Last Updated on October 30, 2023

Meal prepping for long stays in the desert comes with a few challenges: most foods will not last more than a couple of hours in the extreme heat without starting to spoil, and if you are camping in the desert chances are you won’t have access to a fridge or freezer unit (a portable desert cooler may still come handy though, gotta keep those beers fresh).

Even if you don’t feel like eating during the day, when temperatures drop sharply at night your body will start craving for calories to keep you warm, so don’t underestimate the importance of packing highly nutritious, energy-filled snacks.

Camping in the desert wilderness can be overwhelming, but if you have access to some basic cooking utensils, such as a camping boiler pot and portable stove, then you can easily give yourself access to a healthy, balanced diet even in the harshest of desert environments.

Make sure to bring with you a mix of canned and dry foods, but try to opt for low-sodium alternatives as high concentration of salt in your body may cause and worsen dehydration. If you are the more adventurous type, you could try finding food in the desert, but that’s gonna put your survival skills to the test.

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Eating in the desert: Dinner bonfire a desert camp.
Bonfire at a desert camp. Photo courtesy of Tomáš Malík

Best Food for Desert Camping & Backpacking

Instant Oatmeal

Instant oatmeal makes for a great and highly versatile breakfast option that only calls for some hot water or milk. You can use pretty much anything you wish for as a topping and have a filling, healthy meal that requires next to no preparation.

Featured: Quaker Instant Oatmeal

Desert Food: Instant Oatmeals

Low-Sodium Instant Noodles

Who doesn’t love how cheap and convenient instant noodles are? Make sure to opt for a reduced sodium option as you don’t want your food choices to keep you even more dehydrated in the desert.

Featured: Koyo Vegetable Vegan Ramen Soup

Desert Food: Instant Ramen Noodles

Canned Chili

Technically, any kind of canned soup or stew will do fine in the desert. But can you think of anything more earthy, filling and nutritious than a bowl of chilli con/sin carne? Whether you are into beef, are vegetarian , love beans or hate them, there’s a can of ready-made chilli for you out there.

Featured: Chilli Man Canned Chili With Beans

Desert Food: Canned Chili Stew

Mixed Nuts

The ultimate snack for hikers, nuts are a powerhouse of energy and nutrients that fit in your pocket. Mix together peanuts, walnuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds – throw some dates and dried berries if you crave something sweet and you are good to go.

Featured: Power Up Trail Mix Gourmet Nut Bag

Desert Food: Mixed Nuts

Dried Fruits

Fruits are an important source of vitamins but unfortunately their high water content makes them unsuitable for long stays in the desert. The solution? Dry them! Dried apples, bananas, apricots and pretty much any other fruit you can think of makes a great snack that can be stored in the harshest climate conditions. Pro tip: they make for great toppings for your breakfast oatmeal.

Featured: Oh! Nuts 18 Variety Nut & Dried Fruit Gift Basket

Desert Food: Dried Fruits

Beef Jerky

Just like with fruits, don’t forget to dry your proteins as well. Jerky comes in all shapes and colors these days (including vegan alternatives) and it’s great both as an on-the-go snack or added to your soups and noodles. The best options are always low in fat and salts.

Featured: Jack Link’s Beef Jerky, Original

Desert Food: Beef Jerky

Tea Time in the Desert
Tea time in the desert. Photo courtesy of Michele Benericetti.

Staying hydrated

Remember that hydration should always be your top priority when hiking in the desert. Not only what you drink, but also what you eat can help you replenish fluids, although if you opt for dried foods obviously you won’t get the same water intake as you would if you ate regular food such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Always aim at bringing at least 2-6 quarts (or liters) of water per person per day whenever you are venturing in the desert, and some more for backup in your vehicle.

Coconut water can help you fight dehydration by replenishing minerals in your body. Fluid replacement drinks filled with electrolytes are also a good option, just make sure not to overdo it with the sodium, which you’ll normally find in already high quantities in canned food and salted nuts. See also: desert survival tips.

Eating salt in the desert

You may have read elsewhere that salty food can actually help you fight dehydration, due to it helping your body retain water. This is only partially true and not a reason to stock up on salty food when travelling to hot weather destinations.

Yes, some amount of sodium is needed by your body and even more so when you are sweating a lot, but most foods (especially dry, processed foods that you are likely to eat in the desert) already contain very high quantity of sodium. Eating too much salt will actually worsen your dehydration, give you a cotton mouth, and increase your thirst, which is not ideal when you only have limited amounts of water on hand.

If you are worried about the possibility mineral depletion through excessive sweating, consider low-sodium sports drink like NOOMA Organic Electrolyte for your hike.

Alcohol and caffeine

Alcohol and caffeine can also contribute to dehydration and are best avoided in the desert. Drinking tea or coffee in hot weather is not ideal as it will make you sweat more, so if you feel the need for caffeine, it’s better to get your fix in the morning or evening when the weather is cooler.

On the other hand, it is best to avoid alcohol at all times in the desert – although it can be tempting to grab a fresh beer to cool down in the middle of the desert heat. If you decide to drink alcohol, make sure to alternate with water (and consider investing in a water cooler bag to keep your drinks fresh).

Child Riding a Camel
Camels are an important source of food for many desert communities in the Sahara.

Traditional desert nomad foods

Are you an adventurous type who wants to live like a bedouin? Desert nomads around the world have very specific diets tailored around what types of resources they can find around them.

Couscous is a staple food in Saharan cuisine, although very few fruits and vegetables (such as dates) can be grown in oases around the desert, while meat and dairy play a much bigger role in the desert nomad’s diet.

Camel milk is widely available and an extremely nutritious superfood also used to make cheese. Goat meat, milk and cheese are also popularly used in dishes. Native Americans living in the Mojave Desert primarily sourced their food from farming which they complemented by hunting small wild game.

There are a few edible plants and flowers that are suitable for foraging and wildcrafting in the American deserts, such as the prickly pear cactus, which produces a delicious fruit filled with essential nutrients.

The main nomadic peoples inhabiting the desert are:

  • The Berbers of North Africa, who live in the desert of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.
  • The Beja, an ethnic group of northeastern Africa. The Beja are nomadic shepherds who raise camels and sheep, as well as small businesses.
  • The nomads of the Arab deserts, who are dedicated to transhumant breeding in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula.
  • The nomads of the Gobi desert who live in a very large and diverse desert with mountains and sand dunes.
  • The Aborigines in Australia who are the indigenous inhabitants of the fifth continent.

In many deserts, camel and dromedary meat, sheep, and in the Gobi desert also horses and donkeys are generally consumed. Other typical foods of the nomadic diet are the milk of farmed animals and the cheeses that are produced from them. Cereals, such as millet or rice, are also the basis of the diet of many nomadic tribes.

Agriculture is a practice limited to the oases, vegetated areas in the middle of the desert where it is possible to cultivate and thanks to the presence of water fruit trees are planted, vegetables and cereals are grown. Occasionally the inhabitants of some deserts also eat beetles, spiders and scorpions, after having deprived them of the poisonous parts.

For drinks, tea is also consumed in addition to water, and it is very popular in the Gobi desert. The mint flavored one is consumed mainly by the Berbers of Morocco. In Algeria, Tunisia and Libya it is common to drink coffee, a custom also widespread in the Arabian Peninsula.

Foods in the Desert

You can find edible plants in the desert, including most species of cactus (pads and fruits), abal, agave, chia sage, date palm, desert amaranth, desert raisin, mesquite, and yucca. You can also eat pine nuts from a pinyon pine tree, and the spikes on yucca will be edible if you grill them.

There are different types of animals you can hunt for food in a desert. Some of them, like lizards and snakes, should be cooked thoroughly because they can carry salmonella. Avoid hunting Gila monsters and beaded lizards because they are vulnerable species (not to mention extremely venomous).

All types of snake are edible, even the venomous ones, just remove the head where the venom is stored. Insects can also be eaten and are a good source of protein. Turtles and small mammals such as hares can also be hunted for food. Both reptiles and birds also lay eggs which you can find and consume in the desert.

In a desert survival situation, harness the power of the sun for cooking. During the day you can make a sunny side up by simply cracking an egg on the surface of a rock if you don’t have any cooking utensils.

Below, a list of 10 sources of food you can find in a desert:

  1. Jackrabbits: These animals can be hunted for their meat, which is lean and high in protein. They are usually found in areas with scrub and brush, and can be trapped or shot for food.
  2. Rattlesnakes: While not for the faint of heart, rattlesnakes can be eaten and are a good source of protein. They can be hunted or caught with the right equipment and prepared carefully to avoid poisoning.
  3. Lizards: Various species of lizards can be found in the desert and make for a good source of protein. They can be caught with traps or snares, or hunted with a BB gun or other small-caliber firearm.
  4. Cactus: The prickly pear cactus is a common sight in many desert environments, and the fruit and pads can be eaten raw or cooked. The fruit is sweet and juicy, while the pads can be sliced and cooked like a vegetable.
  5. Mesquite beans: The mesquite tree produces a bean that can be ground into flour or roasted and eaten as a snack. The beans are high in protein and can be found in many desert regions.
  6. Agave: Agave plants can be found in many desert regions, and they have several edible parts. The hearts of the agave plant, called piñas, can be roasted and eaten, while the sap from the agave can be fermented into a drink called pulque.
  7. Desert berries: Various types of berries can be found in the desert, including the chokecherry, elderberry, and wolfberry. These can be eaten raw or used in recipes.
  8. Quail: Gambel’s quail and scaled quail are two species found in rocky deserts of the Southwest. Their eggs are small and speckled, but are considered a delicacy by many.
  9. Roadrunner: These birds are known for their speed and are found in arid regions of the Southwest. Their eggs are large and have a greenish tint, and are said to taste similar to chicken eggs.
  10. Desert bighorn sheep: The desert bighorn sheep is a type of sheep that is found in desert regions throughout the western United States and Mexico. It is a good source of protein, and it can be hunted and cooked in a variety of ways. However, hunting of this species is heavily regulated and requires a special permit.

Desert Camping Essentials Checklist

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