How to Pick a Great Backpacking Tent


Shelter on a backpacking trip can make or break your experience. Take time to pick the right tent for the right reason at the right price. Your shelter, your pack, and your tent will weigh the most on your trip. 5 things to consider before picking your next tent:
  1. Tent capacity
  2. Tent weight
  3. Tent Type
  4. Seasonality
  5. Livability

Backpacking Tent Capacity

First things first—even the best two-man tent is worthless for a party of 4. Find out who is going on the backpacking trip before you buy the tent.

Backpacking tents range from 1 to 4-person tents. Industry standards do not exist for the different types of tents. Accordingly, a 3-person tent size may vary depending upon the maker.

Larger backpackers or those seeking more room may need to look into buying a size bigger for the extra space. Plus-size tent designs offer the most extra space on the market.  Solo backpackers may prefer an ultralight tent. While ultralight tents may not be as roomy, they will be lighter than their larger counterparts. Shedding weight saves time and energy, two of the most important commodities on a long backpacking trip.

Backpacking Tent Weight

The second thing to consider is how heavy your tent is going to be. Nothing is worse when you’re out in the middle of nowhere than a pack you can’t carry. I always tell people planning to go on a longer hike (10+ miles) to experiment with their fully loaded backpack first on shorter walks around their community.

Just because a tent is heavier does not mean that it will be stronger than a lighter tent. Technology advances in recent ultralight models make them just as solid as any quality tent. The strongest tent will be the tent that survives the weather conditions you will face on your trip. (1)

Tent Weight Specifications
  • Trail weight: The weight of only the poles, body, and fly. This is generally how heavy your tent will be on the trail in your pack.
  • Packed Weight: The weight of all the components combined when packed. Elements include the body, stakes, instructions, poles, fly, and everything else included in the package. The weight you choose to carry will be somewhere between the minimum and packed weight. I like to compare tents by their packed weight because I know the tent will never be heavier than this weight.
  • Packed Size: This is how much space the tent will take up when packed in your backpack. For parties of 2 or more, a great strategy is to break up the tent weight by allowing 1 person to carry poles and 1 person to carry the tent body.

Backpacking Tent Type

Listed below are the types of backpacking tents. For small parties and for those traveling long distances a lighter tent may be the best choice. For larger parties or those traveling shorter distances a heavier, larger tent may be the best option.

Ultralight: For those who like to travel fast and light over long distances, ultralight tents may be your best option. Through the use of delicate fabrics and minimal features, ultralight tents shed huge amounts of weight. In general, most ultralight tents are 3-season tents due to less material. This will most likely be the most expensive option for buying a tent.

Single wall tent: By combing the tent body and rainfly into one fabric, single wall tents pack tighter and shed more weight than a standard double wall tent. The disadvantages include less versatility (no way to shed the rainfly on hot nights) and moisture that builds on the inside walls.

Double wall tent: The best choice for those who don’t care about weight and like multiple pitch options: quick-pitch (footprint and fly), without a fly, and full. The advantages of a double wall tent include extra insulation and protection from the elements. A disadvantage is that double wall tents tend to weigh more on average than other styles of tents.

Alternate Shelters

Bivouac: “Bivy” for short, these shelters cover just the sleeping bag. Waterproof materials protect the user from the elements but may be less comfortable. Because of a cocoon-like shape, this shelter is not for those who feel claustrophobic in tight quarters. However, this is a great option for thru-hikers and those looking to shed the most amount of weight.

Bug shelters: Perfect for hotter, more humid climates where a tent would make you drip in sweat. Most bug shelters include poles and a net, but no ground tarp. Advantages include a quick setup, lightweight design, and great views of the sunrise or sunset.  The drawbacks include less protection from the weather and obviously less insulation for colder nights.

Tarp shelters: Tarp shelters include tarps in different shapes and sizes that will protect you from rain and snow but not the damp forest ground. You will probably never find a lighter shelter to pack than a solid tarp. Easy to set up and take down, tarps are a great option in decent weather. The disadvantages include less protection from rain, snow, and strong winds.

Hammocks: Backpacking hammocks often come with rainfly and some sort of net to keep bugs away. Hammocks are lightweight, easy to pack and raise you off the ground so you don’t need to worry as much about rain. Drawbacks are that they don’t shelter you as much from the cold, they can be difficult to sleep in for first time users, and you need solid trees in order to set them up. (2)

 

Seasonality

There are 3 types of tents when it comes to seasonality: 3-season, 3+ season, and 4-season tents.

3-Season Backpacking Tents

This is the type of tent that 90% of backpackers choose to roll with. Designed for the more temperate weather of spring, summer, and fall, 3-season tents can withstand the occasional downpour or light flurries. In harsh weather conditions such as heavy rain, snow, or wind these tents would not be a wise choice. Key characteristics:
  • Wide mesh panels to create extra airflow and block bugs
  • Taller walls to create more interior headspace
  • Minimal fabric and fewer poles for lighter weight

3+ Season Backpacking Tents

Similar to 3-season tents, these models are great spring through fall. In addition, these tents can handle colder weather and moderate snow associated with higher elevations. Perfect for hikers who frequent mountains that expose them to the elements more often. Key characteristics (different from 3-season):
  • More poles for additional strength
  • Taller walls for more headspace
  • Less mesh for more insulation and additional heat retention

4-Season Backpacking Tent

Designed primarily for harsh winter conditions, these tents retain heat better than any other models. However, these tents can feel muggy in the spring, summer, or fall. Key characteristics:
  • Heavy-duty fabric and larger poles for strength against wind and snow
  • Dome-like construction that eliminates snow buildup and retards harsh winds
  • Larger rainfly that connect to the ground
  • Least amount of mesh panels 

Livability

The final aspect to consider when buying a backpacking tent is livability. The shape, exterior and interior size, and room available matter most when you spend a good amount of time in the tent. For solo hikers or those who like to travel light and fast over longer periods of time, you will inevitably sacrifice some comfort for lighter packs. However, new technology aims to increase interior space without added weight.

Interior Space: To determine the interior space, your best bet is to visit a store and look inside. Ask the manager for permission to set up a tent you might like. Some tents provide plenty of headroom but narrow legroom and vice versa.

Peak height: The tallest single point inside a tent is the peak height. The problem with this is that even though the peak height may be great, the shape of the tent may still limit the true amount of headspace. Look at the overall shape of the tent to get a better picture.

Ventilation: Ventilation is key because as you exhale during rest, condensation naturally builds up on the walls making your sleep wet and miserable. A mesh panel allows air to move out of the tent. This also makes the tent smell better with larger parties in particular.

Wall shape: Even more crucial than the total head and shoulder space is the shape of the walls. Tents with vertical walls (dome or rectangular shapes) feel like they offer more room than tents with triangular walls.

Doors: Can you really have too many doors in a tent? The more people that use a tent at the same time, the more likely you may need at least a second door. Nothing is worse on a backpacking trip than being woken up in the middle of the night because someone stepped on you trying to get to the door.

Tent colors: Lighter colors allow more light to pass through the walls and into the tent itself. It may not seem like a big deal but more light helps make the tent feel bigger and more like home. This could be crucial during spells of bad weather where you would need to be tent bound.

Related Articles

Backpacking Essentials: Survival Gear Guide

How to Pick a Great Sleeping Pad

How to Sleep Great in a Tent

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