tell me about deserts

It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a hot climate (over ten years now). And even when I did, my experience was of a coastal urban environment.

Right now I’m writing a story set in a desert.

I’ve read up on real-life deserts. I’ve looked at dozens of pictures of sand dunes, barren hills and salt flats. I’ve watched videos.

But none of those gives me the sensory details I crave. What does the desert smell like? How does the wind feel on your face? What’s the light like? What sounds do you hear in the desert night?

Since I can’t just hop on a plane for some first-hand research (I wish!), I’m asking for details from some of you who might’ve experienced a desert environment. If you live in, or have visited, the American Southwest (like the Death Valley area) or any other hot desert, I’d love to know some sensory details that’ll bring the setting to life for me.


  1. Deborah Koren says:

    I’ve been to Death Valley and Arizona quite a few times, and my parents live in a high desert area. Which type of desert do you need? Sand dunes or sparse vegetation? Death Valley smells very different from Arizona from where my parents live. Heat during day/cold at night… those are more generic.

    • Sparse vegetation/rocky desert, please. I might have an area with dunes (like Death Valley does), but it’s mostly the other kind.

      What does Death Valley smell like?

      • Deborah Koren says:

        Near my parents (Eastern Sierra, about 100 miles from Death Valley), the sage smells most strongly. Really strong!! But there’re lots of other plants – rabbit brush, etc. and as you walk across the landscape, those plants all provide very distinct smells. I think whatever is growing near you just smells very strongly. The rocks also smell under sunlight, particularly basalt — kind of an earthy smell? I like it. Less choking than the plants. Summer days are hot… in the 100s; nights are cold… in the 40′s/50′s. Sometimes it’s so hot in the sun it no longer feels hot. Skies are gorgeous at night, which is why we used to go to the desert to observe when my dad was still an active astronomer. Tons of lizards, birds, insects, butterflies in the scrubby desert. Snakes too, of course, but they’re usually hiding in the day.

        Death Valley has a ton of different smells, depending on where you are. If you’re at the low point (under sea level), forgot what it’s called, but it smells kind of yucky. Brine-ish? Salty/decaying. Other parts smell clearer, or like rock, or the local plants. Wind… feels like wind. No different in the desert than up at 14,000 feet on White Mt. Just brings different smells with it.

        But each area is so different. Not sure any of that helps.

        • Oh, it does! My desert is a fantasy-desert, but it does help to know that different plants have distinctive smells (makes up fantasy-desert-plants-with-strong-smells on the spot). And the brine-ish smell detail is also helpful as I have a Badwater Basin equivalent.

          Thank you!

  2. Deserts are all different and even different parts of deserts are different in the different seasons. You’d need to pick the desert area because every one is going to have different smells and sounds, depending on plants and animals. Big help, I know! In the spring you might pick up smells of desert flowers in bloom and year-round smells from creosote, sage brush, ocotillo and other desert plants. At night, if you’re far enough away from civilization you’d possibly hear coyotes howling or hunting, rustling noises from small nocturnal critters, even the swish of owls’ wings as they hunt. There’s an old western song called “Shifting, Whispering Sands” and in areas of lots of sand/dunes, the wind moving the sand can sound like that, especially at night when it’s quiet. Light in the mornings and evenings can be soft and bring out lots of pastels and deep shadows but in the middle of the day makes everything look flat and one dimensional. On hot days heat rising from the desert looks like waves shimmering in the distance. If there’s no wind it can almost feel like the air and moisture are being sucked out of you.

    • Thank you for talking about the light! It’s funny–I’m not a painter (at all), but light and shadow have always been important in my descriptions.

      Lots of other details. *scribbles notes*

  3. I’ve been to Saudi Arabia. The smell was the first thing I remember — it was kind of foul, like garbage decaying. Which may have been true because the Saudis dumped their garbage into the desert and the Persian Gulf.
    Nights: Don’t be fooled if the temperate goes down to the 70s at night. That’s comfortable here, but very cold there because it’s such a huge drop. We were all huddled under wool blankets trying to stay warm.
    You can also see all the stars — thousands of them. The lights of the cities tend to wipe them, but in the desert, they come out in the darkness.
    Weather: It’s hot. If a wind kicks up, it’s blowing sand in your face, so you can’t see. We had a sandstorm kick up, and it was baby fine — a brown cloud in the air. I was later at Yakima under similar conditions and got such a bad cold from the sand they sent me home. Another soldier got pneumonia.
    You have to drink a lot of water, more than you can imagine. It’s also easy to drink too much in the beginning before you acclimate. One of the soldiers drank so much water that his feet swelled and his boot didn’t fit him.

    • *nod* Thanks for mentioning how the big temperature drop that makes it seem colder than it is. Definitely something to mention during my night scenes. :)

      How’d you protect yourself from the sun? Was it really really bright?

      • We were in military uniforms, so boots, pants, long sleeved shirt (the men could wear their sleeves rolled up; the women could not. It was probably a good thing for me in hindsight), and t-shirt. Most wore the baseball cap, but anyone who had to be out in the sun on a regular basis had a floppy brimmed hat. Most everyone had some form of sunglasses. If memory serves though, we didn’t have any sunblock. The brightness is likely due to the fact that it’s flat and doesn’t have any plants. There were no plants that would naturally filter the light. In fact, everything was varying shades of brown, including the buildings. We had been there several months, and we drove through this city and suddenly there was this farm. And it was green! It was such a shock seeing this color of plants in the middle of the desert.

        • I was in the Desert Southwest when I served in the AF, and I feel for you not being able to roll up your sleeves! I usually didn’t like going around in just a tee-shirt (too clingy around all those men) but I did like to roll up my sleeves. I was an aircraft mechanic so I sometimes took off the outer shirt anyway to save my fatigues some wear and tear!

          The old fatigues we used to wear in the 80s were surprisingly cool. When I worked for a civilian contractor in later years the uniforms seemed much hotter.

  4. Well, I don’t have any desert experience to add, but I’m enjoying the comments! Maybe someday you’ll compile them into some really cool desert blog posts? :)

    • Well, I’m getting lots of ideas for my desert setting. I’m sure some of these details will sneak into my current story. :D

  5. Living in the middle of a desert at the moment, but sadly in, a City, a very big, noisy, polluted city that makes it hard to see, smell, hear, etc. the desert. But: Even when it is not HOT, it is DRY. Your lips crack, your nose feels dry, you think you are drinking enough, but your cracking skin and flyaway hair tell you differently. You can smell dirt (yes, even in the carbon-dioxide choked city) in the air, and when the wind blows, the sky turns brown. I also lived in desert conditions when I was younger, but not what people consider the “desert” (meaning the land received desert-amount-rainfall each year), and I’m not sure that is what you are going for here.

    If it could be of interest, I could tell you about the wadis around Cairo and the land around the pyramids.

    I’m enjoying all the other comments.

    • It would! I would love to hear about those.

      • Wadi Degla, or what we have seen of it–and to be truthful, not much–is barren in a way I’m not used to. It is not full-fledged dunes so that you expect to see naught but the hardiest plants, growing in distantly-spaced clumps. It is rocky but covered in dust. There are a lot of fossils. I found a lot of mediocre, small ones and a nice large shell, as well as petrified wood. I don’t know how to add pics here–or if it is even possible–so I’ll put some up on my blog.

        The land around the pyramids is quite the same. Dry, dusty, rocky, with lots of dips and rises.

        And as an aside, if you plan on having your story take place in a settlement/house, make sure you talk about having to clean the dust. Constantly. Or at least mention it. Can you tell I’ve had it up to my eyeballs with dusting? :P

        We haven’t experienced it yet, but apparently, when the khamaseen blows, dust gets into everything, even tin boxes.

        • Oh yes, the ubiquitous dust. I grew up Karachi, and it was the same. We had to have the floors cleaned every day, and there was a lot of brown gritty dust everywhere.

          Fossils and petrified wood! Ooh, that’s pinging my muse. :)

    • Miqa, didn’t you see salt plains on your around-the-world trip a few years ago? Can you tell me what those were like? *poised with pen and paper*

      • Indeed. We visited the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. And boy is it flat. You drive for miles and miles across this incredible waste, the only landmarks being tire tracks of those who have gone before you and hazy, dark humps in the distance. Those would be extinct volcanoes.

        Scattered throughout the salt flat are a few islands–tops of submerged volcanoes–that bristle with towering, centuries-old cacti (and tourists :P ). I think the oldest specimen (of cactus, not tourist) is supposed to be something like 2,000 years old. We visited several “lagunas” and saw scads of flamingoes and other birds. We also saw the viscachas. I think I’m spelling that right; they are large rabbit-like animals. And alpacas.

        We were there during Dec, their summer, and the weather was t-shirt worthy during the day (around 70 degrees), but we had to have sweaters as soon as the sunset.

  6. If you want some “living desert” impressions, here are mine.

    The air smells like dust. Dust in the desert is different from dust back east. Instead of linty dust, the desert has gritty dust. And so it even smells dry.

    In a living desert, the vegetation is not sparse, The desert is teeming with life, but it is sparse enough that you see bare earth between the desert scrub, cactus and clumps of grass. Trees are like huge bushes; they don’t have long and elegant trunks, except eucalyptus. And the eucalyptus is about the only tree that gets tall.

    To experience the hot wind on your face for yourself, heat your oven up to the lowest setting, let it heat up, and then open the door and feel the hot air rushing out. That sort of hot, dry air is exactly what it feels like. Your nasal passages sometimes feels parched from the dryness. I sneezed a lot every morning when I lived in AZ. I think it was my body’s way of rehydrating my nasal passages.

    The light is harsh. Because of the lack of tall trees, you can see to the horizon in every direction. This by itself makes it seem brighter. But on very hot days, the lack of moisture can strip the blue from the sky, except near the horizon. Directly overhead, the sky is just off-blue–almost white.

    At night in the desert, it can be so silent that you can hear the blood rushing through your ears. Other times, you can hear the coyotes howl their eerie howl for about 30 minutes at around sunset. After that, the night life chimes in with all kinds of bug, bird and critter sounds.

    Let me know if you need more!

    • Woohoo! I got the almost-white noonday sky right.

      How would you describe sunsets and sunrises? Are there differences between them?

      • Sunrises were interesting because there was an echo of the sunrise on the western sky before the sun would come up. The same thing happens here in Florida when the sun sets, and you see the echo in the eastern sky. (Kind of odd talking about seeing an echo, but I think you know what I mean. I don’t know the right word. There’s a ring of color all around the horizon, but it is strongest where the sun is rising/setting, and also directly opposite.)

        The colors were subdued because there was usually little moisture in the air. Sunsets were more dramatic.

        • Ooh, interesting detail about the echo (reflection?). *also makes note to make sunrises muted and sunsets flamboyant*

  7. I grew up in Central Australia on the edge of several deserts. We camped a bit in my teens and one thing that struct me was the feeling of getting dirty, a fine almost powdery dirt that would settle on your skin and soak up the perspiration add to that the bore water that was quite harsh, clear, drinkable but with high mineral content that seemed to leave you hair dry and a bit lacklustre as well (back when I had hair).

  8. Rabia, check out the blog of Melissa Crytzer Fry. She lives in the Arizona desert and writes about the junctions between what she sees in nature and how she approaches writing. She’s fabulous.

  9. I’m commenting a little late, but here’s my two cents:

    I visited Wadi Rum and Petra in Jordan a couple years ago. I’ll focus on Wadi Rum. First of all, a more beautiful desert landscape, I’ve never seen. There were so many different colors of sand – pink, white, and shades of tan, mostly. The interesting thing is that there was very little blending between the colors – you could see distinct lines from a distance, of where one color ended and another started. Most of what I saw in Wadi Rum was sand-covered, but there were areas with sparse, scrubby bushes and areas with a hard, rocky floor.

    The rock formations rising suddenly all over the place were impressive – mostly shades of tan. Every single one was different. The desert was a maze of formations. I wanted to climb on every single one, and I don’t know how you can learn your way around enough to not get hopelessly lost.

    I don’t recall a particular smell, but I remember the air had that nice crsip, cleanness to it. It felt good to stand in the pink sand, look at the rock formations, and breathe.

    The temperature did drop significantly at night, but even in the day the heat wasn’t so bad. Maybe I was there on a cool day, maybe it was because it was so much drier than Amman, but it was not, at any rate, oppressive.

    There was a wonderful stillness about the place, similar to the effect of a fresh snowfall at night, but without the sound-dampening effect, although sound didn’t travel over distance as easily as it does in other places.

    • Thanks, Rachel! I’m still working on that story–and there’ll be revisions down the road, too!–so your comment is still timely!

      Since I started researching hot deserts, I’ve been amazed at the variations within them–sand dunes, craters, rock formations and canyons, scrub, salt flats. I want to use them all! :D

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