Desert Camping has become an annual event for me. There is something so incredibly special about camping in the Southwest or similar climates. Especially when winter is hanging on here in the Pacific Northwest or I’m craving a few more weeks of summer weather. This Desert Camping Guide will break down everything I’ve learned over the years including Desert Camping Essentials, the best destinations, safety, hygiene, and pros and cons!
- Why Go Desert Camping?
- Before You Go…
- The Best Desert Camping Destinations
- 1. Sedona Desert Camping in Arizona
- 2. Alabama Hills in California: Southwest Camping
- 3. Trona Pinnacles in California
- 4. Alvord Desert in Oregon
- 5. Red Rock Canyon in California
- 6. Death Valley National Park in California
- 7. Joshua Tree Camping in the Southwest of California
- 8. Factory Butte in Utah
- 9. Valley of the Gods in Utah
- 10. Desert Camping Trips Still on My North America Bucketlist
- Desert Camping Essentials and Safety
- What to Do if You Get Stuck in Sand?
- Desert Camping Accommodations: Van vs. SUV vs. Tent
- Van or Adventure Rig Camping
- Adventure Rig and Van Rentals
- SUV Rental/Tenting
- Tips for Rentals
- Best Tents for Desert Camping in the Southwest
- Hygiene While Camping in the Southwest
- Pooping in the Desert
- Desert Camping Checklist
Why Go Desert Camping?
In case you stumbled here and are not convinced yet on camping in the desert, let me help you get there.
- It’s warm! It is so ideal for Winter, Spring and Fall when it’s cold everywhere else.
- Some of the best star gazing
- Often free camping
- No Mosquitoes haha
When I first bought my van, I envisioned being parked in the desert, wearing a sundress and drinking a margarita while watching the sunset. And I’m happy to say I’ve made that happen.
But even before owning a van, my girlfriends and I made it a point to get out to the desert to go camping in the southwest either in our own vehicles with tents or rented vehicles. I’ll lay out my tips for any scenario you may be in and various budgets!
Before You Go…
First things first, there are some important practices that must be said before you head out into the desert.
Leave No Trace
I wish this went without saying, but there are a lot of aspects to LNT that people overlook. It is more than making sure you pack out your trash and fruit peels.
Most of the camping in the southwest I’m going to be recommending is Dispersed or Primitive Camping, meaning – no bathrooms, no water, no wifi, no electricity hook ups. Just you and a dirt road and maybe some other strangers.
- When using the bathroom outside, make sure you are 200 feet away from the trail and any water source. PLEASE pack out any toilet paper. I know this sounds gross, but just bring a ziploc bag or doggie poop bags. If you are pooping, make sure to dig a hole at least 6 inches and completely bury it. For urinating, I personally like using my Kula Cloth Pee Cloth to avoid using toilet paper for urination. Don’t be that person that leaves toilet paper half buried all around the campsite.
- Stay on Established Roads. Just because it is BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land or free public land to camp on doesn’t mean you should just roll up over vegetation and “make your own spot”. Be responsible and only park in spots that are allowed and established. Read signs and posted information as well as do your research beforehand on the BLM website for that area.
- Fire Laws. I think everyone has seen the devastation caused by fires in our forest areas and this does include desert areas. Please consider NOT having a fire during fire season (even if allowed) and always check to see if there are current fire restrictions. You can do this by going to BLM.gov and searching the area you will be camping at.
- a good rule if fires ARE allowed is to only have fires in established fire rings during summer months with NO wind.
Garbage while camping:
- Pack it out!! Most Free Campsites do NOT have trash facilities. It is so upsetting to arrive at a beautiful nature area and see it littered with garbage.
- Always pack garbage bags (and gloves) with you on a road trip for your own trash and if you are able, to clean areas you spend time in.
- Pit Toilets may be available to you and are not trash cans. Pit toilets will be unusable if filled with trash. Please respect these areas so that others may continue to use any free facilities.
- Glass: In general it is best practice to avoid bringing glass. It inevitably breaks and leaves shards around a campsite that can injure the next campers or their pets! Pour any beverages from glass bottles into plastic containers and leave the glass behind.
I’ll cover safety, packing and hygiene later on in this post!
The Best Desert Camping Destinations
There are a lot of desert camping destinations that surprised me. Camping in the Southwest is not the only place you can camp in the desert in North America! I’m going to break down MY favorite spots along with destinations that are still on my desert camping bucketlist.
1. Sedona Desert Camping in Arizona
I’ll be singing the praises of Forest Road 525 for the rest of my life. Seriously, the free camping available outside of Sedona is out of this world. This is some of my favorite camping in the southwest.
- Best Months to Camp here: October-May
- Car Recommendation: Standard SUV clearance advised. There are spots accessible to a Sedan, but very limited.
View my Sedona Blog for specific Car Camping Roads and links:
2. Alabama Hills in California: Southwest Camping
The Alabama Hills are a range of rock formations and mountains with stunning views of Mount Whitney. This desert destination is located just outside of Lone Pine, California and offers so many camping and overlanding opportunities.
I’ve had the pleasure of camping here once and cannot wait to get back out there. The Alabama Hills are full of dirt roads that lead to all sorts of hidden gem desert camping spots.
With an influx of people checking out this area over the last few years, changes are coming to the camping here.
The newest update is the west side of Movie Road in the Movie Flat area will be day use only areas and will have posted signs.
- Best Months to Camp here: Spring and Fall (too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter)
- Attractions: Movie Road, Mobius Arch
- Car Recommendation: Standard SUV clearance advised.
Check out the BLM website for the most updated information before planning your trip.
3. Trona Pinnacles in California
Considered part of the Mojave Desert, the Trona Pinnacles are in a California Desert Conservation area managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and truly feels like a different planet.
Established campsites are obvious and like all of the previous destinations, offers free camping that is first come first serve.
- Best Months to Camp here: October – May, Summer temperatures can get up to 110 degrees F
- Attractions: 500 spires of calcium carbonate known as Tufas. These spires range in size, with the tallest ones being around 140 feet high
- Car Recommendation: Standard SUV clearance advised. Areas of sand.
View my entire guide on desert camping at Trona Pinnacles with pictures of my campsite!:
4. Alvord Desert in Oregon
The Alvord Desert is located near the base of the Steens Mountain in Oregon and really gives you the feeling like you are “in the middle of nowhere.” The Alvord Desert is one of the largest playa lakes in Oregon at 12×7 miles! It looks like salt flats and often hosts speed races nearby.
Recommendation: Camp near the edge of the playa to block wind and avoid interactions with people cruising around at night.
- Best Months to Camp here: Summer-Fall. Honestly I think it’s great year round as long as you have the proper gear and come prepared. Winter months can be tricky with snowfall and Spring time with mud (don’t get stuck!)
- Attractions: HOT SPRINGS! (see my guide below for more info)
- Car Recommendation: Standard SUV clearance advised. Sedans might be able to make it down the rocky, dirt road to access the playa with technical driving.
View my entire guide on camping at Alvord Desert and enjoying the Hot Springs!:
5. Red Rock Canyon in California
Red Rock Canyon State Park is seriously one of the most underrated State Parks in Southern California. It has scenic desert cliffs, stunning red hues, buttes, and some lovely desert camping! Many Western movies were filmed here including The Big Country and The Outlaw. Westworld has also filmed at this SoCal State Park! Any Beyonce lovers? Destiny’s Child also filmed a music video here. Love it.
- FEE: $25 – This campground is located within the State Park and has 50 primitive spots and has NO reservation system. It is a first come first serve system and does fill up on weekends (depending on the season).
- NOTE: there is BLM camping nearby that is free, but it would be outside of the State Park (see my guide below for info)
- Best Months to Camp here: Spring and Fall
- Attractions: Hagen Canyon, Red Cliffs Nature Trail are my favorite trails
- Car Recommendation: Any Vehicle can access
View my entire guide on Red Rock Canyon:
6. Death Valley National Park in California
Death Valley National Park is incredibly underrated and has WAY more to it than just sand dunes (which are STUNNING by the way!). I’ve had the pleasure of going here in December and February and experienced such ideal weather (minus one sand storm lol).
- For GPS coordinates to Free Desert Camping outside Death Valley NP CLICK HERE. This dispersed camping area was recommended by the park rangers at Death Valley and was incredible.
- NO FIRES allowed here
- Must camp at least 1 mile away from the main road
- Best Months to Camp here: October – April
- Attractions: Mesquite Flat Dunes, Artist Palette, Badwater Salt Flats, Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View
- Car Recommendation: Any Vehicle can access
View my entire Death Valley Guide:
7. Joshua Tree Camping in the Southwest of California
Joshua Tree National Park is such a classic for Southwest Camping. It can be so hard to get spots in the actual national park campground, so I LOVE staying at this BLM land just outside of the park. Prepare for some pretty magical sunsets if you plan on staying here!
- For GPS coordinates to Free Desert Camping outside of Joshua Tree NP CLICK HERE.
- Best Months to Camp here: Spring and Fall, early/late Winter can be great as well
- Attractions: Skull Rock, Cholla Garden, Arch Rock
- Car Recommendation: Any Vehicle can access most spots
8. Factory Butte in Utah
I got to spend a night here and the sunset and sunrise were equally epic. This area is BLM land primarily used for OHV recreation and dispersed camping is allowed in well established areas! Don’t go blazing your own trail.
- I took North Factory Butte Road to get there using google maps. There will be dirt road off-shoots from the main road that are very obvious.
- Best Months to Camp here: Honestly year round is pretty solid, summer months do get into the 90’s though. Fall and Spring are the best weather.
- Attractions: Factory Butte
- Car Recommendations: Standard SUV is adequate.
For more info check out this guide by BLM:
9. Valley of the Gods in Utah
This sandstone valley is STUNNING. I really want to make it back here as I only stayed one night. Take in the scenic road winding through towering red rock formations. It feels similar to Monument Valley! This should definitely be on your camping in the southwest bucketlist
- Allows free camping at dozens of spots along the 17 mile dirt road loop – Valley of the Gods Road. Google will get you there!
- Best Months to Camp here: September-May
- Attractions: Towering Rock Formations, winding dirt roads, incredible star gazing
- Car Recommendations: Any passenger vehicle is fine as long as road conditions are DRY.
10. Desert Camping Trips Still on My North America Bucketlist
- Anza-Borrego in California
- Leslie Gulch in Oregon
- White Sands National Park in New Mexico
- Mojave National Preserve – Desert Camping California
- Kodachrome Basin – Utah
Desert Camping Essentials and Safety
Phew! There is so much to cover here. Y’all the desert can be DANGEROUS if you’re not prepared so you’ll want to stick around for this.
95% of the campsites listed are primitive campsites. There won’t be water filling stations, so you need to show up prepared.
How Much Water to Bring when Camping in the Desert?
The rule is around 3-5 quarts of water per day PER PERSON. That’s around a Gallon or more a day. When using my own vehicle I like filling my Scepter 5 Gallon True Military BPA Free Water Container.
Another tip is to bring rehydration supplements. I personally like using Nuun tablets in my water. Liquid IV and Drink Hydrant are other popular ones.
Desert Camping Shade!
Bringing some kind of shade apparatus is essential in the desert when camping. If you have a camper or van with an awning – perfect! But that’s usually not the case for most people.
I’ve created shade for myself with a huge variety of things either off of my car hatchback or off of my tent. This is important to protect your skin and not get dehydrated as quickly.
- Tarps (light colored to avoid sun absorption)
- My tripod lol
- Bungee cords/Ratchet Straps
There are systems you can buy that work for cars and tents for about $60 HERE.
This truly depends on the time of year you are going, but it’s best to be prepared for anything.
You’ll want to pack clothing that is lightweight, but that also protects you from the sun. I know wearing long pants and long sleeves sounds terrible, but it’s actually the best way to protect your skin in addition to shade. Look for lightweight breathable fabrics like cotton or linen.
I felt really stupid the first time I slept in the desert. when the sun goes away it gets COLD. Sometimes into the low 30’s (Fahrenheit). Bring warm layers like wool baselayers, a puffy jacket, and warm socks. Keep this in mind when deciding what bedding/sleeping bag to bring too
Satellite Communication and GPS
Most of these places do not have cell service and if something happens or you get lost in these remote areas, it can become VERY dangerous.
I use AllTrails offline maps for navigation when hiking. And I ALWAYS have my Garmin InReach with an SOS button and satellite communication so I can reach people and send my location even without cell service. It is expensive, but so so worth it.
What to Do if You Get Stuck in Sand?
This is unfortunately something you have to be prepared for if camping in the desert. These tips have saved me multiple times, as deep sand can sneak up on you quick.
- Firstly, do NOT ever stop or slow down while driving through deep sand. If you lose your momentum, you’re stuck.
- Recognize you’re stuck and don’t keep digging yourself deeper by trying to gas your way out of this.
- Dig out the sand from around the wheels. Hopefully you packed a shovel! You can manage with your hands though.
- If you have recovery tracks great! If not, take the floor mats out and wedge them under the tires for more traction. I’ve also laid tracks using firewood before and was able to get out.
- If you have excess water, wet down the sand to help increase traction. ONLY do this if you have enough water to survive a couple days if you truly are stranded.
- Deflate your tires halfway to about 18 psi. This helps your tires essentially float along the sand and gives you more surface area for traction.
- And lastly, if you’re able to switch into a lower gear, this will help!
Note: if you deflate your tires, it’s nice to have a portable tire inflator/air compressor on hand!
Desert Camping Accommodations: Van vs. SUV vs. Tent
Here I’m going to break down different options for getting out and camping in the desert.
Van or Adventure Rig Camping
There are a lot of companies out there now to rent from. When I flew to Sedona, I rented a small van off of Outdoorsy that was definitely cheaper than paying for a hotel and rental car. In general it’s a lot nicer to rent a van or adventure rig than an SUV.
Pros to Renting Van/Adventure Rig
- Most rentals come with everything you need, so you won’t have to pack your sleeping bag, mat, pillow, jetboil, etc.
- You’ll sleep better. I’ve done years of car camping and sleeping in a well insulated adventure rig with a bed is hard to beat. Plus wind protection vs a tent is everything in the desert.
- More space. Typically a van/adventure rig is organized and built out in a way where you’ll have lots of space to put your things
- Try before you buy. If you’re like me and are building out a van or want to in the future, I HIGHLY recommend renting various vans to get a feel for what you like and dont like.
Cons to Renting a Van/Adventure Rig
- Challenging to Drive. Depending on what type of vehicle you rent, it may be a lot hard to maneuver than a typical SUV you may be used to.
- Extra Insurance/Deposits: Some rental places require extra deposits and insurance fees that a typical car rental would not.
- Worse Gas Mileage: This really does depend. We rented a ProMaster City and had incredible gas mileage, but in general, an adventure rig will cost you more in fuel.
- Airport Dropoff is sometimes an option with these rentals and if it’s not offered can require an expensive Uber/Lyft/Taxi
Adventure Rig and Van Rentals
These can range from $80-$500 a day. I rented a Dodge Promaster City for $480 for 2 nights, 3 days. If you’re splitting this with another person, this is honestly quite affordable when compared to renting a car and finding lodging.
- Outdoorsy.com Use my link HERE for $50 off
I’m combining these two, because you could either rent an SUV and set it up to sleep in it or rent an SUV and bring a tent to camp.
Pros SUV Rental/Tenting
- Cheap. This is definitely going to be your cheapest option when getting out to the desert outside of using your own vehicle.
- Easy to drive! Driving an SUV is so much easier than some of the top heavy sprinters or various vans/adventure rigs.
- Good gas mileage
Cons SUV Rental/Tenting
- WIND. omg wind. Haha. If you are tenting in the desert, be prepared. It can be so so lovely to camp in a tent in the desert, but there are unfortunately many windy nights in the desert. It can be a gamble.
- Space. It can get really unorganized and messy when staying out of an SUV with more limited space. Also it can really suck if you don’t have a decent space to hang out in if you are unlucky with weather.
- Packing. I HATE checking bags when flying. When I did a trip with girlfriends. We used our backpacking backpacks and had to bring all of our own camping gear and then buy fuel after landing for our mini camping stoves.
- Cold Nights. The desert can get really chilly at night which totally took me off guard the first time. It’s just a lot harder to stay warm in tents/cars that aren’t insulated. Be sure you bring all the right gear to stay warm!
Tips for Rentals
- I definitely recommend an SUV with AWD and reserving it ahead of time to ensure you get the choice you want
- Airport Drop off! I’d recommend getting a car from an airport rental option if you are flying. Having to transfer all your stuff from a rental to a taxi to the airport is exhausting and stressful.
- Do some research on what car options are best for sleeping in if you are going that route. A lot of cars do not have seats that fold flush and makes it very uncomfortable to sleep in.
Best Tents for Desert Camping in the Southwest
There are certain things you’ll want to look for if you’re shopping for a tent specifically for desert camping.
- Large Vestibules for shade
- Tear-resistant material or reinforced so it’s not shredded by wind/sand
- Strong Tent Poles
- Light colored rain fly or tarp for least amount of sun absorption
- Bath-tub Floor – which is essentially a floor that also goes partway up the walls and is more resistant to weather.
Recommended Desert Camping Tent
- Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 – $500
- For Groups/Families: North Face Wawona 6 Tent – $475
- North Face Storm Break 2 Tent – $160
- MSR Hubba Hubba 2 Tent – $480
Hygiene While Camping in the Southwest
Hygiene in the desert is a lot different than hygiene at an alpine lake in the Pacific Northwest. Here are some tips and desert camping essentials to make life easier while camping in the desert terrain.
- Bring face wipes to remove sunscreen, bug spray, etc. But make sure you pack the used ones out!
- General body wipes are great too to wipe down with in between hikes or before bed.
- Dr. Bronners soap is considered biodegradable and environmentally friendly. I use this if need to really wipe down (especially if I may have encountered poison ivy). And I also use this to wash dishes.
- If you wear mascara or eye makeup on the trail, I like to presoak some cotton balls in eye makeup remover and keep them in a ziploc bag.
- Bring a moisturizer! I like to bring a small bottle of Argon oil for my face and skin.
- Aquaphor! This stuff is heavy duty and really helps with any windburned or sunburned areas to protect them.
- Wear your hair in a braid to prevent extreme tangles. I like to bring a small brush or comb. Or sleep with it in a silk wrap at night.
- SPF 50. I like to immediately put on a Face SPF (chemical) and then mineral sunscreen over top. I use MyChelle Dermaceuticals Sun Shield Liquid SPF 50 and it works SO good and also evens out my skin tone.
- Hair Care – I do bring dry shampoo typically. But most of the time I wear a hat for sun protection anyway. Bring a cute hat for in town or stopping for dinner!
Pooping in the Desert
I couldn’t help but giggle when typing that out.
When using the bathroom outside, make sure you are 200 feet away from the trail and any water source. PLEASE pack out any toilet paper. I know this sounds gross, but just bring a ziploc bag or doggie poop bags. If you are pooping, make sure to dig a hole at least 6 inches and completely bury it.
If you’re a beginner this might sound insane, but if you CAN go the extra mile, pack out your poop in bags. As long as they are properly tied off, you can dispose of human waste in public garbage. REI sells these toilet kits ($30 for a 12 pack) to minimize the impact of waste on the environment.
In the Desert especially, it’s hard to actually dig a sufficient hole to cover up waste and toilet paper without it being uncovered by wind, etc. I’ve been to so many campsites littered in half buried toilet paper and poop. Please don’t be that person.
For urinating, I personally like using my Kula Cloth Pee Cloth to avoid using toilet paper for urination. It is antimicrobial and really discreet and doesn’t smell. AGAIN, don’t be that person that leaves toilet paper half buried all around the campsite.
Desert Camping Checklist
Here is a list to make sure you have everything you need either already included in your rental or what you’re bringing along.
Desert Camping Gear
- Sleeping Bag that goes to at least 30 degrees (unless bedding is provided). Check out my backpacking post for recommendations
- Sleeping Pad (unless mattress provided!)
- Camp Stove and Fuel
- Water storage and Rehydration Packets
- Cup, spork
- Compact Cooler – if you’re getting fancy with having a cold beverage after hiking.
- Warm Jacket
- Lightweight clothes for hot weather
- Warm socks
- Moisture wicking socks
- Hiking shoes
Shop my adventure favorites HERE
- Toilet Paper/Pee cloth
- Poop Bags
- Dry Shampoo/ Hair Brush
- Small compact towel (I like Turkish towels and use them for shade as well!)
Most safety items cannot go on airplanes unfortunately, so if you are a traveler that likes having personal safety items like pepper spray, bear spray, knives, etc – you may need to stop and pick those up after getting off the flight.
- First Aid Kit
- Satellite Device
- Power Bank with phone charging cord
Phew! If you made it this far, you must be really ready to plan your first or next desert camping in the southwest trip! To summarize, my favorite desert camping spots are:
- Alabama Hills
- Trona Pinnacles
- Alvord Desert
- Red Rock Canyon
- Death Valley
- Joshua Tree
- Factory Butte
- Valley of the Gods
My only regret camping in the desert, was not staying long enough (and wearing white converse haha). Let me know in the comments (scroll down!) if you’d have anything to add or what place would be top on your list for your next Southwest Camping adventure!
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