Desert Sense

When camping in the desert, the site you select can impact your mood and comfort. You have a lot of freedom in choosing where you set up, but here are a few factors to consider.

  • Be aware of desert microclimates, variations in the weather over distances of a few feet or tens of feet. One microclimate effect is the nighttime temperature inversion. On clear, calm nights, cool air sinks to valleys and drainages, while air on nearby slopes and ridges stays warmer.
  • On windy nights the air grows colder with increasing elevation. In chilly, windy weather, hike high and camp low for the warmest camping. Hide from the wind behind the lee side of cliffs or boulders.
  • When nights are cold, look for an overhanging rock or tree to block the escape of heat from your tent or sleeping bag. Note: On windy nights, be careful of falling branches!
  • Pay close attention to your campsite's natural drainage. Don't create your own (the desert environment takes years to heal). If an intense storm threatens, look for a site slightly dome-shaped, so water runs away from your tent in all directions.
  • Soft sand areas, gravel, and rock slabs can be great sites, but might create problems when it's time to anchor your tent. Attach anchor guy lines to rock outcrops, bushes, or trees. In soft sand, put the stakes vertically, and place a large rock on top of the stake.
  • Consider where the sun will rise when you locate your campsite. Depending on the weather, the morning sun on your tent can be a welcome delight or a scorching nuisance.
  • Dead spines and burrs will damage self-inflating sleep pads. Remove as many as you possible, and never put the pad directly on the ground. Tents and ground sheets add protection. If you want an extra defense, lay some clothes under your pad as well.
  • Squirrels, mice, skunks, ringtail cats, and birds frequent popular campsites. The best defense is to avoid heavily trafficked campsites. Keep food out of your tent and your pack. Use stuff sacks for storage and hang them up high out of reach when you're not cooking or eating.


- Adapted from Desert Sense: Camping, Hiking and Biking in Hot, Dry Climates by Bruce Grubbs (The Mountaineers Books, $16.95, paperback).

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