We reviewed both single and double wall tents in this roundup. The difference at first glance is as simple as the names: single wall shelters have one layer of wind and water resistant or waterproof fabric and are supported by poles that can be either inside or outside of the fabric. Double wall tents have two layers: an inner tent made of water-resistant, breathable solid nylon (never waterproof), and an outer waterproof rain fly. In all cases, besides the Hilleberg models, the poles are held in place with sleeves or clips on the body, and then the waterproof rain fly covers the whole thing. The Hilleberg's use a different design with the poles attached to the fly with the body hanging suspended from the inside.
Single Wall vs. Double Wall
Choosing between a single and double wall tent is a critical decision. Overall, double wall tents work better in a wider range of conditions because they put two layers of fabric between you and elements. This creates a more comfortable space. The inner tent provides condensation-limiting breathability while the outer tent supplies the weather protection. The inner tent is water repellant and breathable; it lets vapor pass through but prevents condensed water from falling on you. Double wall tents are also stronger, more durable and warmer. When the fly wears out you can replace it, so with proper care, a double wall tent can last for many years.
At some point, your desired adventure crosses a threshold where saving weight is more important than comfort, space, and durability. This is where single wall tents excel. One wall weighs less than two and is faster and easier to set up. Single wall tents usually have smaller footprints that allow them to be pitched in tight spaces or small ledges.
We favor single wall tents for shorter duration trips where moving fast and light is a top priority, or when the only site available is a small ledge. For everything else, we take a double wall tent. In the summer, tarps and bivy sacks outperform single wall tents.
Along with the number of walls a tent is built with, pole design is an important aspect of the overall design. It defines the shelter's strength and influences every feature. There are three classic designs: two poles that cross once in the center, three poles where two cross in the center and the third is an off-set up-side-down "u," and finally four poles that cross a total of seven times. There are, of course, many other variations on these three designs, some of which are more successful than others.
Several factors that make the pole design stronger are the number of pole intersections, the number of clips and material that attach the poles to the tent, and pole material and diameter.
In our opinion, the highest quality poles are DAC Featherlite NSL Green. The thicker, the stronger. We must say we are impressed with the new Easton Syclone composite poles that are being used by MSR. These poles seem extremely strong and can flex further before breaking than traditional aluminum poles. It will be interesting to see if other manufactures follow-suit with similar designs down the road.
Internal Pole set-up
Poles that set up inside the tent do a good job at supporting the walls and are lighter than those that support the tent from outside, but are harder to set up and can accidentally puncture the tent wall or floor if you're not careful while erecting the tent. These are on the Black Diamond single wall tents and the Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2.
Exterior Pole set-up
Exterior pole set up refers to poles that are attached to the outside of the body or the fly of the tent using pole clips or pole sleeves to hold the tent in place. In most cases, the poles are between the body and the fly, but Hilleberg's poles attached on top of the fly.
Pole Sleeves are slightly stronger as they more evenly distribute force across the entire pole, but in windy conditions, they can be more challenging to set-up and potentially dangerous for the poles during setup. During set-up when only one pole is inserted, the poles are far less supported and are more susceptible to being broken by wind, as a tent with one pole acts pretty similar to a kite. Pole clips are quicker, easier, and safer to pitch than sleeves as you can start clipping all sides of the tent up the pole at a similar level to better protect it from becoming a kite or the poles getting bent.
The best pole design combines the attributes of a single wall tent (fast and easy to pitch) with the strength and durability of a double wall tent. Hilleberg does this with stunning grace. Both the Tarra and Jannu are a cinch to pitch, incredibly fast to take down and provide incredible protection from the elements.
Outer Tent (rain fly)
The outer tent is a waterproof fabric most often made from polyurethane or silicone-treated ripstop nylon or polyester. Outer tents shed rain, snow, ice, and wind. Single wall tents have one layer of fabric, which is more often than not a three-layer waterproof-breathable material. In double wall tents, the outer tent adds stability and strength by attaching to the inner tent and being guyed out to the ground. All double wall tents have a vestibule, or porch as they say in the UK. Vestibules provide a dry space for entry/exit, gear storage, and cooking. Most vestibules are made of the same material as the outer tent.
As we breathe, we release warm, humid air. When this air rises and hits the much colder tent wall, it condenses sticks to it. It can even freeze if the temperature is cold enough. After sufficient buildup of frozen condensation, water vapor from your breath will hit the wall, freeze and rain back down upon you like snow. This scenario, often too common when camping in cold climes, can be uncomfortable, make your sleeping bag wet and the tent heavier with accumulated moisture.
The ability for a tent to properly ventilate and thus appropriately manage condensation requires enough airflow to carry water vapor out of the tent before it condenses on the tent walls. While both are important, we have found that vents are more effective than breathable fabrics at reducing condensation. The more vents, the better. The Black Diamond Ahwahnee is the best ventilating single wall tent that we tested, which makes it the most versatile single wall model as well. The Ahwahnee's vents were far less effective in windy and rainy weather as it limited how wide we were able to open its doors. The Mountain Hardwear EV 2 and The North Face Assault 2 featured four vents each, with several of them that were respectably well-covered for stormier conditions. The Hilleberg Tarra and Jannu, the best venting double wall tents in our review, each have a large port in the center of the roof.
Features turn a good tent into a great tent, but in the grand scheme are much less of a big deal when compared to pole design. Some manufacturers go overboard with too many pockets, and unnecessary things like glow-in-the-dark zipper pulls (we're looking at you, The North Face Mountain 25). We do require some well-placed, supportive pockets, and a good entrance though.
Weight is an important factor for shorter duration trips to help you get up-and-over a peak or a long approach without becoming too tired. However, being too obsessed with weight can have detrimental and uncomfortable consequences on extended adventures. There's no reason for a lightweight tent if you primarily camp out of your car or on a three-week expedition. However, a light tent is the easiest way to reduce a lot of pack weight with one item. Going light in the mountains is well-known to be easier on your body and therefore faster. This is fine for most trips, but it's important to remember that reducing a tent's weight usually reduces its strength and durability, which is more-or-less important depending on if you are embarking on a summer-time overnight alpine climb or three-plus weeks in the Alaska Range.
The Black Diamond Firstlight is among the lightest and most compressible two-person, freestanding four-season tent on the market. It sacrifices many things, including comfort and water resistance, for its gaunt three-pound package. The strongest two tents and the models we'd selected for extended trips where we knew we'd be forced to spend a lot of time in them are the Mountain Hardwear Trango 2 and Hilleberg Jannu, which weigh 9 lb. 14 oz. and 9 lb., respectively. This review is filled with many models that fit across the spectrum between the lightest and most compressible to the heaviest and most expedition worthy. Several all-rounders are models like the Black Diamond Eldorado and Mountain Hardwear EV 2. However, if all you do is alpine climb in the summer with the occasional multi-day ski trip, then go light!
Guying Out the Tent
Properly guying out a four-season tent is critical to your comfort and the tent's longevity. Spectra guylines (strong, light, don't absorb water) and camming adjusters are the easiest and best method for tensioning guylines. On snow or sand, we set tent stakes "deadman" style. To do this, attach the guyline into the center of the stake, then bury it horizontally in the snow or sand. The line and stake together should make a T, with the stake being the top of the T. Be sure to bury the stake at least a foot down; otherwise, it will melt out or pull out. If using rocks, uses big ones! (You can't possibly find one that's too big.) Several companies make high-quality snow and sand stakes.
If your tent doesn't come with camming adjusters (most don't) and you don't want to buy some, the Trucker's Hitch is the second easiest method to tension guylines. Set up as illustrated below. Create the upper loop by using an overhand on a bight or a slipknot. Tie off with a looped half hitch, which is easy to untie and adjust.