Desert camping

After yesterday’s discussion about how to scout and set up a camp in an arid rocky valley, it might be worth extending the view and talking about actual desert camps. Typically an overlander’s first experience of a desert camp might be Morocco or Tunisia and, though the “real” desert is fast vanishing from those places, there’s still enough wild space to give a taste of what “deep desert” camping is like.

Algeria, 2010

                An awareness of weather is vital. If you are travelling in winter or spring, be wary of camping on low sandy stretches at the bottom of mountains like the Atlas. Sudden winter rains or Spring thaws can bring torrents of water cascading down into dry desert areas, and the hard-packed sand doesn’t absorb it as quickly as you might expect. Flat stretches of sand can turn to quagmires or flood plains – and that can be dangerous. Look out for flat areas of sand that seem to resemble tide marks on a beach – that’s exactly what they are. Be aware also of the wind. If you are camping on the coast, desert winds tend to turn through 180° when the sunset (or rises) and there is a sudden temperature change. Sandstorms and windstorms can be uncomfortable and make tents flap annoyingly (bungees help), but they can also blow a lot of sand away from under your tyres, and make the parked, sleeping 4×4 lurch alarmingly in the night, and without warning.

Sudan, 2013

                Sunrise is in the east. Yes, that’s obvious, but when it pops over the horizon the temperature in your tent can rise very fast. Are you ready for that? Do you want that? Think where the sun will come up, and arrange some shade if you don’t want a 5am alarm call. You may also get an early morning call from local mosques if you’re in a Muslim country, or peals of church bells, if in a Christian one. Should you pack earplugs against noise and an eyemask to deal with daylight? It’s a thought…..

                Maybe you don’t fancy a tent. I can’t blame you. I seldom use a tent in the open desert, preferring to put a bedroll straight onto the desert sand. The stars at night are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Be aware however of crawling inhabitants – if you’re near vegetation or rocks you’d be safer to use a camp bed out in the open – scorpions and snakes like snuggling up to human warmth at night, and they live near oases and patches of shade. Bung up the top of your boots, when taken off, with rolled-up socks, so nothing can get in. Talking of shade and snakes, avoid walking barefoot under trees. Scorpions and snakes love to shelter there. Their camouflage is formidable, as is their venom when trodden on. They also like hiding in piles of firewood left over from the night before. Don’t leave food around unprotected in camp – bugs will find it and have a midnight feast – and so might desert rats and foxes. 

Scorpion in camp, Umm Al Qawain, 2019

                Before you go to sleep at night, check all the car electrics are off (unless you want some to stay on, like a fridge). When you pull away in the morning, check under the vehicle first. Hoses can and do blow, and mishaps in deserts are unwelcome. Desert sand is very good at showing up drips and spills of fluids. When pulling up into camp at night on soft sand, coast to a stop, don’t jam the brakes on – braking hard digs in, and gives you a potential to be stuck in the morning. If you have any doubts about your vehicle reliability, camp with your nose pointing down so you can bump-start the next day. A rock under the wheel might help against handbrake failure…..!

Umm Al Qawain, 2023

                Roof tent ladders can cause issues in desert sand. They can sink in. Some manufacturers provide a “blunt” end to the ladder for this reason, to spread the load – but it’s just as easy to use a sheet of wood or metal – or even a footwell mat or toolbox. The same goes for the pointy ends of awning legs – they can sink in. A trip to a pet shop will provide you with deep pegs (and some like a corkscrew) which are designed to anchor a dog lead in soft ground – they enable you to strap an awning down in soft desert sand – and the same goes for tents that need guy lines. If you haven’t got any, simply fill a bag (a carrier bag will do) with sand and bury it with handles sticking out – you can lash a guy line to this and it acts much as a solid tent peg will do. Don’t forget to take it with you when you leave camp. Sand ladders and full jerry cans can also hold tents down in strong winds. On that note, they can also make very handy tables for use in camp – a sand ladder on top of two jerry cans.                

Deserts are wonderful, beautiful and peaceful places to camp – but they can be challenging and even dangerous for the unprepared. A bit of forethought and planning will ensure a safe and comfortable night’s sleep!


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