10 Tips for Winter Camping in the Desert
(Words and Photos: Allison Waken)
Doing anything in the desert comes with a few added asterisks. Winter camping in the desert is no different. From plummeting temperatures to barren landscapes, it requires its own set of preparations. When done right, the desert in the winter becomes a whole different planet, full of discovery. Below are 10 tips to take with you on your next desert adventure. These will help keep you safe, comfortable, and having fun.
As someone born and raised in Phoenix, AZ who loves the outdoors, I’ve definitely had my fair share of experiences desert camping and have done it in all types of weather. I’ve been rained out, snowed on, in crazy wind storms, and more. Despite being in some crazy weather, winter is definitely my favorite time of the year to camp in the desert. The sunrises and sunsets in the big open sky, unique landscapes, and opportunity to explore in anything under 100 degrees makes winter the perfect time to pack up and head out on an adventure. While the weather can be perfect during the day, there is a big change from day to night. Add that into the sometimes harsh landscape, lack of water, and possibly dry conditions, there are some things you’ll want to consider and prepare for before heading out.
Tip #1: Prepare for Warm and Cool Weather
Plan ahead to keep warm and protect yourself from the sun. Winter in the desert can bring lots of sunshine so while you might want to soak up the sun, don’t forget about sunscreen or UV protective clothing. As much as it might heat up during the day, the evening temps will dip drastically and can get below freezing, so you’ll need to be prepared to stay warm as well. Pack plenty of layers that will allow you to stay cool OR warm as needed, possibly in the very same day.
Tip #2: Water, Water, and More Water!
Even though the weather is gorgeous, the desert is still dry. Make sure you pack plenty of water and then some extra. We also carry water filtration systems for emergencies but never leave without plenty of water to hold us over for quite a while if needed. A general rule is 1 gallon of water per person per day. I’ve always packed extra, especially if room allows. You never know when you might need a bit more and it’s definitely hard to come by in the desert.
Tip #3: Check Fire Restrictions
Check fire restrictions in the area you are traveling to before you camp. Since the desert is dry, many have fire restrictions throughout the year, even in the winter. We like to travel with a propane fire pit, as well as a tent heater when camping in the winter so that we are always comfortable and can have a campfire most nights even with some restrictions. Depending on where you are camping, you can find current restrictions (if there are any) by visiting sites that manage fire restrictions.
Tip #4: Sleeping Comfortably
A good sleeping bag and camp blanket will keep you comfortable on the cold desert nights. A camp blanket can be used sitting around the fire and as an extra layer when sleeping. We also like to use a tent heater to heat up the tent before we fall asleep for those extra cold or windy evenings. If you tend to be cold at night, wear a form fitting underlayer to sleep in. Having a plan for wind protection is a good idea too.
Tip #5: Stay Updated on Weather
Stay updated on weather and I don’t mean just checking a week or two before your trip. Desert weather can (and does) change quickly. Depending on the altitude you’re camping at, snow, rain, hail, thunderstorms, and flash floods are all possible in winter. Just know what’s possible for the area and time of year and plan accordingly. If you’re camping where you don’t have any access to updated weather, just keep an eye out for storms coming in that you may not have expected. Flash floods especially can catch you off guard. If anything, just don’t assume you know what the weather will be like because the desert likes to keep you on your toes. Being prepared for changes will also help you feel ready for anything allowing you to enjoy your desert camping experience even more.
Tip #6: Know Where You Set Up
There are many places online to find great campsites, but if you’re the type that likes to venture out and find something on your own, just be aware of your surroundings. Stay on high ground and out of washes since flash floods are always possible. Be aware of the terrain and pick a spot for your needs that will also keep you safe and dry. I love camping up high for the views, both of the surrounding area and the sky. It’s what makes desert camping so much different than camping in the forest.
Tip #7: Wear Proper Footwear
Don’t forget your boots or shoes that protect from the terrain like spiky bushes or cactus. The weather doesn’t feel like August in the desert but the cactus is still there, even as you get high in elevation. A good pair of hiking boots are always a good idea. Boots also provide a bit of extra protection against rattlesnakes if they thrive in the area. While most are brumating in the winter, as the seasons change and if it’s been extra warm they can start to come out to warm up.
Tip #8: Bring Trekking Poles
Trekking poles are great for exploring, but can also come in handy around camp for pushing branches and bushes out of the way. I’ve also used mine to help clean up a campsite from previous campers since they made it possible to reach into cactus to pull out cans and trash.
Tip #9: Take Advantage of the Sun
Deserts have epic sunsets, but the sunrises are just as magical. If you wake up to see the sunrise, you’ll also get to take advantage of the warmth the sun brings by starting your day early. Camping in the desert during the summer usually means enjoying the late nights when it’s cooler, but the winter can best be enjoyed during the day. Plus, you’ll get to see the incredible changes of the landscape as the lighting changes throughout the day and get the most out of your camping spot.
Tip #10: Get a Stargazing App
One of my favorite parts about camping in the desert is the wide open sky. On a clear night, you really can’t beat lying beneath the stars. A simple stargazing app is great for those of us who can never remember the names of the constellations or planets, or for those who want to learn more. I’ve used mine many times over the years and it’s always a great topic of conversation.
The desert is an incredible place to explore and is a must experience in the winter. It’s truly amazing to think about how the plants and animals in this terrain can thrive in such vast changes in weather with little precipitation. Plan ahead, use these tips, and create some amazing winter memories on your next desert camping adventure.
Have you ever camped in the desert during the winter? Tell us about it in the comments below!
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