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Outdoor family fun in Dubai

Camping, hiking, beaching, swimming and more ways to enjoy the great outdoors

Whether you’re new to family camping trips or a seasoned pro, we’ve put together the ultimate guide, with handy checklist included, on where to go camping in the UAE and what to do when you get there!

Look beyond boring coffee shops, expensive play zones and even the local pool, and the great outdoors of the UAE beckons. Turtles laying their eggs on the beach, dolphin bones washed up on the shore, whale-watching, rock climbing, mountain biking and fun in the sand all await. Before kids across Dubai fall victim to mooted camping expeditions, dismissed as being too difficult to execute, picture their little faces as that baby turtle hatches and begins its journey to the ocean. It’s priceless and it’s all on your doorstep!

With careful [read: military] preparation and the right destination, a camping trip with children or even babies can be a fun family activity not to mention an adventurous and economical way to spend a weekend.
Proven to give kids a sense of independence and confidence as well as a sense of survival, camping is great way to teach your children that not everything is about home comforts.

Putting up a tent, preparing a fire, checking the water supply for mum and helping dad deflate the tyres ready for some dune driving – teach kids to help and practice teamwork while having fun.

It’s fun and fascinating to see another side of the country - forget brunches, indoor rollercoasters and video games - and give the kids a sense of freedom and adventure they rarely get from city life.

Camping newbies
If you’re a first-time camper we recommend you stick to somewhere fairly local, or even have a dry run at home. If you’re fortunate enough to have a garden (or a friend’s garden you could “borrow”) put your tent up there first. Test out how the kids fair as it gets dark but mostly use the time to teach them how to set up camp – putting the tent up by following instructions, using a torch, building a fire (YouTube is stacked with great examples).

The official rule book
There are two types of camping trips in the UAE — long term and overnight. According to officials from Dubai Municipality, long term camping is regulated and requires a permit to do so, while outdoor enthusiasts may camp at any place that takes their fancy.

Jaber Al Ali, head of the building inspection department at Dubai Municipality, says they encourage people to enjoy the outdoors but asks for respect for nature. “Campers should always remember not to litter and to keep their rubbish with them until it can be disposed of in a designated area, so that the environment is not affected and remains clean,” he says.

Posh camping
The true concept of formal camping amenities has yet to take off in the UAE so if you’re not feeling brave enough to head for uncivilised territory, choose a location with back-up facilities nearby. Go somewhere within easy reach of amenities, shops and toilets. In many UAE locations you can be metres from the main road but feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Equally, Fujairah offers beaches just a stones throw from five-star hotels. Anyone dead against the idea of not showering for 48 hours could try a night in a tent followed by a more luxurious one in a bed with Egyptian cotton sheets!

Location, location, location
One of the most important aspects of your outdoor adventure is choosing your destination. Filled with excellent spots, do your research before you set off with a packed car. The seven emirates boast many great places to set up camp and there are also excellent sites in neighbouring Oman and Musandam offering breathtaking landscapes and wildlife - although you do need to sort your visa and passport at border control.

The shopping trip:

Hajar Foothills
Trails take campers from village to village along the Hajar Mountains. From Al Hala you can enter Wadi Taybah and drive to Al Taybah before heading further to Masafi – a great way to spark conversation about the home of the famous UAE spring water and how it gets from peak to bottle. Why not get the kids to research it before you leave. But the great thing about Masafi (for mums and dads who aren’t ready to spend a weekend without a spot of retail therapy) is the Friday Market. Open daily from 8am-10pm it’s a great place for carpets from Iran or Pakistan, pottery from the Emirates, as well as fruit and veg. Although there are no options for camping in Wadi Taybah (but a great local museum if you have time) there are plenty on the approach through the mountains.

Directions: Take the E311 heading north, and take the Al Dhaid Road (E88) towards Masafi. To the west of Masafi, enclosed by main roads (E87, E88, E89 and E19), you’ll find a maze of wadis and tracks to explore on foot, in the car or by mountain bike.

The beaches:

Pearl Coast
Down here, off the long road between Abu Dhabi and Qatar, you really can find camping spots all to yourself although it is a long drive (up to four or five hours). The beaches near Mirfa, Jebel Dhanna and Sila are particularly attractive and, if you’re lucky, the area is sometimes inhabited by pink flamingos. Mirfa is a good spot as small shops are within easy reach and if you’re feeling like a day trip you can hop on a ferry from Jebel Dhanna to Delma Island, which is one of Abu Dhabi’s famous ‘desert islands’.

Directions: Take the E11 to Shahama, Abu Dhabi, and just keep going. It’s around 125km to Mirfa from Abu Dhabi) and about 230km to Jebel Dhana. Visit www.dot.abudhabi.ae for ferry timings.

The day-tripper:

Beach camping in Umm Al Quwain
You can camp on the beach to the north and south of Al Rafaah but you must choose your spot with care as some areas, especially those close to the river outlet, are dry at low tide but flooded at high tide. If this worries you then try and camp away from the coast road in a secluded spot just off the main road.

Day trips are many here. Hiking in the mountains is a favourite but a visit to the old fishing villages along the peninsula at Al Raas are worth a look too. Kids can enjoy crabbing and picnic spots are easy to find. Searching for a little civilisation? Dreamland waterpark is very close as is the UAQ Marine Club, a family orientated club, with plenty of facilities. Watersports, outdoor pool and plenty of grass for games of football are just a ‘flash of the cash’ away. The UAQ Marine Club is also a life saver if you’ve either had enough of the desert or just prefer a spot of posh camping. Barasti shelters line the camping beach which is right at the water’s edge or, if you’re really feeling like camping royalty, then hire a fancy chalet with Egyptian cotton sheets (yes really). Barbecuing units can be supplied along with coal, wood and pretty much everything else you could possibly need. Warm showers, running water, flushing toilets, even travel cots - it’s all here. Email reservations@uaqmarineclub.com for more.

Directions: Take the E311 north towards Ajman, turning off when you see signs for Dreamland Waterpark. Head for Al Rafaah or so straight for UAQ Marine Club.

The Starbucks site:

Shwaib
For a desert camping location perfect for beginners that’s close to Dubai, try Shwaib. Close proximity to Dubai makes it a no-stress one-nighter – there’s a Starbucks so close that if you grab a coffee from them it’ll still be warm when you return to camp. You can drive just minutes off the main track and feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Star-gazing from dunes is a favourite here because of the lack of cloud cover. It’s also good for those who aren’t early risers as you can have a lazy morning, set off around lunchtime and still have camp up and running by mid afternoon.

The scenery is stunning with the contrast of the dramatic mountainous backdrop, flat plains and wadi beds interspersed with gaff trees, and dunes that seem to appear out of nowhere. A perfect place for imaginative adventures with older children with room to run for the little ones.

Directions: Take the E44 towards Hatta. Take a right turn off the main road after the check point (passports needed) onto tracks that go along the border fence on the Omani side. Follow the border fence all the way in, until the sharp right into the dunes. From here, continue straight with the edge of the desert on your right and plains/ mountains on your left, finally turning into the dunes where it takes your fancy.

The ghost stories:

Khor Najd, Musandam
A winding journey past a military firing range, not a shop in sight and an old graveyard at the base of the mountain make this place perfect for older kids on the ghost-hunting trail. Remind the terrors to be respectful of a place where people have been laid to rest and don’t set up camp too close. It’s a beautiful beach location hidden away from roads and city noise and great for bonfires, marshmallows and ghost stories. Planned in advance it is possible to take a kayak along the mountain face dropping into the sea which is amazing, especially through some of the open caves which are not even accessible on foot. Ground mats are required for camping here, as the ground is hard and you don’t want complaining kids.

Directions: Pass Ras Al Khaimah en route to the Musandam border (passports required), then continue on coast road for around 50km, to Khasab. Drive south through Khasab until you get to Wadi Khasab: take a left here onto the track and follow the signs to Dibba. After 7-8km, take a left up Wadi Sal Al A’la. After 5km, take another left, past a military firing range and the beach is another 5km up over the mountain.

The complete ‘scaredy cat’:

Arabian Adventures
These guys run a number of different trips, including one to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR), a place full of wonderful wildlife to keep them both educated and entertained. The standard packages include a barbecue dinner and all camping equipment, though to make your trip extra-special, bubbly and canapés can be arranged, as well as a falcon show. Following breakfast the next morning, you’ll set off in search of the Arabian oryx, gazelles and other local wildlife. They’ll even pick you up and drop you off! Dh695 per person. Call 04 303 4888 to book.

The Half ‘n’ half:

Absolute Adventure
Located directly on Dibba’s pristine beach with the dramatic Musandam mountains as a backdrop this place is the perfect compromise between the hard floor of a campsite and the duck-down feather pillows of a five-star hotel. It’s an adventure centre built in the traditional Al Shahi style and reflects a simpler way of life. It sleeps 14 in air-conditioned comfort and has bathrooms, a fully-equipped kitchen, outdoor BBQ area, bedouin tent, barasti majlis overlooking the sea and small freshwater pool in a giant walled courtyard. It’s perfectly located close to some of the region’s best trekking, mountain-biking, rock climbing, kayaking, diving and sailing and is equipped with quality outdoor gear (or you can bring your own). If you can’t muster the energy to cook why not leave it to them. A weekend night for six people is priced Dh1950 including breakfast and Dh150 for any additional guests (max 14). For availability email dibba@adventure.ae or visit www.adventure.ae.

Turtle power:

Ras Al Jinz, Oman.
Predominantly a giant nature reserve, Ras Al Jinz was established in 1996 when the Ras al Jinz national nature reserve and the Ras al Hadd national scenic reserve joined forces to better protect the sea turtles and their natural environment. The protected area stretches for more than 45km of pristine coastline, housing numerous ancient archaeological fishermen villages and graveyards. But it’s the world-renowned turtle reserve, which is the real draw. Find us a kid who wouldn’t be fascinated seeing sea turtles nesting in a completely natural environment and we’ll eat our hats! Better still as the centre prides itself on promoting social responsibility and sound environmental practices, children learn more than what a beach looks like at night. It is a sight to behold and if you haven’t done it yet, what are you waiting for? Accommodation is clean but basic (if you don’t fancy your tent). Campers be prepared as there is very little in the way of shops and supply centres. Ras Al Jinz is around a three-hour drive from Muscat, Oman. Call +968 9655 0606, email reservations@rasaljinz-turtlereserve.com or visit www.rasaljinz-turtlereserve.com for more.

The mountains:

Wadi Bih
Once a year hundreds of crazy sportsmen and women run up and down the 70km Wadi Bih (February sometime), the rest of the year it’s all yours. Proving how popular camping can be, Ziggy Bay campsite was a favourite until it was fenced off and turned it into a Dh2,000-per-night experience! However, continue the winding trek/drive up the mountain for more than 1,000m and you won’t be disappointed. The views are fantastic and the wildlife – especially donkeys, is enough to keep the kids entertained. A drive through Dibba is mandatory which means a few supermarkets and a garage if you forget anything. Remember your passport as Dibba is Oman side.

Directions: To get to Wadi Bih, access the mountains via Wadi Khab Al Shamis from Dibba. Once through the simple checkpoint, head up the winding wadi all the way to the camp spots right on top of the pass, just below the high point of the route (your passport and Oman car insurance are necessary).

By Time Out Dubai Kids staff
Time Out Dubai,

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