Clothing systems for extreme environments…how to dress for the desert!

Rolfe Oostra

As the weather heats up, we’re dreaming of desert treks and camping out under the stars! But, how do you dress for those hot and sandy days? Check out Rolfe’s top tips for styling it out in the dunes…


When it comes to mountain sports, the adventure clothing industry has its bases covered! Whether you’re hiking in the UK or battling winter storms in the Himalayas, there will be a clothing system on the market to survive the conditions you are experiencing.

To give you a hand in navigating the brands, styles and the various qualities of material and suitability of items for a specific expedition, here at 360 Expeditions, like many adventure travel companies, we provide kit lists that will prepare you for both the best and worst conditions for the mountain you wish to climb.

But how well are the other, less popular members of the extreme environment clan faring when it comes to specifically designed clothing systems to deal with their equally quirky and extreme range of environmental conditions?  We’re well used to the advice for heading out to on some polar travel in the mountains, but how about if you’re heading to a desert environment?

The clothing requirements for a desert adventure such as walking the Sahara, traversing the Sinai or trekking through Jordan are very simple to implement and wear, and are not particularly costly.

In the desert, the worst environmental hazards you face are of course the sun, but also sand, wind and huge temperature fluctuations between day and night.  The hottest temperatures 360 Expeditions faced were on a Sahara challenge, where the mercury hit 52°C! We encountered the strongest winds as we trekked through a huge wadi in the Sinai desert, sheltering as sand swirled around us, and the worst temperature fluctuations in Wadi Rum in Jordan where it dropped from 47°C to 4°C in one 24-hour period. Luckily, we were well dressed for every occasion.

Fortunately, dressing for the desert is relatively simple; just google Lawrence of Arabia and you will get the drift!

You’ll likely see the hardy local Bedouins dressed in long, loose fitting robes that cover them from head to toe. But, apart from raiding the linen cupboard, where do you get something like this for next desert challenge?

The quick answer is, you don’t! The most important thing to take on board from the local dress sense is to cover up well, with loose clothing.

Starting from the top down, we’d recommend you wear a large rimmed, lightweight hat. Caps are ok, but they expose your ears, mouth and cheeks to the sun. You’ll find a range of suitable hats on the market, some have ventilation holes on their sides, others chin straps – try a few on and figure what fits best!

Wearing a loose-fitting buff around your neck will absorb sweat, and you can pull it up to act as a dust barrier for when the wind picks up.

On your torso, we’d suggest a light coloured, loose fitting, long sleeved cotton shirt or top. Air needs to be able circulate freely, and it needs to be both quick wicking and quick drying. Personally, I like thin cotton as it dries quickly and is more comfortable. The lighter the colour, the better, as dark clothes absorb the sun’s rays and retain more heat.

On your legs, we’d suggest loose fitting, long trousers. The trekking trousers commonly used on treks like the Inca trail, on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro and most treks below 4,000 metres in the Himalaya work well…you want them not only to keep the sun off your legs, but to stop the abrasive effects of sand blown by wind and to minimise invasion from insects and spiky vegetation! I personally wear Navigator Trousers by Berghaus, and when I am pencilled in for a lot of desert work, I generally get a pair that is a little larger than normal and use a belt to hold them up, for comfort.  My only niggle with them is that they only come in dark colours and, as we all know, light coloured clothes bounce the sun’s rays better and are cooler to wear.

Shorts and T-shirts can be worn if you prefer (the zip-off style trousers work well in this case) but it’s really important to be vigilant about sun protection. Personally, I prefer not to, as sand and dust sticks to exposed skin when sweaty and, when in Rome…!

As for your feet…you’ll often see the Bedouin of the Sinai and Jordan and the Sahara Berber in flipflops, but it is important to remember that they have a lot more experience walking in this way! As Sherpa can handle altitude, desert dwellers can handle walking around through sand and rocky terrain on sandals. Think about how much you actually walk around in shoes? You probably only kick them off when you are on the beach right? Now, think about walking up and down the softest hottest and driest part of your nearest beach from 7 am to 5 pm (with a break for a few hours at midday under a palm tree in your nearest oasis) for 5 or 6 days straight.

Your biggest concern is blisters formed through soft, sweaty feet continuously being rubbed by fine sand. Sand and rough rocky terrain, especially when heated to 40°C or more, can tear your feet apart. The best way for us to comfortably walk in a desert is to wear a thin pair of socks inside well-worn, ankle high boots. If they are Gortex and wick moisture, great news for your feet, and if you own a pair of loose-fitting gaiters to cover your boots then even better. The idea is to keep the sand out and your feet dry and protected from the rough terrain. 360 Expeditions desert guides stop our teams on a regular basis to check out our feet. Hotspot forming? We treat any rubbing marks before they turn into a blister! We encourage our teams to wear a clean dry set of socks for the next day of trekking too.

Lastly, it might sound odd for such hot weather, but it is also handy to keep a warm fleece and beanie in your rucksack. Often as the sun sets the temperature fluctuations can catch people out and they get chilly. Luckily, our desert crews light warm camp fires most evenings to cook our meals, dry clothes and for us all to sit around to reminisce about having spent another awesome day in another awesome place…

Don’t forget, if you book on to one of our expeditions (whether in the desert or the mountains) we’ll send you a discount code for 15% off Cotswold Outdoor to help you on your way to being expedition-ready!

Dream it, plan it, live it! We’ll see you on the dunes…

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