top of page

The Ultimate Adventure Guide to Hiking in the Desert

39.3210° N, 111.0937° W

Person hikes along a rocky ridge in the deserts of Utah.

THIS ADVENTURE GUIDE COVERS EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT HIKING IN THE DESERT; INCLUDING, TIPS ON WHERE TO GO, WHAT TO BRING AND HOW TO STAY SAFE WHILE EXPLORING THE BEAUTIFUL (BUT HARSH) LANDSCAPE.

 



Hiking in the desert can be a truly magical experience. The landscape, the weather, the harshness of it all makes it feel like you are always on the edge of either some great adventure or a terrifying death.


We have spent many months exploring the various deserts around the United States - including road tripping and hiking in Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave desert, camping in the Sonoran desert in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, soaking in various hot springs in the Great Basin desert and adventuring all over the southern desert of Utah (including canyoneering in its famous canyon country). And still, even after all of those trips and years spent in the hot, dry landscape, we still feel like we have only scratched the surface.


This is because the desert is complicated and layered. It is also massive. In fact, some scientists believe that 30% of the whole USA falls under the category of being arid or semi-arid (aka a desert). Within that space, you can find all kinds of different landscapes - from the incredibly hot and dry Mojave in California to the relatively lush and vibrant Sonoran in southern Arizona. If you have ever considered what it would be like to explore the deserts of the USA - or you have visited before but now want to head out on even more exciting desert adventures - then this adventure guide is for you.


Below you will find everything you need to know about hiking in the desert; including, the top places to go, the main safety concerns and steps you should take to recreate responsibly and the outdoor gear you will need to explore comfortably (no matter the temperature). We also outline some important tips on camping in the desert - because if you have ever wanted to see the stars, then the desert is for you.




INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT THE DESERTS OF THE USA


| There are 4 types of deserts in the USA: the Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan and the Great Basin Desert.


| The largest desert in the country is the Great Basin Desert. It covers 190,000 square miles and spreads out into such states as Nevada, Utah, California, Oregon, Arizona and Idaho. This desert is also home to the oldest known living organism in the world, the Bristlecone Pine Tree (scientists believe some of the Bristlecone's to be over 5,000 years old).


| Some of the most common animals that live in the desert are coyotes, desert bighorn sheep, cottontails, kangaroo rats, mule deer, rattlesnakes, scorpions and some spiders. Though, due to the heat, it can be tough to spot any wildlife during the day (you are more likely to see them at night).





View of Arches National Park in Utah at sunset.




POPULAR DESERT HIKING AREAS IN THE USA


There are many destinations around the USA that are popular for desert hiking, including numerous national parks and national monuments, state parks and reserves. Interestingly enough, all of the deserts in the USA are west of the Mississippi River in an area often referred to as the American Southwest. Similarly, while you can find some desert environments in northern states like Idaho and Oregon, many of the desert environments are found within the states of Arizona, Utah, California, New Mexico and Nevada.



Below are a few of the most popular places to hike in the desert:


NATIONAL PARKS AND MONUMENTS

Grand Canyon National Park | Arizona

Saguaro National Park | Arizona

Canyon de Chelly National Monument | Arizona

Montezuma Castle National Monument | Arizona

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument | Arizona


Death Valley National Park | California



Great Basin National Park | Nevada



Bryce Canyon National Park | Utah

Zion National Park | Utah








STATE PARKS

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | California



Kodachrome Basin State Park | Utah




A few other desert areas worth exploring are the Mojave desert itself - especially the Mojave National Preserve or Sheephole Valley Wilderness, the Escalante area in southern Utah and most of central Nevada (we suggest exploring it on the aptly named Loneliest Highway - read our full road trip guide here).







 

TIPS FOR HIKING IN THE DESERT

 






SAFETY


One of the most important things to keep in mind when hiking in the desert is your overall safety. Because of the desert's harsh environment, you need to make sure you come prepared for all manner of situations. The biggest dangers of hiking in the desert - and the ones you need to be the most aware of - are overheating, dehydration and animals (mainly snakes and scorpions). But, for the most part, as long as you come prepared and use your common sense, you should be perfectly safe hiking around the beautiful desert environments.



Below are a few important desert hiking safety tips to keep in mind:


| Come prepared with clothing that provides sun protection, including a shirt with long sleeves and a hood and full-length pants. This ensures that your skin is protected from the sun's harmful rays, which is one of the main causes of heat exhaustion (plus sunburns are no fun). You can find our full desert hiking gear list below.



| Don’t hike during the middle of the day (especially in the summer), instead hike when it is cooler like in the mornings or at dusk. Or if you really want an interesting adventure, grab a headlamp and head out at night.


💬 INSIDER TIP: the first time we visited Moab was in early July (I know, what were we thinking). We soon realized that being out in the middle of the day was absolutely miserable. So instead we would get up before the sun rose and explore instead. This not only allowed us to beat the heat, but we were also able to see some pretty stunning sunrises. Plus, once done, we still had a full day left to swim in the Colorado River or hang out in a coffee shop.



| Carry a first aid kit with you. This should be mentioned for all types of adventures but definitely when you are in the desert. A good first aid kit will have band-aids, tape, disinfectant wipes and gauze. And if it doesn't have one already, a pair of tweezers would also be a good idea just in case you run into some cacti and need to pull out some of the thorns/spines.



| Wear closed-toed shoes to protect your feet from prickly cactus, desert animals and sharp rocks. While it might be tough to convince yourself to wear full on boots when it is hot out, this is where having wicking shoes come in really handy. And if you don't feel like wearing full hiking boots, then consider a pair of closed-toed sandals (like Keens) or lighter trainers.



| When out hiking in the desert - especially at night - you need to always be aware of your surroundings, especially of where you are placing your feet. Because of the desert's often intense heat during the day, many desert-dwellers choose to come out at night (they are known as nocturnal), including animals such as coyotes, foxes, kangaroo rats, owls, mountain lions, snakes, lizards and scorpions.


If you are planning to hike at night (either because it is cooler or because you want a better chance of seeing wildlife) always remember to have a flashlight handy and to watch where you are stepping.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: in the summer many animals choose to lay out in the middle of the road to soak up that extra heat. When driving in the desert always look out for wildlife in the middle of the road - including lizards and snakes.



| You also need to always be aware of the desert's plant life; including, various cacti. When out hiking you want to always look where you are stepping just in case it is on a cactus or other barbed plant (the desert is full of highly defensive flora). Similarly, if you are hiking near some type of body of water, you need to keep an eye out for poison ivy and/or poison oak. Once again, this is why wearing longer clothing is so important in the desert.









WATER


By far one of the most important things to carry with you while out hiking in the desert is water. Without enough water, you can face some serious consequences - including of course dehydration, which in turn can lead to disorientation, headaches, lightheadedness and muscle cramps.


While the amount of water you need to carry depends on how far you are planning to hike and what the overall temperature and terrain look like (steep, flat, rolling..), a good rule of thumb when deciding how much water to bring with you on the trail is to have at least 1 liter of water for every hour or so you plan to be hiking.


Now to be fair that number is not a clear cut answer. In fact, there are many instances where you might not need as much water. We personally have adventured in the desert with a bit less water overall and been okay. But we have spent years exploring the desert and we know how our body handles the temperature and terrain. So while 1 liter per hour is a great place to start, in the end, you want to always listen to your body.



| One great way to deal with needing that much water is to carry a water filter with you. While deserts often do not have that many water sources, depending on the season, you might be surprised to find a few viable streams along your hike. You can find a couple of recommended water filters in our Desert Hiking Gear List below.



| Similarly, one of the best ways to carry your water with you on the trail is in a water bladder that fits nicely into your backpack. If you can carry all of your water in a bladder (which usually comes in a 2-2.5 liter size) then you can more easily scramble around on rocks, head up and down steep rocky sections and just be able to use your hands more easily (this is great if you like to take photos along your hike).



| Besides packing plenty of water with you, also make sure to have a couple of handy snacks that also provide a bit of hydration. This can include foods such as peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, cut melon, peaches, oranges and celery. These foods will not only give you a nice bit of extra water, but many of them also contain a fair amount of natural sugars - which is usually a great help out in the hot desert.



| It is also a good idea - especially if you are planning to hike for a decent amount of time (5+ hours) to have some sort of electrolyte with you. We tend to veer more towards having electrolyte powders or squirts (we especially like the Mio Sport squirts), but you can also purchase electrolyte gummies at most outdoor stores.



| One of the last tips on staying hydrated while hiking in the desert is to simply start your day already hydrated. This might seem like a no brainer but honestly it is really important to start at a healthy level of hydration before you even start exercising. Before stepping out on the trail, drink at least a couple of cups of water - your body will thank you later.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: one of the best ways to monitor your level of hydration is to keep track of how often you actually go to the bathroom (once every 2-3 hours is healthy) as well as the color of your pee (light yellow to clear is hydrated, while a darker color means you need to drink more water).




Person drinks water while hiking in the desert of the USA





WEATHER


We have mentioned it before but it is always worth saying again: when hiking in the desert try to avoid the heat of the day as much as possible. This is especially true in the hot summer months (June - August) when temperatures in most deserts can easily reach above 95° F / 35° C. And, in some places, even reach temperatures above 105° F / 41° C. Those temperatures are not only uncomfortable to be out in, but can also be dangerous.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: Death Valley National Park in California is often listed as one of the hottest places on Earth. In fact, it is the hottest place in North America and has the highest recorded temperature ever on the surface of the Earth (134° F / 57° C in 1913).


Therefore it is super important to always check the weather and expected temperature before heading out on any hiking adventure. Know your own limits when it comes to hiking in the heat and if you think it is too hot, wait a bit and instead hike later in the day or earlier in the morning when the temperatures are usually quite a bit lower.



| If you are looking to hike in any sort of tighter canyon (known as a slot canyon) you definitely need to check the weather forecast first and stay aware of any incoming storms. Flash floods, though dangerous no matter where you are in the desert, can be absolutely life-threatening if you are in a slot canyon. If there is any chance of rain or if you see any clouds on the horizon that look like they could become rain clouds, we recommend reconsidering your hiking route if it included any sort of tight canyon section.



❔ GOOD TO KNOW: by far the best time to hike in the desert is during the shoulder seasons. Specifically, late March to May and late September to early November. During this time of year the weather is warm and pleasant, the plants are blooming (especially in April) and the days are nice and long. The only downside: this is when the desert is at its busiest. So be prepared for busy trails, packed parking lots and full campgrounds.


Luckily, if you are fine getting a bit more off the beaten path, you can still find a bit of solitude out in the desert. Here are a couple of places to start.





SUN PROTECTION


| As you'd expect, dealing with the often intense sun is one of the biggest concerns when hiking in the desert. Therefore it is super important that you come prepared with ample sun protection. Your best bet is to wear clothing that covers your whole body, including your legs, arms and neck. We suggest investing in some lightweight, moisture-wicking sun shirts if you are planning to spend a decent amount of time exploring the desert. Similarly, a wide-brimmed hat that shades both your face and neck is also incredibly useful.



| While a wide-brimmed hat is super helpful while hiking in the desert (or any type of desert adventure) it is also not a bad idea to wear a pair of sunglasses with UV protection. Sunglasses are especially nice if you are planning to be out in the desert all day and don't want to come back to camp with a headache because you have been squinting for hours on end.


💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are looking to do a bit of scrambling or slot canyons while hiking (or if you want to go all in and go canyoneering) then we recommend wearing sunglasses that you don't mind getting a bit beat up. We can't tell you how many times we have personally dropped our glasses while hiking, or accidentally got them scraped up on the canyon walls.



| The final item you should have with you when hiking in the desert is a bottle of sunscreen. While it might seem a bit overkill to wear sunscreen alongside a hat and long-sleeved clothing, we promise you will be grateful when you finish the day and your face, neck and hands aren't tinged tomato red. You can find our recommended sunscreens below.




Field of cryptobiotic soil in the southern Utah desert.




LEAVE NO TRACE PRINCIPLES


| The most important Leave No Trace Principle to remember when hiking in the desert (or really when you are partaking in any desert activity, including biking or canyoneering) is to always, always stay on the trail. The desert is extremely fragile and it takes very little effort to cause serious damage to it.


When you are out hiking, always try to stick to the most obvious trail (little rock cairns or painted stripes are a good way to tell). And if there isn't really one, instead try to stick to either a wash (a dry riverbed) or along slickrock (or other rocky surfaces).



| Following the same statement above, it is also extremely important to avoid stepping on and disturbing cryptobiotic soil. Cryptobiotic soil (or crypto) is that dark, crunchy looking crust that you can find all over America's deserts (see the photo above for reference). This unique substance is composed primarily of very small organisms that cannot be seen with the naked eye. While it might not seem like a big deal to step on the crypto, it is in fact one of the biggest dangers facing the desert ecosystems, for once disturbed, cryptobiotic soil can take anywhere from a few years to several decades (maybe even more) to recover. And until the crypto recovers, the soils in the impacted area can be damaged by accelerated erosion and nutrient loss.


So let us repeat this again, try to never, ever step on the cryptobiotic soil. Even if this means having to take a more circuitous route, always do it.


You can learn more about cryptobiotic soil and its usefulness here.



| Don’t pick up historical objects and don’t disturb ancient sites. This is especially important when you are exploring areas with numerous historical places, including national parks and monuments like Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly and Montezuma Castle. Similarly, even if you aren't hiking in a federally protected park or monument, still leave all historical objects and sites alone. Remember: public land is are for everyone and therefore you should leave things the way you found them so others can enjoy them as well.



| Similarly, leave all rocks and plants (no matter how pretty they are) behind while out hiking. This is especially important when it comes to plants that are necessary for sustaining various desert life (like wildflowers).



| Another important thing to remember when exploring the desert is to make sure you pack out all of your waste with you. This includes everything from trash to used cigarette butts to even human waste in some instances (see more below). Try really hard to leave no trace that you were ever there besides your footprints on the trail.



| Always dispose of human waste properly. While it might be a gross subject, making sure you follow the proper etiquette when disposing of your waste is paramount to leaving no trace in the desert. The main steps to remember are first digging a hole at least 6 inches deep and then covering it with plenty of dirt and/or rocks. Do NOT just go to the bathroom out in the open. Similarly, make sure you are well away from any water source (200 feet is a good start).


Also, you NEED to pack out all used toilet paper - especially in the desert where it takes a loooong time to decompose. While this might seem pretty gross to do, it is one of the core facets of leaving no trace outdoors and keeping your ecosystems healthy and clean. Plus, no one likes coming across used TP while outside. So do your part and pack it out.


💬 INSIDER TIP: one of the most important things to have in your outdoor gear repertoire is a designated poop bag. This should include a shovel, toilet paper, hand sanitizer and an extra Ziploc bag for used toilet paper. We personally store all of this in a larger Ziploc bag and then store it in an easily accessible place in our van.




Simple no hiking sign in the desert of Utah, USA






\\ Camping in the Desert | What You Need to Know


We absolutely love camping out in the desert, especially when the camping is done in a remote area where you get almost no light or noise pollution. Honestly, there is just something truly magical about spending the night out in nature and feeling like you are entirely one with the landscape.


Below are a few of the most important things to keep in mind when planning to camp out in the desert, including some tips on what to look for in a site, how to stay safe and how to leave no trace after you leave.



► Curious to learn more about stargazing while camping? Check out our article on Where to Find the Darkest Skies in the USA.




FINDING A GOOD DESERT CAMPSITE


A couple of important things to keep in mind when looking for a site to camp in - either in your tent or in your vehicle (like a van) - is to make sure the site is on hard, packed-down ground, that there is plenty of space to put your gear without disturbing the native plant-life, that there is already a fire ring in place (this is a sure sign the spot has been used before) and that you are far enough away from any water source (200 feet is a good minimum distance).


While the desert might seem barren and open for all kinds of camping, in truth, it is a very sensitive environment that needs to be treated with care. When looking for a campsite, only choose one that looks like it has been used before. Heading out on forest or BLM roads is a great way to find some awesome sites (you can read more about some of our favorite free campsites here).




STAYING SAFE AND COMFORTABLE WHILE DESERT CAMPING


While desert camping is absolutely amazing, it can also be somewhat uncomfortable if necessary steps aren't taken. This includes looking for a site that is flat and made up of only packed down dirt, making sure you bring a sizable tarp with you (and using it under your tent), having enough water for all of your needs at camp - including enough for drinking, cooking and cleaning up, and, if possible, finding a campsite that has some sort of wind protection.


In terms of camping safety, you want to make sure you are not in an area that could be susceptible to flash floods (no river beds or tight canyons please), and that it isn't in a place that could become dangerous in the wrong circumstances (no camping on private land unless you are given permission, don't camp near busy roads or in popular nighttime meeting areas).


Finally, you will want to try to avoid any run-ins with the desert wildlife (which is often more active at night). This includes making sure you can clearly see where you are walking at night - for this is when snakes and scorpions are most active. Similarly, you will want to store all of your food and smelly goods in a secure spot (like a box with a tight lid) just in case an animal shows up (bears aren't common in the desert but birds, rodents and bugs are).


While many desert animals are harmless and likely want nothing to do with you, it is still important to consider that you are in their home and therefore you need to pay them the respect they deserve. Always remember to NEVER feed or harm wildlife.




LEAVE NO TRACE PRINCIPLES TO REMEMBER WHEN DESERT CAMPING


As mentioned above, there are a number of important Leave No Trace Principles to remember when you are out exploring in the desert. When it comes to camping - not just in the desert but anywhere - the key principles to follow are to pack out everything that you brought with you; including, all trash, food, and gear. And if you find a campsite that does have some leftover trash, be a good environmental steward and dispose of it yourself. Similarly, it is important to always camp far enough away from any water source so that when you are doing dishes, brushing your teeth or going to the bathroom there is no chance that the used water will run back into the natural source.


Finally, you need to only have fires in established fire rings or fire pits and only if there is NO fire ban in place, you need to stick to established sites and roads when looking for a place to stay, you need to try to keep your noise down - especially at night, and finally, you need to make sure you are only using gear that will not harm the landscape.


In the end, the core facet of the Leave No Trace Principles is to leave the place you are adventuring in better than when you found it.




A white van camping in the red rock desert of the USA



While there are a lot of amazing places to camp in the desert a few great spots to start searching are established campsites in the various desert national parks and monuments (we especially love the campgrounds in Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument), in established campgrounds run by either the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or the National Forest Service, or, if you are feeling really adventurous, try looking for sites out on public land (this is known as boondocking or free camping). The areas near Goblin Valley State Park, Arches National Park, Grand Canyon National Park and Joshua Tree National Park are especially great.


As long as you follow the steps listed above you should easily be able to find a great campsite out in the desert, have a safe and comfortable time and greatly enjoy all the magic that the desert has to offer.






\\ What Gear to Bring When Hiking and Camping in the Desert


Below are a few of the key items you need to have with you when planning on hiking or camping out in the desert. One important thing to note about desert adventure gear is that it should always be highly durable, moisture-wicking and breathable. And, maybe most importantly, it should be comfortable.




DESERT HIKING CLOTHES AND GEAR



HIKING SHOES

You are going to want sturdy hiking boots that can handle the often rough desert terrain. This includes hiking over rocks, along long stretches of slickrock, through washes - especially ones with deep sand, and between tight canyon walls. But you are also going to want to wear shoes that are breathable and keep your feet from getting too sweaty. Below are two great options for desert hiking shoes:


These Keen women's hiking boots are comfortable, breathable and sturdy enough to handle both long days on the trail and days spent exploring canyons. Our recommended hiking boots.


If you are doing a shorter hike and don't want to wear full-on hiking boots, then instead consider a pair of Keen sandals (especially the ones with a toe cover). These are a great option for less intense hikes for they are comfortable, somewhat protective and super breathable. Our recommended hiking sandals.



HIKING SOCKS

Just like with hiking shoes, you are going to want to wear comfortable hiking socks that wick moisture, are durable and breathable. This pair by Smartwool is a really great option (they are definitely our go-to for any adventure). Our recommended hiking sock.



LONG-SLEEVED SHIRT

If there is one thing to remember to always bring with you to the desert it should be a nice comfortable, lightweight sun shirt (bonus points it it has a hood like the one below). This is one of the best ways to protect yourself against the sun's strong rays and also keep you safe from any sharp, thorny bushes. Our recommended sun shirt is by Backcountry.



LONG PANTS

Similarly, while we sometimes do choose to wear shorts, if we are planning to do any big days out in the desert we always wear lightweight and durable full-length pants. This pair is the perfect option for it comes with UV 50+ protection, the option to roll up the legs for a bit more breathability and it is abrasion resistant (which is awesome if you are planning to do any slot canyons). Our recommended long hiking pants here.



SUN HAT

A sun hat can sometimes make or break your day in the desert. That is why we always try to have one with us that both protects our eyes and face from the sun, while also being hardy enough to pack into a backpack when we get into a tight canyon. These two below are both great options.


This women's sun hat from Outdoor Research is cute, breathable (it is made of canvas) and has a nice wide brim.


This Western-style Stetson hat is a bit more heavy duty (it is made of felt) than the one above, but it is also a great all around hat to have with you since it works great on the trail (its sweatband keeps you nice and cool, while it is crushable enough to easily pack into a bag) and also in town.



BACKPACK/DAYPACK

One of the most important things to carry with you while hiking in the desert is plenty of water. These two backpacks not only have the space to store all of your essential hiking gear, but they also come with a hydration bladder - which we think is the best way to carry your water while out in the desert.


This Osprey hydration pack comes with a 2.5-liter bladder and 3 liters of total storage space. Its lightweight design - which includes an air-mesh panel that helps keeps you cool - also comes with a light loop that ensures visibility even when you are caught out after dark.


If you are looking for a bit more storage space than the bag above, then instead consider this Gregory 18-liter backpack that comes with a 2-liter water bladder. This bag also has a specific spot to store your trekking poles, as well as multiple zip pockets for organizing all of your gear.




3 hikers along a desert road in the USA



FANNY PACK

Another option is to instead go with a comfortable fanny pack instead of a full-on backpack. This is a great idea if you are looking to do much shorter hikes out in the desert. Below are two options that - while small - still come with space for water.


This highly durable Osprey fanny pack is 5 liters in total size, and can hold both water bottles or a water bladder.


Or there is this Mountain Hardwear fanny pack - which is slightly smaller in size at only 4 liters - but which is also highly durable. The pack can easily hold small items like your phone, wallet and keys for shorter hikes, while its reflective zipper makes it a good option for nighttime adventures.



WATER FILTER

One of the best ways to cut down on your water weight while hiking is to bring along a water filter. While it might seem a bit illogical to expect water in the desert, depending on when you go (namely in the spring) you might be surprised to find a healthy amount of water around. Below are three good options:


This small water filter from MSR can filter 1 liter of water per minute. It is also easily storable and should last year after year.


Another good option is this Grayl water filter that also works as an actual water bottle. If you are looking for a water filter to use on the trail and also during day-to-day life, then this is a really great option.


The final water filter to consider is not really a filter at all but instead just simple water purification tablets. This packet of 30 tablets by MSR allows you to purify and drink any water after only 30 minutes. Plus, it is easy to remember that 1 tablet purifies1 liter of water.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: obviously you should not always count on finding water while hiking in the desert. Before heading out on the trail do plenty of research to see if there is any water nearby. And if there is any doubt of there being none, make sure to bring plenty of water with you.



HEADLAMP

Because the evenings are usually one of the cooler times to hike in the desert - and also one of the best times to spot wildlife - it is a good idea to always have at least one headlamp with you (plus some extra batteries or charging cables). The two below are perfect for nighttime desert hikes.


First, there is this Petzl headlamp which is lightweight, comfortable and has Reactive Lighting (meaning it changes strength based on distance). Plus, it is rechargeable (just use a Micro USB cable). While it is pretty expensive ($119), it should last you for many years and many adventures. We would say if you are serious about exploring at night, then this is the headlamp for you.


Second, there is the option to go with just a simple Black Diamond headlamp. This option is quite a bit cheaper than the Petzl one above, while still having all of the necessary functions you could need - including multiple light strengths, a rechargeable battery and a lock to keep it from accidentally turning and using up all of the battery.



FIRST AID KIT

Another handy piece of gear you should always try to have in your hiking bag is a first-aid kit. The size and amount of stuff inside depends on what kind of adventure you are looking to have (single day, multi-day, etc.). Below are two options - one for a simple day hike and one for a multi-day, multi-person backpacking trip.


This small, lightweight basic medical kit can easily be stored in your backpack while out hiking. It should have enough supplies for 1-2 people.


Now, if you are looking for something a bit more heavy duty, then consider purchasing this adventure medical kit. This is a great option if you are planning to go backpacking for multiple days or to just store back at basecamp.



SUNGLASSES

While a hat should do a lot of the protection work for your face, it never hurts to have a pair of sunglasses (or sunnies) stored in your bag as well. These two below are great for long, sunny days spent on the trail.


This simple pair by Sunski are lightweight and polarizing.


This pair by Goodr are quite durable, scratch-resistant and block 100% of UVA and UVB rays. If you want a pair of sunnies that can handle rougher terrain (including canyons) then this is a great option.



SUNSCREEN

While a sun hat definitely helps protect you from the sun's harmful rays, it is still important to give your skin that extra bit of protection - especially your shoulders, feet and hands. These sunscreens not only protect you against the sun but are also environmentally safe.





DESERT CAMPING GEAR LIST


Below are a few of the key gear items you need when camping out in the desert. While almost all of this stuff is good for camping in established campgrounds (like in national parks or monuments) it is definitely geared more towards free camping or boondocking. Because honestly, the desert has some absolutely stunning free campsites.



TENT

This cute Stoic 2-person, 3-season tent is great for people looking to car camp in the great outdoors (meaning you camp within easy access of your car). The tent easily packs down while still having enough space for two people to spread out themselves and their gear comfortably.


Similarly, this North Face 2-person, 3-season tent has plenty of room to spread out in, while also being durable enough to withstand even the strongest desert windstorms. Plus, it has a nice meshy exterior that allows optimal airflow on hot desert nights.



SLEEPING BAG(S)

One of the best investments you can make when it comes to your camping setup is a nice warm sleeping bag (because waking up cold is not fun). This two person sleeping bag by Stoic is especially great for car camping - though it can work well in the backcountry too.



SLEEPING PAD

While having a two person sleeping bag is great, what makes it even better is if you have a two person sleeping pad underneath. We currently have a two person sleeping pad in our van and we couldn't be happier with how comfortable and warm it is. If you are looking for a good option, we recommend this one, also from Stoic.



CAMPING TABLE

One of the biggest downsides of free camping, especially if doing dispersed camping, is that you don't get a nice big camping table to use for cooking and eating. Luckily, there are some solid camping tables on the market - including this one by ALPS Mountaineering. This table fits two people and is sturdy enough to use for meal prep, cooking and eating (and probably playing cards on too). Plus, it packs down enough to not be intrusive when not in use.



CAMPING CHAIRS

In our books, nothing beats ending the day sitting next to a warm campfire with a drink in hand and a plate of steaming hot food next to you. These camping chairs by Stoic are the perfect free camping companion because they are not only comfortable to sit in, but they also have a nice side table to hold your beer (or wine).



COOKING SUPPLIES

This 4-person adventure cooking set by Stanley is the perfect free camping accompaniment, especially if you are camping with a large group or family. The set comes with a heavy duty stainless steel pot and pan as well as a cutting board, spatula, serving spoon, dish drying rack, a hot pad, four plates, four bowls, and four sporks.







CAMPSTOVE

We absolutely love our two-burner Coleman propane stove. It packs down easily, it is super easy to use and it is incredibly durable. We have used our two-burner stove to make everything from blueberry pancakes in the morning to our favorite vegan pad thai. If you are looking for a long-lasting camp stove, then this one is it.



COOLER

If you are planning to spend an extended amount of time out in nature you will likely need a spot to store your perishable food (unless of course you are planning to live off ramen, which honestly, no judgment). This 50-quart rolling cooler can definitely store a couple of days worth of food, plus some of your favorite alcoholic beverages. And the best part? It also works great as a campfire chair.


CAMP SHOES

We are big fans of having a pair of comfortable shoes to put on right when you get back to camp. This is especially true after coming back from a big, full-day adventure. These Teva sandals are comfortable, lightweight, and fashionable.



WARM JACKET

You will be glad you have a cozy jacket handy once the sun starts to dip below the horizon. This one by Cotopaxi is fun and functional.


💬 INSIDER TIP: while the desert can be scorching hot during the day, the nights can actually get quite chilly (or downright frigid in the winter). We always pack at least one warmer jacket with us - even when exploring the desert in the hotter months.



AN INSULATED THERMOS

This classic one by Stanley will keep your coffee (or tea) hot all day. Plus, it also works great as a cup.



CAMP LANTERN

While headlamps will do a lot, having a strong lantern to hang up at camp is super helpful when you need the whole camping area lit up (like when you are cooking). This lantern by Black Diamond should do nicely.



BIODEGRADABLE CAMP SOAP

This handy little bottle of soap is eco-friendly and super-concentrated, meaning you only need a little to get all of your camp dishes squeaky clean.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: even though the soap is eco-friendly, you should still not use it directly in natural water like rivers, streams and lakes. A good rule of thumb when doing dishes is to use a bucket to bring the freshwater away from the stream (200 feet is a safe distance), do your dishes and then dump the water the same distance from the flowing water.



A 5-GALLON WATER JUG

This is an absolute must when out free camping - especially in the desert. A 5-gallon jug should last you at least 2 days, and even longer if you are using water sparingly (sorry no showers). We recommend getting a water jug that is highly durable and will last a long time. This one by NRS is not only hardy enough to be thrown around while camping, but its shape (tall and thin) makes it easier to pack up.




➳ Just an FYI, many of the links above are affiliate links. This means we get a small commission if you choose to click on the link and/or make a purchase on Backcountry (at no additional cost to you!). This is one of the key ways we can continue to create free insightful, adventure travel guides for you!


You can find even more useful desert adventure gear at Backcountry.com.







Hopefully, this adventure guide covers everything you need to know about hiking in the desert - including the best places to go, key tips on staying safe, and what to bring along with you. If you have any questions please leave a comment below or reach out to us directly.



 

WANT TO SAVE THIS ARTICLE FOR LATER? CONSIDER PINNING IT!







 

EXPLORE MORE DESERT ADVENTURES