The desert. An arid landscape that, despite its natural beauty, makes life very difficult. Huge temperature swings, lack of water and limited shade can make desert adventures difficult. However, those that venture out into this terrain are rewarded with glowing red mountains, towering cacti and stunning gulf beaches. 

In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Beta, contributor Aly Nicklas gives us her tips on how to properly prepare for and enjoy an adventure in the desert.

By: Aly Nicklas

This spring five friends set out on a grand overland adventure on the northern half of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. Our goal was to be spontaneous, to see what adventures a mostly unplanned trip could bring. With our trucks laden full of gear and our minds open to all the potential adventures this wild place could bring, we set off from Colorado with excitement and some mild trepidation—traveling by car in Baja promised to be full of the unexpected—exactly what we had asked for, but we also wanted to be prepared for what might come.

All of us brought a decent amount of desert and backcountry experience with us, but we still learned a lot on this trip. Here’s a few tips to help you prepare for your own overland journey, and also to enjoy it to the brim.

Bring your own shade. There often are not many trees in the desert (especially Baja, where the tall Saguaro cactus rule the land). Having our own shade saved us more than once—in the heat of the day you’d find us either swimming in the cool waters of the Bay of Angels or camped out under our sunshade snacking , napping or telling stories.

Self-sufficiency is key. We drove two Tacomas down, laden with things like gas cans and tire patch kits and shovels. We made sure we had enough tools to fix any minor issues that may slow us down, because you can drive a few hours without seeing another car out there. We also brought plenty of water jugs to fill up whenever we had access to a clean water source. Make sure your tires (and everything else) check out safely before you go.

Layers, layer, layers! On this trip we went from swimsuits only to being bundled in down blankets (and still a little chilly). The wind surprised us the most, and we were all thankful we’d thought to bring as many layers as we did. And honestly, we all would have benefitted from a down jacket in the pile. Luckily we had a pile of blankets, and we ended up walking around at night wearing them.

Be open to the possibilities.  We went into this trip with relatively little planning as far as itinerary goes—spontaneity was the name of the game we wanted to play. As a result we had all sorts of unexpected things happen that made the trip that much more special, like a local fisherman stopping by our beachside campsite one morning to offer us four freshly caught fish. He refused payment, and we ended up trading him four beers in exchange as a thank you. I’ll tell you—there’s nothing better than freshly caught fish cooked over an open fire, especially when Stephen Smith is cooking.

Ask friends for beta. We reached out to friends who had traveled in that area (and one of our team had as well, which helped out quite a bit!), and as a result got to see some things tourists don’t often get to. Our first day down there we stopped by these oceanside hot springs at the exact perfect time (right as the tide was coming in and flooding the springs, making them a nice temperature for human habitation. The locals who were hanging out in them were surprised to see us since not many tourists make their way there. The internet is great source for finding special spots, but you’ll often get the best tips from buddies who’ve done it before and might be more willing to disclose their secret spots.

Go analog. Service is not reliable or non-existent in wide open, uninhabited places (especially Baja) and having a physical map to rely on was crucial to getting around. The same goes for your entertainment.

Agua. Staying hydrated is pretty crucial, and your body needs a lot more in these dry, hot environments than you might think. We brought about 20 gallons in water jugs with us to make sure we always had plenty on hand.

Disconnect to connect. One of the best things about the desert is all the space and freedom to play. There were days when I had no idea where my phone was, and couldn’t have cared less. Having that kind of quality time to interact with your friends, the environment, and with yourself is incredibly calming and good for your brain. Take advantage of the lack of service and disengage from the tech world. Your heart will thank you for it.