Having some basic desert gear can make your adventures in nature’s sandbox go much more smoothly. While basic guidelines apply – bringing sufficient shelter, clothing, water, and an emergency kit, for instance – desert exploration requires added preparation to cope with the extreme terrain and climate. Below, you’ll find suggestions for desert-specific gear that you might consider bringing along on your next trip. We don’t cover basic camping gear that you might need anywhere, but items that will be specifically useful in the desert.
DESERT GEAR COVERED IN THIS GUIDE
Large Water Storage Containers for Desert Camping
How much water does a person need in the desert? Captain Obvious here, but deserts are really dry. Even during the cooler months of the year, humidity is generally very low, meaning you will lose water through perspiration at a high rate. You probably won’t even notice it until you suddenly get very thirsty.
One rule of thumb offered up by the National Park Service, is to drink at least one gallon (4 liters) of fluid per day while visiting the desert. More if you are engaging in hiking or other strenuous activities. You’ll want to balance fluid and electrolyte levels, which you can do using an electrolyte drink mix (see below). This doesn’t take into account water for cooking and cleaning.
The gear below will help you carry large amounts of water during your desert excursions. For longer trips or larger parties, you may need several containers.
Sea-to-Summit Watercell X Backcountry Reservoir
Sea-to-Summit makes excellent quality backcountry gear, and their Watercell X is no exception. These versatile reservoirs are excellent for desert camping, as they can be used for both holding potable water and as a shower. Each reservoir comes with a strap for hanging it for easy dispensing or showing. A small shower adaptor connects to the cap of the container. The Watercells are made from durable material but can collapse down to a small size when not in use. They come in 4-, 6-, 10-, and 20-liter sizes, and run from around $40 to $70, depending on the size.
Front Runner Plastic Water Jerry Can with Tap
Front Runner makes a wide range of high-quality backcountry gear. These Jerry Cans are made from food-grade plastic and will hold 5.3 gallons (20 liters) of water. The container features a removable plastic tap for dispensing the water. One nice thing about these cans is that they will fit in a standard Jerry Can mountain rack on your vehicle (a common rack type used on off-road and overlanding vehicles). If you don’t have a Jerry Can rack, you can carry it inside your vehicle.
When you’re hiking in the desert, you need to bring more water than you typically would. Hydration backpacks with integrated reservoirs make it a lot easier to carry enough water. Two quality brands that specialize in hydration backpacks are Osprey, Camelback and TETON Sports. There are MANY models to choose from, so the links below to pages featuring a range of hydration packs:
Part of staying hydrated is making sure you have enough electrolytes in your system. This Vitalyte pack can make 40 2-cup servings of electrolyte replacement drink that you can carry with you on your desert adventures. While there’s debate about how much electrolyte replacement is needed, if you find yourself hiking or doing other extended strenuous activity in hot weather it’s worth drinking some just to be safe.
Camping Awnings and Sun Tarps For Desert Sun Protection
That desert sun. It’s relentless. Even in winter, the sun in the desert can be oppressive, especially if you are camping and spending many hours exposed outdoors during the day. It’s worth investing in gear to give yourself some relief from the sun.
There several different ways you can protect yourself from the sun. Some are pretty obvious, such as clothing and sunblock. Others might not occur to you until you are already on your trip – and wishing you had them. If you do bring them, you’ll be a hero to everyone in your group.
One of the often-overlooked items for desert camping is a shade structure or tarp for a group to sit under when the sun is blazing. Even in the winter months, desert temperatures can make major swings, and the midday sun become oppressive if you don’t have somewhere to seek relief.
Quik Shade Expedition Instant Canopy
Pop-up sun canopies such as this one from Quik Shade are worth their weight in gold on hot desert days. They can be a bit bulky to pack, but they are sturdy, easy to put up and takedown, and can be used just about anywhere. The Quik Shade is made of 300 denier polyester fabric with Aluminex-backed top, which ensures 99% UV protection.
Kelty Noah’s Tarp Sun Shelter
If you’re looking for something that packs down tighter than a pop-up awning, Kelty’s Noah’s Tarp is a great option for a versatile sunshade for desert camping. One very cool feature is that the guy lines are stowed in velcro-closing pockets at each corner of the tarp, which makes it easy to pack and unpack. For desert camping, where trees can be non-existent, it’s worth bringing some poles to hold the tarp up.
Desert Vehicle Recovery Gear
We can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen people stuck in sand and mud in the desert. If you do any exploring off the paved roads, it’s worth bringing a shovel and some traction tracks for getting yourself unstuck.
MAXTRAX come in really handy when you are stuck in deep sand or mud and need to self-rescue. Just dig under your wheel (see shovel below) and put the track underneath to create a traction surface for your vehicle to grip. They are easy to use and strap to your vehicle’s roof racks (they come in other colors than blaze orange, in case that hurts your eyes). They are made of fiber-reinforced engineering grade nylon and weigh 7.5 pounds each. They aren’t cheap, but they are worth the investment if you’ll be doing much off-road/dirt road exploring.
Delta Shovel by DMOS
The Delta Shovel by DMOS is the Excalibur of off-road recovery shovels. It’s lightweight, durable, collapses to a small size, and can be used as both a shovel and a hoe. The 3mm-thick blade is made of aircraft-grade steel. The telescoping handle is made of aluminum and features an end grip made of nylon polymer. Made in Oregon, these are top-notch American-made products that cost around $220 as we write this. It’s pricey, but another solid investment. If you are looking for a budget option, check out the Bully Tools Round Point Shovel.
Fire Pits for Desert Camping
Deserts may seem barren, but they are in fact highly sensitive ecosystems. Most desert parks have policies against starting ground fires, which can cause persistent scars. If you are camping in a campground with fire rings, you are all set. But if you want to camp outside of developed campgrounds and want a campfire, you’ll need to bring along a fire pit.
Outland Fire Bowl
Outland Fire Bowl burns compressed gas (propane typically) instead of wood, which comes in handy if you forgot to bring wood. Generally, you shouldn’t burn wood found in deserts, as the biomass is imporant for the ecosystem. Another benefit of the stove, which uses lava rocks as the heating substrate, is that it can be used during periods when campfires are banned due to fire danger. The fire pit is 19 x 19 x 11 inches and weighs 22 pounds. It comes with a metal cover and a carrying kit. For more fire pit recommendations, check out our Guide to the Best Camping Fire Pits.