A beachside barbecue under the sun, trekking along the peaks of the highest mountains to sleep overnight, going full Bear Grylls and roughing it in the middle of the desert – whatever way you think of camping, the UAE offers it in spades.
That’s not an over-exaggeration, as 80 percent of the country is nothing but rolling sand dunes and, well, more sand. And that’s not even counting the highest mountain range in the eastern Arabian Peninsula or the peaceful acres of coastal area it boasts.
Forget “escaping the city” by heading to a desert resort, it’s time to experience the beautiful wilderness of the country like never before. Here’s a look at the best spots throughout the UAE to take your gear and get camping – adventure guaranteed. (Between us though, there are some luxurious stays close by to some of these sites if you’re over trying to be the next Ibn Battuta).
Closer to Home
Al Qudra Lakes, Dubai
This one is for the beginner campers who still want the sight of Dubai’s skyline in the background to not feel too homesick. Although, once you see the lush greenery surrounding wherever you set up, the free-roaming (harmless) wildlife and beautifully quaint lakes, you’ll want to make this your new home instead. The handiest piece of equipment to bring is probably a pair of binoculars, as there are 100 different species of bird roaming around the lakes, along with dessert plants to look out for. Forget the 4x4s and extreme sport equipment, this is an oasis that’s best spent taking in the scenery. But those who do fancy a good workout can take their bikes around Al Qudra Cycle Track, spanning 86km which includes a 50km loop – just in case you’re afraid of venturing a tad too far. You’ll find a camping area at Al Qudra Lakes East, and from there you can pitch up that tent and officially become a camper of Dubai. If you’re in the mood for more of a romantic camping trip, you may want to set up shop near Al Qudra’s “Love Lakes” right next to The Last Lake of Al Qudra, but it won’t be too hard to find either as signs have been set around the lakes that point to the spot.
Hajar Mountains (foothills)
For those with a 4x4, start at Wadi Seder. Follow the trail up to a village in the foothills of the Hajar Mountains, turn right and rejoin the tarmac road – within a kilometre you’ll find the village of Al Hala. Here, you can enter Wadi Taybah and drive through to the village of Al Taybah. Rejoin the highway at Al Taybah and follow it to Masafi, famous for its spring water and Friday market (which is actually open every day). There are no options for camping in Wadi Taybah, but plenty on the approach through the mountains. You’ll need four-wheel drive to tackle the above route, though you can easily take your two-wheel-drive car into Wadi Koo for an abundance of secret places to camp or hike. For mountain bikers, the region offers ideal tracks with 50km-plus trails. Be sure to visit the small local museum in the village of Taybah.
The Great Outdoors
Head on the E11 from Dubai to Abu Dhabi then take the E45 towards Madinat Zayed al Al Gharbia. Once you hit the E90, you’re in prime dessert territory, and can set up camp anywhere in the so-called “Empty Quarter” of the UAE. Why is it called that? Because it’s basically void of anything except sand and wildlife, and that means you need to come prepared to get through a weekend here. Like in most other places on this list, water is vital, but even more bottles are needed here just for emergencies. A map, GPS and compass will be your saving grace as well, as this barren plain of land tends to make people lose trust in their sense of direction. It’s easy to get lost here, so make sure to bring as much petrol as you can carry. Oh, and if you don’t have a four-wheel drive, forget about camping here. Piqued your sense of adventure? Good, as Liwa is one of the most beautiful deserts to camp in, with lush sand dunes, picturesque landscapes and a host of wildlife. It’s for those who want complete seclusion from the outside world, and the campers who are trusted to venture out on their own. And since you’re on your own, you’ll have plenty of privacy for sand boarding and dune bashing.
Ras Al Khaimah Desert
If you’re yearning for a proper desert camping experience but don’t want to be too out of touch with the world, Ras Al Khaimah Desert is a popular option. Not only are there local farms and camel pens spaced out all over the place and proper tracks to follow, but you’ll find tourists and other explorers taking four-wheel drive safaris or camel treks across the plain. It’s all because this part of the UAE is rich in Bedouin history, and shows off a glimpse of what it was like living in the desert back in the day. That’s all the more reason to pitch up a tent along this huge landscape. While civilisation may be close by, that doesn’t mean you can forget about your survival instincts, as it’s still a harsh desert environment you’re camping in. There are no facilities, so take everything with you, including plenty of food and water. Once you’re all set, you’ll be treated to surprising diversity of plants such as desert ephemerals, hyacinths and thumbs flourish, along with banyan trees, palms, wild birds and Arabian oryx to be seen on an early morning walk.
For those mountain climbers and trekkers that haven’t heard about Jebel Shams – shame on you. But you’re forgiven as it’s the highest mountain in Oman rather than the UAE, standing at about 3,028m. The good news is you can drive to 2,000m, where there is an excellent base camp known as Jebel Shams Heights. You can either bring your own camping gear or rent basic huts with bathroom facilities at very reasonable rates. From base camp, the hike to Jebel Shams summit is long and strenuous. It takes at least 12 hours, so is probably best left to very fit and experienced hikers. But don’t be disappointed – there are other well-marked trails that offer spectacular scenery. A short drive from base camp will take you to Al Khataym, the start of a hike along an ancient donkey trail leading to the abandoned village of As Sab. This hike is relatively flat on good trails and takes about four hours there and back. For a longer mountain hike, drive back down to the old village of Al Ghul and follow a path up through the village and onto the canyon rim (‘The Grand Canyon’ of the Middle East): it will take a fit hiker about six hours to reach base camp from Al Ghul. If this sounds too strenuous, drive to Al Hamra and then onto Misfat al Abriyin, an old village with an incredible maze of falaj water systems and ancient buildings. Finally, visit the historic towns of Ibri and Nizwa, or the caves at Al Hoota.
By The Beach
Umm Al Quwain Coast
Being able to wake up to the sound of the ocean is always a treat, but that’s only the tip of the sand castle when camping on the popular shores of Umm Al Quwain. It’s the perfect spot to swim, kayak, fish, barbecue, chill – you name it. Think of this camping experience as a much happier version of Cast Away, one where you have your essentials, aren’t fighting for your survival and don’t have a volleyball named Wilson. Camping on the beach is generally favoured, but travellers can find a secluded spot just off the E11 main road. As for the beachgoers, they can camp on the beach to the north and south of Al Rafaah. 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. Also, take care not to camp on private property, you don’t want to be shooed away just as soon as your tent it pitched. As for that gear, make sure to bring some kayaks and fishing gear, because not only are they both a classic past time to enjoy on a typical camping trip, but they provide the perfect means of catching your breakfast/lunch/dinner for the day. Top tip, visit the old fishing villages along the peninsula at Al Raas and take your fishing gear and binoculars to spot wild birds, including a few pink flamingos. Those with a kayak will be treated to an adventure through the mangroves along the coast.
With it being about as far west in the UAE as you can go, being all the way between Al Hamra and Ruwais, Shuweihat Island takes some real commitment to get to. And if you go all that way without a 4x4, it will be a wasted journey. But if all is prepared and you finally arrive at your destination, you’ll be granted access to serene island unlike any other beach spot in the UAE. Filled with glistening waterways, low-lying cliffs and caves covered with the colours of beautiful sand rock, coming here is like camping on your own private island. Because of how difficult it can be to get to, including getting past rocky paths and low tide waters, you’ll need to bring plenty of the essentials. Make sure to bring a kayak to cruise through the clear sea, a head-torch to explore the cliffs at night and even wall-climbing gear for some low-level bouldering. It takes just over three hours to reach the island via the E11 from Dubai, so make this camping expedition a long weekend affair rather than a one night stay. Also, because of its shoreline proximity, it would be a good idea to come with a few layers, as temperatures can drop at night. It’s a long journey, but definitely worth it.
Just outside of Fujairah you’ll find Sheesa Beach, Try an overnight stay at this tour operator’s plantation camp in Dibba. There are 15 tents on site that can accommodate up to 12 people each, and the package includes a buffet dinner and breakfast, Arabic tea, coffee, juice, water and fruits. There are bunk beds, but you’ll need to bring your own sleeping bags, towels and toiletries. There are also male and female bathrooms with showers, basins and toilets for those who don’t want to sacrifice too many comforts. There’s even the option to combine your camping with a dhow cruise or speedboat trip around the coast.
Bonus: The Big Red
Fill up your 4x4, cram in your best tent, take an overwhelming amount of water and set off into the great unknown. A great place to take full advantage of all the fun activities is The Big Red, a huge sand dune topping out at 100m high that’s perfect for sandboarding, quad biking, dune bashing and any other sand-related activities you can think of. The Big Red is about 50km from Dubai, around a 40 minute drive, and there’s an adventure tour where travellers can try out all the activities in one day. Apart from that, just venture out to the great unknown and see what the UAE has in surprise for you. You definitely won’t regret it.
Go lux in RAK
The Longbeach Campground
Camping doesn’t always have to involve spending hours trying to pitch a tent and squeezing into an uncomfortable sleeping bag. At The Longbeach Campground in Ras Al Khaimah, guests are treated to deluxe tents with king-size beds, cosy décor and sea views. The beachfront site has panoramic bubble tents – which offer spectacular vistas of the night sky – and each comes with a private hot tub and bathroom. Or, if you really want to up the home comforts, check in to a safari suite tent which has its own private terrace and indoor bathroom. There’s also beach volleyball, a swim-up bar, along with a barbecue dinner with live cooking stations every night.
Dhs700 (deluxe tent), Dhs800 (family tent), Dhs1,399 (safari suite tent), Dhs1,999 (bubble tent). Ras Al Khaimah, binmajid.com (07 221 9736).
Glamping hot spot
Banan Beach Resort
It’s always nice to have a tent and a hammock by the sea already set up before venturing to the great outdoors, so if you you like that kind of luxury, Banan Beach Resort is your go-to spot.
To add some adrenaline to your glamping vacation, there are 12 different water-sports to try out, along with yoga sessions and volleyball. Don’t worry, you can still say you went camping if you stay at the decked out chalet with its own mini-pool – we won’t tell anyone.
From Dhs350 (tent), from Dhs1,000 (chalet). Jebel Ali, Dubai (050 501 6413).
ALL THE GEAR...
Thinking of doing some major adventuring while camping? All the outdoor gear you need can be found at Adventure HQ. There are headlamps for the cave divers, warm sleeping bags for mountain nappers and power banks for those who can’t leave their electronics at home.
Open Sat-Wed 10am-10pm, Thu-Fri 10am-midnight. Times Square Center, Sheikh Zayed Road, www.adventurehq.ae (04 346 6824).
For the extreme types, Go Sport has the essential equipment needed for everything from kayaking to rock climbing. Single-person kayaks are going from Dhs2,000, and it even comes in two parts so its easier to bundle in your car. As for the mountaineers, a sturdy rope of 70ft can be purchased for Dhs1,050. Of course, they have everything including tents from Dhs300 for two people, along with water pouches to trekking shoes for all your camping needs. You can also find Go Sport on Al Ain Road to stock up on inventory before heading out to the wild wild west (of Dubai).
Opening times vary. Various locations including Mall of the Emirates (04 395 8951), The Dubai Mall (04 325 3595), Al Ain Road (04 447 1607).
From beach tents for Dhs33 and four-person dome tents for Dhs78, to water coolers and fancy picnic baskets that can hold all those dining tools, camping gear at Ace Hardware will make your camping experience a touch more comfortable – all at an affordable rate.
Opening times vary. Various locations including Dubai Festival City, Dubai Motor City, Ibn Battuta Mall, Sheikh Zayed Road, www.aceuae.com (800 275 223).
5 TOP TIPS
It’s four wheels or no deal
You know the difference between bringing a 4x2 vehicle into the desert instead of a 4x4? One gets stuck the minute it hits the sand while the other flies through the dunes. If you don’t have one, no need to fret, as you can hire one out at www.rentalcarsuae.com, and other places around Dubai.
Stop the bites
From dealing with the heat of the sun to bringing supplies to keep you fed, there’s a 1,001 things to think about when camping. But we can guarantee most campers always forget about the unseen critters that can bug you at night. Yes, those pesky insects are rife in plenty of spots, so it’s always a good idea to bring a mosquito net to hang in or around your tent, or a simple big spray. A mosquito net on noon.com will set you back from Dhs29.
Hydration is key
You can never (ever) bring too much water. No matter what time of year you go out to the great outdoors, the UAE’s sun will always be blazing down on you. That dehydrates you, fast. And if you find yourself stuck in the desert because you didn’t follow tip numero uno, you won’t be disappointed with the copious amounts of H2O you bring. You can get five litre bottles for as little as Dhs5 in any department store, so stock up.
The foodie firestarter
You’re in the great outdoors, so don’t expect packaged snacks to get you very far, or fill you up for that matter. A pot, pan, dishes, utensils, and fire-starting materials – the essential tools for whipping up substantial grub. Pick up some veg, rice and canned foods though, as we don’t recommend catching your own in the wild – at all. You can get all you need at www.desertcart.ae.
Take a snap
How’s that saying go? Leave nothing but footsteps and take only your memories – along with a camera to capture said memories. These are the ideal spots for some quality photography, and for those looking to update their Instagram. Bring your best camera, you won’t regret it.
Glamping hot spot
Fancy going camping in the cool mountains at Hatta but still feel like you’re getting the five-star treatment? Meraas’ Hatta Sedr trailer-style sites are the place to sing a good old glamp-fire song. From Dhs250 per night, travellers can camp along the banks of the Hatta dams in a decked out trailer, each with their own terrace with couches and chairs to lounge in. They also have a kitchenette attached for home-style cooking, while guests can also use the barbecue facilities and gather round the communal fire pit when it gets a bit nippy.
From Dhs250 per night. Hajar Mountains, Dubai, www.visithatta.com (800 637227).