I sat and stared at the sea of aspens around me. My dog whimpered and pranced as I collapsed in a useless heap. My knee surged with pain and I could hardly stand. Two miles from my car and without cell service, I sat in the forest alone and contemplated my situation. The longer I sat the less cooperative my knee would become. I could signal for help with my beacon or muster up the strength to hobble the two miles back to my vehicle. Sighing, I stood up and made the painful journey back to my car.
My desert trip was just a few weeks away. How on earth was I going to be able to drive over 2,000 miles and explore the rocky landscape of the American Southwest like this? I had waited twenty years to see the Grand Canyon, finally obtaining a permit to camp right on the rim. Now everything hung in the balance.
Once I returned home, I immediately began physical therapy. Hopeful, I sought to find an adventure buddy to help with the driving. The trip was rapidly approaching and finding someone to spontaneously take two weeks off to go exploring in the desert was a difficult task. I turned to an old friend, Rami. He and his wife had recently moved to the US and he had been dying to experience the natural beauty and sprawling parks the country has to offer.
He wasn’t the likely choice for an off-the-grid adventure buddy – he had never once camped outside. My more experienced friends gave me sideways glances when I explained the trip, but I wasn’t worried. Rami is resourceful, helpful and a fast learner, so I knew he was up for the task.
The desert offers the perfect training ground for a rookie adventurer while also providing plenty of spice for those who like an honest challenge. After spending nearly half a decade exploring off-the-grid and in the dust, I’ve learned a thing or two about what it takes to stay comfy while camping in the desert. Here’s your guide to surviving the best season in this fantastically weird and jaw-droppingly beautiful landscape.
Select the perfect spot
Winter camping is all about creating a cozy spot to set up camp. The deserts of the US are littered with ample, free dispersed campsites, the key is to choose the right one for the season. You want to keep your camp protected from the gnawing desert winds. You not only stay warmer, but you’ll also be able to have a warmer fire without the wind devouring your precious wood supply.
When you set up camp, try to position your home to receive that coveted morning light. You’ll not only greet your day with a smile (desert sunrises can’t be beat), but the early AM rays can help thaw the night away. During our stay in Escalante, we stumbled into the daylight each morning. The added burst of warmth helped us get charged and warm before descending into the cool depths of the slot canyons.
No matter the season, take care not to pitch camp in a low spot. If there’s a lot of sand or a cozy ditch, chances are you’re in a flood path. The last thing you want is a flooded tent from unexpected rain. Remember, the desert is all about drainage, you can experience an unexpected river even if the area you’re camped in doesn’t receive any precipitation.
Create a cozy coal bed
Although sky licking flames are a sight to see, open flame doesn’t actually put off critical warmth. Keep fires efficient by maintaining a healthy coal bed. First, you’ll need wood, and in this dry, scrubby environment wood is at a premium. Search for dead wood along washes, where debris may travel with the rains (remember: never pull from or burn live trees). Take care not to disturb any animal dwellings, these can often look like debris piles. If you see scat, leave it be.
Supplement your found supply with locally-sourced, pre-chopped logs. Locally sourced wood limits the risk of introducing plant-borne, foreign disease into this delicate environment. Also, before heading out into the desert, check with the local ranger station regarding any fire regulations and bans.
A good coal bed takes a watchful eye. Keep burning logs tight to ensure the coals continue to smolder and build heat. When the flame dies down roll logs over and together to expose the burnt, warm bottoms, then add a new log. Always put your fire completely out before calling it a night. Either drown it in water (a precious commodity in the desert) or use a shovel and bury the fire with dirt.
Sleep Soundly with a Four-Season System
On one particularly brutal night, along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, we endured 30 mile-per-hour winds, 30-degree temperatures and driving rain all night long. Despite the lack of sleep from a noisy tent, Rami and I stayed toasty in our Oberon sleeping bags. “At least we are warm!” We joked through the howling noise.
Deserts are known for heat, but temperatures regularly drop well below freezing in the winter. Even in October, temps can dip below the 20s at night. Instead of letting my teeth chatter through the night, I stay cozy with a four-season sleeping bag and a warm sleeping pad.
For your pad, the R-value, or insulation value, matters in the winter months (for more about R-values, check out this guide). If your sleeping pad doesn’t cut it, a Z-Lite SOL is an awesome, cost-effective way to boost the R-value of your sleeping pad system (it also makes for a great yoga mat, sitting pad and doggie bed).
Even when we spent nights in my camper, we still used the Oberon unzipped as a warm down layer. The added boost of warmth gave us a cozy night’s sleep each night. A good night’s rest meant we had the energy to tackle the next day’s objective. When the gnawing wind and dropping temps got us down, we simply pulled our bags into the elements, allowing us to stay out and enjoy the beauty around us.
Make the Most of Daylight
We immediately fell into the habit of heading to bed shortly after the sun went down and greeting the rising sun every morning. I’ve never seen so many consecutively beautiful sunrises as I do in the desert. It felt as if we were tapping into this unknown world where it was just us and the landscape lit up in fiery reds. Imperial Point on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and the backroads of Escalante were our two favorite spots to take in a desert sunrise.
Opt to get up at first light and make the most of the short days. The warm hues of the desert landscape make for killer sunrises that you can’t get anywhere else on earth. Start activities early in order to maximize on daylight (and fun). In winter, you can find solitude on some of the more popular trails if you’re an early riser. It’s a win-win all around.
Layer up and layer right
Temperature swings in winter are real in the desert. Even with a weaker sun, there can be a 30-degree difference between day and night or shade and sun. Be prepared with plenty of UV proof layers to block out the intense rays. A light, versatile layering system will serve you well. Always carry a waterproof wind layer and puffy layer in case winds pick up or bad weather rolls in.
If you plan on exploring canyons, a pair of gloves come in handy. Sandstone rock absorbs and releases heat quite rapidly, meaning if the rock is in the shade for most of the day, expect it to be cold. Abrasion-resistant gloves help combat cold fingertips, while also allowing you some grip against the rough sandstone.
Most people pack up their tents for winter, but in the desert, you’ll be delighted by warm tones and bright sun. This winter, skip the snow-logged forests and head to the desert for a camping getaway unlike any other.