A collection of resources to help you plan a desert expedition.
How To Cross A Desert EBOOK
The only guide to desert expeditions in the modern day.
“The perfect resource” – Bear Grylls
“An excellent book” – Sir Ranulph Fiennes
Tim’s Desert Experiences
I crossed the tiny Sharqiya Sands desert on foot with my wife, Laura. We carried all the water and food we needed for three days of purgatory hiking up and down sand dunes in the Arabian heat. We timed the trip to coincide with a full moon so often travelled at night. Absolutely wonderful.
We actually lived in Muscat for 6 months in 2010/11 and regularly spent our weekends in hot, dry, sandy places. There are a collection of stories here as well as recommendations on places to visit, things to eat and the best places to swim outdoors.
I spent 18 months researching and writing an expedition guide book for the desert. You can read some free snippets below or download a copy for £5 or $8.
Photos & Stories from the Desert
Photos from the Wahiba Sands Oman – a prototypical sand dune desert, pictures taken during our 2011 crossing.
Desert Expedition Advice
How Much Water Should You Drink in a Desert? – includes daily water rations of famous desert explorers
Dehydration, Water and Minerals – how to stay hydrated, what minerals you need to replace and the signs of dehydration
10 Tips for your first Desert Expedition – from desert legend Sam McConnell
How to Buy a Camel – how on earth do you go about buying a camel and what do you look for?
Advice on Desert Carts – if you don’t have a car and can’t afford a camel then pull a trailer.
Top 10 Adventurous Things to Do in Oman – some recommendations for a wonderful country.
Historic Desert Explorers
Explorers from the olden days:
David Livingstone – led the first European crossing of the Kalahari.
Heinrich Barth – spent five years exploring north and west Africa and crossed the Sahara.
John McDouall Stuart – completed the first north-south crossing of the Australian continent with the aid of seventy horses.
Ralph Bagnold – pioneered vehicle-based desert exploration with his Long Range Desert Group (of which Thesiger was a member).
Bertram Thomas – the first Westeren to cross the Rub’ al Kali (Empty Quarter) Desert, in 1930-31.
Wilfred Thesiger – far better known that poor old Bertram, Thesiger’s stories and photographs from the Empty Quarter are the stuff of legend. He was a real old school adventurer, clinging to an old and timeless world of exploration.
Recent Desert Expeditions
Desert expeditions are far less popular than polar or mountain. As such, below you will find most of the notable desert expeditions of recent years. If there are any missing then please do get in touch.
Charles Foster – His desert experience includes expeditions in the Sahara, the Sinai and the Danakil Depression, and running the Marathon des Sables.
Louis-Philippe Loncke – In 2008 he completed a north-south traverse of the Simpson Desert in Australia carrying all his supplies in a cart.
Sam McConnell – Sam has led over 100 trips into the desert, worked as a desert guide in Namibia and walked solo and unsupported across the dune sea of the Namib desert.
Mikael Strandberg – Veteran of dozens of expeditions from Siberia to the Sahara
Helen Thayer – Who has walked across the Sahara, Death Valley, and the Gobi Desert amongst others
Jeremy Curl – Who travelled 2000km across the Sahara with camels
Jon Muir – crossed Australia unsupported and walked to the centre of Australia with a cart. Preparing to cross the Western Australian Desert in 2015.
Mark Evans – Who runs Outward Bound Oman and spent a month exploring the Empty Quarter
Lucas Trihey – Who crossed the Simpson Desert with a cart
Michael Asher – Who has travelled some 30,000 miles through deserts with camels including a nine month west-east crossing of the Sahara
Julian Monroe Fisher – Who has run vehicle expeditions to the Atacama, Kalahari, Patagonian, Syrian and many other deserts
Ripley Davenport – Who was walked in and across the Namib, Kara-Kum, Thar and Gobi deserts
Benedict Allen – Who has spent many months travelling through the Namib and Gobi deserts with camels
Al Humphreys & Leon McCarron – recently crossed the Empty Quarter Desert dragging a massive trailer. Great documentary.
How to Cross a Desert
A Beginner’s Guide
These are some introductory excerpts from the full ebook How To Cross A Desert.
What Defines ‘Desert’?
A desert stereotype is hot and sandy but neither of these features are pre-requisites. Rainfall is a common measure with less than 250mm per year being the benchmark, although this ignores evaporation and other factors that can contribute to dryness.
There are a wide variation of environments within this definition. The Arabian Desert averages over 40C in the summer whilst the Gobi in winter drops below -30C. Equally, other desert environments can be quite mild at times, the Atacama and Namib being two such examples. Sand, too, is not the only substance under foot or even the most common. Gravel plains, salt flats, boulder fields and scrub land all play a part.
But whilst heat and sand may not be the defining features in the scientific sense, they are the most unique and present many practical implications and thus will be the focus for much of this article.
Options – Cars, Camels and Carts
The simplest method for short journeys is probably just to walk. There is very little specialist equipment you need and the only techniques required to start will be an understanding of how your body copes in the heat and how best to deal with that. The biggest limiting factor, of course, is how much water you can carry. More than a few days’ supply will become unrealistic.
I crossed the Wahiba Sands desert on foot in 2011. It took two and half days crossing around 30 large dunes carrying 9-litres of water.
Obviously not the same challenge as being exposed to the elements but driving a heavy 4×4 over steep, deep sand in a remote area is still a significant undertaking. The limiting factor for this style of journey will likely be the amount of fuel you can carry. Beyond that, you can take vast amounts of equipment, food and water and thus cover some serious ground.
Camels can tolerate extreme heat, endure long periods without water, and take the weight of a human passenger and/or lots of kit. As such, they make excellent team-mates for desert expeditions. A typical expedition-fit camel should typically:
- Carry 100-250kg.
- Cover 20-30 miles a day.
- Go 1-2 weeks without water in cool weather or a few days when working hard in the heat.
- Drink 20 litres a day when given access to water.
- Eat 2 or 3kg of food per day.
It’s not usually practical to carry water for camels so you’ll need to plan regular refills. Grazing on grass and shrubs is ideal but carrying grains works too. You can ride or walk next to a camel and there’s not normally a huge difference in speed so you might be best sharing the burden between the two of you.
For more details on looking after camels, see Jeremy Curl’s article: How to Buy a Camel.
Desert carts are like trolleys or rickshaws that you drag behind you. They are harder work than walking with a rucksack or a camel but allow you to carry huge amounts of supplies without the hassle or looking after a feral beast.
They are typically aluminium contraptions with two motorcycle, or mountain bike wheels, usually with two parallel bars which are either gripped by hand or attached around the waist.
Dragging one of these laden carts up a steep sandy slope will be no mean feat but, mechanical failures aside, they require no expertise and, by taking the weight off your body and putting it onto wheels, you can take much greater loads. As much as 300kg is not infeasible. This will vastly increase the range you can travel without re-supply.
For pictures, videos and a comparison of different contraptions used, see the article Carts for Crossing Desert.
Determining your water requirements
To travel safely in a desert you will need to replace the water that you lose but you will also invariably be limited in the amount that you can carry. Getting this balance right is key to success.
You can’t rely on thirst to dictate your requirements as quenching it would require vast volumes. But deliberately restricting your intake is difficulty and potentially dangerous.
For details on the factors affecting your requirements, what the minerals you need to replace and how much past desert explorers have lived off, see the articles How Much Water Do You Need to Drink in a Desert? and Deserts, Dehydration and Minerals.
Minimising water loss
You want to keep moisture loss to a minimum whilst in a desert environment. You can do this by:
- Moving slowly and avoiding excessive exertion to limit unnecessary sweating.
- Seeking shade whenever it’s available.
- Use mornings, evenings and nights to avoid activity in the heat of the day.
- Wear light coloured, long sleeve, non-wicking clothing (see my article on a comparison of base layer materials)
Avoiding sun burn, heat exhaustion and heat stroke
You want to cover up most if not all of your skin to avoid sun burn and minimise evaporation of perspiration. That means long sleeves, long trousers and a wide brimmed hat, all in light colours to maximise heat reflection. This will help avoid heat exhaustion and stroke too. Sun glasses will protect your eyes from the desert equivalent of snow blindness.
Spiders, snake and scorpions
Most deserts are home to at least some nasty critters. They usually try to avoid human contact and save their more poisonous attacks for killing prey but, nonetheless, the following can help avoid any encounters:
- Avoiding leaving unattended bags and tent doors open.
- Sleeping away from bushes and rocks.
- Checking your boats in the morning.
- Avoiding walking barefoot, particularly at night when beasties are more active.
- Transport: £300 – £2,000. Entirely dependent on where you in the world you’re headed but you can reach the edge of most deserts without too much trouble.
- Equipment: £100 – £1,000. There isn’t too much specialist kit you need and can often get away with very little.
- Supplies: £4 – £10/day. Cheaper if you use supermarket food, more if you buy ration packs.
- Communications: £0 – £800. Could use nothing, might take a satellite phone and other gadgets.
- Camel: £150 – £1,000+. See How to Buy a Camel.
- Cart: £250 – £1,500+. You’ll be making it yourself so the costs are up to you.
Lowest total cost: £1,000. A low cost flight, second-hand kit and a cheap cart or camel for a few weeks in the desert. (Our crossing of the Wahiba cost less than £40).
More typical total cost: £5,000. A long haul flight, in-country transfer, some new kit, a good cart or two good camels, and a satellite phone for one or two months in the desert.
- Test yourself in a hot environment with limited water. Take extra and a mobile phone for emergencies but give yourself a taste of what it’s like to be hot, tired and thirsty.
- Pick a desert that suits you for size, remoteness and temperature.
- Pick an approach: on foot, with a car, camel or cart.
- Do some calculations. How far is it, how long will it take, how much water will you have to carry and do you need a re-supply?
- Get your body conditioned to working hard in the heat with limited water in take.
- Do a test run, ideally in the same environment or as close as you can replicate at home.
For more expedition resources covering different environments as well as basic planning and fundraising, visit my Expedition Resources page.