All tents offer shelter and privacy. When picking a tent that you’ll carry for miles on your back, you should pay extra attention to space, weight, ease of setup and design features. It will, after all, be your home away from home.
How many people will sleep in the tent? How much gear will you carry? Two people who carry minimal gear likely will be fine sleeping in a two-person tent. Two larger campers or those with lots of gear may need a three-person tent. If possible, crawl inside a tent at a gear store to see how much head room there is when sitting. Look at the slope of the tent’s walls and consider whether one or more people comforably can sit up inside. (You don’t want a low ceiling to come as a surprise during a two-day storm.)
In general, aim for less weight. But measure weight against space. There’s no point saving a pound in your backpack if it means no one gets a good night’s sleep because you’re rolling into one another. Look at each tent’s minimum, or trail, weight – the total weight of the tent body, rainfly and poles – as well as its packaged weight – the total weight of all tent components. Consider the packaged weight as the maximum you’ll carry.
Most backpackers can get by using a three-season tent, good for all but winter winter. Mesh panels are great for ventilation and star gazing on warm and dry nights. Look for a four-season tent if you plan to spend a lot of time at high altitudes, in windy areas, or camping in the snow.
Single-door tents often are lighter. A vestibule offers sheltered space for backpacks and boots. Reflective guylines or tabs can minimize tripping hazards at night. Interior pockets and gear lofts provide places to stash items such as your headlamp, multi-tool and eyeglasses.
Fewer poles usually indicates easier and faster set up.
One wall or two?
The vast majority of tents are double-wall designs – a main tent body (with a waterproof floor and a breathable canopy) that, when needed, is covered with a removable rainfly. Single-wall tents are constructed of waterproof/breathable fabrics that do not need a rainfly. They seal tightly in cold, snowy weather and use vapor pressure to force out condensation.
Some rainflys (often on 4-season tents) are equipped with hooded vents, sometimes called chimney vents, that can be propped open to create a ventilation channel during unfavorable weather. This is particularly valuable in humid, rainy conditions and during still, icy winter nights.
Pole Sleeves vs. Pole Clips
Poles connect to canopies via clips, sleeves or both. Pole sleeves help distribute fabric tension over a larger area and thus create less overall stress. Pole clips are easy to attach and usually allow a larger gap between the rainfly and tent body. This improves ventilation and minimizes condensation.
Most backpacking tents use aluminum poles due to their high strength-to-weight and durability. Fiberglass poles tend to be heavier and are susceptible to splintering.
This is a custom-fitted ground cloth that goes under your tent floor. A footprint buffers your floor from routine wear and provides extra protection. Most freestanding tents offer a “footprint and fly” option whereby you can leave the tent body at home in warm, dry weather to save weight.
Expect to pay about $250 (and up to $500) on a two-person tent.
A bivy is a waterproof, breathable barrier for your sleeping bag, like a cocoon. Some are basic sacks with nothing more than a face hole; others offer enclosed, pole-supported head space with mesh netting to separate you from bugs.
In ideal conditions you can drape a tarp between trees or trekking poles for a basic and lightweight shelter.
Backpacking hammocks are gaining favor. They keep you off the ground and can include an insulating layer and tarp-like rainfly and bug netting.
- If possible, rent or borrow the model of tent you’re considering purchasing – or something similar – before you buy.
- Practice setting up your tent at home before your first trip.
- Remember: Tent components can be divided among backpacks so no one person is saddled with all of the space and weight.
- When packing up, avoid repeatedly folding a tent along the same crease lines; creases can weaken the fabric.
- When breaking down tent poles, make the first break in the center of a pole rather than starting at one end. Doing so lessens tension on the elastic cord connecting the sections.
- Camping in snow? Build a snow wall on the windward side of your site and position the tent’s door downwind – away from incoming wind.
- Never store a tent (or leave it tightly packed) when it’s wet; the resulting mildew could ruin it. When not used for a long time, it’s best to store a tent loosely, outside of its stuff sack.
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