Where to camp
1 Liwa: This vast desert region stretches from Abu Dhabi towards Saudi Arabia and Oman and, though it might seem inhospitable, camping among the endless wind-whipped sand dunes (just as the Bedouins did) is a must-do in the UAE. Shooting stars are almost guaranteed. There’s a great spot to pitch up, around 50km from Hamim Village with loads of sand dunes to nestle among. Best of all, the area tends to be free of noise, rubbish and tyre tracks. Wildlife includes the sand monitor, the rare sand cat and desert gazelle.
2 Dhaid: The desert on the road to Dhaid is one of the UAE’s best off-roading regions and popular for pitching a tent under the stars. You need a four-wheel drive to get to Fossil Rock (otherwise known as Jebel Maleihah), which is packed with ancient marine fossils. The area, an hour-and-a-half drive from Dubai, is primed for camping, though you might have to share it with other groups who battle the dunes in 4x4s and quad bikes. Before setting off, make sure you know how to drive on the sand.
3 Musandam: Musandam is one of the most spectacular spots in the Gulf, so why not make the most of being there and sleep under the stars (or a thin layer of canvas)? The beach by the Golden Tulip Khasab is often jam-packed with tents and 4x4s, making it far from idyllic, so get a fisherman to take you to a deserted beach. You should be able to secure a return trip for around Dhs150. Motor along to find your own sandy (or rocky) little cove.
4 Hatta: A relatively easy drive from Dubai, Wadi Hatta is ideal for camping and a reasonable trip for those without 4x4 vehicles. Most of the wadi is very clean, with plenty of vegetation like oleander and date palms, as well as numerous clear swimming holes to take a dip in. The area is quite popular among day trippers, who arrive in droves especially to swim at Hatta Pool; one of the deepest, natural wadi waterholes. But once they leave, an idyllic peacefulness washes over the area and the distinct rock formations of the surrounding Hajar Mountains take on a dusky pink hue at sunset. For novices, there’s the official Wadi Al Qahfi campsite, perched above the river bank a few minutes away from Hatta Pools. But if you fancy roughing it, bring a camping mat or inflatable mattress as the majority of the ground is of the rocky, derriere-bruising kind. In terms of wildlife, there’s plenty of birdlife, lizards and even nocturnal foxes.
5 Khor Kalba: With deserted, sandy beaches and the remains of fishing boats pulled up on shore, the tiny town of Kalba has a decidedly sleepy feel to it. The lack of development along its coastline means campers can find all sorts of peaceful sandy areas to pitch a tent – especially around the quiet mangrove area known as Khor Kalba. If you camp here, it’s vitally important to keep the area as clean as you found it, as the fragile ecosystem of the mangroves acts as a wildlife sanctuary for rare birds, turtles and fish. When the tide is low, it’s possible to explore these mudflats on foot and when the tide is high, Dubai-based tour company Desert Rangers (04 357 2200) offers special eco-kayak trips It is forbidden to fish anywhere in the mangrove area, though fishing off the nearby beaches is allowed, and the ocean is usually quite clean. We also recommend you have a morning dip as the sun rises for an experience you’ll never forget.
6 Wadi Bih: The Hajar Mountains offer some of the best camping opportunities in the UAE, so if you like a view from your tent, head for the peaks above Wadi Bih. The drive to this wild part of the range begins at Dibba, heading past Zighy Bay and through the Khabb Shamsi gorge, a cavernous track that cuts through the cliff faces, which soar up to 1,000m. The track eventually widens into an open road twisting up a perilously steep mountain meaning it’s best tackled in a 4x4. After reaching the peak, you can bag yourself a patch of ground near some of the old farming terraces built into the side of the mountain, where the ground is flat (though rock hard). The less sweaty temperatures at these heights make this area a good spot for summer camping expeditions, but be prepared to partake in some chinwagging with the locals who may stop by to say hello, so make sure there’s no pork or other Islamic no-nos in anything you offer.
7 Umm Al Quwain: A great spot for novice campers is Dreamland Aqua Park in Umm Al Quwain, where you can pitch a tent or – if it all goes horribly wrong – stay in cute wooden chalets with air con and sleeping bags. Toilets and showers are only a short distance away and the whole place feels aeons away from city life, surrounded by greenery and, of course, water slides. All-inclusive packages with dinner, breakfast, lunch and access to the waterpark are offered. Full board in a cabana costs Dhs450/350 for an adult/child and Dhs385/300 in a tent. Half board (dinner and breakfast) in a cabana costs Dhs390/300 and Dhs325/250 in a tent. The fees also include access to the Dreamland Aqua Park, which has rides, pools and a family-friendly vibe. Check in from 3pm, check out at noon. 06 768 1888; www.dreamlanduae.com.
8 Madbah: After the long drive here, you’ll gladly plunge into the deep, icy-cold pool, fed by the sizable (by UAE standards) waterfall in this dramatic nook of brown rock. Pick a route and hike your way through atmospheric wadis and deep gorges. Madbah has a wonderful, desolate brilliance about it, and this is very much for the more intrepid camper and families with older kids. While civilisation is never far away, there are no facilities here but it’s perfect for anyone looking for a real wilderness camping experience. The mountains at night have a tremendous calm and their isolation make it incredible star-gazing territory.
9 Abu Dhabi: The peaceful mangrove areas of Abu Dhabi offer unique camping possibilities. Nature lovers will be in their element as the area is teeming with marine and wildlife, such as turtles, fish, birds, gazelles and desert foxes. For those with older kids, we reckon the area is best appreciated by skimming across the water in a kayak. Noukhada Adventure can sort this out, offering guided ecomangrove tours in kayaks and overnight camping expeditions (050 721 8928).
10 White Beach, Oman: The coastline from Muscat to Sur is spectacular. The endless blue ocean stretches as far as the eye can see, and waters so clean that turtles bob around close to the shore. A favourite of ours thanks to its glistening sand and outstanding swimming, with gentle rolling waves and night-time phosphorous glimmering in the water, White Beach is also close to some of Oman’s most beautiful wadis. Drive your car onto the beach and pitch up anywhere you fancy, using the sand as a mattress. It’s worth arriving early as it’s hardly a secret camping destination. Don’t forget your snorkelling gear.