How to Choose a Backpacking Tent

The ideal backpacking tent should have the combination of features, weight, comfort, and durability for the type of trips you plan to do. Learn more about what to look for when making a purchase.

campsite with multiple backpacking tents

A high quality tent can be quite expensive, so it’s good to know what to look for before making an investment in your shelter. The least expensive tents are usually intended for car camping, often weighing over 5 pounds or more depending on the size of the tent. It is possible to purchase a tent that will work for both car camping and backpacking, but for the purpose of this post, I’ll cover what to look for in backpacking tents.

TENT SPECS

campsite with multiple backpacking tents

Weight

A tent is one of the “big three” gear items (backpack, shelter, sleep system) that comprise your backpacking base weight, so it’s good to regard weight as an important criteria when purchasing a tent. However, consider the type of trips you plan to do before going for the lowest possible weight tent. For example, if you plan to cover a lot of miles on backpacking trips, an ultralight tent will make a big difference in the overall comfort of your hike. On the other hand, if you plan to hike shorter miles or set up camp once and day hike from there, a tent with additional features and roominess that weighs slightly more might be a better option.

The specs for a tent usually list the trail weight (sometimes labeled as the minimum weight) and the packaged weight. Trail weight is typically only the tent body, rainfly and poles. The packaged weight is everything that comes packaged with the tent, including the tent body, rainfly, poles, stakes, and any guylines, stuff sacks, repair kits or manuals that may be included. The actual weight that you carry will vary based on the parts of the tent you choose to take on each trip, with the packaged weight being closer to what you’ll carry.

In general, a lightweight backpacking tent should weigh about 2-2.5 pounds per person, while ultralight tents will be closer to 1-1.5 pounds per person. When sharing a tent it is possible to split the weight by having one person carry the tent body and poles, and the other carry the rainfly, guylines, and stakes.

Capacity

Backpacking tents are sold in one, two or three person sizes, although there is no industry standard for these designations so you’ll need to compare each tent’s measurements in order to find what works for you. Most backpacking tents tend to be a snug fit, so if you need a bit of extra space to spread out or to store gear, consider sizing up. It’s quite common for backpackers to choose a two person tent for one in order to have more space, or to accommodate a wider sleeping pad.

Packability

Tent specs include the packed size, which will help you determine how well it fits in a backpack or if it will need to be attached to the outside. Instead of carrying all of the tent components together, consider separating the tent body and rainfly from the poles and stakes for better placement in your backpack. For example, you may be able to carry the tent inside a backpack with the poles and stakes in a side pocket.

Fabrics

Nylon is the most common material for tents due to its low cost, high strength-to-weight ratio, and its high resistance to abrasion. Nylon has the most stretch to it versus other tent fabrics, which is both a benefit and a downside. Fabric panels that are stretchy can distribute the weight of stress points better without tearing. The downside of stretchy fabric is that it sags more and doesn’t pitch as tight.

Polyester, once used mainly in heavier car camping tents, is making a comeback in lightweight tent design due to advances in the textile properties. It has some advantages over nylon, including its ability to shed water, and doesn’t stretch as much so sagging is less of an issue. Polyester is also more resistant to UV damage but has a lower tear strength than nylon.

Dyneema (formerly called cuban fiber) is the lightest fabric option currently available. It’s completely waterproof without the need for coatings. It’s also the most expensive and currently not in use by most major tent manufacturers. However, there are many cottage-industry gear manufacturers offering ultralight tents utilizing Dyneema fabric. It used to be that ultralight tents had much smaller interiors, but with the use of fabrics such as Dyneema, an ultralight tent can be spacious and weigh much less than a comparable traditional tent. While it is a strong fabric, it is more susceptible to abrasions and overall doesn’t last as long as tents made from nylon or polyester.

Denier: The weight of nylon and polyester fabric is designated as denier, with most tents utilizing 20-30 denier. Lightweight and ultralight tents typically use 10 denier or lighter fabric which tends to be less durable.

Fabric coatings: The majority of tents available are made of nylon or polyester fabric with a polyurethane (PU) waterproof coating on the inside of the rainfly and a DWR or silicone coating on the outside to repel rain, and the use of seam tape to seal seams. These coatings can wear off over time due to sun exposure and abrasion and may need to be reapplied. Silnylon and silpoly are materials with the silicone embedded in the fabric, making it stronger, lighter weight, and more waterproof than coated fabrics. Since seam tape won’t stick to them, seams must be sealed with a liquid sealant. Some tents come with this applied during the manufacturing process, but for those that aren’t, it can be done at home with silicone and a foam brush.

TYPES OF TENTS

Guide to Backpacking Tents

Double-wall tents

The double-wall tent is the most utilized type, with a mesh inner tent and a separate rainfly that covers it and provides weather protection. Most double-wall tents can set up without the rainfly in good weather for stargazing. Some offer a “fast-pitch” option, utilizing the rainfly with a footprint and leaving out the inner tent for a lighter option.

Single-wall tents

Constructed of fabric and mesh in a single layer instead of having a separate rainfly and inner tent, single-wall tents are generally much lighter in weight than double-wall tents. While all tents can experience condensation build-up on the inside of the walls, it’s more apparent with a single-wall tent since there’s no mesh to separate from the outer walls.

Three-season & Four-season tents

The vast majority of tents are made for three-season use in the spring, summer and fall. Four-season tents are designed for use in harsher conditions, with sturdier construction to withstand high wind and snow loads. They tend to be a lot heavier, with more fabric coverage, less mesh and bulkier poles.

Freestanding Tents

Freestanding tents are the easiest to setup and retain their structure, especially when staking is difficult. They include hubbed-poles that allows them to be setup without stakes – although it is still recommended to use stakes so the tent doesn’t blow around. They also tend to be the best option for comfort, with features not found on other tents.

Semi-Freestanding Tents

Semi-freestanding tents are similar to freestanding with hubbed-poles, but usually have at least two corners on the tent that require staking in order to save weight.

Non-Freestanding Tents

Non-freestanding tents are the lightest weight option and require staking all corners of the tent to create the structure. These tents are usually pitched with trekking poles, but if you don’t use trekking poles – or like me, prefer to basecamp and use trekking poles for day hikes from camp – you can purchase optional support poles.

TENT FEATURES

campsite with multiple backpacking tents

Roominess

To determine the overall roominess of a tent, look at the square footage, height, length and width. Tents with vertical walls will be much roomier than those with sloping walls. This is often achieved with the addition of short poles that extend across the top of the tent to pull the walls out wider. Also consider the size of the vestibules for storing gear, freeing up space inside.

For taller people, pay attention to the tent length and height to make sure there’s enough space to keep a sleeping bag from touching the ends when laying down, and enough head space for sitting up without hitting the top of the tent.

It may seem like a good idea to get a larger shelter that will accommodate more people and a lot of gear, but larger tents are heavier and can make it difficult to find a campsite that will fit the larger footprint. Additionally, if there’s a lot of empty space, it will tend to be colder than a smaller tent with less air to warm.

Doors and vestibules

The placement of the entry to a tent can have a big impact on ease of use and comfort. Some of the lightest tents available use a single front entry, while side entry tents are much easier to enter/exit without contorting and twisting around to get in and out. This is especially important in a two or three-person tent, where having two doors is advantageous not only to prevent crawling over your tent mate, but also for the extra space an additional vestibule provides. Vestibules are the space outside of the tent door, sheltered by the rainfly. They provide an area to store gear, clean muddy items, or change out of wet clothing prior to entering the main tent area.

Tent Poles

Most tents utilize dedicated aluminum or carbon fiber poles for supporting the structure. In a hubbed design, multiple poles are combined and use a hub, shaped like a spoke, with poles coming off of each point.

Instead of dedicated poles, some ultralight tents rely on the use of trekking poles. An advantage to using trekking poles is if you already use them for hiking, the weight of dedicated poles is saved. However, if you want to use your trekking poles for hiking while your tent is setup, you’ll need to remove them from the tent and/or bring a dedicated pole for your tent.

Tent Stakes

Stakes are used to secure a tent to the ground, to help provide a taut set up, and to keep the rainfly from touching the sides of the tent. Each tent varies on the number of stakes needed for proper set up, and not all tents come with the number of stakes needed, so check to make sure you have enough stakes before using your tent on a backpacking trip. Most of the stakes that ship with tents aren’t the best quality. Consider upgrading to sturdier versions, such as a Y stake with fins that have great holding power in hard or rocky soil.

Vents

To prevent condensation build up on the inside of a tent, vents are used to allow moist air to escape. Higher quality tents offer multiple ways to vent, with strategic placement of the vents for cross ventilation. Additionally, tents with two doors will allow air to flow through the space when the vestibules are opened.

Weather protection

For extra protection from rain and wind, look for a rainfly that extends lower to the ground. Additionally, floors with fabric that extends at least a few inches up the tent walls will help to keep moisture and cold air from entering the tent.

Footprints

The use a footprint is optional, but can help protect the floor of a tent from abrasion and punctures and prolong its life. Larger tent manufacturers often produce footprints that are sold separately for each model of tent they offer. For a lighter weight and less expensive option, materials such as Polycro and Tyvek can be used. The footprint should be slightly smaller than the floor of a tent to prevent water from pooling under the tent.

Additional features

There are an increasing number of options that may be offered in a tent, including multiple pockets or even built-in lighting. Pockets are useful for storing smaller items for easy access, such as a headlamp or glasses. Most models have at least one loop on the interior, useful for hanging a light, or with multiple loops, a gear loft can be attached to keep lightweight gear off the tent floor. Loops can also be used to attach guy line for hanging items to dry during inclement weather.

Where to purchase

Guide to Backpacking Tents

Outdoor retailers typically carry double-wall, 3-season tents by manufacturers such as Big Agnes, Mountain Hardwear, Sea to Summit, MSR, Nemo, and Sierra Designs. In addition, some retailers like REI Co-op offer their own brand of tents for backpacking and car camping.

Also consider purchasing gear from one of the smaller cottage-industry companies such as TarpTent, Zpacks, Six Moon Designs, Durston Gear, or Gossamer Gear. These companies focus on ultralight gear and offer single-wall and double-wall tents, some of which are made in the U.S. While you may be able to find products from these companies at smaller local retailers, most of these products will need to be purchased directly from the companies who make them.

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