Popsicle
Photo credit: Scott Seiver

Desert Camping: Gear & Tips to Beat the Heat

If you’re a camping enthusiast, no doubt you’ve run across plenty of tips on how to survive in the cold. But do you know how to handle extreme heat?

Compared to stories of adventures along frozen lakes or blustery mountaintops, you’ll find far fewer stories regarding how to survive — let alone, thrive — camping in extreme heat. It’s not an easy task, and it comes with its fair share of danger. And this isn’t just a niche pursuit; this summer saw what may have been the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth!

During a recent heatwave, my partner and I decided to test out how to camp in temperatures hovering around 115 degrees Fahrenheit. So we headed out for a few nights in the Anza Borrego Desert, just outside of Borrego Springs, California. I researched the gear and the safety measures that one would need for a successful camping trip in scorching temperatures and have broken them down below into five helpful categories.

One warning before setting out on your own masochistic camping trip: Heat can be deadly and dangerous, and heat exhaustion and heat stroke can lead to death within a matter of hours if you don’t recognize the warning signs.

Take the time to prepare. If you take the right planning measures, your camping trip will be successful and memorable.

How to Camp in Extreme Heat

Shelter

What do creatures in the desert do when the average temperatures hover above 110 degrees? They find shade! And so should you.

Awnings, tents, camper shells, and the like will keep you out of the unforgiving glare of the sun and in the slightly more forgiving glare of the desert shade. Whatever you pack, make sure you know how to set it up before getting to your destination.

Fumbling with tent poles and heavy equipment will drain precious energy and hydration from your body and most likely leave you feeling all kinds of hot and bothered.

I found that the combination of a sunshade and storage area in our truck gave us the most versatility when it came to sheltering our bodies and heat-sensitive gear. For general sun cover, I used the Snow Peak HD Hexa Tarp M as our shade. You can choose how high or low you want the shelter to rest, and during winds, it kept sand out of our eyes as well as shade on our bodies.

shelter
Photo credit: Scott Seiver

Power

For power, I chose to test out the Goal Zero Yeti 1500X Portable Power Station and paired it with the Goal Zero Nomad 100 Solar Panel. The power station was extremely capable, but any lithium-ion battery will have a tough time in extreme temperatures.

Our power station began to overheat at 111 degrees, and the day reached 115 at its peak. When planning out your power source, you’ll want to make sure you’re informed of what it can handle.

Food & Water

Even in normal conditions, the desert has a habit of zapping any water you may have been storing right out of your body. Skin dries, eyes itch, and sweat pools. In extreme heat, these effects will compound.

Do your research when it comes to water consumption. To avoid heat exhaustion and heat stroke, you need to consume at least as much water as you’re sweating. During our trip, we went through several liters of drinking water a day, per person. And that’s not counting water for showering and wetting down towels and clothing.

Plus, we fashioned our own 12V water pump that plugged into a 12V outlet, using 8 gallons in 8 hours to keep ourselves cool. Thus, it’s wise to bring more water than you anticipate using. When it comes to hydration in the desert, more is more.

You’ll also want to think about how you store the food you’re bringing along. I chose to bring our portable Dometic CFX3, an awesome electric cooler that helped us keep our food and morale boosters like popsicles cool. I also brought an additional YETI cooler to house mostly ice.

As noted above, if you’re relying on a portable fridge, make sure your power source can stand up to high temperatures.

food in cooler
Photo credit: Scott Seiver

The importance of ice, as well as insulated containers for your drinking water, can’t be overstated. Once temperatures rise to 115, it’s pretty much impossible to keep uninsulated items cool. Our shower water wasn’t, and it was bathwater temperature by the end of the day.

Safety & Hygiene

One of the best things you can do to ensure a successful trip — especially in extreme conditions — is to have a plan of action in case things start to go south. Know where you’re going as well as the locations of the nearest hospitals and towns. And be aware of what weather to expect.

Safety in the desert includes first-aid kits, satellite messengers and beacons, and equipment like MAXTRAX to help you out if you become stuck in the sand. Bringing along a GPS or satellite device, as well as a paper map of the area, is highly recommended.

And one of the least thought-of items with the highest return is a shovel, which will get you out of a variety of sticky situations.

DMOS Delta Shovel
DMOS Delta Shovel: The Ultimate Adventure Tool?

DMOS, famous for its backcountry, jump-creating snow shovels, takes aim at the overland and camp market with the multifunctional Delta Shovel. Read more…

Speaking of sticky situations, hygiene is next up on our list. Camping in high heat means you’ll be sweating possibly more than you ever have. Combine that with endless amounts of sand, and you’ve got a problem.

For our trip, we rigged up a portable shower system using water storage tanks and a 12V pump and hose. We used it for quick rinses for our bodies and our dishes. I also packed body wipes for even quicker cleanup.

Being able to keep yourself as clean and comfortable as possible will allow you to focus on the rest of your trip.

portable shower
Photo credit: Scott Seiver

Apparel

Breezy. Lightweight. Protective. These are the attributes you should keep in mind when packing for extreme heat adventures. The key to dressing for the heat is to work with highly breathable layers.

Go for the long-sleeve sun shirt with UPF protection built into it — you’ll protect yourself from sunburns and can always soak it in water if you feel too hot. Shorts are a comfortable option, but you’ll want to minimize your time spent in direct sun.

Hats are also imperative, and options with venting built into them will keep you cool. The bigger the brim, the better. I packed one from Best Made (note that the brand is currently on hiatus), but there are plenty on the market to choose from, like these Conner Hats.

And although they seem like a heat trap, boots are a must. Choose a pair with breathable paneling, and pair them with lightweight wool socks for natural antimicrobial vibes and comfort.

You can wear a pair of sandals around camp, but if you’re venturing out for an evening hike or an early-morning exploration, a boot will provide much more protection. For our trip, I packed these Chaco sandals for camp lounging and these Vasque boots for everything else.

apparel
Photo credit: Scott Seiver

Morale Boosters

When you’re exposing yourself to extreme temperatures, it’s important to remember that your emotional fuse will shorten with every degree the temperatures climb. Therefore, although this category may sound like the most fun, I consider it of the utmost importance for any masochistic camping trip.

You’ve got to pack some items that will keep morale up. They will keep you from murdering your significant other, best friend, or whomever you decide to undertake extreme camping trips with. I recommend making room for items that are going to put an instant smile on your face (double points if they also provide some relief from the heat).

Desert camping
Photo credit: Scott Seiver

Morale boosters can range anywhere from your favorite board game to an ice-cold beer to a kiddy pool filled with the melted ice from your coolers. For us, morale boosters looked like wet towels draped over our bodies, popsicles, and many games of checkers and bocce ball. This is a highly individual category and will vary depending on who’s going on the trip.

Our unexpected takeaway from our masochistic camping trip? There’s nothing as satisfying as an ice-cold towel draped over your head. Turns out it truly is the simple things that matter most.

DECKED Truck-Bed System Review: Drawers Add Versatility for Adventure by Truck
DECKED Truck-Bed System Review: Drawers Add Versatility for Adventure by Truck

The DECKED truck bed organizer provides secure, dry storage and organization in a pickup truck bed. We have been testing the system in two trucks for more than a year, and we have some opinions! Read more…