10 Tips for Camping in the American Southwest

Camping in America's Southwest — including Joshua Tree, Arches and Zion — can be magical. Just arrive prepared.
Stephen Vanderpool
By Stephen Vanderpool 
Updated

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Camping is on the rise for all sorts of reasons. The pandemic inspired folks to get outdoors — particularly who might not otherwise if it weren't for social distancing. Then in response to inflation, people turned to camping as a way to save money on travel. And with more flexible work schedules (including the ability for many folks to work remotely), camping has become more appealing for many.

Then there is the fact that more campsites of all types are popping up, making camping more accessible. There's glamping for the fancy folk. People who prefer sturdy walls might rent an RV. People who want an RV but don't actually want to drive it might even opt for RV delivery.

In short, camping is hot. In fact, camping now anchors an estimated 32% of the leisure travel market, according to the 2023 North American Camping and Outdoor Hospitality Report from KOA, which is the world's largest network of privately owned campgrounds.

Many campers are new, too. In fact, prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the average growth rate of new campers had been trending down, according to KOA's report. But then in 2020, ten million new households took camping trips, a figure that was roughly equal to the past five years combined.

While camping is a great way to travel, it's not always easy — especially if you've got a desert trip planned, as is very likely for trips around the American Southwest. Camping in the desert will require more planning and preparation that trips to a more temperate climate. Especially if it's your first time camping in the American Southwest or any other desert destination, here are 10 things to account for:

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. Never let your supply dwindle below three-quarters of a tank.

3. Research wildlife

In Utah's Zion National Park, you might find mountain goats, and you might also find other, less-cuddly 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

In Zion National Park, the Angel's Landing trail can get especially crowded. Go early to avoid the crowds and the heat.

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.

And there's a benefit too. Especially at major tourist sites like the Arizona and Utah National Parks including Grand Canyon National Park and Zion National Park, parking can fill up by mid-day, and trails can feel uncomfortably crowded anyway. To avoid the heat and the crowds, wake up early, and then head back to your campsite in the peak afternoon heat.

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.

And then as far as caffeinated beverages go, you might bring your own portable coffee maker. But if you're driving in, it might be easier to just fill up your trunk with caffeinated beverages like canned coffees or other energy drinks.

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

A tent illuminates the night on a full moon in Joshua Tree National Park.

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. But sometimes it's the less-obvious items that are the biggest lifesavers.

In addition to food, water and clothing, bring plenty of powerful sunscreen and insect repellent. Sunglasses and hats are other indispensable objects. Always have a couple flashlights with plenty of batteries, tape a few lighters, 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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