Woodland Camping VS. Desert Camping

Many, perhaps most, of 50 Campfires enthusiasts have been camping for much of their lives. Introduced by family car camping trips as children by their parents, the fun and traditions are passed along to their kids now. Despite a lifetime of car camping experience, you may have camped only in woodland and mountainous regions of the eastern and northern United States. Camping in the desert is an entirely different experience.

That was the case for the 50 Campfires Team headed for Field Trip: Death Valley. Obviously, they are all experienced car campers, but their experience in desert car camping was admittedly light. As we prepared for the trip, differences were uncovered we figured might be helpful to those of you who haven’t car camped in the desert either.


The approach to water in the desert is entirely different than in the woodlands. When we go to a woodland region campground we expect there will be drinking water available. On a desert car camping trip, it’s wiser to expect there will NOT be drinking water available, and then be pleasantly surprised when there is.

The smart play is to top off your water supply at every opportunity, even if you’ve only drunk a few swallows since your last water stop. Another astute move is to make a water filtration system part of your standard camping gear in the desert or in the woodlands. This is so easy and inexpensive now with the variety of systems available from companies like LifeStraw. Their Universal system turns nearly any water bottle into a filtration system that makes water safe to drink most anywhere. And the LifeStraw Mission system allows you to easily stock up on filtered H2O when you come across a good source.

All this is crucial in the desert, because you should at least double your normal water intake when you’re active in the desert whether that’s hiking, setting up camp, or even recreating on Lake Mead or the Colorado River.


The word “desert” brings to mind blazing sun, blistering heat, and mind-bending mirages. The fact is, at night, it can get downright cold in the desert. When the sun drops behind the mountains on the horizon, the darkened landscape cools quickly. And in the winter, in particular, it happens early. Sunset during our November Field Trip: Death Valley came at around 4:30 in the afternoon!

The desert cools fast and heats slowly, so during the night, you’ll likely face chilly temps in your tent. Plan accordingly. Bring a sleeping bag rated down to at least 20 degrees and at least one set of Merino wool long underwear. Since you’re car camping and have the space, throw in a lighter sleeping bag as well, just in case you hit some warm nights.

The wide range of temperatures is best dealt with by layering. Add layers when you’re getting cold, but remove them before you warm up and break a sweat.

The old saying is that the desert has a “dry heat.” It’s true. It also generally has “dry cold.” And that’s why the temperature can range more in a given time period than in a humid climate. You’ve got to be ready for the big swings.

One more thing … remember, in the desert you’ll be challenged far more to find shade than in the woodlands. The sun can be relentless, so take along a good wide-brimmed hat and evaporative cooling gear.

Sun Angle and Intensity

The lack of humidity in the desert also means fewer clouds to filter sunlight. The sun in the desert is intense. And, again, shade is limited to non-existent. That makes protective eyewear a must.

Select sunglasses with dark lenses. Check out their UV protection rating to make sure your filtering out the maximum amount of harmful rays. Polarization isn’t as important as when you’re on the water, but it is helpful.

The desert floor can be highly reflective of sunlight – far more than woodland mulch. You should consider sunglasses with options for blocking sidelight – like glacier glasses and those worn for blue water angling. At the very least, pull that hat brim down to keep as much light as possible from getting in behind the lenses.


Camping doesn't get any more desert than in Death Valley National Park
During the day desert camping demands dark sunglasses.
Desert nights are so dark, you literally can't see your hand in front of your face. A big campfire is a very welcome companion.