Camping in Mongolia
The ultimate camping guide to Mongolia
This camping guide will give you all the information you need to make free camping in Mongolia as enjoyable and safe as possible. You'll also find a list of the ten most rewarding campsites. Furthermore we have prepared a neat packing list for you with all the important things you need to take along. Let’s go!
The summers in Mongolia are beautiful, but not necessarily as long and warm as Westerners are used to:
Therefore, the time between May and mid-October is suitable for a trip through Mongolia. While April is still mainly characterised by cold weather, the weather in May is already bearable. By the end of October, winter will start. The absolute high season ranges from June to September, the weather is warm and mostly dry and there are only occasional thunderstorms.
For a visit to the Gobi desert April and May as well as September and October are recommended, during these times temperatures are moderate.
In Mongolia, there is a kind of everyman’s right for the country, so wild camping is allowed almost everywhere. However, you should keep a few things in mind:
Under no circumstances should you place your tent under trees, in case of storm this can be dangerous due to falling branches. You should also avoid dried out riverbeds: in case of rainfall, there can be surprising spring surges. It's best to stay at least 100 meters away from any body of water. Find a sheltered area for your tent, and preferably a spot where the morning sun shines early on your tent. That dispels the cold of the night. If the perfect place is found, enjoy the night sky: in Mongolia, it is particularly impressive, because "light pollution" caused by larger cities is barely present.
Especially when staying in one place for several days, try to hurt the top soil layer as little as possible. Soil erosion is a big problem in Mongolia and can be avoided especially when camping.
Often, when you have set up your tent, it does not take long for your Mongolian neighbours to show up and see what’s going on. A good opportunity to invite them to dinner! If you are invited yourself, you should always bring a small gift or some money (30,000 MNT is appropriate; if a sheep is slaughtered it may also be 100,000 MNT) - for the nomads food is precious and their extrem hospitality makes them give more then they should if visits by tourists are too frequent.
For travelling comfortably through Mongolia, a four-wheel-drive SUV, jeep or camper van is recommended, as you will travel cross country a lot. Also pay attention to the tank size and storage space, so you can fit everything in your car. When choosing your provider, you should go for a big, reputable one such as SIXT: they offer good service, if anything goes wrong. Don’t rent from private individuals (this is common in Mongolia), with a well-known provider you are definitely on the safe side. It is also possible to book a driver for your travels, but driving yourself you are just much more flexible (for example, no hour limit per day etc.). With a proper travel plan and navigation system like maps.me you should get along pretty well.
Every small village has at least one petrol station. Fill up regularly, preferably already when your tank is only 2/3 to 1/3 empty. Like this you do not need a replacement canister. The fuel in remote petrol stations is often a bit older: to protect the engine of your car you should use a good additive (gasoline: Octan Plus and Injection Cleaner by LIQUI MOLY, Diesel: Super Diesel additive from LIQUI MOLY available in the LIQUI MOLY shop next to the Blue Sky Tower in the center of Ulaanbaatar). This protects the motor against corrosion, bacteria, water and low ocean or cetane numbers.
Your tent should be waterproof and windproof, the more wind it can take, the better. Especially in the Gobi desert it gets windy in the evening. The wind-stable tents from Heimplanet are highly recommended. Using a hand pump, they are built up easily in a minute. You can rent them in a comprehensive camping set here.
Since many mosquitoes can be found in the vicinity of water, your tent should also have mosquito protection.
Roof tents for your 4x4 Jeep are very comfortable, but they should also be as windproof as possible. SIXT rents 4x4 off-road vehicles (Landcruiser 76 and UAZ Patriot) with the well-known roof top tents.
With regard to your equipment, you should absolutely go for quality. After all, you should be able to rely on it in remote areas. You can also buy camping equipment in Ulaanbaatar, for example at the Ayananchin Outfitter Shop. However, it is safer to bring your own, proven equipment. Your clothes should be thick enough to be prepared for sub-zero temperatures and you should also bring these warm clothes in the summer time as nights might be pretty cold.
Before you travel off, you should buy fruits, vegetables, meat and other food in one of the big supermarkets of Ulaanbaatar (E-Mart, Orgil etc.). The famous Mercury Market can be recommended, as well as the Roosewood Butchery, with their large selection of meats, fresh bread and delicatessen. Be aware that in the countryside, there’s often only canned food available.
On your journey you can often buy boiled water and dairy products from the nomad‘s Gers in exchange for money or other merchandise. However, you should not rely on the nomads, sometimes they barely have enough water, fuel or food for themselves. By the way, you should pack your food well and preferably airtight to avoid attracting wild animals.
Do not rely on water in plastic bottles when camping, otherwise you'll carry around too much trash on longer trips. Instead use iodine drops and water treatment tablets, or you can boil your water before drinking. If you use a water filter, it should also filter for viruses. Ideally, it has a chemical barrier (iodine) or the proper pore size.
Instead of open fire, we recommend a gas or gasoline powered camping stove, because wood can often be in short supply in the steppes. And it’s just safer.
If it has to be an open fire, keep in mind that fire is sacred to the Mongols - keep the fire as small as necessary and use collected fallen wood. You can also buy firewood in Ulaanbaatar, but you should pack it properly, as it is often very dusty. Cow dung can also be used, although it smokes quite a lot therefore it also fights off mosquitos.
Note that open fires are prohibited in national parks, and may be prohibited in the forest fire season. This will be announced on short notice.
If you no longer need your fire, make sure that it has been completely extinguished, divide the ash at the hearth and then extinguish it again using water. Due to the prevailing winds, larger area fires develop quickly and cause great damage.
Hygiene and camping, what? OK, you're right. For a quick shower, you can use the public baths in smaller towns, if you discover any. But beware, they can be quite “basic". Another solution are small camping showers like RinseKit. If you are really longing for a hot relaxing shower an overnight stay at a Ger camp is the perfect solution. Find out more about Ger camps below.
And where’s your bathroom on the way? For using the toilet, you should dig a small hole, but also keep the soil erosion in mind here. Dig your hole in the thickest upper layer of soil you can find, it contains enough microorganisms to quickly dissolve your „legacy“.
Wear bright clothing, avoid perfume and aftershave. There are also specially impregnated clothing and of course the common insect repellents. If you camp away from waters, there are fewer mosquitoes. Burning cow dung also helps.
Take your garbage back with you and do not dispose of it or bury it in the wilderness. Due to the dry climate, even compostable garbage will degrade very slowly. A good camper will even collect garbage if they stumble upon it. It is advisable to carry enough garbage bags or plastic bags with you and then dispose of the garbage in the cities. Plastic and glass bottles are resold by locals for recycling in China, you can place them well visible next to garbage cans.
Yes, there is wild animals in Mongolia, especially bears and wolves:
Brown bears may be found in Hovsgol, Western Altai, Hentei, Onon and Uldz valleys, but they are not very common. Then there is Gobi bears, however these are very rare and only occur in a narrow stretch in the Trans-Altai Gobi along the Chinese border.
Any contact with bears should be avoided, fresh traces, feces and footprints indicate their presence – if you notice these you have to be extremely cautious. Hiking and camping in groups is recommended, as noise deters bears. Singing, whistling and loud noises usually keeps bears away. To drive out bears, loud noises and waving your arms helps. Pepper spray and whistles are also recommended. If a bear does not retreat, keep calm and do not run away, but slowly go backwards and talk loudly.
Wolves are slightly more common in Mongolia than bears. You can follow the same rules as just mentioned.
Crime (theft, rip-off etc.) is not a big deal in Mongolia and is mainly present where there‘s large gatherings of people and in cities – if you camp it should be less of a problem. When traveling through Mongolia by horse, it unfortunately happens that bandits follow and steal horses and all the equipment at night. Therefore only book with certified agencies, because sometimes even the guide cooperates with the bandits themselves.
If you want to sleep in a real bed for a night, choose a Ger camp where you can sleep in traditional gers. The range of Ger camps goes from "rustic" to luxurious. Tourist camps offer the standard Westerners are used to, staying in a Ger Buudal is a more authentic experience – as you live directly with a local family.
Mongols are very hospitable. But you must absolutely follow the custom of bringing a gift: Cash between 30,000 and 100,000 MNT, as well as colouring books and pens for the children, but also vodka or sweets are always welcome.
Lake Khuvsgul: Although the second largest lake in the country is touristically developed, it is still in a very pristine condition and the panorama of the surrounding mountains is unique. There is no boat traffic, which fits into the untouched image of the lake, just like the healing thermal springs nearby.
Lake Ugii: In comparison, Lake Ugii (west of Ulaanbaatar) is rather small and shallow. Year after year, various species of birds gather here, and the lake is known for its carp stock. There are numerous smaller lakes in the area.
Amarbayasgalant Monastery: Close to the river Selenge in the north of Mongolia, you can find this Buddhist monastery, which is one of the three largest in the country. Of the originally 40 temples, there are now only 28 remaining. They are mainly built in Chinese style and carry Mongolian and Tibetan influences.
Orkhon Valley: Located west of Ulaanbaatar, the Orkhon Valley is of great historical significance as it is the birthplace of the nomad way of life and the former center of power to the Mongols. In addition to the gentle, green hills on the banks of the Orkhon River, there are numerous monuments here, the former capital Karakorum but also the famous Ulaan Tsutgalan waterfall. Camping close to the waterfall is a very special experience.
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park: The national park is located directly northeast of Ulaanbaatar and is easily accessible by car. It is known for its picturesque mountainous landscapes, rivers and forests, its impressive rock formations, the glacial lake Khagiin Khar and the hot springs of Yestii.
Khustain Nuruu National Park: The park is best known for its stocks of Mongolian wild horses, the Takhi. The barren to mountainous steppe landscape is home to numerous other species of animals and plants, as well as the Tuur River to which you can take horseback riding and fishing trips.
Elsen Tasarkhai sand dunes: These famous dunes 280 kilometers west of Ulaanbaatar are part of the Mongol Els sand dunes and stretch over a length of 80 kilometers with a width of about 5 kilometers. You are surrounded by a picturesque and extremely varied environment, a colourful mix of steppe, mountains, forests and desert.
Bayanzag cliffs (“Flaming Cliffs”): Deep in the Gobi Desert, the place is known for ist fossil discoveries. The impressive red sand cliffs look as if they were burning during sunset. Nearby there is a Saxaul tree forest with the typical deep-rooted trees of the Gobi region.
Tsagaan Suvraga: Another impressive rock formation around 400 kilometers south of Ulaanbaatar. The famous cliffs are 30 meters high and about 100 meters long and from afar resemble the ruins of an ancient city. Close by is the famous Khevtee Bosoo Agui Cave, as well as rock paintings from the Bronze Age.
Khongoryn Els: At the foot of the Altai Mountains, the "singing" sand dunes spread over a few square kilometers, reaching a height of up to 80 meters. They are reminiscent of the sand dunes of Egypt, sand movements caused by wind and vibrations create unique sounds that give the singing dunes their name.
Burdene Bulag: The area of southeastern Mongolia is flat and sparse, the more prominent is the oasis of Burdene Bulag. In the region, it is worth visiting the Gobi Normades and the Khamariin Khiid Monastery, as well as the highest and most extensive sand dunes of the Gobi Desert. South of the Energy Center there is a perfect camping spot.
You have found a good camping spot yourself and would like to share it with others? Take a photo, share it in Social Media, put the coordinates in the description and use the hashtag #escapetomongolia.
Author: Stefan Zehentmeier
Photograph: Follow The Tracks by Max Muench