1. Dress the part.
Though it’s totally understandable to want to look your best for the many photo ops you’ll have in the Sahara, you must do so within reason.
Long pants and fitted shoes are essential for a comfortable ride. Camel fur can be quite scratchy and the blankets used beneath the saddle are rough and made of wool. A few of the women on my camel trek decided to ignore these concerns and wore shorts instead because they thought it was too warm for long trousers. Unfortunately, this was a big mistake, as made evident by the rash on their legs that appeared after an 1.5 hour ride in 90 degree heat.
There are no stirrups on a camel saddle, so your legs dangle freely. For this reason, avoid wearing flip-flops or other loose shoes as they’ll most likely fall off along the way. Also, don’t forget sunglasses and some kind of hat or scarf.
2. Bring a hat or head scarf.
Speaking of headwear… be selective about what type of hat you bring. The weather can change in an instant in the desert and often it gets very windy. If you bring a hat, make sure that it fits tightly and has some type of strap. This might seem obvious, but also avoid wearing hats that absorb heat. Black caps, hats made of felt or wool, etc. are all poor choices. Something breathable and fitted is ideal.
Another alternative is to wear a headscarf. These are sold everywhere in Morocco and come in a wide range of colors and fabrics. After watching my guide soak his in cold water before wrapping it around his head, I decided to follow suit… and boy was I glad I did! The damp scarf kept me cool for the entire ride and protected my head from direct sun exposure. It was still very hot, but this decision in particular made a world of difference.
3. Pack lightly for your overnight in the desert.
You’ll like only spend one night sleeping at a camp in the desert, so don’t bother bringing everything with you. Most tour companies will stop off at a hotel or guesthouse near the camels so that you have a chance to take a quick shower and prepare for the ride. Ask your guide if it is possible to leave your big luggage there or in the car so that you don’t have to worry about hauling it into the desert. Your camel will likely bear the burden of your bag, so a small overnight backpack helps lighten their load and also makes it easier to balance the weight. A heavy bag hanging on one side of your camel might make you feel unstable during the ride, so ditch the heavy stuff and just bring what you need!
4. Drink lots and lots and lots of water.
The desert in Morocco is very hot and dry (surprise!), so make an effort to drink as much water as possible! It is very easy to get dehydrated and nothing can ruin an amazing trip to the Sahara like heat stroke. I consumed approximately 6 liters of water on the day of my camel ride and still felt thirsty.
Your guide will likely stop at a shop near the dunes to buy water before the ride into the desert. Mine made sure that we each had at least 2 1.5L bottles that night, though I probably could’ve gone for 3. Drink lots of water — simple as that!
5. Get to know your camel.
Most of the camels who carry visitors to and from the desert camps have quirky names. For example, my camel’s name was Bob Marley and another on my trek was Scooby Doo. The latter was the personal favorite of my guide, so he made a point to give him a sweet kiss on the lips once we reached the camp. You see, the conditions that these camels live in might seem gruelling and cruel at first glance. However, camels are very strong and adaptive animals that are highly respected and loved in Morocco. Camels can go several months(!) without drinking water and can carry nearly 1 ton! I had some reservations about the ethics of riding a camel, but after meeting the guides and seeing their interactions with them, I felt confident that they were well looked after.
6. Remember that getting on a camel is not like getting on a horse.
If you’re not used to riding a horse, getting on top of one can be a bit awkward but is relatively straight-forward. Getting on a camel is a whole other ball game! Camels are much taller so expect to be much higher off the ground, especially if it is a single humped camel (like the ones in Morocco) as you’ll be sitting on the very top of that hump.
When you’re ready for your ride, the guide will instruct the camel to sit on the ground with its legs beneath its body. Camels stand up with their back legs first, which means that you’ll be thrust into a 60 degree angle while it gathers the strength to bring its front legs up as well. Hold on tight and lean back! Rather than reins, there are small metal handlebars for you to hold onto.
Disembarking is the same, but in reverse. The camel will suddenly drop its front legs, sending you flying forward if you’re not paying attention. Then it will lower its back legs and allow you to swiftly get off. I found getting on and off the camel to be the most challenging part of the whole experience, but it definitely wasn’t too bad. Despite being a bit scared and having absolutely no experience, everyone in my group was able to safely ride their camel without issue.
7. Hold on tight when going down the dunes.
When we first arrived in the Sahara, my guide noted how camels are shaped like the desert. Of course I knew to expect sand dunes, but I didn’t fully appreciate how big the dunes would be or how much they would really resemble a camel’s hump until we set off on our ride. Some of the dunes in Merzouga are absolutely massive. And going up and down them on a camel can be… a bit tricky, to say the least.
When a camel walks down hill in the dunes, its front legs sink deep into the sand to balance its weight. As a result, you’ll feel like you’re once again falling forward every time it goes up and over. This can be a bit unnerving the first or second time, but as long as you hold on, you’re absolutely fine. And by the third time, you’ll probably be looking forward to the thrill of the next dune!
8. Don’t say outch.
Outch is the Berber word used to command a camel to sit down. As noted before, you really don’t want to be caught off guard when a camel drops its front legs to sit down so I don’t recommend throwing out this term mid-ride. However, if you want to join your guide in instructing the camel to outch once you’re ready to disembark, feel free. Just be sure you’re leaning back and holding on tight!
9. Bring some cash to tip your guide.
Make sure you have some spare change on you before heading into the desert. Though there is nothing to buy in the dunes, you will want a bit of money to tip your guide after the trip. If you’re camping in the desert, you’ll likely go on a 1-2 hour ride to the campsite in the evening and then another 1-2 hour ride back out of the dunes the next morning. In this case, an appropriate tip would be between 20-50 Moroccan dirham ($2-$5).
10. Consider the seasonal weather averages.
As noted earlier, the weather in the desert can change on a dime. During my trip, my guide told me how one day in August 2015, it had been sunny and beautiful, but then suddenly there was a violent hail storm that covered the orange dunes in a blanket of white. Imagine that! Snow in the Sahara Desert in the middle of summer! Hopefully nothing that crazy befalls you, but be sure to plan for any scenario.
I read in several guidebooks that the desert can be extremely cold at night, especially in the winter. Though I visited in May, I decided to bring a big puffy coat as I wasn’t sure what my sleeping arrangement would be and didn’t want to risk getting caught in the cold. Well, turns out it was completely unnecessary. In fact, it was so hot when I visited that I had to soak my clothes in water and then put them back on to try and cool down. See what I mean about extremes? However, though I never used my warm clothes, I was happy to have brought them just in case. I suggest packing for your season, but planning for any scenario.
11. Keep in mind that the Sahara is very far away.
The Sahara Desert wouldn’t be the Sahara Desert if it wasn’t incredibly vast and extremely remote. However, though I knew this to be true, I didn’t quite understand how far away it would be from everything else. The drive to the desert is long. The biggest and best dunes in Morocco are right on the border with Algeria, which is about a 10 hour drive away from Marrakech. Broken up over 2 days, the trip is enduring but totally manageable. Sure, I was ready to escape the car by the time we finally neared Marrakech. However, for the most part I really enjoyed the lengthy journey as it allowed me to see so much of the countryside.
I’ve read a lot of negative comments about the distance, but don’t let the length of the drive deter you. If you have at least 3-4 days to spare for a trip to the Sahara, then take advantage of it! Any less than that and I’d say your time would be better spent somewhere less remote. But if you have the days to do it, then download an audiobook and settle in for a ride across a beautiful country and into the largest subtropical desert in the world!
12. Relax, have fun, and stay present.
Morocco’s Sahara is stunningly beautiful and certainly a landscape unlike any I’ve ever seen. However, at one point when we were riding along, I realized that I was so preoccupied with trying to take lots of photos while simultaneously clutching my camel’s handlebars and clenching my thighs around its body that I wasn’t fully enjoying this special moment. If you find yourself getting distracted by other things, try your best to really focus on the present and appreciate this once in a lifetime experience. It’s definitely one you won’t want to forget!