The best backpacking tents are tickets to special places you just can’t reach in a single day. Tent camping also allows you to linger in some of nature’s most beautiful landscapes, long after all of the day hikers have gone scurrying back to their cars. But the desert presents some unique challenges for tents — challenges that some tents handle better than others. In this piece, we pair five of the most important factors to consider when shopping for the best backpacking tent for desert camping, along with our top five tent picks, including ultralight options.
Here’s the shortlist with our top picks for best backpacking tent by category.
- Best 1-person Backpacking Tent: MSR Elixir 1
- Best 2-person Backpacking Tent: NEMO Dagger OSMO
- Best Lightweight Backpacking Tent: ZPacks Duplex
- Best Budget Backpacking Tent: REI Co-op Groundbreaker 2
- Best Overall Backpacking Tent: Big Agnes Copper SpurHV UL3
What To Look for When Buying a Tent for Desert Camping
There’s no single best backpacking tent. Although some tents are made from higher quality materials or sport special features, the best backpacking tent is the one that meets your needs (and wants). But there are several considerations that can help you decide which tent is most likely to provide you with the best, most comfortable shelter for camping in the desert.
Tent manufacturers are often quite optimistic about how many people will fit in the space of a tent. Look carefully at the interior dimensions for each tent to be sure there’s enough space to comfortably accommodate you and anyone else you plan to bring along.
Your tent is the heaviest piece of gear in your backpack. Although you don’t want to be lugging around an army surplus tent, you also don’t want to be shaving off ounces at the expense of truly useful features like high-quality, durable materials or freestanding capability which are non-negotiables when desert camping.
Camping in the desert requires sharing space with lots of prickly plants and sharp-edged rocks. Ultralight tents made with delicate, technical fabrics may be lighter to carry or provide better airflow, but these benefits may come with a steep price. A ripped tent will perform poorly until repairs can be made, and serious tears may require the tent to be replaced. Pick a tent made from durable, proven material like ripstop nylon or nylon polyurethane mix.
Tents are a lot like cars in that the sky's the limit when it comes to price and features. Although some of these features are nice, few are truly necessary. Buy the best tent you can afford that meets your needs.
Freestanding vs. Partial Freestanding
Desert backpacking campsites may lack reliable places to stake down your tent. Hard rock and soft sand aren’t where tent pegs shine. A freestanding tent can stand up on its own without being pegged down. Partial freestanding tents have a pole structure like a freestanding tent, but must be staked down in order to reach their full dimensions and hold a rigid shape. In general, freestanding tents are heavier, but those extra ounces yield a dwelling that’s better ventilated and can be pitched just about anywhere.
5 Best Backpacking Tents for Desert Tent Camping
The best backpacking tents stand out for their creative use of space, materials, and special features. Here are our favorite tents for desert camping.
1. MSR Elixir 1: Best 1-person Backpacking Tent
The MSR Elixir is a compact, freestanding tent that feels roomier than its small footprint implies. This backpacking tent is quick to set up and take down with a vestibule for stashing gear like hiking boots. An integrated gear loft keeps smaller items like tech or maps in reach while glow-in-the-dark zipper pulls make it easy to find your way in or out at night.
2. NEMO Dagger OSMO: Best 2-person Backpacking Tent
This two-person tent can accommodate a pair with space to spare. The NEMO Dagger OSMO comes with lots of well-thought-out features like door clips for holding the door open and a special headlamp diffuser pocket that turns a bright headlamp into a warm, overhead glow, perfect for illuminating the tent’s interior. The tent packs into two separate compartments, making it easy to split the weight load with your bunkmate. It’s also worth noting that the OSMO tent is also woven from 100% recycled yarn – we’re all about sustainability so this is a huge plus for us.
3. ZPacks Duplex: Best Lightweight Backpacking Tent
Image courtesy of ZPacks. Used with permission.
At 18.5 ounces, the ZPacks Duplex is about as light as they come. It can sleep two people or provide one person with plenty of room to spread out. Made from strong Dyneema composite fabric, the Duplex may be an ultralight tent, but it isn’t flimsy. Like most in the ultralight class, it’s non-freestanding.
4. REI Co-op Groundbreaker 2: Best Budget Backpacking Tent
This freestanding, no-frills tent is an ideal choice for backpackers on a budget. The REI Co-op Groundbreaker 2 provides some nice features like mesh roof panels for taking in big sky views and a breeze. The tent’s back wall panel has zip-open screen windows for basking in the final glimpses of desert splendor before bunking down for the night.
5. Big Agnes Copper SpurHV UL3: Best Overall Backpacking Tent
Image courtesy of Big Agnes. Used with permission.
The Big Agnes Copper SpurHV UL3 takes the prize as the most versatile, well-rounded tent on the list. This three-person tent is free-standing and made using a durable, lightweight fabric that tips the scales at just three pounds, eight ounces. Dual entries, each with their own open vestibule make this space easy to share. The high fly venting system helps increase airflow, ideal for cooling off after a long day of desert backpacking.
Need a backpack? Here are our choices for top backpacks for desert hiking.
Epic Desert Hikes Deserve Footwear to Match
After putting in the work hiking miles of epic desert trails, having a comfortable place to bunk down after a long day is important. The best backpacking tents provide a relaxing place to shelter and recharge. But tents aren’t the only piece of backpacking gear where buying quality matters. Rugged, unforgiving desert terrain, demands hiking boots designed to perform in arid environments. At Erem, we’ve designed comfortable, durable hiking boots that help you master desert extremes. We’re desert lovers, and that passion is what drives us to craft the best desert hiking boots available. Every pair of men’s and women’s hiking boots we make are optimized for top performance in some of the world’s most unforgiving places. Erem boots offer the ideal balance of durability and comfort. Superior breathability, unrivaled toughness, and the targeted support your feet need to keep going mile after desert mile are sets us apart.
We’re dedicated to preserving the delicate desert ecosystems that form the backdrop of our desert adventures. That’s why our boots are crafted using sustainable practices that help preserve the Earth’s limited resources. Every pair of Erem Xerocole™ boots is Biocircular, using only materials with a proven path back to nature. But goodbyes aren’t easy, and thanks to Erem’s Reboot program you don’t have to part ways with your favorite hiking boots. Just send us your old pair. We’ll resole, refurbish, and return them in the same condition they were when you first ordered them. Whether you’re a casual day hiker or hardboiled, multi-day backpacker, our hiking boots have what you need to master the terrain you love to tread.
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