10 Tips for Camping in the American Southwest

Stephen Vanderpool
By Stephen Vanderpool 

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The desert can be fascinating place to visit. But camping in the desert will require more planning and preparation.

If you're considering camping in the desert, you hopefully have some experience pitching tents and building fires. If not, here are 10 tips for an enjoyable desert camping trip.

1. Bring water -- lots of it

By and large, the most significant threat to desert campers is dehydration. The desert is a hot, dry place, and the last thing you want to do is run out of good ol' H2O. A good rule of thumb is to pack one gallon of drinking water per person per day. Remember to pack extra for personal hygiene needs and washing cookware. If it seems like you've packed too much, you're probably on the right track. A trusty water filter may also be a wise investment.

2. Fill up at every gas station

You really don't want to run out of gas in the desert. Depending on where you are, you could end up stranded for hours under the blistering sun. And when you get out into the deepest parts of the American Southwest, stations are few and far between. Additionally, some of them only carry fuel during certain seasons. Fill up every chance you get. We recommend never letting your supply dwindle below three-quarters of a tank.

3. Research wildlife

This is important during any camping trip, but especially so when plunging into desert environs where you may encounter critters than can kill. Of primary concern will be snakes, spiders, scorpions, lizards and various insects. Know what to look for, where they live and how to treat bites.

4. Bring warm clothes

Depending on where you are and the time of year, the desert can get chilly at night. Don't make the mistake of packing only shorts and tanktops. Bring a few warm layers, a weather-appropriate sleeping bag and extra blankets.

5. Be smart about tent placement

The two main challenges of erecting a tent in the desert are heat and wind. The sun can be an issue if you plan on leaving your tent up during the day. It will become an oven. The intensity of the rays can melt certain plastics and glues, so be careful about what you leave inside.

If possible, put up your tent in the shade, perhaps under an overhang or near a cliff wall. The desert can also get very windy, making tent raising rather challenging. If possible, face the entrance of your tent against the prevailing winds. Open the front and back vents and let the gusts course through. Placing your tent perpendicular to the wind will likely make it flap violently and noisily.

6. Go easy during peak hours

If you're spending a few days in the desert, don't cram your days too full. Be active in the mornings and evenings when it's cooler. Do yourself a favor and use the afternoons to relax. Lounge about in the shade, take naps, keep hydrated.

7. Keep energized

The sun may try to ruin your appetite, but as you hike and explore in the desert heat, your body needs more fuel to meet its demands. Rather than dividing your food into breakfast, lunch and dinner, continuously snack throughout the day. By doing so, you avoid growing hungry and weak. Pack plenty of dried fruits, nuts and protein bars along with some complex carbohydrates in the form of bread or crackers.

8. Bring multiple navigational tools

Even if you're on a main road, getting lost in the desert is a nightmare. Phones and GPS devices don't always work in the desert. Make sure you pack a physical map, a compass and--if you want to feel like true pioneer--a star chart.

9. Arrive before dark

Find your campsite before the sun goes down. The desert is a dark, dark place at night, which makes it a lot easier to get lost.

10. Don't forget the necessities

Make a checklist of important items. In addition to food, water and clothing, bring plenty of powerful sunscreen and insect repellent. Sunglasses and hats are other indespensable objects. Always have a couple flashlights with plenty of batteries, a few lighters and a good knife. You should also have a spare tire in case a flat threatens to leave you stranded.

The key is organization. Make a list, stick to the list.

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