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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 the left side of the 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 remain 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 that 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.

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  1. For tenting on soft beach sand, I usually do the same as I sometimes do for snow. I dig holes about 16 inches deep and fill doubled-up plastic grocery bags with sand which I bury in the holes. After guying the lines to the handles of the bags, I kick additional sand over the top. On some beaches, you can bury driftwood tied to your guylines, just as you would use sticks as deadmen anchors in snow. Obviously, this won’t work in most North American deserts, where the surface tends to be rocky, rather than sugary. I’d underline Ben’s comment about securing tents well on sand, since there is often nothing to block the wind. You also want to batten down your tent tightly if the wind is blowing sand into it. As with setting up on snow, try to face your tent door away from the wind. I also put plastic sheeting under the tent, since sand is abrasive to the floor fabric. Not exactly on topic, but I’ve also had success car camping on beaches by hanging hammocks suspended between the roof cargo racks of 2 pick-up trucks or SUVs. Make sure your cargo rack is robust enough to take the strain. Hammocks keep you up away from bugs and crabs on the surface.

    • I used to transport rescue dogs. They advised that the best place to secure the dog’s leash is the anchor point of the seatbelt, as that’s designed to withstand a lot of force. I’ve put my hammock hang strap through it when I needed to use my truck as a hang up point.

  2. Disturbing rocks and possibly the wildlife who might be under them is not a good suggestion

    • What Ben is doing is LNT approved. Sand is a durable surface and moving a few rocks around to anchor your stakes is fine. It’s only not if you’re moving the rocks a large distance or if there’s a grizzly bear under one. It’s best if you redistribute the roks after using them to re-naturalize the site.

    • Two poor suggestions both of which violate LNT principles. A better solution is to buy those stakes that are designed to screw into the sand. In a pinch a cheaper alternative is to buy those dog stages for securing a dog on a lead.

      • I beg to differ with you Paul. For what it’s worth, I’m a “master educator” for LNT. I think what he’s doing is just fine and I’d train people that way. LNT principles require interpretation in the circumstances. He’s on a durable surface and creating minor impacts that will dissipate quickly.

      • I have some screw in stakes they only hold if you stack rocks on top of them- so what’s the point of that?

      • There’s a big difference between sand & macrobiotic soil. Around here, a lot of the ‘desert’ is macrobiotic soil. It’s a terrible idea to dig into it, but it’s also a terrible idea to put a tent on it. Sand isn’t full of life and it doesn’t take decades to recover when it’s disturbed.

  3. Oh goody, a fight about what the LNT Principles mean.

    The problem, noted in this article, with sand stakes is that they pull out in wind. You need to pile rocks on top to keep them secure.

    Would you object as strenuously if he were pitching a sun shade on a public beach. I fail to see how there’s any difference with your lens.

    LNT is about minimizing impacts, since it’s impossible to avoid them altogether. I Agee with Philip, that this is perfectly reasonable behavior if the rocks are redistributed afterwards.

  4. Carry 550 cord. Loop both ends of several lengths of 550 cord.
    Loop one end through your guyline or webbing (where you would usually use your stakes).
    Loop the other end around a flat rock. Tighten that looped end around the rock.
    You should have several feet of loose cord left between the rock and your guyline/webbing.
    Wrap that loose 550 cord around the rock, taking all the slack out until you reach your guyline/webbing.
    Lay the rock onto your guyline/webbing.
    Repeat for each guyline/webbing point.

    This method eliminates the need for stakes.
    Its especially usefull on rock surfaces where stakes can’t be used.
    The use of stakes creates a mentality among the inexperienced that they must camp on soft vulnerable surfaces.

    • Mike,
      My thoughts exactly! What you’re describing is something I’ve been doing since my first formative trips in the 1970’s, when I had my very first backpacking tent and there were numerous guy-outs (ten, I think, on my Eureka Catskill tent). Freestanding tents seem easier sometimes, right up until I’m not paying attention and they blow over in a random gust of wind, even with all my gear inside. You have a great description of substituting rocks for stakes. The people here who think you are disturbing animals underneath clearly have not camped in the places I have (Colorado), where completely loose rocks are everywhere, and many of your stakes bend if you can get them in at all. The best large rocks can be moved back and forth to tighten your guy-out without having to mess with a taut-line hitch. Very handy.

  5. I will say people do need to use their best judgement when choosing rocks. If possible, do not pull up rocks that are deeply embedded in soil because they likely do have ants or something living under them. But loose rocks in dry washes are generally fine. Same with loose rocks sloughing off of cliffs and landing in piles of scree.

  6. good post.

  7. just buy a bunch (what ever your tent needs) of those gold colored sand stakes. They stack together well do not weigh much and solve the problem

  8. I have pitched tents many times on the beaches in the Everglades. I always dig hole and find a 12” piece of driftwood to wrap guyline around then bury. I add extra guyline to reach out 5’ or so. My experience has been that the tent will probably rip before the deadman comes out of the sand. Very quick to break camp too. As I collect driftwood for campfire I usually find plenty of good pieces to use.

  9. I’ve found success on many coastal trips utilizing small eyehooks attached to driftwood and logs. The driftwood needs to be heavy enough to not blow away nor too heavy to move. Provided space and wood are available simply place the wood on the ground, screw in a small eye hook and attach the guy line. The hooks that aren’t fully closed are a little easier to work with while small cedar sticks can do most everything a stake can do and are quite secure when pounded into the sand with a rock

  10. Ever try REI Co-op Snow and Sand Tent Anchors? Just leave them on your tent. I have used them on many river trips which most of the campsites are beaches.

  11. Just saw this article…just after a backpack to Nels Bight at Cape Scott on the northern tip of Vancouver Island . Learn to search before I go should be my motto! That said, we used various beach logs to anchor our freestanding tent and it worked very well. A few large ones and some small ones. And when we left the beach was like we were never there. This winter high tides will move many of the existing logs and driftwood elsewhere, so perfect LNT.

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