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Boondocking Safety: Mastering Dispersed Camping in the Desert

Dispersed camping in the desert brings to mind sweeping vistas of rolling, shifting sands, towering buttes that overlook red mesa caprocks, and craggy, scorched canyons seemingly formed by a giant’s fingernails. However, throughout the dry, ethereal beauty of the desert countryside lies hidden dangers.

Scorpions scurry between shadows cast by the rocks. Snakes rest in cool nooks and crannies, coiled and camouflaged. Thirst and heat stroke await the unwary and unprepared. The most surprising danger that awaits the undiscerning camper is getting lost. The smallest desert in America, the Mojave, is 54,000 mi². Over 200,000 mi² of dry real estate covers the Great Basin, half of that for the Sonoran Desert, and more than 200,000 mi² in the Chihuahuan Desert.

That’s a lot of coverage and it’s very easy to get lost without the proper gear and know-how. Deserts are hauntingly beautiful places, begging to be explored. But the dangers of the desert are indifferent to human wants and needs, and completely separate from the forest or the sea. It’s better to be prepared for every eventuality than to walk defenseless into the unknown.

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Introduction To Dispersed Camping In The Desert

First and foremost, it’s important to understand the difference between boondocking and dispersed camping, whether the latter is in the desert or anywhere else. You can technically boondock in a Walmart parking lot, but you can’t engage in dispersed camping there—not unless the Walmart is completely abandoned, on public land, and well away from amenities, organized campgrounds, or civilization.

So, while we’ll use the term “boondocking” here, it’s only in the context of dispersed camping in the desert. Boondocking is a popular choice among RVers, mostly because it touches the cornerstones of the human need to explore the unknown (even if that unknown only applies to the RVer specifically).

With the advent of so many organizations, sites, and apps that apply to boondocking, such as Campendium, RV LIFE Trip Wizard, iOverlander, Boondockers Welcome, Sēkr, and more, it’s easier than ever to find some of the best spots in the country. One of the best and most challenging spots is in one of America’s four major deserts.

If you grew up in the mountains, on the beaches, or in the swamplands of America, the desert is as alien as another planet. There are no jarring, vibrant color variations, but a subtle merging of reds, yellows, oranges, and tans that are epic in scope, spreading across the horizon as far as you can see. It’s more than worth the trip and the challenge to see it for yourself.

Preparing Your RV For Desert Conditions

Though you may be the one who feels the call of exploration, your RV is one of the main characters in your story. As a main character, it needs the same degree of protection that you do. After all, your RV will be your primary defense against the harsh elements the desert has to throw at you, mostly in the form of sunlight, dust, and vast temperature changes.

The shade will always be your best friend. Make sure that the power awning is in good working order. Bring beach umbrellas to expand your outdoor lounging territory. While you’re at it, add a good UV-protectant wax to your RV. Absorption fridges will struggle during hot daytime hours in the desert. You can either accept that and work around it or purchase an off-grid, 12v compression fridge.

Prepare yourself for dust and avoid bringing vulnerable electronics outside (smartphones are fine). Install bubble insulation on your RV windows and make sure you are fully stocked on water. Overdo it on the water, add cases of the stuff to your storage if you have the capacity, and make sure your freshwater tank is topped off. Fill your hiking packs with sunblock, not sunscreen.

Solar power and your batteries will absolutely jump for joy (figuratively, of course—if they really did that, it’s time to walk away). Depending on your rig, a couple of 100-watt solar panels will do, and three if you’re concerned about running larger appliances. Two, 100-watt panels with a 2,000-watt generator will run TVs, lights, fans, water pumps, etc., for a long time. However, there’s nothing wrong with more. Use this online calculator to nail down your power needs.

Essential Gear For Desert Boondocking

Successful dispersed camping in the desert is largely defined by the gear you bring. Some of the things we suggest may tickle your funny bone. However, you’ll be glad you brought it along once you’re there.

  • Cordless vacuum to deal with all the dust
  • A nice camera or a suped-up smartphone (You will want to take a lot of pictures)
  • Package of lighters and fire starter (You can’t camp in the desert without building a fire—it’s against the rules)
  • Warm clothes (yes, you’ll need them)
  • Maps—physical ones (Never depend solely on your smartphone GPS—Never. You should probably get familiar with how to read one if you aren’t already.)
  • Wet wipes
  • Folding chairs
  • Warm sleeping bags (you’ll want to sleep outside at least once, under that incredible star canopy)
  • A good knife
  • All the water you can possibly bring
  • Loose clothing with light colors
  • Hats with brims
  • At least 100′ of paracord
  • Signal mirror for long-distance, visual communication
  • Reliable communication devices
  • Compass (preferably with an azimuth and quadrant)
  • Aluminet metal cloth (For shade and its reflective qualities
  • A first-aid kit
  • Water bladders galore if you’re planning on doing plenty of day hiking
  • Satellite communicator (Garmin inReach, SpotX, etc.)
  • Portable chargers (preferably solar, 30,000mAh +)

Most of the things on the above list are self-explanatory. However, there are a few things worth an extra note or two. The satellite communicator is a must. These devices connect with your smartphone and use satellite communication to send out messages, either messages from you or automated location and SOS messages in case you are unable to communicate.

There are a ton of portable chargers out there that charge via USB or the sun. Hang a couple of these on your hiking backpack and you have an unlimited supply of power to keep your smartphone, two-way walkie-talkies, and satellite communicators up and running.

Sure, it’s a pretty extensive list. However, you will find a necessary use for everything on the above list. There are probably even more things you can bring as well. The important thing is, your safety comes first and you should bring anything that runs parallel with that singular fact.

Water Conservation Strategies

We waste a surprising amount of water just by going about our daily lives in an RV. There are a few things you can do to conserve the water in your rig. For the water you do have to use, you can multi-task with it. Dispersed camping in the desert doesn’t have to be a wasteful venture.

One of the most simple things you can do is turn off your ice maker, assuming you have one. Use plastic, paper, and styrofoam for all your eating and drinking needs inside the camper. Inevitably, you will have to use water to wash a dish or two. Instead of letting it run down the drain, wash your dishes in a container and use that bucket of water to flush your toilet.

Desert climate is different than tropical. The humidity in South Florida will bolster your stink if you go a long time between showers. While you still need to shower in the desert, you can get away with doing it a little less often and quicker than usual. Use those wet wipes as much as possible as well. If you’re a couple, jump in the shower together.

Water-saving showerheads are also a good idea. If you can put something together, try to catch your shower water for even more toilet flushing. Make sure you keep a keen eye out for water leaks in any of your plumbing. If you have rainwater collectors, bring them along.

Yep, it’s still the desert, but believe it or not, you may catch a rain shower or two. It’s better to catch and filter it than run around outside with a gaping mouth pointed at the sky. If you do, be sure to video it for TikTok. Last but not least, change your mindset. Focus on conservation. The skill will come in handy when you get back as well.

Heat Safety Tips

Most health authorities suggest that the average human being should drink up to 8 full glasses of water per day, give or take one. That’s not good enough in the desert unless you spend the entire trip inside an air-conditioned RV. Dispersed camping in the desert comes with many caveats and the most important is the consistent need to stay hydrated.

There are three levels of overheating: Heat stress, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. The latter is the worst as your brain begins to slow cook in your skull pan. The only defense is careful self-awareness and plenty of water. If you’re not going to the bathroom, you’re not taking in enough water. Also, keep in mind that much of the water your body uses for cooling purposes comes from what you drank yesterday.

Don’t make the mistake of jumping right into the desert heat if you didn’t hydrate well the day before. Mix in the occasional Gatorade or similar drink to add electrolytes to the mix. Wear loose-fitting clothes in the daytime and avoid dark, absorbing colors. bring spray bottles to mist yourself and remember, the body’s pulse points (wrist, neck, insides of your knees and elbows, and your temples are the best places to mist to cool quicker.

Avoid strenuous activity at peak hours, when the temperature is at its most fierce. Get a good night’s sleep and stay in the shade. Get plenty of rest in a shady, cool spot if you feel lightheaded.

Wildlife Encounters

The act of dispersed camping in the desert will not bring the house down, with snakes in your exterior kitchen, lizards in your sink, or Gila monsters in your underwear drawer. However, in some ways, the animals in America’s deserts are more dangerous. For instance, a mama bear (in a forest setting) rooting through your improperly disposed garage will likely generate enough noise to wake you in the middle of the night.

A western diamondback rattlesnake nestling in the shade of your RV, or an Arizona Bark Scorpion slipping into the pair of Crocs you left outside are much quieter. The biggest animals you may encounter in the desert are cougars or, possibly, coyotes. The latter is far more skittish than the former, with the former preferring to avoid you in most cases outside of starvation.

Always properly dispose of your food and never dispose of it in an outside container. That will often be enough to keep away the larger animals. When it comes to scorpions and snakes, however, you simply need to be more observant. Watch where you step. Avoid picking up rocks with your bare hands. Make sure that anything you have outside is sealed so you won’t get a happy surprise the next time you get into it.

Choosing The Right Campsite

The beauty of dispersed camping is the wide range of potential campsites. You have a bit of creative freedom when it comes to choosing your spot. Unfortunately, this creative freedom can lead to choosing a bad spot. For those who are not familiar with desert environments, it’s a good idea to talk to those who have and spend some time pouring over pictures to see the different terrain types and what they indicate.

  • On or near dry creek beds: It does rain in the desert from time to time and these dry creek beds are subject to flash flooding.
  • Find Trees and Boulders: Trees and boulders are the best wind-blockers and shade-providers in the desert
  • Away from water: Believe it or not, there are bodies of water in the desert, and you should stay away from them if you want to avoid mosquitoes, horseflies, and gnats.
  • Highly trafficked areas: Places where previous boondockers have spent a lot of time or just popular camping areas in general, are more prone to animal curiosity and visitation.
  • Temperatures: The aforementioned trees and boulders are good spots. Pay attention to east and west when setting up, since that’s the line where the sun will rise, track, and set.
  • Visuals: Try to find places that cover the above, while offering you a fantastic view of the wonders the desert has to offer. It may be difficult, especially checking off the entire list above first. But it’s more than worth it.
  • Avoid black soil: It’s generally dark in appearance with a rugged surface. Also known as biological soil or cryptobiotic soil, the surface of these areas is crawling with bacteria. Not only is it unsafe for you, but it’s also a necessity within the local environment and should be avoided and left undisturbed.

While it’s not the lengthiest list in the world, it’s enough to make finding a good spot a little more daunting. You should avoid hunting down a good spot at nighttime and plot out your camping spot during the daylight hours. Given enough time, you should be able to find a good camping position that covers all of the above.

Leave No Trace Principles In The Desert

It’s a shame that this even has to be said, but there are an unbelievable number of people out there who are more than happy to toss their cardboard Big Mac containers on the ground. These places are pristine, beautiful areas and there is absolutely no reason to destroy them because the garbage can is out of tossing range.

Clean up after yourself. The best practice is to pull out of your spot, get out, look back, and ascertain whether or not anyone could look at this area and tell that someone was there. Not including tire tracks, obviously, but that should be about the only thing you leave behind.

When boondocking in out-of-the-way places, trash compression is your close ally. Bring plenty of one-gallon Zip-Loc bags along for the trip. Compact all your trash in them, seal them, and set them aside in a container. These bags are great because you’re getting rid of your garbage and sealing away the potential smell at the same time. Also, minimize the trash you bring with you, or the potential trash. The less you bring, the less you’ll have to throw away.

Emergency Preparedness

Being prepared for any emergency while dispersed camping in the desert is imperative. Think about it. Anywhere you choose to go out there is likely to be a long way off from emergency services. Know your body and your own limitations, and the same goes for whoever is with you on the trip.

Plan things out methodically and avoid taking part in extensive outdoor activities in which you have zero experience. It would be like someone who never learned how to swim or kayak taking on Class VI rapids. Formulate a backup plan and a potential response to most, potential emergency situations you may experience.

Make sure that people at home know when you’re leaving, how long you’re planning on being out there, and when you plan on returning. Make sure you know all the rules and regulations of the area you are heading to. Just because you are dispersed camping in the desert doesn’t mean there are no applicable rules.

Be prepared for extreme heat survival circumstances and have a plan to deal with it. Make sure you meticulously manage your water resources, mostly applied when you head out for some daytime hiking. Never head out to go hiking alone, unless you have plenty of experience, and keep whistles and GPS location/tracking devices on your when you go or separate from the group. Make sure you have your hands on the following, to one degree or another:

  • Firestarter materials
  • First aid kit
  • Extra water and food supplies
  • Repair kits for minor issues
  • Communication devices (GPS/Cellular/Primitive)
  • Flashlights and headlamps
  • Navigation equipment, basic and high-tech
  • Emergency shelter supplies in your pack (When hiking or leaving the camper)
  • Extra clothing for warmth (Desert can easily drop down into the low 40s at night)

Just make sure you have your bases covered. If you can imagine a dangerous or emergency situation, pack the gear or necessaries that will handle it.

Conclusion

Dispersed camping in the desert is one of the best ways to experience a true sense of freedom and exploration. Even a trip out into the mountains or forests can’t quite match the serene, peaceful, and lonely nature of the desert. The sights and sounds are incredible and the memories you make will last forever.

However, nothing in life is free, and the price you pay for such a trip will cost you in terms of intricate planning, the right gear (which often isn’t cheap), and studious preparation. This is especially true if you have someone in your care, such as kids, who will be dependent on you. Remember, it’s all about the fun and experience, but not to the detriment of yourself, others, and the environment in which you travel.