Your backpacking tent can make a big difference in your enjoyment of your outdoor adventures. Picking the right one involves some research and this article outlines the basics of what's out there and what you might want to consider before making a purchase. Backpacking tents come in all kinds of shapes and sizes (and prices!). Which model is best for you depends on tour answers to a few questions: Where will you be camping? How long will you be camping? How often will you use the tent? How many miles are you planning on carrying the tent? What's the weather likely to be? Will you be by yourself or with other people (or animals)? How much do you want to spend? Which features are important to you?
Backing up a moment, once you have decided that you need a shelter, you reach a fork in the road: do you want a model that comes with its own set of dedicated poles, or an ultralight shelter/tarp that is set up with trekking poles?
Deciding between the two usually comes down to comfort and ease of set-up on the one hand versus weight on the other. If your tent spends more time on your back than with you inside it, you may want to consider an ultralight shelter. If, on the other hand, you spend more time inside your tent than carrying it, probably the added weight will be worth the extra comfort of a traditional tent.
In short, if you want one single tent for car camping and backpacking, the kinds of tents in our Backpacking Tent Review will fit the bill. If you are serious about shaving weight and going "fast and light," then consider one of the minimalist shelters in our Ultralight Tents Review.
Types of Shelters
Double-wall tents have three primary parts: (1) an inner tent with a waterproof floor and non-waterproof roof, (2) a waterproof outer tent (i.e. a rain fly), 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. Double wall tents come in the three following varieties:
When you close your eyes and think of the quintessential tent, it is probably a 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, or in areas where tree cover is sparse. More durable models can be used for harsh weather and winter camping as well.
These tents have dedicated poles, but also require a couple 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 are a type of semi-freestanding tent that have a unique pole structure. They have one or more hoop-shaped poles and rely on guylines in order 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 all the double-wall tent designs, there are just as many variations on door size, shape and zippers. They can be broadly broken down into three types: (1) Double side door (2) Single side door, and (3) front-end door. We usually 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 having their own entrance and corresponding vestibule is a 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 also offer equal access to both people in a two-person tent but are a little more awkward to use. Single side door tents 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 closer to the door.
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. Want to go bigger? Usually the difference between two and three-person versions is 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 but this is not always true.
If it's quite 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 like the REI Half Dome 2 Plus, and you would almost certainly pay less for it. But consider: if the tent you have your eye on is a lightweight 2P (like the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 or NEMO Dagger 2), 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 are single-walled shelters with a built-in floor and bug netting. They pitch quickly, can be half the weight of a double-wall tent and offer complete protection from the elements. Their biggest drawbacks are that they are prone to interior moisture accumulation, meaning you might wake up wet in the morning and are the least adaptable type of tent because all of the parts are attached. Tarp tents pitch with dedicated poles, trekking poles, or a combination of the two. Tarp tents lie half way between backpacking tents and ultralight shelters.
Here we call any shelter that does not come with dedicated, flexible poles an ultralight (UL) shelter. Below we describe the pros and cons of various types.
The tarp is the lightest, most adaptable and most condensation-resistant type of shelter. Although there are dozens of types of tarps, the A-frame offers the greatest performance for lightweight backpacking for most people in most conditions. The catenary curve (the droop of fabric between its supports) is the crucial element that sets the A-frame apart from flat tarps (a flat, waterproof material with guy cords attached) and poncho tarps (you wear it as rain gear and sleep in it as a shelter. Yes, this is a real thing). The catenary curve eliminates sagging from gravity and creates a very taut pitch with smooth and stiff walls that shed wind very well. You get a tighter pitch with less tension and less effort.
Like lightweight double-wall tents, A-frame tarps are usually wider at the head than the foot. They have two open ends so it's important to find sheltered campsites during high winds and driving rain. The A-frame's open ends are both an advantage and disadvantage. 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. Modular inserts and beaks (vestibules) can bolster the storm resistance of A-frame tarps. Although we don't evaluate shelters on their ability to immerse the sleeper in a wilderness experience, our testers find tarps to be the most satisfying type of shelter when they look for a "close-to-nature" adventure. A-frames can be pitched with trekking poles, paddles and dedicated aluminum or carbon fiber sectional poles (sold separately).
Cuben fiber flat tarps can be set up as A-frame shelters as well and are the most adaptable type of ultralight shelter. Tarps are the safest type of shelter in serious exposed three-season storms because they can be pitched very close to the ground and trekking poles are much stronger than dedicated pre-tensioned poles.
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 excellent weather protection. Mids are the top choice for serious wilderness expeditions in foul conditions. Plus they can also be used in three-season conditions.
Mids are limited to one pitching configuration, are heavier and more prone to condensation than most tarps, but they offer the greatest weather protection and added privacy over an A-frame style. Mountaineers often use mids for group cook tents. Most mids are available with model-specific modular components, which can make them more versatile.
Backpacking tent floors and flies are made from, in increasing order of performance: coated polyester, coated nylon and Cuben fiber. Nylon is generally stronger and more abrasion resistant than polyester. Both materials need a coating to become waterproof. A fabric's denier (D) is a rough indicator of its weight per square area. The lightest tent fabrics are 10D, most tent floors are made of 40-70D, and expedition duffel bags are made of 1,000D. Here are the specs:
Polyurethane (PU) coated fabrics
PU is the coating of choice for all budget tents — it's the least expensive way to create a waterproof fabric with reasonable durability in cold and wet conditions. Unfortunately, PU coatings on less expensive tents are susceptible to hydrolysis (chemical breakup), which eventually destroys the waterproof coating. The wetter and warmer the conditions, the faster hydrolysis happens. The fabric becomes sticky and the PU can flake off when it's dry. The best mountaineering tents and some tarp inserts have PU formulations with polyether, which makes them highly resistant to hydrolysis.
Silicone elastomer coated nylons are used on all high-quality 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. Silicone is widely regarded as the best coating for nylon fabrics used for pack tents. Many higher-end tents like the Hilleberg Anjan 2 GT use this construction.
Unfortunately, for the budget conscious consumer silicone is more expensive than PU and coating a fabric with it takes longer than coating a fabric with PU. Also, it's difficult to stick things to SilNylon, which means the seams on silicone coated fabrics can't be factory taped. Thus, most "good quality" tents from major manufacturers use nylon that's coated with silicone on the outside and PU on the inside (the PU is then seam taped). The Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 and NEMO Dragonfly 2 have this combination.
Double-sided silicone coated fabrics are lighter, stronger, and more durable than PU/silicone combinations. They're usually sewn in a way that provides good water resistance along the seams, but are hand sealed with a liquid sealant, such as McNett SilNet, which yields a final product with the greatest water resistance and can also increase the strength of the seam. One drawback to double-sided SilNylon tents is that they can't be repaired with adhesive tapes, such as duct tape or Tenacious tape. They must be sew-patched or bonded with silicone, which takes longer than adhesive tapes.
Cuben fiber, or non-woven Dyneema (NWD) is the lightest, strongest and most durable waterproof material currently used in the outdoor industry. Cuben fiber laminates unidirectional tapes of in-line plasma treated Dyneema fibers spread to mono-filament level mylar films with titanium UV protection. In other words, 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 weighs less than half as much as most SilNylons and it is translucent, which means you can see the stars through it. Cuben fiber is arguably the best waterproof material for lightweight backpacking shelters. It's most commonly available from cottage industry companies. However, major manufacturers, such as Sierra Designs and Easton, are beginning to incorporate it into their products.
Although many consider Cuben fiber to be a miracle fabric, it does have drawbacks. The most significant is its price: it's roughly four times as expensive as SilNylon! Since Cuben fiber doesn't stretch, it can be harder to pitch a shelter because you can't force it tight in sub-optimal pitching conditions. (SilNylon and PU coated nylon can be stretched into shape.) It's also less heat resistant than nylon (requires more care when cooking inside the tent) and isn't as slippery as SilNylon (less ideal for winter conditions). Because it doesn't stretch, Cuben fiber is more prone to puncture than SilNylon, but if it does puncture (highly unlikely while backpacking) it's so strong that it's unlikely to tear. These drawbacks are largely trivial for three-season hiking and climbing, where campsites are abundant and snow infrequent. For many people, choosing between SilNylon and Cuben fiber comes down to weight versus cost.
Wild and crazy pole structures are a popular trend in double-wall tent design. These days most major 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. For the most part, higher quality tents come with higher quality poles. 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 much more important to the overall integrity of the tent than the type of pole material. However, one important thing about poles is the length of each segment. The longer the sections the harder they are to pack inside small spaces. We list the number, material, and diameter of poles in our specifications.
Do You Hike With Trekking Poles?
We highly recommend trekking poles for backpacking. See our 10 Reasons for Trekking Poles article. Among other reasons, they provide extremely strong and reliable support for a tent that adds zero weight to your pack. See our Trekking Pole Review for the best trekking poles. In general, trekking poles are significantly stronger than pre-tensioned poles that come with double-wall tents; they're much safer in serious storms because they don't break. Tents with dedicated poles are best for circumstances when you aren't already carrying something to support your tent, such as while bicycle touring, kayaking, or car-camping.
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 really 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, but as with guyline, companies almost never include one stake for every guy point on their shelter. In order 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. Good stakes and cord can still be extremely light and strong and increase the longevity of a shelter (we've found that most accidental tent damage occurs when a guy cord comes undone, breaks or a stake pulls out). We recommend Carbon Core Tent Stakes or high load guy points.
Many thru-hikers use rocks, sticks, and convenient vegetation instead of stakes, but if you're not planning on a 2,000-mile hike, a complete set of high-quality stakes is worth it. For guy cord, we like Kelty TripTease LightLine.
The Follies of Fast-Pitching With a Footprint
Although manufacturers tout their tents' fast-pitch weight (using an optional footprint with poles and a rain fly) we don't believe this type of shelter is viable for backpacking in wind or rain. Compared to floorless tents, fast-pitching has two significant limitations: (1) it's a much weaker configuration, and (2) it's much less weather resistant. Most double-wall tents have a specific inner tent that supports the pole structure and have 4-8" waterproof walls that protect against splashback and horizontally blown rain. Footprints are cut to match the inner tent's floor dimensions, so if you are fast-pitching a tent in the rain, water almost always lands on the footprint, creeps inward, and gets you wet. Grommets in the footprint provide the support for the poles, so you can't fast-pitch without a footprint or roll the footprint back from the dripping rain. Furthermore, since most outer tents attach to the poles from the outside with Velcro, fast pitching is inherently weak, and made weaker by the fact that many outer tents have no means to connect to the poles — they may only clip to the footprint — and therefore guying the outer tent out is completely useless. For these reasons we don't believe that fast-pitching a tent is viable for serious backpacking. It's largely just a marketing gimmick.
Comparing Tents and Ultralight Shelters
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. Many tents try to be both spacious and lightweight, which results in a huge reduction in static strength.
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.
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 might be windy without rain. 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 permit 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. Flat tarps are the most adaptable, followed by versatile tarps like the MLD Trailstar, A-frame tarps, and mids.
Weight and Packed Size
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.
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.
Tent Use and Care Tips
Fabric coatings break down faster if tents are stored wet, are subject to lots of abrasion, or are made with ultralight (read: ultrathin) construction. 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
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 vestibule and ground level guy loops. Add big rocks or logs on top of stakes, or substitute rocks, logs or vegetation for stakes. If it's storming hard it's often worth waking up at regular intervals to check guyline tension and staking. If you're in a weaker tent in a bad storm, you can sit up and support the walls with your hands to prevent the poles from breaking. In terribly high winds that you don't think your tent can handle, it's best to take it down and wrap yourself in the rainfly.
We believe that everyone should know and follow Leave No Trace Principles when they are in the backcountry. When choosing a site to camp, plan ahead and look at a map a few hours before you plan to stop for the night. Identify possible sites that will follow LNT principles that are:
- Off-trail: this shows respect for other users by giving people space, it also reduces 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, rock fall 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?
On a micro level, choose a site that is:
- On dry ground, because when your shelter is wet, you will get colder faster and you may end up with more condensation in your tent
- 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, draining away from your tent a rainstorm rather than pooling underneath it