Eager to beat the winter blues and get an early start on your camping season? Winter desert camping might be the choice for you. Both winter and desert camping differ from summer season, non-desert camping. The following is a look some of these main differences, as well as note some prime locations in the American West where you can try out desert winter camping. You’ll also find a suggested packing list for desert camping. (Hint: an LED flashlight or LED headlamp should be high on your list!)
What is Winter Desert Camping?
Winter desert camping is just that – camping in the winter in a desert location. Both the unusual season and the arid conditions present particular challenges, so it definitely helps to be prepared.
The typical wet winter conditions of the Western United States make camping challenging. Most of the Western states are mountainous, so as you increase in elevation (to the key camping spots) you also have to deal with snow, which is restrictive enough to be a topic of its own.
In Pacific States such as California, Oregon and Washington, the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges trap the moisture that rises from the Pacific Ocean. Since the moist air flows east, the western side of the mountains is wetter than the eastern side. To the east of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges lay stunning open deserts, which can make a perfect escape for those seeking a drier climate.
Desert conditions may be dry, but temperatures also fluctuate to great extremes. For example, it might be warm and sunny during the day, but because the dry desert air doesn’t hold much heat-trapping moisture, temperatures often drop drastically at night. For this reason, it is best to be prepared with a warm (0-20 degree) sleeping bag. Because desert locales tend to be less populated and see less light pollution, it can also be extremely dark at night in the desert, so be sure to bring an LED headlamp or LED flashlight.
Winter Camping in California
Finding a desert location doesn’t have to be tough. California has some great desert camping areas that draw thousands of tourists during the spring and summer. Still, when nighttime temperatures drop below freezing, a winter desert camper can find great beauty and solitude at locations such as Joshua Tree National Park, located jut 140 miles from Los Angeles. Another stunning location: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in eastern San Diego County, where spring wildflowers begin blooming as early as late February.
Winter Desert Camping in AZ and NM
The camping season starts early in Arizona, and there are many scenic locations to choose from. As with other desert camping locations, temperatures will be high and warm during the day and drop below freezing at night. Bonito Campground is in the Coconino National Forest to the east of Flagstaff. Little Elden Springs Horse Camp is nearby as well. Bonito offers flush toilets and generous campsites. Little Elden Springs is a horse camp that caters to equestrians.
You can also check out the historical Chochise Stronghold campground, which is also located in the Coconino National Forest. These are just a few of the numerous winter camping locations in Arizona and neighboring New Mexico.
What to Bring on a Winter Desert Camping Expedition
- A good sleeping bag rated for freezing or subfreezing weather. A good range to aim for is a bag rated to 0-20 degrees.
- Shelter, such as a tent or camper.
- Warm clothes. Thick fleece pants will keep you warm. Avoid cotton, which holds onto moisture.
- A parka or shell jacket. Think layers. You’ll probably want a warm middle layer as well as a lighter waterproof shell.
- A flashlight, ideally an LED flashlight, to see at night. Why select an LED flashlight over other models? Because an LED headlamp or LED flashlight will provide far more run time on fewer batteries. LEDs are significantly more efficient than incandescent bulbs. Additionally, an LED headlamp will make it easier to use your hands.
- An insulating sleeping pad will not only provide a minimal cushion to sleep on, but more importantly it will insulate you against the cold ground if you are sleeping in a tent.
- Toilet paper – you never know when you’ll need this.
- Food, water and other camping goodies.
For the Western camper, winter desert camping is the perfect way to get out early and see what nature has to offer. Just imagine spending the day checking out some spring wildflowers in the late morning, basking in the afternoon sun, drinking some steaming tea as you enjoy the sunset, and finally waking up to a fresh blanket of snow on the desert floor, all in 24 hours!
Wherever you end up exploring, make sure to bring that LED flashlight or LED headlamp for dependable light. An LED flashlight or headlamp is required both for carrying out tasks at night and for signaling emergency workers if you happen to get into a pickle.