Desert winters are one of nature’s best-kept secrets. While everyone focuses on skiing, ice skating or simply staying shut in for winter, the desert beckons with her stunning red sandstone hues sprinkled with a light dusting of sugary snow. So forget about the overpriced ski pass and go winter camping in the desert.

Become a Sun Worshiper

When you camp in the desert during the warmer months, typically you’re always in search of shade. The game changes in winter, you’ll want to seek out the sun. There is a large temperature difference (sometimes ten degrees or more) between sun and shade in the bleak desert landscape. When you set up camp, be aware of the sun. Look for south facing campsites that attract those warm rays.

Protect Yourself from the Wind

Nothing sucks the life out of camp like a persistent wind. Since the temps are typically low (on average you can expect the days to be in the low 40s and the nights in the 20s) the wind can often be biting and frigid. Keep your camp sheltered from the wind. If you’re out in the open, you can often circle the adventure wagon to blog wind from your tent or fire.

tips for winter in the desert

Get Cozy

Even though you’re in the desert, the short days and cold nights mean you’ll want some extra fluff to stay warm. Bring plenty of warm, cozy layers and a few extra blankets or even an extra sleeping bag to stay warm. If you’re sleeping on the ground, use a closed-cell foam pad as well as an additional foam pad to reflect the heat back on to you. Here are a few ways to keep warm while winter camping in the desert.

  • Create a fire with a good coal bed. The height of flame isn’t of concern here, keep your coal bed compact healthy and warm.
  • Swap socks. After a long day frolicking in slot canyons, change to a pair of designated camp socks. Fresh feet are happy (and warm) feet.
  • Snag a zero-degree bag. A four-season bag will serve you quite well. If that isn’t in the budget opt for a burly three-season (rated to around 20 degrees) and layer on the blankets
  • Pop a water bottle filled with hot water at the bottom of your sleeping bag. Or spoon with it, we won’t tell.

Layer Up and Layer Right

Be prepared for big temperature swings during the desert’s wintery months. You’ll want to be prepared while out and about, especially if you are exploring slot canyons that rarely see the sun. Be sure to have a warm puffy layer, wind layer, and several pairs of gloves (a warm and light pair along with a pair with leather palms for exploring canyons). Sandstone likes to eat clothing for breakfast, so you want to make sure you’ve got a handy repair kit as well.

Forget the Diet

The biggest mistake I made on my first winter camping experience in the desert was bringing lots of healthy snacks. All my body wanted was a stick of butter and all the Cheetos I could fit into my mouth. During the winter months, your body has to work harder just to stay warm, so don’t skimp on the snacks high in fat. Be sure to bring plenty of calories on your winter camping adventure, you’ll be thankful after a tough hike and cold night.

Make the Most of Daylight

The best part about exploring the desert during the winter months is that the crowds have vanished. I have visited some of the country’s most popular slot canyons and never saw another soul. What you do have to contend with are short days. Be prepared to wake up as the sun rises to make the most of the precious daylight. I’ve never woken up to a sunrise I didn’t like and the desert is no exception. There’s a magical play between rock and sky, if you’re lucky, there’s a little snow involved too.

Moisturize

Not to be captain obvious here, but deserts are dry. During the winter, this dryness is amplified simply because cold air can’t hold as much moisture. After a few days rolling around in the red dirt, your body will start to feel the effects of a bone-dry desert. Step one, hydrate. Just because you aren’t sweating doesn’t mean you still don’t need coveted H2O. Next, bring plenty of moisturizers, nasal spray, and saline eye drops. A dry nose, cracked hands, and itchy eyes are no way to spend a winter getaway in the desert.

winter camping in the desert

When Snow Meets Rock

The desert does see snow, although not copious amounts of it. Experiencing a snowy desert evokes a sense of wonder, it’s truly a fantastic experience. The snow typically melts off within a day, even if it isn’t warm enough to melt, simply because the ground and rock soak it up like a dry sponge. You may need light traction such as microspikes if trails are icy and slick, but most of the time a good tractioned shoe will work fine.

However, if you plan on scrambling or climbing rock take care. Wet sandstone is extremely unsafe. For the technical climber, gear and bolts can pull which can easily cause a fatal fall. Rockfall, unstable holds and mushy ground all present hazards with wet sandstone. Let the rock dry for at least 24 hours.

Exploring the desert in the winter offers a break from the gloomy days of shoveling snow off of your sidewalk. Escape winter’s grasp and experience the magic of winter camping in the desert.