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How to Choose a Backpacking Tent

We enjoyed the larger doors  additional gear storage  and lighter weight of the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL3 on the right  as compared to those of the NEMO Dagger 3P on the left.
By Ben Applebaum-Bauch ⋅ Review Editor
Friday April 24, 2020
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Your tent can make a big difference on a backpacking adventure. But the world of shelters is vast; they come in all kinds of shapes and sizes (and prices!). Which model is best for you depends on a few factors: where you will be camping, how long you will be out for, how often throughout the year will you need it, the distance you are you planning on carrying it, what the weather is likely to be, whether you want to be by yourself or with other people (or pets), how much you want to spend, and which additional features are most important to you.

Types of Shelters



Double-Wall Tents


Double-wall tents have three primary parts: (1) an inner tent with a waterproof floor and non-waterproof canopy (almost always mesh), (2) a waterproof outer tent (i.e., a rainfly), and (3) poles. Most double-wall tents are quite easy to pitch, offer complete protection from the elements, and are comfortable. However, they also tend to be the heaviest type of shelter, owing to the multiple components (especially poles). Double-wall tents come in the three basic sub-varieties:

Freestanding tents


When you close your eyes and think of the quintessential tent, it is probably a double wall freestanding model. They stand up entirely by themselves and don't need to be guyed out to achieve maximum volume. They are most often used for traditional camping but are also a good option if you will be out with one or more friends. More durable models can be used for harsh weather and winter camping, as well.

A double-wall tent has a traditional 'body'  dedicated poles  and a fly (sometimes with vestibules).
A double-wall tent has a traditional 'body', dedicated poles, and a fly (sometimes with vestibules).

Semi-freestanding tents


These tents have dedicated poles, but also require some stakes or guy points to pitch the shelter at full volume. These are becoming increasingly popular because they offer the security and comfort of a double-wall tent while reducing weight by removing some of the pole structure.

Tunnel tents


Tunnel tents are a type of semi-freestanding tent that has a unique pole structure. They have one or more hoop-shaped poles and rely on guylines to stand upright. Tunnel tents generally have a higher space-to-weight ratio than other styles and offer more comfort and strength for their weight.

Thoughts on doors: Within the double-wall tent designs, there are many variations on door size, shape, and zipper configurations. They can be broadly broken down into three types: (1) Double side door (2) Single side door, and (3) front-end door. We find that double side door tents — those with an entrance on each side — are the most comfortable and most versatile. When camping with more than one person, each person having their own entrance and corresponding vestibule is a huge plus. It also means that if you are setting up on a small or irregular tent site, there is more flexibility with the orientation of the tent. Front-end door tents — those with just one door positioned at the head of the tent — also offer equal access to both people in a two-person tent but are a little more awkward to use. Single side door tents — those with just one door on one person's side — work well for individuals but are the least comfortable if there are two or more people; the person on the far side must climb over the person closest to the door to get in and out of the tent.

Side doors are best not only because you can get in and out easier  but they allow you to manage the space better so your gear doesn't get all mixed together.
Side doors are best not only because you can get in and out easier, but they allow you to manage the space better so your gear doesn't get all mixed together.

Going Big: The Value of a Three-Person Tent

Many tent models come in some combination of one, two, three, or four-person versions. The two-person tent is by far the most popular. Usually, the difference between a two and a three-person version is the width. Manufacturers will add around 20 inches (the width of a standard sleeping pad) and voila, your tent is now fit for three! Occasionally, the extra floor space comes with a little more headroom and maybe some more length, but this is not always true.

If it is possible that you will bring a couple of friends or your dog on your trip, then it makes sense to look at the three-person version. You could certainly opt for a more spacious 2P, and you would almost certainly pay less for it. But consider: if the tent you have your eye on is a lightweight 2P, it is almost certainly going to also be lightweight in its 3P format. So if you have a partner and a pet, or a couple of friends that you go camping with often, and space is a priority, we think it's worth going big.

Tarp Tents


Tarp tents are single-walled shelters with a built-in floor and bug netting. They pitch quickly, tend to be much lighter than double-wall tents, and offer complete protection from the elements. Their biggest drawbacks are that they are susceptible to interior condensation, meaning you might wake up damp in the morning. They are also the least adaptable because all of the parts are attached. Tarp tents pitch with dedicated poles, trekking poles, or a combination of the two.

The Tarptent Double Rainbow struggled in windy conditions  and it's not a tent we'd be keen to spend a stormy night in.
The Tarptent Double Rainbow struggled in windy conditions, and it's not a tent we'd be keen to spend a stormy night in.

Ultralight Shelters


Here we call any shelter that does not come with dedicated, flexible poles an ultralight (UL) shelter.

A-Frame Tarp


The tarp is the lightest and most adaptable type of shelter. The defining feature of an A-frame is its shape. There are also flat tarps (a flat, waterproof material with guy cords attached to trees or other supports), and even poncho tarps (you wear it as rain gear and sleep in it as a shelter). A-frames resist sagging and stay fairly taut with smooth and stiff walls that block wind well.

They have two open ends, so it's essential to find solid campsites during high winds and driving rain. If unprotected, the shelter is unsuitable for use in very exposed, high wind conditions. Yet the open ends also allow the tarp to be pitched in many different ways: high up off the ground, over a picnic table, to cover a lean-to opening, or you can use it as a ground cloth when the weather is nice. A-frames can be pitched with trekking poles, paddles, and dedicated aluminum or carbon fiber sectional poles (typically sold separately).

The Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Fiber Grace Tarp in a well protected forest. Here there's no need for side walls to shed wind or rain because the campsite prevents horizontally blown rain.
The Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Fiber Grace Tarp in a well protected forest. Here there's no need for side walls to shed wind or rain because the campsite prevents horizontally blown rain.

Pyramid Tarp


Pyramids, or "mids," are probably the strongest and most weather-resistant type of ultralight shelter. They pitch with one or two poles (trekking poles, paddles, or dedicated sectional poles), are enclosed on all sides, have steep walls that shed wind and snow, and offer good weather protection.


Mids are limited to one pitching configuration, are heavier and more prone to condensation than most tarps, but they offer greater weather protection and added privacy over an A-frame style. Mountaineers often use mids for group cook tents. Some mids are available with model-specific modular components, which can make them more versatile.

Large mids are frequently used for group shelters on mountaineering trips  such as on Mt. McKinley  Alaska  shown here.
Large mids are frequently used for group shelters on mountaineering trips, such as on Mt. McKinley, Alaska, shown here.

Materials



Fabrics


Backpacking tent floors and flies are made from coated polyester, nylon, or cuben fiber. A fabric's denier (D) is a unit that refers to the thickness of fabric fibers. For reference, a human hair is around 2-4D. The lightest tent fabrics are around 7D, most tent floors are made of 40-70D, and expedition duffel bags are made of 1,000D fibers.

Polyurethane (PU) coated fabrics


PU is the coating of choice for almost all less expensive tents — it's just a cost-effective way to create a waterproof fabric with reasonable durability in cold and wet conditions. Unfortunately, PU coating is susceptible to hydrolysis (chemical breakdown), which eventually destroys the waterproof coating. The wetter and warmer the conditions, the faster hydrolysis happens. With enough sun exposure, or poor tent storage practices, the PU will visibly separate from the fabric and flake off.

Polyurethane coated fabrics are susceptible to hydrolysis  or chemical breakup. Eventually they lose their water resistance. This photo shows the free stuff sack included with the Sierra Designs Zissou sleeping bag after two months of use.
Polyurethane coated fabrics are susceptible to hydrolysis, or chemical breakup. Eventually they lose their water resistance. This photo shows the free stuff sack included with the Sierra Designs Zissou sleeping bag after two months of use.

SilNylon


Silicone elastomer coated nylons are generally used on more expensive backpacking and mountaineering tents. SilNylon is highly water repellent, elastic, and UV and temperature stable. SilNylon is considerably stronger, lighter, and more durable than PU coated fabrics. It's also much more slippery than PU, which makes it ideal for winter applications because snow slides off easily. Unfortunately, for the budget-conscious consumer, silicone is more expensive than PU.

SilNylon is a balancing act between performance and weight. It is super light  but it stretches when it gets wet so guy points needs to be re-tightened periodically.
SilNylon is a balancing act between performance and weight. It is super light, but it stretches when it gets wet so guy points needs to be re-tightened periodically.

Cuben Fiber


Cuben fiber (often marketed as Dyneema), is an incredibly light, strong, and durable waterproof material. It has a variety of applications in the outdoor industry and beyond. Dyneema threads (50-70 percent lighter and 400 percent-plus stronger than Kevlar and 1,500k percent stronger than steel per unit weight) are sandwiched between tough UV-resistant Mylar. Unlike SilNylon, cuben fiber doesn't stretch, which means that you don't need to retighten a tent's guylines as frequently. Cuben fiber can be repaired quickly with adhesive tape, and doesn't absorb water, which means your tent won't get heavier if you have to pack it up in a rainstorm. It also weighs about half as much as SilNylon. Cuben fiber is arguably the best waterproof material for lightweight backpacking shelters. It's most commonly available from cottage industry companies. However, major manufacturers are beginning to incorporate it into their products.

The most significant drawback of cuben fiber is its price. Tents made with this material are wildly expensive (think $1000+). Since cuben fiber doesn't stretch, it is more prone to puncture than SilNylon, but if it does puncture, it's strong enough that it's unlikely to tear. For many people, choosing between SilNylon and Cuben fiber comes down to weight and cost.

This tent is an ultralight wonder in the backcountry.
This tent is an ultralight wonder in the backcountry.

Poles


Many major tent manufacturers partner with DAC, a Korean aluminum firm, for help with tentpole designs and/or to supply the poles for a specific model. Most of the poles included with the tents we tested are good quality. Some are lighter and stiffer than others, but none of them are objectively bad. Most of the models tested here use aluminum from either Easton or DAC. We believe that a tent's pole design and the fabrics used in the tent are more important to the overall integrity of the tent than the type of pole material.

The poles for (left to right): The Copper Spur  Flycreek  SuperMega  Mica and Double Rainbow. The SuperMega UL poles sections were noticeably longer than the rest  which made them more difficult to pack.
The poles for (left to right): The Copper Spur, Flycreek, SuperMega, Mica and Double Rainbow. The SuperMega UL poles sections were noticeably longer than the rest, which made them more difficult to pack.

Stakes and Guylines


For three-season freestanding, double-wall tents, stakes and guylines are important, but not critical. For any other type of shelter, it pays to have high-quality versions of these often overlooked components. Unfortunately, we find that shelters often do not come with an adequate amount of guyline. Quality stakes are relatively easy to come by (though the best ones are not what you are going to get out of the bag). To achieve a proper pitch, you'll probably need to get more guyline and/or stakes. Most tarp shelters don't include stakes, and only a few models we tested come with quality guyline, so investing in a complete set of high-quality stakes is worth it.

Tent stakes : MSR Cyclone (35g) Toughstake (33g)  MSR Snowstake (22g)  DAC Y (14g)  Easton Nano Nail (9g)  DAC V (11g)  MSR Mini Groundhog (9g)  Hilleberg Tri-peg (8g)  Vargo 6.5" Titanium (8g)  MSR Carbon Core (5.5g)  Easton Full Metal Jacket (5.5g).
Tent stakes,: MSR Cyclone (35g),Toughstake (33g), MSR Snowstake (22g), DAC Y (14g), Easton Nano Nail (9g), DAC V (11g), MSR Mini Groundhog (9g), Hilleberg Tri-peg (8g), Vargo 6.5" Titanium (8g), MSR Carbon Core (5.5g), Easton Full Metal Jacket (5.5g).

The Follies of Fast-Pitching With a Footprint

Although manufacturers tout their tents' fast-pitch weight (a setup that includes a footprint, poles, and fly, without the tent itself), it's definitely not a quality that we think campers have to have. It's not necessarily easier or less work to pitch than the entire tent and offers less protection from bugs and weather. The configuration also isn't as light a floorless shelter. It does reduce pack weight, since you don't have to carry the tent itself, and it conceivably provides more interior space than if the tent body was pitched, but we largely think that the fast-pitch configuration is more gimmicky than practical.

The Hilleberg Anjan (left) and the Hubba Hubba NX (right) are the only tents that pitch in a floorless configuration  which increases versatility and reduces weight  and is much stronger  lighter  and more weather resistant than "fast pitching" with a footprint.
The Hilleberg Anjan (left) and the Hubba Hubba NX (right) are the only tents that pitch in a floorless configuration, which increases versatility and reduces weight, and is much stronger, lighter, and more weather resistant than "fast pitching" with a footprint.

Comparing Tents and Ultralight Shelters



Weather Resistance


Double-wall tents provide excellent protection from all the elements, but they don't tend to be as strong or as durable as ultralight shelters that come with fewer parts to break.

Comfort


How much comfort we need and want varies highly based on our experience camping, how much time we plan to spend in our shelter, and what we believe to be an acceptable level of protection from the elements. If a "true wilderness experience" is a primary objective, ultralight shelters offer a much greater connection to nature. When used with the right combination of accessories (bivy, insert, head net, etc.), shelters offer lots of comfort, although these accessories add complication and weight. If you are just starting out and want something that feels homier and is easier to pitch, a double-wall tent is a good starting point.

OutdoorGearLab tests the Copper Spur HV alongside the NEMO Dagger 2. Both earned high scores for their remarkable durability in Montana and the Sierras.
OutdoorGearLab tests the Copper Spur HV alongside the NEMO Dagger 2. Both earned high scores for their remarkable durability in Montana and the Sierras.

Durability and Versatility


What we require from a tent varies with location and weather conditions. One night we might need protection from vertically falling rain. Another night it could be wind. And another night, the skies may be clear with no wind; all we need is bug protection. Tents that can adapt to varying conditions, or be used in locations that don't allow for a perfect pitch can save time, money, and energy. Most double-wall tents are not adaptable. They must pitch in the same configuration every time. Shelters offer much greater adaptability.

Weight and Packed Size


A few of our contenders; from left to right: NEMO Galaxi (now discontinued)  Alps Lynx  REI Half Dome 2 Plus  Eureka Midori  Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight  Big Agnes Copper Spur HV  Hilleberg Anjan  NEMO Dagger  Tarptent Double Rainbow  Kelty Salida 2  and Marmot Catalyst.
A few of our contenders; from left to right: NEMO Galaxi (now discontinued), Alps Lynx, REI Half Dome 2 Plus, Eureka Midori, Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight, Big Agnes Copper Spur HV, Hilleberg Anjan, NEMO Dagger, Tarptent Double Rainbow, Kelty Salida 2, and Marmot Catalyst.

Conventional wisdom is that ultralight shelters are much lighter and more compact than tents. While this is largely true, the gap has been narrowing over the years slowly but surely as materials continue to get lighter and lighter. There are multiple two-person tents on the market that weigh in below two pounds (though admittedly, they do not offer nearly as much usable space as their tarp siblings).

Ease of Set-Up


Typically double-wall tents are much easier to set up than ultralight shelters, which are not free-standing and require guy line systems, trekking poles, and proper tensioning.

The Dagger scored well in ease of set-up. The single  hubbed pole design allowed us to set this tent up in under four minutes - at a casual pace.
The Dagger scored well in ease of set-up. The single, hubbed pole design allowed us to set this tent up in under four minutes - at a casual pace.

Tent Use and Care Tips



Storage


Fabric coatings break down faster if tents are stored wet. Dry a tent completely before storing it (mold and mildew are also big factors here) and fold and roll it up with the poles inside every time. The haphazard stuff method is fine for the trail, but neatly rolling the tent for longterm storage will increase its longevity.

Pitching


It takes extra time, for sure, but if you want a perfect pitch, you should aim to guy out all lines. Add extra cord if needed and make mid-level guylines at least six feet long. It can be useful to add extra cord to the vestibule and ground-level guy loops. Add big rocks or logs on top of stakes, or substitute rocks, logs or vegetation for stakes.

Site Selection


Be sure to follow Leave No Trace Principles in the backcountry. When choosing a site to camp, plan ahead.

Look for sites that are:
  • Off-trail: this shows respect for other users by giving people space, it also reduces the impact on sites right beside the trail
  • Flat: These areas on the map may already have established campsites, especially if they are near water
  • Somewhere breezy (if it's buggy)
  • Not in the bottom of a valley, where the air will be colder and dew and frost greater
  • Not near animal paths or prime habitat
  • Away from hazards like flooding, rockfalls, and avalanches
  • Away from water - don't contaminate everyone's water source!

Consider other ways topography will influence environmental conditions. Will a long valley become a wind tunnel? Where will precipitation flow to and accumulate?

Choosing a durable surface such as gravel to camp on follows Leave Not Trace Principles.
Choosing a durable surface such as gravel to camp on follows Leave Not Trace Principles.

On a micro level, choose a site that is:
  • On dry ground, because when your shelter is wet
  • On durable surfaces such as granite slabs, duff, or gravel
  • At least 200 feet from water
  • Near or under an object, like a rock, tree or bushes, that will act as a windbreak
  • Slightly convex, so that water drains away from your tent rather than pooling underneath it

Other Considerations for a Backpacking Tent



Forget the Footprint


Custom footprints — waterproof, durable fabrics cut to match a tent bottom — are accessories that are often unnecessary and overpriced. Exceptions are if you have a tent that can pitch in 'fast fly mode' and you plan to use that feature regularly, or if you know that your go-to campsites have coarse gravel or rocks.

Instead of an expensive custom footprint  we opt to spend a couple dollars on a piece of contractor tarp to protect the bottom of our tents.
Instead of an expensive custom footprint, we opt to spend a couple dollars on a piece of contractor tarp to protect the bottom of our tents.

If you don't care for fast fly mode, and don't need the custom footprint that matches your tent, consider cutting your own out of Tyvek Home Wrap or polycryo plastic. The weight of a sleeping pad and bag keeps a custom footprint in place — there's no need for grommets. Tyvek is a highly durable and puncture-resistant plastic sheet. A typical tent-sized piece weighs around seven ounces. It's not particularly lightweight, but if you're looking for a single, inexpensive footprint that will do the trick for both car camping and backpacking trips, this is our top pick. You can buy Tyvek siding wrap at hardware stores or online. Polycryo is a lighter and less durable option that ultralight backpackers favor.

Color Matters


A brightly colored tent is ideal for expedition mountaineering and alpine climbing because it allows you to locate it more easily. An attention-grabbing color can also help others find you if you need to get picked up or rescued. For three-season applications, a brightly colored tent tends to be a disadvantage when you want to camp stealthily or adhere more stringently to Leave No Trace principles. Dark green or moderate gray colors blend in well in most snow-free forest environments and draw less attention from wildlife and people.

Color can become a safety issue when camping near urban areas where you don't want to be noticed by people that might be interested in you and/or all of the gear you are carrying. The Tarptent Double Rainbow comes in fairly neutral colors, and the pale orange tent and gray fly of the Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 also proved to be inconspicuous. Conversely, if you're camping anywhere hunters might also be, a brightly colored tent like the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 or the yellow fly of the NEMO Hornet Elite can be a crucial safety precaution. The REI Half Dome 2 Plus now comes in four different color schemes, giving you the flexibility to match your style.

We think the Hubba Hubba NX's grey color can be as stealthy as the Anjan's green color in the granite filled High Sierra.
We think the Hubba Hubba NX's grey color can be as stealthy as the Anjan's green color in the granite filled High Sierra.

Conclusion


The universe of tents and tarps is ever-expanding, but choosing the right shelter for you should be anything but impossible. If we could give one piece of advice on narrowing down your options, we would say start with what you need, rather than what the tent market is trying to sell you. Whether its something for one person or four, ultralight or traditional, the right model for you is out there. Happy trails!

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