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Tenting Skills: How To Anchor A Shelter In The Desert Sand

Read Time: Approximately 5 minutes

While setting up camp in loose sand is a relatively limited skill in general across thru-hiking trails, there is plenty of care to do this right for the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail at a minimum, so let’s discuss how to anchor a tent in the sand and ensure a good nights sleep.

Utilize rocks, roots, and the dead man utilizing buried items, whether stakes or branch parts, which can help to anchor your tent when you are on sand and other very soft soils. At other times you could look to use trees as temporary anchors for a night or just go cowboy camp.

Sand is tricky for most as it is not solid, and you typically have less practice managing setup in these circumstances.

You will want to take extra care when setting up your tent anchors in the sand, as it can quickly ruin a perfect night’s sleep if your shelter collapses in on you.

Man inside tent in desert area with rock peaks outside his tent

What Makes Sandy Ground So Difficult?

In anchoring your tent to the ground, you require the ground itself to be solid to use it as an actual anchor that holds your stake firmly without giving.

Unfortunately, sand is made up of tiny granules that make it very loose and not solid, and when you push your stake in, they tend to give and pull out with very little stress applied.

This is why specialty tent stakes for sand are created with loose sand and soft soils in mind. Only these aren’t traditional thru-hiking style stakes; they are horrors that work well in car camping or short overnight hikes.

They tend to be larger, with screw threads built into the stake helping it to hold, making them much more significant in size and heavy compared to ultralight standard tent stakes.

So the best way to handle sand is to plan for it, find a beach or similar sand and get your hands dirty figuring out how to choose a site in the best of the worst conditions and then maximize gear performance.

Planning For Sandy Ground Campsites

You can do some work along the trail while looking to make camp, focusing on finding what looks to be your optimal site with plenty of help in anchoring available, like exposed roots, rocks, and available wood.

Additionally, shelter selection matters as the desert is a perfect place to have a fully freestanding or semi-freestanding tent versus a trekking pole tent, as you need almost no stakes.

Choosing the Most Optimal Camp Site

You must be picky in your campsite selection when you know you will be on the sand. You want to find a spot with as many resources to help you as possible.

You want your site to have many solid heavy rocks, exposed roots, extra sticks, and trees as they can all be used to help provide hard, quality anchoring.

Additionally, you want to ensure your tent site is well away from any washes or depressions, as they can quickly flood and drag your entire campsite away in minutes if it rains.

Choose A Freestanding Tent

If you are going to be on the sand for a long stretch, like the beginning of the PCT and CDT when heading NOBO, then starting with a freestanding shelter and swapping out to another tent later may be your best strategy.

A more traditional freestanding tent will let you quickly set up, take down, and move camp easily, allowing you to find the perfect site each night without the hassle of a trekking pole tent.

This is when tents like the NEMO Hornet or NEMO Dragonfly are perfect options, as they only need stakes for fly setup since they have tent poles for the main structure.

Swap Out Cheap Guylines With Better Quality Guyline Material

Another issue that’s less spoken about is when your guyline material is not strong enough for the environment.

Often, this could be from stiff, strong wind whipping over the desert as there are fewer windbreaks or because you are using rocks; these sharp rocks can slowly cut through your flimsy guylines.

In this case, the intelligent play before ever leaving is to switch to more durable guylines. For example, on my X-Mid Pro 2, I swapped out the lines for the Iron Wire they sell on the DurstonGear website.

This tougher cordage doesn’t wear as bad or as fast, giving you way better performance for only a tiny amount of weight increase.

Methods to Supplement Stakes With Natural Anchors

There are plenty of ways to supplement your stakes with natural anchors when in the sand. Here are a few methods you can use:

Rocks & Rock Stacking

The simplest way is to find good-sized rocks, and instead of using stakes, use heavy rocks to perform the same task, sometimes a stake with a rock on top to provide added stability.

If you can, make a rock stack in a somewhat pyramid shape to give the most stability by spreading the weight and causing friction along the ground to help hold it all in place.

Dead Man Tent Anchor

A prevalent method where you dig down into the ground, using your trusty trowel here, could make this simple and efficient, and then you tie your guyline to a branch you then bury in the ground.

This method is one of the most reliable forms of natural anchors.

Using Trees As A Tent Anchor

You can use local trees in many cases as an anchor for your shelter, provided you’re not in an area with scarce resources.

This is a perfect method for guylines as you can wrap the cordage around the tree trunk multiple times and stake out the other end.

Use Roots

Using exposed roots with a stake will help to hold them solid in the ground.

This is one way that may be pretty easy in the desert with the shrubbery that is typically plentiful and gives you many options for exposed roots to use.

Final Thoughts on Staking Out Your Tent on Sand

You have multiple options that will let you safely anchor your shelter no matter how sandy the conditions are, with a freestanding style of a traditional tent without stakes being favored heavily.

Weighing the pros and cons of each method and situation will help you determine what is necessary to keep you safe and your equipment in one piece.

When all else fails, get creative, be resourceful, and have fun with it! These are some of the tried-and-true methods used by thru-hikers to stay safe while still enjoying the beautiful desert scenery.

Have any tips to share, leave them down below in the comments!