If you’re camping in the desert, a good, reliable canopy is a must.
Obviously, canopies come in handy for any camping situation and in locales in which temperatures remain below triple digits. But when you’re in the California desert, and the sun finally clears whatever formations have provided you and your fellow campers with merciful morning shade, you’re going to want a canopy to hide under.
While a canopy isn’t going to keep you cool necessarily, it will provide more than enough shade to keep you from feeling like a bug on a sidewalk being roasted alive on the wrong end of a sadistic child’s magnifying glass.
We knew this about desert camping from the get go. But because Heather and I didn’t make it out to the desert more than once a year – and always with the canopy-owning Steve – and because there were so many other camping items we wanted to load up on first, a canopy of our very own had always been delegated to the “Some Day” list.
But with our recently visiting more locations throughout Joshua Tree National Park and our visits becoming more frequent, we finally broke down and bought a canopy.
Well, two, actually. But I’ll get to that in a bit.
We picked up the Coleman 11 foot x 11 foot instant screened canopy from Target for $114.99. It’s pretty much everything the product description says it is:
- Quick set up
- Two doors
- Easy to pack
- Lightweight (22.5 pounds)
The first time we used the canopy was at Indian Cove Campground earlier this year. Since Heather arrived at the campsite a day ahead of me and put up the canopy by herself, I can’t really say anything about what it was like setting it up. So I’ve taken the liberty of interviewing Heather about that to get her take:
DARREN: Heather, would you say it was easy or hard to set up our Coleman 11 foot x 11 foot instant screened canopy?
There you have it!
Here’s what it looks like in action with our non-Outdoor Types pals Kim and Kent:
I was there when the canopy came down, and that was equally easy; it folded in on itself and was packed in the bag it came in under five minutes.
Now, here’s the bad news, and let me say up front that this is totally on me.
A month later, I took the canopy with me during a solo trip to Joshua Tree National Park, and I broke the canopy. Like Lennie with a mouse in his pocket, my dumb brute strength got the better of me, and I brook off one of the poles while putting the canopy up. A screw holding the joints together snapped, the screw itself sheared off along the edge, its remaining bit lodged forever within the screw hole.
Is that what you call that? The “screw hole”? Doesn’t feel right…
Knowing full well that I’d never survive the trip without a canopy, I had to find a replacement. Unfortunately, I was deep within the park, the nearest oasis of civilization a 30-minute drive away.
Funny story there. After driving the 30 minutes to a Wal-Mart in the town of Joshua Tree, I discovered I had left my wallet back at the campsite. That didn’t matter so much as the Wal-Mart was completely sold out of canopies. I discovered a Big 5 Sporting Goods farther up the 62, but first I had to drive 30 minutes back to camp to pick up my wallet, then drive another 30 minutes back into Joshua Tree to pick up a new canopy.
Which brings me to the:
This store-brand canopy was the only one in stock, so I picked it up for $99.99 (and drove another 30 minutes back to camp). It saved the day, but I returned it to the store after the camping trip was over.
For starters, the setup was difficult. It required pulling the poles out into locking slots, but the poles didn’t slide out smoothly and took way too much force to extend fully. All told, I’m guessing it took me well over 10 minutes to get the canopy set up.
Also, while setting it up, one of the stake rings ripped off at the seam.
Another strike against ol’ Golden Bear is that it only contains one zippered door. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but this made it difficult to place around the campsite picnic table. Rather than being able to unzip the back half and scoot the canopy into place, I had to lean the front toward me and waddle the canopy into place, being careful not to get the rear mesh screen caught on supplies stored on the table or on the branches of some nearby bushes.
Surprisingly, having one less square foot than the Coleman canopy made a difference too. With the Coleman canopy, there was plenty of room for the picnic table, a cooler, two folding chairs and a corgi. I could get most of that under the Golden Bear canopy, but items like the cooler looked like they were about to burst out the sides.
Finally, back to those poles. As hard as they were to pull out, they were even more difficult to retract. Steve joined me toward the end of the trip, and he’s like having your own personal Chewbacca. Tall and with a 24-foot arm span, Steve can literally pick up anything and crush it without breaking a sweat. But even Steve couldn’t get one of the poles to budge; after 10 minutes of wrestling with it, we tossed the canopy back in its bag. I took it back to the store with the one un-collapsed pole sticking out of the bag like an antenna.
So to sum up, the Golden Bear worked in a pinch, but I wouldn’t invest in it long term. I’m guessing you won’t even have that option much longer – as of this writing, Big 5 has the canopy discounted to $69.99 on their website, so they’re probably phasing it out.
As for the Coleman canopy, it’s still under warranty, so we’ll be returning it to Coleman for a replacement.
- Do not kid yourself into thinking, “Meh, I’m sure I’ll be fine without a canopy in the desert.” You will soon come to terms with just how cruel and unforgiving the desert sun can be, and how quickly a cool morning can turn into a blazing inferno. And don’t think you’ll improvise and wait it out in your tent. Even in warm-ish weather, the temperature within your tent will go from “Summer Breeze Makes Me Feel Fine” to “Arizona Sweat Lodge of Death.”
- A lot of canopies come without screened sides. You want the screened sides. Bugs are just as much a problem in the desert as they are anywhere else, so you’ll be grateful for the barrier. Also, should you find yourself in weather, the rain will roll down the sides if it isn’t falling too heavily.
- It isn’t mandatory, but two zippered entrances makes maneuvering the canopy around and over things much easier.
- As I noted above, go big or you’re going to feel cramped once you’re huddled inside the canopy with all your gear.