The UAE is deceptive. What looks on the map like a vast empty space, save for a few coastal cities, is actually a landscape of varied terrain, and camping is the best way to really get to know it. Off-roaders, bikers and hikers can pack their gear into their 4x4 on a Thursday afternoon and be pitched up to tackle the great outdoors within a couple of hours, while the less sporty can simply pick a great site, bring food and friends and wind down from the week's stresses surrounded by nature. Don't expect facilities at any of these spots but do expect space, freedom and a true sense of the country's outdoors.
There are some epic desert locations around the world and the UAE's slice of the Rub Al Khali is as spectacular as any of them. Anyone seeking a memorable adventure should make a two or three-day trip to experience the beguiling lunar landscape around Liwa. It may take a while to get there (it's 200km southwest of Abu Dhabi), but around Liwa Oasis and Moreeb Hill, these sand mountains are relatively accessible by 4x4. And once you're there surrounded by nothing but sand and sky, you will feel like you're on another planet. These are the sort of dunes that climb and curve like whipped cream on one side and then plunge dramatically on the other. The driving is challenging and as always, travel in a convoy is essential. But head from the road for 15 minutes and you can pretty much pick any spot to have all to yourself (just be sure to make a note of how you got in). At night, get a campfire going and shoot the breeze under clear starry skies.
Directions: You can camp pretty much anywhere in the dunes, so take any road from Liwa oasis into the sand, or to head towards Moreeb Hill take a right at Mezaira'a, and then a left towards Liwa Resthouse, and then another left at the second roundabout. Follow the signs for Tal Mireb (Moreeb Hill).
For a desert camping location perfect for beginners that's close to Dubai, try Shwaib where you can drive metres off a track to access hidden campsites. Regular camper Nozomi Okuyama says, "Nothing beats stargazing from the top of a dune for putting everyday worries into perspective, and Shwaib's proximity to Dubai makes it a no-stress one-nighter, where (provided no one gets stuck) you can easily set off after lunch and be fully set up in camp with a cold drink by mid-afternoon. It is so close that we've even had friends deliver us our Starbucks to the campsite in the morning - thanks to GPS technology!" The scenery is stunning with the contrast of the dramatic mountainous backdrop, flat plains and wadi beds interspersed with gaff trees, and dunes that seem to appear out of nowhere.
Directions: Take the E44 towards Hatta. Take a right turn off the main road after the check point (bring passports - always useful in any place bordering Oman) onto tracks that go along the border fence on the Omani side. Follow the border fence all the way in, until it turns sharp right into the dunes. From here, continue straight on, with the edge of the desert on your right and plains/ mountains on your left, finally turning into the dunes where it takes your fancy.
Tim Binks, off-road and mountain biking expert and author of several editions of Explorer Publishing's UAE Off-Road Guide, recommends some must-do mountain camping experiences. "Wadi Bih is the epic campsite everyone should stay at at least once," he says. "It's a dramatic 1,000m climb, and is 5-6C cooler than below with plenty of options for hiking or simply chilling and admiring the views."
You might also see some of the area's hidden fauna here. "Some of my best camping experiences here have involved close encounters with the local wildlife," says lawyer and regular camper Nick. "Having a one-to-one with a saw-scale viper is at one end of the scale, and being at a campsite over-run with gerbils is at the other. And a trip to Wadi Bih provided one particularly lasting wildlife experience.
"We camped in a small field next to the abandoned remains of a mountainside village. In the morning, we were woken before sunrise by the braying of wild donkeys at close quarters - quite a startling alarm call," Nick says.
Directions: To get to Wadi Bih, access the mountains via Wadi Khab Al Shamis from Dibba. Once through the simple checkpoint, head up the winding wadi all the way to the camp spots right on top of the pass, just below the high point of the route (your passport and Oman car insurance may be required).
Tim also loves Wadi Sana. "It's one of the easiest but still wild, places to camp in the mountains. The plateau above the village of Sana is just a 3km drive from the end of the tarmac. But the terrain is rough so you'll definitely need to have a 4x4," he says.
"Being so close to the Masafi-Dibba road, it's a good place to stop over on a weekend trip to the east coast. It also has several off-road drives close by including Wadi Tayyibah and Jebel Yibir. The route down is a favourite with mountain bikers," says Tim.
"The views from the plateau down to the sea on a clear day are complemented by 360° vistas of a sea of rocky peaks from the hilltops. Trees offer shade, along with some flat smooth earth in the old field areas. But one of the best spots is right next to the edge of the plateau itself, where the views are fine right from your camp chair, and the breezes are at their coolest."
Directions: The quickest route to the plateau is to turn left off the Masafi-Dibba road (E89) to the village of Sana and then drive for roughly 3km up the rough track to the plateau.
Down here, off the long road between Abu Dhabi and Qatar, you really can find camping spots all to yourself.
"The beaches near Mirfa and Jebel Dhanna are particularly attractive," says Matt Warnock, managing editor at Explorer Publishing. "March is a great time to hit Mirfa, as it's when Al Gharbia Watersports Festival takes place - a full weekend of kite surf, kayak, beach football and music. And you can camp for free on the beach throughout.
"For something truly special, you can also camp on the pristine white sands along the two peninsulas to the north and west of Sila where flocks of pink flamingoes decorate the cobalt-blue waters just off shore. And if that's not remote enough for you, you can take a ferry from Jebel Dhanna to Delma Island, which is one of Abu Dhabi's famous ‘desert islands'."
Directions: Take the E11 past Abu Dhabi and just keep going... 125km to Mirfa (from Abu Dhabi), 230km or so to Jebel Dhana (from Abu Dhabi), and a further 100km to Sila Delma ferry: (http://dot.abudhabi.ae/en/area_of_focus/maritime/ferries/)
Beach camping is also popular for anglers. Neil Garrett, a copywriter and fishing enthusiast, says, "Beach camping's a great way to access some of the region's fishing spots. Pitching up on a beach the night before means you can be up and ready to go at daybreak and get the best early bites, for free - and then, if you've been lucky, come back to the tent and cook up what you've caught. There's a beach next to the Golden Tulip in Khasab, Musandam, that's popular for campers. You can set up on the sand, or a little higher up where there's a big dirt car-park. It can be busy but you can fish right off the beach there or you can head further down the coast where there is a rock wall and bigger fish (although there's a greater risk of snagging). We caught a few things, mostly sheri, and had a barbecue on the beach in the evening.
"If you've got the time to head to the other side of the peninsula there's another accessible bay - Khor Najd; the views from the steep descent are breathtaking, and the fishing is very good there, spread out along the rocky outcrops. We fished off the shore, but if you get lucky you might persuade one of the local fishermen to take you out in their little wooden boats," Neil says.
You can camp there, although it's not the cleanest beach. Alternatively you could pitch up in the acacia forest about 10km from Khor Najd, which is one of the most unique campsites on the Arabian peninsula - you could almost be in Europe or north America in this small patch of greenery. There's also a playground for kids.
Directions to Khasab: Head north past Ras Al Khaimah to the Musandam border just past Shams (visas necessary), then follow the dramatic winding coastal road for around 50km round to Khasab.
Directions to Khor Najd: Head south through Khasab until you come to Wadi Khasab. Turn left here onto the track and follow the signs to Dabba (Dibba). After around 8km, take a left up Wadi Sal Al A'la. Take another left after 5km, past a military firing range. The beach is another 5km up and over a dramatic winding pass. To reach the acacia forest, head back to Wadi Sal Al A'la but turn left at the firing range to Sal Al A'la instead of right; the forest is on the right 5km or so up the wadi.
For a detailed, step-by-step guide to getting to all the locations mentioned, see UAE Off-Road by Explorer Publishing.