The crisp nights in Joshua Tree National Park provide a night sky speckled with so many stars it's difficult to look away. The sunrise bounces golden light on the prickly leaves of the abundant Joshua Trees on cool mornings. Stunning rock formations litter the sandy desert terrain.
JTNP covers an area of more than 792,000 acres, almost 85 percent of which is managed as wilderness. It's a backpacker’s dream with its mild winter climate.
We did a one-night backpacking adventure on The Boy Scout Trail, covering the first 2 miles of the 8-mile trail. Thoughtful planning is necessary if you want to do a backpacking trip through Joshua Tree for a longer duration. There are no natural water sources in the park, so all water must be carried (or left at drop points).
Backcountry camping is permitted along the various backpacking routes, but a permit is required. Leave No Trace guidelines say campsites must be at least 1 mile from the road and 500 feet from trails and water sources.
When selecting a place to make camp in the JTNP backcountry, look for the most durable possible location. Sleeping and cooking areas should be on flat rocks, in sandy washes (except in the case of flash flood threat), or under trees. You'll see areas that look like previous camp spots. For the Boy Scout Trail, overnight camping is only permitted to the left side of the trail when traveling from within the park, and open fires are not permitted year-round.
Remember, even the soil beneath your feet is fragile when you are traveling in the backcountry. To reduce the damage of your passage through the desert, hike on trails, expanses of rock, or in washes. Also, by learning to recognize biological crusts, you can help preserve pockets of life that contribute nutrients and organic matter to desert soils, and help absorb rainfall.
Below is the backpacking gear we took for a night backcountry camping in the California desert.
The best thing about the Osprey Atmos AG 65 Backpack is how comfortable it is. The 65L capacity offered plenty of space for our two-day vision quest through JTNP, and is suitable for multi-day or weeklong adventures.
Keep in mind: The best backpack for you is going to be the one that fits best. We really like the adjustable padded shoulder straps, the suspended mesh back panel and the padded Fit-on-the-Fly waist belt that allows you to adjust efficiently and hassle free.
If you geek out on compartment features, get ready. The Atmos has a sleeping bag compartment in the bottom, a stow-on-the-go trekking pole carry system, an internal sleeve that accommodates a 3L hydration reservoir, lots of places to hook carabiners to carry other stuff, and added storage in the hip belts. The pack clocks in around 4.5 pounds with a weight capacity of 30-50 pounds.
Setting up tents can be tricky, especially in the wind, which can be prevalent in Joshua Tree. Luckily, the medium-lightweight (6 lbs) Nemo Galaxi came together fairly easily. We recommend practicing the set-up in your backyard or living room before taking off to adventure.
The complete mesh canopy provides incredible unobstructed star gazing – which you will undoubtedly enjoy in JTNP. The Galaxi's doors feature smart magnetic holds that easily pin back the draping material while the doors are open. The tent includes a stuff sack, footprint, stakes, guyout cord, and a repair kit. The removable rain fly grants three-season versatility in spring, summer, and fall.
Stopping to take pictures and climbing on giant rock formations sometimes results in hiking past sunset and setting up camp in the dark. Headlamps offer the hands-free luxury of completing most tasks without daylight.
Black Diamond's smallest rechargeable headlamp packs anywhere, so it's a must-have in any adventure pack. The lockout feature on the Iota headlamp keeps the light from turning on in the backpack, preventing your battery from getting drained on accident.
We were impressed by the DoublePower LED light with full-strength, dim, and strobe modes (dance party under the stars, anyone?). The power meter shows remaining battery life before needing a recharge – which is easily done with a micro-usb cable before hitting the trail.
Simply put, the Black Diamond Apollo lantern kicks butt. About the size of a soup can and weighing only 12 ounces, it hangs conveniently from the tent's gear loft for organizing and reading.
The adjustable dimming switch allows versatile brightness for a great ambiance. Its three legs allow it to stand stably anywhere, like next to your cooking setup. The lantern features a QuadPower LED light with a max setting of 250 lumens output in a non-glaring case. There's a power meter that indicates how much battery is left, and the Apollo's USB rechargeable battery also serves as a charging station for your phone.
According to the Black Diamond, expect a burn time of 6 hours on high, or add batteries for a longer run time of 24 hours.
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear Stuff Sack Pillow eliminates choosing between packing a pillow or extra clothes for the backcountry. The full waterproof stuff sack with sealed seams and a waterproof zipper will keep your clothes dry and organized.
At night, reverse the stuff sack to find a Polartec fleece covering that is super soft on your face. The sack fit our puffy perfectly, resulting in a comfy pillow for a good night's rest after a day on the trail.
Therm-a-Rest's NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad is one of the lightest pads on the market for ultralight backpacking. It weighs around 12 ounces and packs down small – about the size of a Nalgene – into the stuff sack provided. We inflated the pad quickly and easily, despite the wind that picked up in the evening.
Considering the negligible size and weight, it’s impressive that the NeoAir XLite incorporates a female-specific ThermaCapture insulation that uses a reflective layer to mirror your body heat back to you, and the Triangular Core Matrix enhances warmth and repels cold. The pad also features a repair kit.
The mummy shape can be a challenging sleep if you move around at night. With movement it also makes a bit of noise (crinkly sound), but if you blow it up to the max, the noise isn't as noticeable.
Zip into The North Face Hyper Cat (20 degree, synthetic) sleeping bag and you'll be snug as a bug in a rug. At just under 2 pounds, the Hyper Cat packs pretty small into the included stuff sack.
It's filled with exceptionally light, durable, and compressible Heatseeker One insulation powered by Thermolite fiber technology making it a good bag for the backcountry – extra warmth without added bulk and weight.
The streamlined mummy shape and center zip save weight and warmth. The insulation is distributed thoughtfully; minimal insulation on the bottom helps integration with your sleeping pad. We love the hood and draft-collar cinch features on this mummy bag, which help to lock out bad weather and retain body heat on chilly desert nights.
If you want to experience a cup of steaming coffee in the mornings or delightful meals beyond dried fruit and protein bars, the GSI stove is a perfect addition to your pack.
It’s a little tricky to set up the first few times – getting the metal pieces to balance between the metal control valve, windscreen and folding base plate can be challenging. But after a little practice it’s all gravy, baby. It comes with two bowls with sip tops, two foons (spoon + fork), a full-sized 1.8L pot with a lid (that doubles as a strainer), and a propane attachment.
Propane is not included, nor are the fancy dried meals you can create while you’re listening to coyotes howl under the moon.
The GSI stove boasts a fast boil time and reduced fuel usage, and everything efficiently packs into a bag that doubles as a sink. There's a control valve for micro-adjustments, and GSI included a windscreen for reliable use in windy situations. The set weighs in around 1 pound, 10 ounces.
We love this spork! Salads, avocados, mac n' cheese – experience the full edible gambit with this thing.
Durable and light (.65 ounces), the titanium spork also comes with attachment points to fasten the spork to your pack, hang it to dry or link it to other sporks with the reusable tether included. The knife-like, serrated edge on the side of the fork makes it ideal for cutting softer bites in your meal.
We’re excited to also use this dishwasher safe, BPA (and phthalate) free utensil in our daily reusable kit.
If you wish to help Joshua Tree National Park fund its operations or projects, you can make a donation directly to the park. The entire gift will be used for the purpose you identified and no administrative costs will be deducted.
All photos by Jo Savage.
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