top of my car, with one of the metal supports snapped in half.
Coexist With Desert Creatures
One of the many reasons to go backpacking in the desert is the unique flora and fauna that thrive in these ecosystems. Cactus, coyotes, and cryptobiotic crusts are just a few of the creatures you could spot. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll see an elusive Mojave Desert Tortoise, a threatened species found in Joshua Tree National Park. Help protect these special creatures by practicing Leave No Trace (LNT) when you visit.
8. Avoid Feeding the Critters & Correctly Store Your Food
On one of my first trips to Joshua Tree, I practiced poor food storage and ended up in a tug-of-war with a coyote. I had left my snacks in the top compartment of my backpack, which I stashed in the vestibule of my tent before going to sleep. In the middle of the night, I woke up to the sound of my pack being dragged out from under my tent. Snatching one of the straps of my pack, I yanked it out of the animal’s grasp.
Even though the coyote sounds like the thief in this story, I was the one who made a mistake. Food should always be stored in a spot that critters can’t access. I typically leave food in my vehicle or bring big Tupperware bins with lids that snap shut. Similarly, bear cannisters are good for more than just bears. Trash should be similarly secured to prevent it from blowing away in the wind or being chewed by rodents.
9. Don’t Step on the Crypto!
Common to desert landscapes is a living biological soil called “crypto,” or cryptobiotic crust. Crypto is extremely fragile but plays an essential role in preventing erosion and retaining water. It can be hard to spot, but crypto typically appears black and knobby. Whenever possible, hike on established trails, rock, or sand to avoid negative impacts to the crypto or other desert plants.
Whether you want to hike, climb, or just soak in the sun, camping in the desert is worth the trip. With some preparation and a willingness to adapt, you can enjoy the magic of existing in the stark desert landscapes.