How to Stay Warm On a Winter Desert Camping Trip

Seems like the older I get the less I like being cold, unless of course I’m hunting. But after deer season ends and before the snowy weather sets in, I like to run off to the desert.

The desert is beautiful, uncrowded, and the weather is great. I’ve learned the hard way, though, that desert camping can be as unforgiving in the winter as it is in the summer.

The four major deserts in the U.S. are all in the west. The three I have the most experience with are the Great Basin desert, the Mojave and the Sonoran. The Chihuahuan desert east of the Sonoran covers much of Mexico and we visited it a lot when I was a kid. I’ve had great experiences in the desert during the winter time my whole life.

One of the most important things to remember is that it gets really cold during the winter. Even when you have day time temps in the high 80s, nighttime temps can drop to below freezing. I have met many hikers over the years that had no idea how cold it gets. Being prepared for this cold can mean the difference between misery and comfort. It can also mean life or death in certain situations. People do die each year from exposure and hypothermia.

I like to sleep out under the vastness of space and stars but sometimes it gets darn cold. So I always have a tent. Also, make sure you have a couple different fire starters and a source of ignition. Sagebrush and yucca make good fire starters and are also good for bow drill material (if you really choose to go primitive). Just keep in mind that firewood can be scarce and when you’re freezing to death, it’s no fun wandering around looking for wood. When you get your camp set up, get out and get a good supply of wood. It gets colder than heck in the morning.

Winter time brings some incredibly fierce thunder storms. As stunning as they are, remember to use common sense. Stay away from high areas when the lightning show begins. Flash floods are another thing that kill people each year. You won’t have time to run if you’re in a wash or an arroyo. They can strike with vigilant force and sweep you and your camp away in an instant. Make darn sure you select a camp site on high ground. Look around for evidence of past flash floods. Be aware of your surroundings.

Some people think water is safe to drink in the desert. Even though you may find more sources in the winter, treat all water as unsafe to drink. Either bring your own water or boil water you find, no matter how clean it appears.

Bring good sturdy boots to hike in. Even though it looks sandy and the temperatures are warm, there are sharp rocks and cactus spines everywhere. Take it from a guy who hiked in his fancy 100 dollar sandals—those spines hurt! It’s also a good idea to bring long pants and long sleeve shirts.

The desert is a very dry place. You will get dehydrated a lot faster than you’re used to. Drink plenty of water and have some electrolytes handy. The combination of sun, wind and low humidity will suck moisture out of you.

Lastly, use common sense when traveling off trails. Have a compass and practice your navigation skills. Have a plan and let someone know where you’re going. We all remember the guy who had to cut off his own arm… don’t be that guy.

For tips on surviving a desert situation click here.

Photo credit: Dreamstime