If you’re here, you’re in the market for a backpacking tent. Woohoo!!! First of all, that’s awesome. Second of all, we know all the options and features of backpacking tents can get a bit mind-numbing after a while. But the truth is, your backpacking tent is one of the most crucial items in your pack and could become either your best friend on the trail or an item that will have you never wanting to backpack again. So it’s worth it to spend some time with the features and benefits that fit you!
Over the years of being guides and field testers, we’ve accumulated dozens of tents and tested hundreds. I’ve even given some tents away to friends because the collection was overwhelming our ability to store it…silly gearhead. Because of this insanity, we’ve been able to work some tents and brands of tents to the bone. So we know what makes for a successful tent design.
While having dozens of tents is COMPLETELY unnecessary, investing in a few tents over time isn’t such a bad idea. As you take on more challenging or different types of adventures, or maybe as you start a family, you may find your tent needs changing. So we tried to write this guide to help you decide on a tent that fits you, no matter your stage of life, or adventure experience.
If you’re looking for recommendations on specific tents, check out our article: Our Favorite Backpacking Tents of 2018.
Size & Weight:
Tents are typically categorized by how many people they’re intended to fit. It’s important to know that most manufacturers measure this by the international standard sleeping pad size range: 20″-24″ W x ~72 – 78″ L. SO, a 2 person tent means that it truly fits only 2 people sleeping RIGHT next to each other. VERY little room for gear, dogs, etc. This is often why smaller backpacking tents have “vestibules”: to keep your gear outside, but still under the rainfly for protection – because there’s just not enough room for it in the tent.
GUIDE NOTE: “Greater Size = Greater Weight” and “Lesser Weight = Greater Price”
Your tent will be one of the four heaviest items in your pack (shelter, backpack, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad), so it’s a great place to keep weight low. You may not think a couple l-b’s make a difference, but they really can on more than a day or two backpacking.
For your first, or “all around” tent, buy “one person” above how you plan to use it most. If you’re going to be camping with two people most often, get a light 3p tent – you’ll appreciate the space on longer campground stays, and the extra weight won’t kill you while backpacking – ESPECIALLY if your pack mates share the load. Nevertheless, try to get the lightest tent you can afford in the proper size category.
GUIDE NOTE: If you’re planning on camping in more serious weather conditions like heavy snow and extreme wind, worry less about weight and more about sturdiness and durability.
Obviously related to size, Livability implies features that add to the comfort level of a tent.
- Doors: I know it might seem weird, but it’s nice when every sleeper has a door so people don’t have to climb over one another to get out. Choosing a multi-person tent with a single door, though, often cuts weight and sometimes cost.
- Ventilation: Mesh is lighter and more breathable, but nylon is less expensive. Inexpensive tents often use more nylon – this also makes them far less breathable in hot/humid weather and when the rainfly is on. Stay away from tents with a nylon-to-mesh ratio that is too high.
- “Peak Height”: This is how tall the tent is at it’s highest point. Almost all tents are going to be tall enough to sit comfortably. However, some tents taper at one end, meaning only half the tent is tall enough to sit up in. Some tents are taller, or they configure the poles to offer more vertical and “ceiling” space without adding much weight – which can make all the difference for a taller person or for those times when it’s raining and you have to play cards in the tent for a few hours.
- Waterproofness: Be aware: cheaper tents may claim to be waterproof, but they may only be coated with a spray (like you might spray on leather shoes) which WILL wear off over time and WILL NOT be effective in heavy rain, I promise. Stay away from the phrase “water resistant”. (See More in the “Protection/Seasonality” section below)
- Other Features: Like gear pockets and lofts, ventilation, and even how easy the zippers are to operate can add to the “livability” of a backpacking tent.
Tents We Love:
A backpacking tent that doesn’t protect you against the worst mother nature has to offer is just plain dangerous. STAY AWAY from to-good-to-be-true tents. If they’re super cheap, there’s a reason why we promise. When you’re in the wilderness, weather conditions can be very unpredictable, and what you aren’t ready for, can kill you. Let me just say that good tents have saved my life. Don’t skimp on this purchase. Buy the best tent you can afford and you’ll be happy you did.
Most of the popular backpacking tents are rated to 3 Seasons. Which means they are designed to handle weather conditions found in Spring, Summer, and Fall. Still, tent manufacturers know that any season on the side of a mountain is unpredictable, and if you’re at a high enough altitude, snow can come even in the dead of summer. So most “3 season” tents are able to handle bad weather conditions of those three seasons and even some snow but are not designed for sustained time in wintery conditions. Four season tents are really a specialty item that, while crucial for winter camping, are mostly unnecessary for the average adventurer.
Design and Setup:
These days, most popular tent brands have designers and field testers that spend thousands of hours in the backcountry. This is because they know that even the smallest design flaw can make an otherwise good backpacking tent an annoyance instead. Elements like multiple doors, zippers, vestibules for gear, and ceiling area for headroom all contribute to a superior design.
If you see the term freestanding, it usually indicates an easier setup, having a fixed pole system, not having to attach guylines or use stakes to set it up. Non-freestanding tents are usually lighter because they eliminate poles but require other elements like stakes and guylines, and definitely require some practice to get them set up right.
Tents We Love:
The only challenge with “ultralight” backpacking tents, is they are made with ultralight materials, often indicating less durable materials. While this is mostly true, most ultralight backpacking tents will last for thousands of miles with minimal to no repairs. Still, if you’re tough on gear or need something a bit more durable, consider a heavier tent with more durable materials. And remember, every tent material will rip if punctured by a stick or ripped by a rock. So for the weight savings, we almost always recommend ultralight tent models.
Like anything else, with backpacking tents, you get what you pay for. Still, you shouldn’t have to break the bank to get a solid backpacking tent. If you backpack quite a bit, you should choose to spend a bit more on a higher quality tent. We always recommend buying the best you can afford.
Tents We Love:
What/Where to buy:
Many competing tent brands manufacture their tents with the same exact equipment in the factory – and sometimes even in the exact same factories. This means the quality of materials, stitching, waterproofness, etc. is going to be somewhat the same within the same price range. So don’t get too bogged down with brands.
Having said that, we recommend looking for a brand or store that offers a lifetime guarantee – even if it’s limited to manufacturer defects. Many manufacturers (even many “bargain” brands) will stand behind their products for life. All in all, a high-quality, well taken care of tent SHOULD last a lifetime. Read warranty and return information. It could be a difference maker down the road, and in my experience – if a company ISN’T offering a lifetime warranty on a tent, there are probably worthy enough reasons to not buy it.