Would animals like camels and horses be more useful/practical in the deep desert than vehicles like dune buggies and sandrails?

Basically, I have a planet that's mostly desert surrounded with rock formations and steppes. The deeper you go into the desert, the higher the dunes are, with the deepest places having straight up walls of sand that travellers have to go around. 1000-foot-high sand mountains are not uncommon.

The people there use sandrails/buggies to travel around the less steep, more inhabited areas; but in the deep desert where the dunes are highest and there is no water, would it be better to use a camel-like animal for transportation? I imagine it could carry more supplies than the small sand buggies, and you could line a bunch of them up together to make a caravan. They could also navigate the terrain more easily.

All this assuming travel speed/time isn't a problem, of course. The people's technology level in regards to vehicles is similar to ours.

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    $\begingroup$ On Earth there do exist large deserts without any drifting sand. including large parts of the Sahara. It feels like you are taking the route of: "of course all deserts are drifting sand, that is the only kind". All desert should imply is very low rainfall /precipitation. If you are using a non standard definition as a core idea, you need to state that definition. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 3, 2021 at 23:46
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    $\begingroup$ This may sound like a dumb question, but why do you want to go to the middle of a desert dominated by massive drifts (which will make any reasonable construction difficult) and few resources? Why not go around or over it? $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Commented Sep 3, 2021 at 23:59
  • $\begingroup$ from what i google, seems like even that two type of vehicles you mention has the possibility to get stuck in the desert. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Commented Sep 4, 2021 at 1:25
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    $\begingroup$ you mention caravan, is this mean they goes around selling stuff? or simply traveling like nomad/gypsy? if they form caravan to sell stuff, i dont think the vehicle is a good choice, considering they are light build to mitigate to getting stuck in the sand, adding extra weight may remove that. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Commented Sep 4, 2021 at 2:06
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    $\begingroup$ Note on the physics of sand. Dunes can be high, but they can't be steep. Each kind of sand has a natural angle of repose that determines the maximum slope. See sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/… $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 4, 2021 at 14:37

4 Answers 4


Both have advantages and disadvantages:

Fuel and spare parts are both bottlenecks on the practicality of vehicle operation in the deep desert. If those are readily available then vehicles, if they can handle the terrain, have certain advantages over animals, mainly in terms of how much materiel a single vehicle can move compared to a single camel/horse. Conversely if your one vehicle dies far from assistance all your stuff is there until help can reach you.

Water and fodder are the corresponding bottlenecks for animal traction, you need water anyway so you have to carry a large amount of it, here there is a large divergence between your animals, camels are called "ships of the desert" for a reason, a camel can go for extended periods without food and water without dying and they can smell water from miles away (a fact that has saved many a desert traveler). Horses or pack mules on the other hand need to be feed and watered every day or they keel over. Camel trains carry less per handler than a heavy vehicle but probably more than a light one that is built for the deep desert, also because those supplies are broken up the death of a single animal need not be a total disaster.

If you're not overly sentimental about your animals there are other advantages to a camel train. You can load it in such a way that you can cut animals loose when you have exhausted the supplies they were individually carrying. They can also constitute a reasonable portion of your supplies in and of themselves, a camel is made of meat, once a camel A's load is exhausted and you've made a reasonable start on camel B's pack slaughter camel A and add it to the load. Better yet if you have water reclamation technology that can purify the water content of the animals' blood and digestive system.


You may well find the choice of vehicle vs pack animal answer is dictated by;

A) the specific terrain features you have to cross; and

B) the distances that a particular caravan (or even single traveler) intends to cover;

Or if you prefer simple economics.

In the case of terrain you've mentioned rock formations and steppes. If the terrain your traveling through is mostly going to be dominated by stretches of rocky slope or bolder strewn steppe that a heavily laden wheeled vehicle might struggle with then pack animals might be your preferred option even if that makes the trip slower. Mostly or all sand dunes? The reverse would apply.

The distance issue? If your hauling lots of passengers or cargo over long distances vehicles would probably be more economical because you'd have economies of scale and speed on your side. If on the other hand all your doing is transporting small loads out from a local population center/transport hub to small local villages that surround it and any one trip is only going to take a couple of days or so maybe pack animals would be simpler and more economic.

There's no reason it would have to be one or the other unless the place was reasonable well industrialized when vehicles would always win out.


If there is no water, you will have to carry water for them and also fodder.

The advantages of animals over machinery would be more on the order of not needing factories to make them or repair parts.

  • $\begingroup$ Camels don't need water, not between oases anyway. Camels go a week without water without complaining, and can cover more than 100 miles in that time, which should take you from oasis to oasis. $\endgroup$
    – Humphrey
    Commented Sep 4, 2021 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ Should? The oases have no duty to be merely 100 miles apart. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Commented Sep 4, 2021 at 18:47


Vehicles need fuel, animals need water and fodder. However, with the right amount of fuel vehicles can provide a lot more work. In our society animals were displaced because we had enough productivity and enough fuel to set up factories to build the vehicles and a production distribution network to process crude oil and other resources into fuel, we also have extra population to dedicate to the production of spare parts and maintenance.

If a planet is sparsely populated then, letting the animals to breed and grow by themselves might be more efficient than devoting part of the population to the factories, the fuel production and the maintenance.

No oil

If the planet was recently terraformed or has always been a desert then there would not be oil. It was life that produced and accumulated over the ages the most practical energy form we have today. New technologies might find a replacement for oil, but it could be more expensive tilting the balance in productivity.


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