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The joys of desert camping.

It's the kind of camping experience that can get into your blood--sleeping under wide desert skies streaked at dusk with indigo and ocher, listening to the night songs of distant coyotes, arising to the scent of sagebrush on the cool air.

The awesome beauty and serenity of desert places can be truly magical. But this wild and sometimes hostile environment requires special planning, techniques, and equipment for a safe, comfortable trip. Sources of drinking water will be imited, temperature can range from well above 100 [deg.] to below freezing, and desert creatures can bite and sting.

Here's an introduction to camping in California's and Arizona's Mojave, Colorado, and Sonoran deserts. These primarily low deserts, furnace-hot in summer, are best visited from fall into spring.

Who goes there? And when should you?

Five years ago, an extensive study ended with the formulation of the California Desert Conservation Area Plan by the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

In a recent update, the BLM estimated 7-1/2 million people visit the BLM's desert lands each year. Most come in winter and spring; 62 percent come on holiday weekends, 30 percent on regular weekends, only 8 percent during the week. Heaviest visitation is on Thanksgiving weekend. "Imagine 40,000 people on the Imperial Dunes at once--that's what we get then," says a BLM official.

Use is shifting. People are making fewer trips and are staying longer. And while the RV still predominates, more campers now are meeting the desert on its own terms, in tents or under the stars.

Fall is a great time to discover the desert. Roads, campgrounds, and view points are seldom crowded and days are predictably mild. And now there are a few more "primitive" campsites where you can get away from masses of people yet have at least some facilities.

Many campgrounds are available on a first-come basis, so it's usually safe to make last-minute plans. But if you go on a peak season weekend, arrive before 10 A.M. to choose a good site.

At the campsite: equipment, techniques

If you're new to desert camping, you may prefer to head for an established campground (mandatory in all national parks and most state parks). Here you'll usually find paved parking, picnic tables, firepits, a water supply, and sometimes showers and RV hookups. Unfortunately, these sites offer little privacy or sound barriers between groups; if RVs are allowed, you may hear the noisy hum of generators at all hours.

BLM lands and many parks offer primitive campgrounds. These typically have just a few sites, often well off the beaten track, and limited facilities--chemical latrines, fire rings, sometimes water. But you're away from crowds and noise, and out of sight of cars, buildings, and most other campers. Experienced campers often simply pull off the road to camp in BLM lands: it's legal if you're within 300 feet of the roadway unless the area is posted as "closed." Take care not to damage plants with your vehicle.

Planning to tent-camp? You'll need equipment that deals with hard ground, cold nights, sand, and critters. For shelter, you might choose a low-profile exoskeleton tent without a rain fly: its seam-sealed floor keeps out insects and scorpions, and its self-supporting frame lets you move the tent quickly to the best spot. A low profile makes it stable in high winds. Place a heavy tarp under it to protect against sharp pebbles and cactus spines. One night we camped in 40 mph winds--not uncommon in the desert, especially in spring. Our exoskeleton tent stayed pitched, though its violently flapping sides made sleep impossible. Morning saw unsecured gear scattered like confetti down the canyon--to be quickly retrieved.

The lesson: stake the tent and stow, lash, or weight equipment at night.

You may have to pitch in sand or on hardpan, so bring long plastic tent stakes for loose soil plus sturdy metal ones for hardpan (or use rocks). On a gentle night, if you wish to sleep under a canopy of stars, you can make do with just a lean-to and tarp.

Place your tent well upwind from your campfire. Stay away from dry washes--in flash floods they can become rivers.

A medium-weight two-season sleeping bag should work well. Nights get cold quickly here, and the hard ground can feel like an ice block--so elevate your sleeping bag (6 inches can make a 20[deg.] difference). An air mattress or foam pad is minimal; a folding cot is much better and puts you out of reach of crawling critters.

Animals, insects, and sand are reasons to place clothes and shoes in bags at night (self-seal plastic bags work well) and to roll up your sleeping bag during the day. Always shake out your clothes and sleeping bag before use to guard against clinging scorpions and spiders.

The challenge of a waterless campsite

Don't expect drinking water at every campground; check ahead. If the camp is waterless, you'll need to bring rought 1-1/2 gallons a day for each person to drink (extra for cooking needs) plus 1 quart per person for each 5 miles of hiking you may do. It's not wise to drink from springs or watering holes--the water may be unsafe. Carrying all that water can be a problem: every pint adds a pound. The 10-gallon heavy plastic safari-type containers are handy but costly ($30). One naturalist suggests using cleaned plastic 1-gallon milk containers with screw tops (push tops can pop off) or large plastic soda pop bottles. They're cheap and disposable; frozen ahead, they can also serve as ice blocks in the cooler.

In camp, clear plastic containers with sturdy handles and pour nozzles are inexpensive ($4 to $5.50) and handy for cooking use. For carrying water back to camp, you might take along a tough nylon water sack with handles ($5)--it hangs up for easy pouring. For washing dishes, a plastic, fold-up bucket ($3.50) works well.

As for canteens, you have many choices. Plastic kinds (many have wide mouths) may impart a taste to the water and don't keep it cool; the belt clip-on types often leak. But they're inexpensive. The classic round, cloth-sided metal canteen costs more ($5.50 to $7.50) and is heavier, but it keeps water cool, fresher tasting.

Shower facilities are rare in desert campgrounds, so it's a treat to have a portable shower. The heavy plastic container kind with hose and nozzle costs about $15.

Desert camping ethics

Fuel for a campfire is scarce and risky to collect around camp, especially after dark (snakes or scorpions sometimes live in and around deadwood). Some parks ban open fires or require a permit outside campgrounds. Check regulations: if fires are permitted, bring your own firewood, shovel, and trash bags to pack out the ashes. If there are open water sources nearby, site your camp well away to keep from spoiling the water and interfering with wildlife who depend on it for survival.

Note that any trash you leave (including toilet paper) will take decades to decompose; bring trash bags to pack it out in case no refuse containers are provided.

Health precautions, critters

Even on cool days it's advisable to protect yourself against too much sun with a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, sunblock cream, and loose, comfortable cotton clothing. Know the signs of heat exhaustion--including dizziness, nausea, headache--and guard against overexertion. Carry a first-aid kit with tweezers and pliers for removing cactus spines, a pocket comb for burrs and barbed pads.

Fears of desert creatures are usually out of proportion to the actual danger. In fact, serious accidents involving snakes, scorpions, or spides are rare. But use caution. Don't overturn rocks or logs casually and never put your hand or foot into a crevice or bushy area where you can't see clearly. Take special care after nightfall.

There are some 17 kinds (10 species) of rattlesnake in the Southwest, but deaths from bites are rare. Accepted wisdom is to avoid self-treatment if you can reach a doctor within 2 hours or so; use a snakebite kite only if you know how to use it correctly and there's no alternative.

Scorpion stings are more common, and they can be painful; a sting from two types in the Southewst can be fatal and demands immediate medical attention. Two spiders here are dangerous, the violin spider and black widow. The rather harmless tarantula species here deliver a nonfata bite only if provoked. Centipedes can also give a painful sting.

Coyotes are plentiful and vocal, but shy and rarely seen. Still, don't leave tempting food out at camp for them.

It's wise to bring a book to help identify desert plants and animals, such as The Audubon Society Nature Guides: Deserts (Knopf, New York, 1985; $14.95).

Where to go camping

Here we list 12 low-desert parks with camping suggestions by the experts: rangers, conservationists, desert rats. Except where noted, sites are nonreservable.


Death Valley National Monument. This 3,000-square-mile preserve northeast of Barstow hosted 56,100 tents and 243,000 RVs last year--admittedly busy but not to be missed. Campsite elevations range from below sea level to 8,000 feet, so temperatures vary widely. The busiest campgrounds ($4 to $5 per night)--Furnace Creek, Texas Springs, Sunset, and Stovepipe Wells--offer little privacy or quiet. Instead try Wildrose, Emigrant, or tents-only Mahogany Flat and Thorndike. These four are waterless, primitive, free. Avoid the 49ers Encampment jam on the second week in November. For weather and camping details, call (619) 786-2331.

Joshua Tree National Monument, east of Palm Springs; (619) 367-7511. This 870-square-mile Colorado-Mojave desert park has primitive, waterless sites busiest February into April, often full Thursdays through Sundays. Try October or November when it's uncrowded and days run 70[deg.] to 85[deg.]. For solitude, head for less-visited Black Rock or Cottonwood campgrounds ($5 per night). Stop at the visitor center off State 62 to fill water containers, buy firewood.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers some 12 million acres of desert in California alone. You can camp anywhere on these public lands, 300 feet from any road that's not closed. There are 10 developed BLM campgrounds with primitive sites with water; most cost $2 per night. You might enjoy two sites in the Mojave Scenic Area: Mid Hills (in a juniper forest) and Hole-in-the-Wall (near a rhyolite mountain). For a free recreation guide-map, write to BLM, 1695 Spruce St., Riverside 92507.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, (619) 767-5311. A 2-hour drive east of San Diego, it's busy--but in 600,000 acres you can find solitude. Three developed campgrounds fill up quickly ($6 per night, $12 with hookups, reservables through Ticketron). There are also nine primitive camps (free, no water or cook grills) for quiet, uncrowded scenery. And it's one of the few state parks that lets you camp anywhere near established roads. Bring water and firewood.

Other state parks. Two gems: Providence Mountains State Recreation Area west of Needles has a small (six-site) but scenic campground near Mitchell Caverns. Red Rock Canyon State Park northeast of Mojave also gets fewer visitors due to its remoteness, but its sandstone setting offers privacy for 50 sites off an unpaved road. Both cost $3 per night, are high and exposed, so check area weather first. To check conditions for Providence Mountains, call (619) 389-2281; for Red Rock, call (805) 942-0662.


Valley of Fire State Park, northeast of Las Vegas, has 50 designated sites ($4). Best bet: Atlatl Rock campground's primitive walk-in sites amoung weather-sculptured sandstone. Buy wood at the visitor center.

Cathedral Gorge State Park, a 3-hour drive north of Las Vegas, has a 16-site campground ($4) among eroded burnt umber spires and glowing cliffs.


Around Phoenix: locals frequent these Maricopa County parks, but they're never so crowded as to turn away campers. The first two cost $2, have no water or hookups; the third costs $6 with water and hookups. White Tanks Regional Park, 30 miles west of the city, has a 40-site campground set on a 3,300 foot rise--you can see the lights of Phoenix at night. McDowell Mountain Regional Park, 30 miles north of Scottsdale, offers views of the Superstition Mountains from its 40-site campground set in junipers. Usery Mountain Recreation Area, 30 miles east of Phoenix, has a 75-site campground. For free maps, call (602) 272-8871.


Snow Canyon State Park, a sandstone and lava park northwest of St. George off State 18, has 23 sites ($3 to $5) tucked among pockmarked cliffs. A favorite with "snowbirds," it's busy but so beautiful and unusual it shouldn't be missed.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Nov 1, 1985
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