Deserts are beautiful, exotic places. They're visually stunning with their red rock canyons, high sandstone walls, and tiny trees shaped by wind and weather. Deserts are full of the unexpected – cool shade beneath stone cliffs, natural springs that send sheets of water across rippling sand beds. But they're also challenging places for humans to explore and live in. That is, unless you take a few smart precautions.
The sun is the first and greatest challenge of desert camping. Even if you can escape to the cool shade of your RV during the hottest parts of the day, you'll still want to equip yourself with sun-shading gear for when you do head out on that hike, horseback ride, or ATV trip. You'll need a hat that shades your eyes, sunglasses, and a powerful sunscreen (SPF 30 or above). Be sure to reapply your sunscreen from time to time throughout the day. You'll also want lip balm with SPF protection and something to cover the back of your neck. It might be tempting for men to go shirtless, but if you hate the idea of constantly stopping to put on more sunscreen, you just might find it more worthwhile to keep your shirt on and enjoy the fabric's sun-blocking power. If you're particularly sensitive to the sun or to sunburn, look for fabrics that are sun-resistant and apply sunscreen underneath your clothes.
Bring everything with you. A good rule in the desert is to expect nothing (then you won't be disappointed!) Bring your own water – all you need, plus some extra – rather than counting on the seasonal spring on your map. Instead of planning to go food shopping at the last little town before your campsite, bring extra supplies with you. If you're camping at an RV park, of course you can call ahead and find out what the amenities are before you arrive. But whenever you head out into the desert on foot, on bike, or on an ATV or four-wheeler, be sure you have plenty of water and some food with you. And sunscreen, of course!
If you're RV or car camping, there are a few more items that might make your stay in the desert more comfortable. Any kind of awning or portable shade will let you enjoy the outdoors in comfort. You may want bandanas that you can get wet and tie on your neck. If you're able to transport them, fresh fruits and cold drinks are heavenly in the desert. Portable shower bags can help you wash the dust off at the end of the day. And you'll certainly want your camera – and maybe even a box of pastels or watercolors – for capturing those dramatic rock formations.
The second great challenge of desert camping is, surprisingly, cold. As hot as the desert gets during the day, it gets equally frigid at night. The dry air above the desert floor doesn't hold any warmth once the sun goes down, so prepare for cold temperatures after sunset. No matter what time of year you head to the desert, take plenty of warm clothing for nighttime. You'll also need very warm sleeping gear, the same sort you would take to the mountains. If you're camping in a canyon or under the shade of a cliff or butte, you should also be prepared for your campsite to stay cold until the sun hits it in the morning. When you get up in the morning, dress in layers so you can shed garments one at a time as the day warms up.
If your schedule allows, you might adjust your sleeping and waking hours to fit with desert time. Try rising early in the morning – the best time to watch for wildlife – and take a rest or a nap in the middle of the afternoon, when the sun is strongest. A nice late afternoon/evening walk will set you up perfectly for a late dinner. Then you can admire the brilliant desert stars, read or chat a little before bed, and wake up the next morning ready to explore the next slot canyon, wooded arroyo, or game trail up a towering butte.
RVs are extremely self-sufficient, letting people camp in places that don't have any facilities. They're also widely available for rent. Challenges include keeping track of gas, water, and other fluid levels, and parking the RV in tight or awkward spaces. When you go RV camping, you may also want to bring along another car for exploring your destination area, or toys like ATVs, bikes, snowmobiles, and small boats.