How to Set Up a Tent on Sand

How to Pitch a Tent on Sand

If you camp on sandy campsites, whether it’s on a beach or in the desert, you need to learn how to stake out your tent or shelter, so it doesn’t blow away when the wind picks up. This can be challenging because it’s difficult to anchor a tent in loose sand. However, there are two techniques, called rock stacking and dead-manning, that you can use to anchor freestanding or non-freestanding tents and shelters in this environment. I explain how to do this below along with some tips about the best tent stakes and guylines to use.

Rock Stacking

When camping on a loose sandy campsite, you can use rocks (if there are any around) to help anchor your tent stakes. Unfortunately, you can’t just pile rocks on top of a buried tent stake and expect it to hold in the wind. Instead, find a large and flat rock, like the shape of a cowpie or a thick pancake, which I’ll call a foundation rock. Run your guyline over the foundation rock and push your tent stake into the ground behind it. Then stack rocks on top of the stake and the foundation rock. This will hold your tent stake in place more securely.

The rock stacks on left side of photo illustrate the method I recommend, with the guyline going over the foundation rock
The rock stacks on left side of photo illustrate the method I recommend, with the guyline going over the foundation rock.

Dead Manning

If there aren’t any rocks around, you can use deadman anchors, called deadman for short, to anchor your tent. Dig a hole 12″ deep, wrap your guyline around a stick, stake, or rock, and bury it. Deadmen aren’t as secure as rock stacking but can work depending on the depth of the hole and the weight of the anchor. Once buried, you can also stack rocks on top of a deadman. This combination of dead-manning and rock-stacking often results in very secure anchors. Don’t skimp on the number of rocks you use though.

Best Tent Stakes

I like carrying MSR Groundhog Stakes for setting up tents on sand. They are lightweight, strong, and their Y shape holds well in gravelly sand or denser soil with some organic matter in it. While you can carry proper sand stakes, which are basically just fabric pockets connected to guylines (and hard to find), I find that the Y-shape of the Groundhogs allows them to securely wedge in place behind and under stacks of rocks.

Best Guyline

Long guylines work best when pitching tents in sand. A good length is 36″. You’re also going to want to use a very durable guyline, like the 1.5 mm MLD Pro Guyline (Spectra Core Line) sold by Mountain Laurel Designs. I have found this stuff to be very durable when run over and under sharp rocks.

Freestanding vs Non-Freestanding Tents

Freestanding dome tents have a slight advantage over non-freestanding tents on sandy campsites in that they don’t necessarily need to be staked down. If the weather is mild you can set up a dome tent without staking it down at all and just hope for the best. You will be protected from rain and bugs, and the weight of your body might keep your tent from blowing away. Regardless, I always recommended staking out freestanding tents. I can’t count the dome tents I’ve seen rolling across the desert over the years.

A Mountain Laurel Designs Solomid being blasted with wind, but remaining anchored to the ground
A Mountain Laurel Designs Solomid being blasted with wind, but remaining anchored to the ground.

Non-freestanding shelters like A-frame style tarps and pyramids are generally lighter than freestanding tents but always require stakes. This is one reason cowboy camping (See: Cowboy Camping for Beginners) with a backup shelter makes so much sense in the desert and canyon country. Most nights you don’t need to bother with setting up a shelter at all, so what shelter you carry is light and minimal.

The easiest non-freestanding shelter to set up on sand is something rectangular like the Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid. A-frame tarps like the Gossamer Gear Solo Tarp are also fairly easy to set up using stacks of rocks. The tarp I use most often in the desert because it’s lightweight and doesn’t have zippers which can get clogged with sand is the Zpacks Hexamid Pocket Tarp w/ Doors.

Campsite Selection

Sandy campsites pose challenges to setting up tents but they can be overcome with a little ingenuity. Whenever possible, look for campsites that have rocks nearby.  It also takes more time to set up a tent on the sand, so stop and set up camp before dark so you have sufficient time to gather rocks, bury deadmen, and stack rocks before nightfall.

About the author

Ben Kilbourne has been backpacking at least once a month every month for the last twelve years. His explorations have taken him all over the west, but especially the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau. The geography of the west has become familiar to him. He has developed a rudimentary understanding of its geology, and an awareness of the subtle changes in flora and fauna due to soil, elevation, aspect, and precipitation and how these elemental things interact with both ancient and modern humans. His experiences on the land, whether triumphant or thwarted by events either in or out of his control, have provided the foundation for the work he does. Find Ben’s paintings, songs, and essays here

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