Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are robust and abundant molecules in extraterrestrial environments. They are found ubiquitously in the interstellar medium and have been identified in extracts of meteorites collected on Earth. PAHs are important target molecules for planetary exploration missions that investigate the organic inventory of planets, moons and small bodies. This study is part of an interdisciplinary preparation phase to search for organic molecules and life on Mars. We have investigated PAH compounds in desert soils to determine their composition, distribution and stability. Soil samples (Mars analogue soils) were collected at desert areas of Utah in the vicinity of the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), in the Arequipa region in Peru and from the Jutland region of Denmark. The aim of this study was to optimize the solid-phase microextraction (SPME) method for fast screening and determination of PAHs in soil samples. This method minimizes sample handling and preserves the chemical integrity of the sample. Complementary liquid extraction was used to obtain information on five- and six-ring PAH compounds. The measured concentrations of PAHs are, in general, very low, ranging from 1 to 60 ng g−1. The texture of soils is mostly sandy loam with few samples being 100 % silt. Collected soils are moderately basic with pH values of 8–9 except for the Salten Skov soil, which is slightly acidic. Although the diverse and variable microbial populations of the samples at the sample sites might have affected the levels and variety of PAHs detected, SPME appears to be a rapid, viable field sampling technique with implications for use on planetary missions.