Camping. A whole different ball game here in the UAE than it is in soggy Great Britain.
A beachside barbecue under the sun, trekking up mountains to find a great spot to pitch up for the night, or going full Bear Grylls and roughing it in the middle of the desert – however you want to camp – the UAE provides.
That’s not an over-exaggeration, as 80 percent of the country is nothing but rolling sand dunes. And as an added bonus, we also have the highest mountain range in the eastern Arabian Peninsula and mile after mile of peaceful shoreline.
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. Plus, if you’ve given up trying to prove yourself as the next Ibn Battuta, we’ve thrown in a few glamping spots so you can cheat (kind of).
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. How does it get its name? 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 graces, too, as this barren plain of land tends to make people lose trust in their sense of direction. It’s easy to get lost, 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 imposing dunes, picturesque landscapes and a host of fauna. It’s a spot 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 you’re alone, you’ll have plenty of privacy for sand boarding and dune bashing.
Time from Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: 2hrs32mins. Set your GPS for N 23.0355° E 53.6502°
With it being about as far west in the UAE as you can go, 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 a 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, this is like camping on your own private isle. Because of how difficult it can be to get to, including negotiating rocky paths and low tide waters, you’ll need to bring plenty of the essentials. Make sure to pack 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 two hours to reach the island via the E11, so you might want to 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.
Time from Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: 2hrs15mins. Set your GPS for N 24.1120° E 52.4386°
Al Qudra Lakes
This one is for the beginner campers who still want the sight of a city skyline in the background so they don’t 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 around 100 different species of bird flitting around the lakes, along with desert plants to look out for. Forget the SUVs and extreme sport equipment, this is an oasis that’s best enjoyed by taking in the scenery rather than exploring. But those who do fancy a good workout can take their bikes around Al Qudra Cycle Track, which spans 86km and 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. It won’t be too hard to find either as signs have been set around the lakes that point to the spot. Be warned, since they were created, they’ve become something of a popular spot.
Time from Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: 1hr20mins. Set your GPS for N 24.83759° E 55.37692°
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).
The foothills of the Hajar Mountains
For those with a 4x4, head from Abu Dhabi towards Dubai before taking the exit for the E611 (Emirates Road) towards Fujairah. You want to head to Wadi Seder before following a trail up to the foothills of the Hajar Mountains where you’ll eventually reach a tarmac road and see a sign for 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 (that 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 a four-wheel drive to tackle the above route, though you can easily take your regular motor into nearby 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 Taybah to discover some of its history.
Time from Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: 2hrs27mins. Set your GPS for N 25.3146° E 56.1672°
Ras Al Khaimah
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 dotted around all over the place and proper tracks to follow, you’ll find tourists and other explorers taking desert safaris or camel treks across the plain. The allure here is that 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 within this huge landscape. While civilisation might 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 a surprising diversity of plants such as desert ephemerals along with banyan trees, palms, wild birds and Arabian oryx you can spot on your early morning stroll through the sands.
Time from Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: 2hrs25mins. Set your GPS for N 25.7133° E 55.9491°
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 that offer spectacular vistas of the night sky, as well as coming with a private hot tub and bathroom. Or, if you really want to up the home comforts, check in to a safari suite tent that 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).
The Big Red
Fill up your 4x4, cram in your best tent, take a good few gallons 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 170km and just over an hour from Abu Dhabi. Once there, sign up for an adventure tour where you can try out all the activities in a day. Or you could just venture out solo into the great unknown and see what the UAE has in surprise for you. You definitely won’t regret it.
Time from Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: 1hr15mins. Set your GPS for N 25.0173° E 55.6745°
Umm Al Quwain
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 for a friend. Camping on the beach is generally favoured, but travellers can find a secluded spot just off the E11 main road. 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 what to pack, make sure to bring some kayaks and fishing gear, because not only are they both classic pastimes to enjoy on a camping trip they also provide the perfect means of catching your meals 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.
Time from Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: 2hrs12mins. Set your GPS for N 25.6526° E 55.7427°
OVER THE BORDER
For those mountain climbers and trekkers that haven’t heard about Jebel Shams – shame on you. The highest mountain in Oman stands 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 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. 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 (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. The options are almost limitless.
Time from Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: 5hrs20mins. Set your GPS for N 23.2376° E 57.2649° E
Just across the Sharjah-controlled border of Dibba, you’ll enter Oman and find this lovely stretch of sand. And if you book with Sheesa Beach Dhow – Dive & Discover, you’ll have the chance to set up camp in its 180-pitch site, as well as get into the water and explore the Gulf of Oman. Tents 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 home comforts.
Time from Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: 2hrs54mins. Set your GPS for N 25.6504° E 56.2681°