Why Are Camels Called Ships Of The Desert? [Explained]

The phrase “ships of the desert” can conjure up a mental image of a huge boat making its way across the sand.

However, the ships of the desert are not real ships at all. They’re camels, and they’ve gained this title thanks to thousands of years of being used as the ultimate form of desert transportation.

Camels are labeled ships of the desert because they carry cargo and passengers across the sand, much like ships carry people and goods across the sea. They have many characteristics that make them suitable for this title: strength, speed, a reduced need for water and various water-preserving adaptations, a versatile diet, and fat-storing humps are just a few.

Read on to discover why camels are called the ships of the desert and which characteristics make them so well-suited to traveling through this harsh environment.

Table of Contents

Why Camels Are The Ships Of The Desert

Calling camels “ships of the desert” is a figure of speech that draws a clear comparison between camels’ role in the desert and ships’ role in the sea.

They Carry Passengers And Cargo

Like ships in the sea, camels carry passengers and cargo across the sand of the desert.

Just like ships, camels can make long, arduous trips, often without having to stop for food and water along the way.

They Create A Rocking Motion

Another similarity between ships and camels is the rocking motion that passengers experience when using these forms of transportation.

While ships rock from side to side due to the motion of the water beneath them, camels have a pacing gait that’s perfectly suited for the flat surface of the desert sand.

They move both left legs together, then both right legs together, resulting in a side-to-side rocking motion that leaves some passengers feeling seasick.

They’re The Ultimate Form Of Desert Transportation

For much of history, the one-humped dromedary or Arabian camel has been considered the ultimate form of desert transportation. 

Although it was first domesticated in Arabia (thus the name Arabian camel), it was then taken to other areas, including North Africa, Pakistan, India, and Australia.

Camels were often used to traverse the Silk Road or Silk Route, which was an ancient trade route linking China to the West.

Camel caravans were used to transport silk westward and other goods, such as silver, gold, and wool, eastward.

Most camel caravans were made up of 500 to 20,000 camels, each carrying anywhere from 350 to 1000 pounds, depending on the weather and the length of the journey. 

Sometimes the camels were roped together in groups of about 40, and in other circumstances, all of the camels were roped together in a single line.

Their cargo was typically divided into two equal parts, with each of them secured on either side of the camel’s back.

These camel caravans often walked up to 30 miles per day.

Many of the notable caravan routes prospered until the 19th century, when they were largely replaced with rail and road transport.

Characteristics That Make Camels Suitable For This Title

Let’s dive into the characteristics and features of camels that led to them becoming the so-called ships of the desert.

You can learn more about camels and their role as the ideal desert transport in the video below.

Strength And Speed

Although all sources conclude that camels are extremely strong, they vary in the exact amount of weight that camels can carry.

For example, some say they can carry up to 900 pounds, while others state that they can only carry 300 pounds.

This variation may be a result of the fact that camels are capable of carrying less weight when making long trips and more weight on shorter journeys. There is also variation between individual camels’ levels of strength.

Aside from their impressive strength, camels can also be quite speedy. At their fastest, camels reach speeds of around 40 miles per hour, which is the same as a racehorse.

With their strength and speed, camels are a clear choice for desert transportation, and these characteristics are much of the reason behind their title of “ships of the desert.”

Wide Feet

Camels’ feet are perfectly adapted to their desert environment. They’re large, flat, and wide, very similar to snowshoes. 

The shape of their feet enables camels to evenly distribute their weight over the desert sand, rather than sinking into it, which helps them conserve energy.

Plus, the bottom of a camel’s foot has a thick, leathery pad of fat on it that prevents burns from the desert sand. 

Camels have similar heat-resistant pads on their sternums, knees, and elbows, allowing them to lie down in the sand without sustaining burns.

These qualities make camels the perfect choice for traversing the sandy desert, much as a ship traverses the sea.

Reduced Need For Water

One of the most significant abilities that make camels an excellent choice for desert transportation is their reduced need for water.

Considering the desert is known for having very few water sources, a form of transportation that requires little water is extremely advantageous.

When the weather is mild, camels can go for as long as several months without water. During the summer, when temperatures are higher, they can live without water for up to ten days.

Camels can survive losing one-third of their body weight as they become dehydrated, while most other mammals would perish before losing even half of that.

Water-Preserving Adaptations

Camels have a variety of water-preserving adaptations that help them survive as they travel across the dry desert.

Dehumidifying Noses

A camel’s nose has adapted to prevent the loss of water vapor when exhaling. The mucus membranes in camels’ noses cool exhaled air, and the water vapor is reabsorbed.

Another special feature of camels’ noses is that their nostrils can close off to prevent sand from getting inside.

Infrequent Sweating

Sweat is a huge source of water loss for most animals, but camels rarely sweat.

When they do, the sweat evaporates from the surface of their skin, rather than from the tips of their fur, creating a more efficient cooling effect.

In addition, a camel’s body temperature rises during the day so that there is less of a need to sweat.

Camels also store most of their fat in their humps, making it easier for them to release heat than if their fat were spread more evenly throughout their bodies.

Concentrated Waste

Like sweat, waste is another common source of water loss.

However, camels’ kidneys have adapted to produce thick, syrupy urine and extremely dry feces; both have very little water content.

Ability To Drink Large Amounts Of Water

Another hydration-related adaptation is the camel’s ability to consume huge quantities of water in a small amount of time.

They can drink around 29 gallons or one-third of their body weight in a little over ten minutes.

To put this into context, most animals would die if they drank this much water at once because it would dilute their blood.

However, camels store much of the water they drink in their gut for a full day and process it gradually so that it doesn’t result in blood dilution.

Camels also have special oval-shaped blood cells that can double in size when rehydrated, and their viscosity remains largely the same whether a camel is hydrated or dehydrated.

Thick Eyelashes And Third Eyelid

Camels’ eyes provide still more advantages for desert travel.

They have a double row of eyelashes that help to prevent dust and sand from getting in their eyes while also protecting them from the bright sun.

They have a nictitating membrane, which is a type of third eyelid, as well. This transparent eyelid’s primary function is to keep the camel’s eyes completely clear of sand.

Versatile Diet

Camels don’t require a specialized diet during their trips across the desert and can eat the vast majority of plants they come across.

They can even eat plants with spikes and thorns, thanks to the rough texture of their lips and tongue. Their papillae, firm protrusions inside of the mouth, also prevent the plants they eat from injuring them.

As herbivores, camels mainly eat plants, but sometimes eat fish and other forms of meat if it is the only type of sustenance available. 

Their diet primarily consists of oats, wheat, grass, and grains, and they will eat the twigs, stems, and green shoots of most plants they encounter.

Insulating Fur

A camel’s fur also helps it to thrive as it travels through the desert. 

You might think that camels would be cooler without their thick fur, which can be as long as four inches, but studies show that shorn camels sweat 50 percent more!

Their fur provides protection and insulation from the heat, and it reflects light, preventing sunburn.

Fat-Storing Humps

Finally, camels’ humps are one of the many reasons why they’re such a fantastic way to travel and carry cargo in the desert.

A camel’s hump can contain as much as 80 pounds of fat, which can be converted into hydration and energy when food and water are not available.

As a camel’s energy stores are depleted, its hump will deflate and hang to one side.

Thanks to their humps, camels can travel long distances without needing to eat or drink.


Just like ships carry people and cargo across the sea, camels carry passengers and goods across the sand, and have thus earned the name “ships of the desert.”

Camels have numerous features that make them particularly well-adapted to traveling in this hot, dry environment.

They’re strong and fast, and they can go for long periods of time without food and water. 

Their many water-preserving adaptations help them remain hydrated and healthy, even when they don’t have access to fresh water.

Camels also enjoy a versatile diet and can eat most plants they come across in the desert. 

Their humps store fat that can be converted to hydration and energy, enabling them to survive even if no food is available.

These animals also have wide, snowshoe-like feet perfect for desert sand, and their insulating fur protects them from the sun’s heat. 

Their thick eyelashes and third eyelid keep sand out of their eyes and shield them from the bright sun.

All of these characteristics make camels the perfect ships of the desert.

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