4wd cars in the desert UAE on safari

How to Pick the Best Abu Dhabi Desert Safari

by Abu Dhabi Travel Planner

No trip to Abu Dhabi is complete without a trip to the desert and there is no better way to experience the desert than on a desert safari.

From thrill seeking, high adrenaline dune bashing rides to more eco-friendly nature and heritage safaris, a desert safari offers you the chance to get out of the city and into the UAE’s true heartland.

Here’s our guide to all things Abu Dhabi Safari related as well as some of the best safaris on offer.

What activities do you do on an Abu Dhabi Desert Safari?

Experience the thrills of dune bashing

Not for the faint hearted, dune bashing – literally driving up and down sand dunes at speed – is something that many desert safaris offer as part of their itinerary. Whilst it is something that many tourists find appealing, in recent years, dune bashing has come under fire for its negative impact on the delicate desert ecosystem.

$WD dune bashin in the Abu Dhabi desert

Is dune bashing safe? Dune bashing is usually done in specially adapted four wheel drive vehicles fitted with seat belts. Drivers are usually highly skilled, trained and stick to designated routes through the desert – if you book with a reputable company.

Dune bashing is not recommended for pregnant women, children or anyone with any sort of medical problem.

Surf the great sand sea on a sand board

Grab your board and let the dunes take you! Sand boarding is an extreme sport similar to snowboarding and does demand some skill as well as a good sense of balance. Participants can stand, sit or lie on their boards and move across or directly down the dunes.

Closed toed trainers and socks are recommended for this activity.

Speed across the desert on a quad bike

Another way to get to grips with the desert is by quad bike. Some packages include this, whilst some will charge extra when you get out into the desert. Remember to check your itinerary closely before booking if this is something that you really want to do as it’s not an automatic inclusion.

Have a henna tattoo

Henna tattoos have been worn by the woman of the region for centuries and are offered to visitors at most desert camps and on many desert safaris. Tattoos are traditionally painted on the hands, arms and feet of brides and are thought to bring good fortune.

Traditional henna being applied at desert camp

In the past, designs would differ from tribe to tribe but nowadays henna artists usually carry a portfolio of designs for customers to choose from. The henna will last about two weeks before fading – always a fun souvenir of your time in Abu Dhabi.

Not recommended for sensitive skin or people with G6PD deficiency.

Enjoy a Camel Ride

Riding into the desert sunset on a camel is a dream for many whilst for others it can be a complete nightmare! Just remember to follow your guide’s instructions and lean backwards when the camel stands up or sits down to avoid any injuries.

Most desert safaris offer short camel treks of 10-20 minutes as well as longer treks for the more adventurous often for an additional fee.

Camels waiting for camel rides in abu dhabi desert

Camel riding is not for everyone and is not recommended for pregnant women or people with serious musculoskeletal injuries as well as very young children.

You are bound to get plenty of opportunities to interact with the camels and take some photos even if you’re not too keen on taking a ride.

Indulge in some belly dancing

Some camps and desert safaris offer belly dancing as entertainment. Belly dancing has its origins in ancient Egypt but was practiced widely throughout the Middle East until the rise of Islam.

Nowadays, belly dancing is performed for tourists in the UAE but many conservative Muslims still consider it haram (against the teachings of Islam).

Be mesmerized by a Tanoura Dance

Sometimes as an alternative to belly dancing and sometimes to complement it, a captivating tanoura dance might be offered. Another dance originating in Egypt, tanoura gets its name from the characteristic skirt worn by the dancer. Dancers are rather uniquely, always male, and spin around allowing for their elaborate skirt to extend outwards like a hypnotic parachute.

Note that if you book your safari to coincide with a religious holiday, including the holy month of Ramadan, no entertainment will be provided.

Smoke shisha

Many visitors to the Middle East like to try smoking shisha and on a desert safari is one place that you can do this in the unique setting under desert stars.

Whilst shisha does contain less chemicals than cigars and cigarettes, it is still harmful and can affect blood pressure and cause heart disease and lung cancer if smoked regularly.

Let your taste buds be tantalized by an Arabic BBQ

Many desert safaris include what is known as an Arabic barbecue meal. The barbecue often contains a selection of delicious meze style starters such as hummous (chickpea dip), moutabal (aubergine dip), fattoush salad (lettuce, cucumber, tomato, radishes, onion, pomegranate and molasses), olives, mixed pickles and Arabic bread.

A selection of different Arabic bbq dishes served at an evening desert safari in Abu dhabi

Main dishes at an Arabic BBQ include various grilled meats and kebabs; this often includes the very popular ‘shish tawook’ (chicken marinated in garlic sauce and grilled on skewers). Sitting around the campfire, talking about the day’s activities whilst indulging in this tasty feast is the perfect way to end the day.

Note that some camps and safaris will provide alcohol at an additional cost, but this is obviously not part of the traditional Arabic meal.

Morning, Afternoon or Overnight safari?

Whether to spend just a few hours in the desert or stay overnight is really up to you as there are a variety of options on offer. Afternoon desert safaris tend to take off after the heat of the day has gone, whereas morning safaris have a greater focus on the desert itself than on entertainment. 

If you have time within your schedule, an overnight stay is highly recommended as you get to see the desert in all of its glory, at sunset and sunrise; it also gives you a greater chance of encountering wildlife as the creatures of the desert are more active during the night time and the twilight hours.

An overnight safari also offers the chance to stargaze and take in majestic and unpolluted views of the night sky.

How can I book a desert safari?

There are a number of desert safari operators with an online presence but we recommend booking through ‘Get Your Guide’ as there is a simple and easy booking system, you receive an instant confirmation text and can cancel for free up to 24 hours before your planned excursion – giving you just that extra bit of peace of mind, especially with current uncertainty around travel plans.

We’ve included some of our top recommended tours here but read on for more options:

Note that most tours are conducted in English, but some providers can offer alternative languages, be sure to check the language you want when booking! Whether you book through ‘Get Your Guide’ or independently, here’s Abu Dhabi Travel Planner’s round up of some of the best desert safari’s in the UAE’s biggest Emirate.

A morning safari option with OceanAir Travels

OceanAir Travels offer a good value morning safari with pick up from your hotel. After the 45 minute drive to the desert, the package includes dune bashing, sand-boarding, a camel ride and a visit to a camel farm where you can feed the camels. Complementary water is also included.  This package does not include quad biking nor does it include any snacks but you will be back in the city by lunch time.

Note that whilst pregnant women and children under three are prohibited from dune bashing, for this tour a private driver can be arranged to drive at control level so that nobody misses out on the experience.

Afternoon/evening desert safaris

There are many similar afternoon/evening safaris to choose from but Offroad Adventure Tours offer one of the best. You will be picked up from your hotel and transferred to the desert where you can enjoy dune bashing, camel rides and sand boarding. There is also the opportunity for exploring the desert on quad bikes and dune buggies for an additional fee.

Once the action is over, you will head to the desert camp which offers the chance to get henna tattoos and meet a falcon, as well as a mini photo shoot in traditional dress. The evening is rounded off with a tanoura show and belly dancing to accompany your Arabic buffet style dinner. Alcohol is available at an additional cost, although shisha is included in the price.

Another highly recommended evening safari is through Desert Rose Tourism. In addition to the more standard safari packages, Desert Rose can also organise private romantic sunset dinners amongst the dunes.

If you want to forego the high-adrenaline sports, there are camel trekking and desert camp options that are at a slower pace, such as the evening camel trek offered by OceanAir travels.

Like most other desert safari options, you will be picked up from your hotel and driven to the desert where you will take a 50 minute camel ride before being treated to an Arabic buffet and traditional entertainment, including tanoura and belly dancing.

Note this excursion is not suitable for pregnant women or children under 5.

Overnight safari & desert camps

There’s nothing like camping under the stars to truly appreciate the vastness of the empty quarter. Don’t worry though, it’s not all tents and improvised camp fires. There are numerous permanent camps, glamping spots or desert hotels with camping options to suit even the most reluctant camper.

Best Overnight Desert Camping for Families

One of our favourite glamping options can be found Arabian Nights Village where you can stay in a variety of traditionally built Emirati homes. When you arrive you will be able to walk the dunes, sand-board, go for a short camel ride, have a henna tattoo or opt to take out a dune buggy for an additional fee.

Arabian Nights Village Abu Dhabi overnight experience swimming pool

There’s a lovely swimming pool and al fresco dining area, where you can enjoy an Arabian buffet style dinner whilst listening to the dulcet tones of the Arabian Oud as the sun goes down. You might even join the belly dancers up on stage after your meal!

The entertainment finishes around 9:00 PM as many day visitors return to Abu Dhabi, leaving overnight guests with the opportunity to sit around the bonfires and while away the evening observing the night sky. A buffet breakfast is served in the indoor restaurant in the morning and there is time for more sand boarding, swimming, or an extended sunrise camel ride.

Best overnight desert camping in Abu Dhabi for adventurers

A slightly more rough and tumble option is provided by Capital Gate Tourism who will pick you up around 3-4pm from the city and take you into the desert where you will experience; dune bashing, a visit to a camel farm and a camel ride. There are also the options of having a henna tattoo and smoking shisha.

The evening is rounded off with an Arabic BBQ, tanoura show and belly dancing around the camp fire. All camping gear, including tents and sleeping bags is provided and staff stay overnight at the campsite with you and breakfast is provided the next morning.

Alcohol is available at an extra charge. You will arrive back in the city around 9am.

Best luxury desert glamping

At the top end of the scale, the beautiful 5 star Qasr al Sarab Hotel in Liwa, now offer their own luxury camping experience at Camp Nujum for guests staying at the resort.

Qasr Al Sarab Camp Nujum
Camp Nujum accommodation – luxury desert glamping by Qasr al Sarab

You can find our complete guide to desert glamping options in Abu Dhabi here.

What about Dubai Desert Safari Options?

There are quite simply LOADS of companies that operate desert safaris from Dubai. The formula for most is very similar to what we have set out above in Abu Dhabi.

A consistent top performer for visitors looking for a more nature based experience in Dubai are Platinum Heritage.

With a focus on sustainability as well as developing knowledge of Emirati heritage and culture, Platinum Heritage offer a variety of distinct tours. These include the heritage desert safari, in which you will be able to explore Dubai’s Desert Conservation Reserve in a 1950s Land Rover; the first ecotourism desert safari in Dubai which provides the opportunity to see the Arabian Oryx and other indigenous species in their natural habitat; and Dubai’s only Mountain, Lake and Desert Safari.

More Dubai desert Safari tour options to consider:

For more information about desert safaris from Dubai click here to visit our partner site Dubai Travel Planner.

Note that whilst we are not travel agents we made receive a commission if you book through one of our recommended affiliate partners.


What to pack for an Abu Dhabi Desert Safari

Whilst it’s a good idea to travel light there are some items that we would recommend taking with you to make your safari as enjoyable as possible:

  • Wear lose clothing made from natural fibers. Remember to observe the local dress code and not wear anything too revealing. Ladies should avoid short skirts as they are not very practical and meals are often eaten on the floor.
  • Closed-toe trainers for sandboarding and a spare pair of flip flops for other activities.
  • Something to wrap around your head and face to protect you from the sand and dust -especially during quad biking and camel riding.
  • A wrap, sweater or a cardigan – the evenings can get chilly in the desert especially in the winter!
  • Sunscreen and a hat if any portion of your trip is during the day.
  • Take sanitizer and sanitize before eating and after touching camels.
  • Take tissues and wet wipes especially if you’re travelling with children (see advice above on travelling with children).

You can find our complete packing guide for visiting Abu Dhabi here.


Tips on taking kids on desert safaris

Whilst a desert safari might seem like great fun for the whole family, please be aware of what you are getting into if you are taking kids to the desert! Not all of the activities on a desert safari are suitable for young children and they may find times when they feel excluded.

Here are some handy tips to help keep the little ones happy so that the whole family can enjoy the experience!

  1. Keep them busy:
  • Encourage children to use all of their senses in the desert and pay attention to what they see, hear and feel.
  • Take a notebook and pencils for them to sketch or a disposable camera or old phone for them to take photos.
  • You could buy a desert guide aimed at children like this one from Greenfeet Guides.
  • Warn children not to wander off or turn over stones – the desert is home to more than a few poisonous creepy crawlies!

2. Don’t forget the practical stuff:

  • Apply high factor sun screen before you set off.
  • Wear loose fitting clothing made of natural fibres.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the excursion.
  • For toilet training kids – carry a port-a-potty, have biodegradable tissues, hand sanitiser and biodegradable wipes with you (remember to take all of your litter home or use designated bins).
  • Carry snacks in case the Arabic meal is not to your little ones’ taste.

Other tips for a Desert Safari in Abu Dhabi

If you’re undertaking a desert safari it’s important to feel comfortable. We recommend dressing in relatively loose fitting clothes with long sleeves made from natural fibres to protect you from the sun and any unwanted insect bites. A wide brimmed hat or baseball cap is also a must.

In terms of foot ware, socks and trainers are best for most activities, although you may want to carry a pair of flip-flops with you. Don’t forget to slap on the high factor sunscreen and drink plenty on the day.

Most importantly, don’t eat anything immediately before dune bashing as the extreme motions can make you feel very nauseous!

It may be worth checking your travel insurance policy before booking a desert safari as some of the more extreme activities may not be covered.


Before you go… Important things to consider planning a trip to Abu Dhabi

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Please note we are not a travel agency. This site is a travel blog to help newcomers to the UAE self plan their trip, we cannot book your flights, hotels, visas or connections for you. We may make a small commission if you click on any of our hotel or tour recommendation links.

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