What to pack, see and do

Your Saudi desert camping guide

احفظ في مفضلاتي تم الحفظ في مفضلاتي

The Arabian Desert is one of the world’s great wildernesses. More than three times the size of France, with only dunes, rocky escarpments and winding camel trails interrupting its sandy undulations, it’s as fascinating as it is vast. But it’s not just nice to look at — it’s also the playground of Saudi, where thrill-seeking visitors can find adventure, from sandboarding to cozy nights around the campfire.

Kashtah, or desert camping, is one of the best ways to discover this unique landscape, enjoying traditional Saudi comfort beneath a stunning Arabian starscape. We sat down with Majed Alharbi, the founder of Saudi Safari — a travel outfitter that offers desert excursions including camping, camel riding and off-roading — to learn why desert camping is an unmissable experience and what to bring when you’re departing for the dunes.

For anyone who doesn’t know, can you explain the meaning of kashtah?

Kashtah is similar to a picnic. Normally when we go out to the desert, we cook there. We take a tent, whatever snacks, whatever supplies and tools we need. And we call this trip kashtah. It’s slang, or a local word. And so among the Saudis, kashtah means we are going to the desert and staying there for a while. We light a fire there, like camping in the desert. Maybe you are used to [camping] in your country. Similar to that, but we call it kashtah.

Saudi has one of the biggest deserts in the world. What’s the significance of desert camping in the culture?

We don’t have [as many] forests as Europe or other countries. And this really affects our culture, our way of living. However, the desert — maybe 60, 70 years ago, it was part of our lives. But nowadays, because of modern cities, people might not experience living in the desert. Now we have apartments, we have buildings, and we live most of our lives there.

When you go to the desert, you will be disconnected from your life. You will be in the middle of it, no civilization there, only sands around you and the dunes and the stars up there. There are no lights, only the lights of the fire. Nothing is distracting you, and you are dealing with nature, you’re discovering nature. Sometimes you see the sands moving when there is a wind. Sometimes you just look at the stars, and you can see them very clearly in the desert at night. And this feeling, in my experience, is unique. And it will make you touch the real environment, the real nature there.

What is the most important thing to bring to wear when desert camping?

Especially in the winter, you need to bring something to keep warm. There’s a special jacket called a farwa that is very known in our culture; it goes from your shoulders all the way to your feet. It’s wool or natural leather. Visitors to Saudi need to experience this because it’s traditional. It’s just something unique. Tourists take pictures with it, and it’s a memorable moment. And it keeps you warm in the desert. It’s a very heavy jacket.
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A farwa, the long coat featured above, will keep you warm when camping during winter in Saudi.

What advice would you give someone who’s going desert camping for the first time?

The first thing, the most important thing, is that you shouldn’t go alone. You should go get a tour guide to take you, because in the desert, you can easily get lost. It’s sand everywhere, and you don’t know where to go. The other thing is that if you are not used to driving in the dunes or in the sand, the car might get stuck there. And if you don’t have someone professional who can take the car out of there, you will get stuck.

Tip: Play it safe and plan your desert excursion with one of many tour operators in Saudi.

What are some of your favorite activities to do in the desert?

Our customers like dune bashing. Normally we go in our 4x4 cars. We have a Jeep Wrangler that we’ve taken off the roof of. The other thing is sandboarding. The customers come off from above the cliff of the dunes, and they go down the sand, which is a unique experience. I believe you can’t experience this anywhere other than Saudi or nearby. Also, we have other activities like hiking, mountaineering, cooking in the desert.

Do you have any tips for staying hydrated in the desert?

Water is one of the most important things. That’s why the tour guides check all the supplies before they head out for kashtah. They take water and everything with them to assure that when they are in the desert, they are not having any shortage of supplies.

What do you cook?

When we’re camping, we do traditional cooking, like mandi — , not Monday, mandi. We put a drum inside the sand and put the fire inside this drum. Then we put the food, lamb and other things, inside the drum. Then we close this drum, and we bathe it in sand. So the whole meal cooks under the ground under the desert. It’s very delicious.

Why should visitors go desert camping?

It’s a must-do experience when you visit Saudi. To not do it while you’re here would be like visiting Egypt without visiting the pyramids. The desert is part of the culture, part of our life.

Want to learn more about the desert and outdoor adventures in Arabia? Discover adventure tourism in Saudi on visitsaudi.com, or download this kashtah guide that includes printable packing lists for a variety of specific trips to help you plan.

—Cody Siler is a travel writer who has written for Club Traveler, Alamo’s Scenic Route, Gambit Magazine, Backroads Active Travel and more.