In the market for a new budget backpacking tent? Over three years, we've researched over 40 different models. For 2020, we've purchased 10 of the top options and tested them side-by-side to help you find the right one for your next adventure. From car camping to pitching in alpine fields, next to lakes, and nestling down in the brush, in the summer heat, and cold, driving rain of spring, we caught some Zs, played a few games of cards, and got closer with friends in close quarters. As a result, we know the ins and outs of each product. If you're a thrifty camping enthusiast looking to save a buck without compromising quality, you've got to check out this review.Related: Best Backpacking Tent of 2020
Best Budget Backpacking Tent of 2020
Best Overall Budget Backpacking Tent
REI Co-op Passage 2
The REI Passage 2 is ideal for the committed car camper that takes the occasional weekend backpacking trip. Its classic and straightforward X-pole design pitches in an instant. The interior is spacious and comfortable. Its two large side doors make it easy to use with two people. It comes with a mesh canopy for stargazing but also higher sidewall fabric for privacy.
We don't have a whole lot to complain about with this tent. It could use another large storage pocket to really up the livability. We also think that the fly stability in high wind could be improved if it went from a triangle geometry to a trapezoid (with two stakes instead of one). However, the pros far outweigh the cons for us, and we would pick this one for our next camping adventure if we were looking to camp big and spend small.
Read review: REI Passage 2
Best Combination of Budget and Performance
Slumberjack Nightfall 2
The Slumberjack Nightfall 2 is one of the more fascinating models in this review. It feels like it is meant for folks who want to pitch a tent and stay out there for a while. Its vestibule extends with trekking poles to create an awesome awning in foul weather. It offers some of the best protection from the elements of any budget backpacking tent that we tested and has a pole structure that goes outside of the fly so it can be pitched in the rain without getting the interior wet.
The primary drawback of this model is that it has to be pitched with the fly, so if stargazing is high on your priority list, this model isn't for you. The single door can also be challenging to get in and out of if you have a camping partner. The vestibule, when closed, is also quite small — not large enough for two packs. However, if you find yourself hunkering down in wet weather often, we think that this tent is worth a strong look.
Read review: Slumberjack Nightfall 2
Best Use of Space and Headroom
The North Face Stormbreak 2
The The North Face Storm Break 2 is one of our favorite budget tents for its combination of solid comfort and smart design. It has excellent headroom, and if you are taking it car camping or on a quick overnight, it can deliver a better experience than more expensive and lighter tents that are far more cramped. It has versatile vestibules and plenty of storage pockets for gear that you want to keep close at hand.
It is by no means lightweight. Toting almost six pounds worth of tent is a big commitment. However, if you're not hiking that far, or are fine with carrying a little more weight to get way more comfort, this tent can't be beaten for the price point.
Read review: The North Face Storm Break 2
Best Lightweight Option
Big Agnes C Bar 2
This tent is for the frugal backpacker who still wants to travel light. Coming in at just below four pounds, the Big Agnes C Bar won't weigh you down. It sets up relatively easily, and we are also pleasantly surprised by its weather resistance and stability.
On the downside, the weight savings come with a sacrifice in comfort. This tent is much better as a roomy one person than a true 2P. It tapers dramatically from floor to ceiling in a way that limits the shoulder room. However, if you are about covering miles more than living in your tent, this lightweight budget beauty is right up your alley.
Read review: Big Agnes C Bar 2
Best 1-Person Option
REI Co-op Passage 1
The REI Co-Op Passage 1 is our Top Pick for a 1-person tent on a budget. It offers many of the same great comfort features found in its award-winning big sibling. We love the lofty peak height; it has plenty of room to sit up and move around. With just two identical poles, it is easy to set-up for one person, and its vestibule is large enough for a full-size backpack and hiking boots.
Our biggest issue with this model is its heft. At almost four pounds, some budget 2P options come close, so if you are on the fence about tent capacity, consider sizing up. It can also get caught up in the wind, so campsite selection and positioning require a little extra attention. All in all though, for weekend trips for one, the price is right, and the experience is comfortable.
Read review: REI Co-Op Passage 1
Why You Should Trust Us
Our experts have spent a lot of nights on trail, so they know the value of a good budget backpacking tent. What's even more, they pride themselves on finding a good deal. Lead reviewer, Ben Applebaum-Bauch has been catching Zzzs in the wilderness for 25 years. Spending his first nights under the stars in a classic Eureka A-frame, his knowledge of budget tents has only increased from there. He got his professional start in the outdoor industry purchasing and maintaining gear for guided backpacking trips, including a fleet of hundreds of tents. He later became a trip guide himself, leading multi-week backpacking, cycling, and canoeing trips throughout northern New England and maritime Canada. He has hiked and re-hiked the Appalachian Trail's 100-mile wilderness, as well as hundreds of more miles of the AT. He has also completed thru-hikes of the Pacific Crest, Long, Oregon Coast, and Colorado trails. Now having spent hundreds of nights with dozens of different tents, he knows how to spot a high-value budget buy.
We test our budget tents much the same way that we do our regular backpacking tents. We start by researching top models on the market and sift through dozens of options to select the most promising for hands-on testing. Then we take them to the trail. We assess each one based on a handful of metrics: comfort, ease of set up, weather resistance, durability, weight, and packed size.
Analysis and Test Results
We use a handful of metrics to assess each budget tent; we define each one and highlight top performers. One important note is that each metric is weighted. For example, comfort is worth 25% of the overall score while ease of set up is worth 10%. With that in mind, as you make your purchasing decisions, consider which factors are most important to you and weigh them accordingly.
This particular category is all about finding value. However, even amongst the group, there are a few standouts. It doesn't contribute to a product's overall score, but it can still be a make-or-break factor in a purchasing decision. When we talk about value in this review, we are actually comparing a tent's price to its overall score. Models with higher scores and lower prices will have greater value than those with lower scores and higher prices. We think that the REI Passage 2 and The North Face Stormbreak 2 both offer more than what you pay for.
There are a handful of factors that go into our assessment of comfort. Comfort is the amount of space we have to sleep (especially when there is another person in the tent with us); it is the availability of headroom when we eat (again, sitting up side-by-side with another person); it is the amount and accessibility of storage space, the ease with which we can get in and out, and dozens of other details. In short, it is the sum of all of the features of a tent that make it better to live in. It is not just the quantitative dimensions of the product, but the quality of the experience that those dimensions offer.
From our hands-on testing, we learned that the MountainSmith Morrison 2 and The North Face Stormbreak 2 are the most comfortable in the fleet. Both offer two large side doors and generous headroom. The included gear lofts are also a nice touch that increases these models' livability. The REI Passage 2 and Marmot Catalyst 2 also offer exceptional comfort, though we found that they don't quite make the same use of their dimensions as the top scorers.
We found in general that models with single doors (and single vestibules), either at the head or just one side, make for a more challenging entry and exit. The Big Agnes C Bar is very tight around shoulder height, and the Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight 2 really had our taller testers ducking down just to sit up.
We also took a look at a couple of 1-person tents to see if there was even greater value to be had in this thrift-focused category. The REI Co-Op Passage 1 does the best job maintaining the comfort features of its larger sibling, primarily the excellent peak height. On the other side of the equation, a budget tent model like the The North Face Stormbreak 1, slashes some of the things we liked most about its award-winning 2P version, namely, nine whole inches off of its own peak height — a difference that is extremely noticeable and much less comfortable.
Ease of Setup
We like tents that are easy to set up. Here we mean 'ease' in terms of the amount of time it takes and how intuitive it is to pitch a tent. From grommets to clips, snaps, hooks, and velcro, we look at all of the ways that a tent comes together and how easy it is to pitch. Predictably, tents with fewer poles and a symmetrical set up (where the pole and fly orientation don't matter as much) tend to go up faster.
The variation between models is slight, but it could mean the difference between a no-hassle set up at the end of a long day, and not quite beating out the late afternoon storm clouds.
Though most freestanding tents follow the same basic sequence, some offer slight advantages. We found that the The North Face Stormbreak 2 and REI Passage 2 are the easiest to pitch. The former has a structure made of a basic X-pole design plus two cross poles that expand headroom; the latter just has a basic X-pole design. Close behind are the Big Agnes C Bar 2 and Eureka Suma 2. They are each also reasonably straightforward but take just a little more time to pitch.
Tents in the bottom half of this metric were trickier because the fly geometry is difficult to tension correctly, or they have a unique setup (as is the case with the Slumberjack Nightfall 2), or both (as with the Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight 2).
Included in weather resistance are performance in precipitation and wind. For all of the creature comforts that a tent can offer, they aren't worth much if you end up soaking wet, or wake up tangled in a collapsed canopy. Another, maybe less obvious consideration is interior ventilation and a tent's ability to release condensation.
When you sleep in a waterproof tent, that also means that the moisture in the air and the moisture in your breath can't escape as easily and often condense on the underside of your rain fly. Though there are ways to mitigate this by paying attention to campsite selection , tent and fly design can also play an important role.
Offering equally solid weather resistance are the Slumberjack Nightfall 2, and the REI Passage 2. Both have flies that tension nicely and offer ample space between the fly and tent body to avoid moisture from transferring from one to the other. In the middle, we have tents like the The North Face Stormbreak 2 and Big Agnes C Bar 2 which do an admirable job as well but we experienced just a little more moisture in the inside of our tents, either because it got in from the outside, or we couldn't vent it as effectively.
The tents in the bottom half of the metric either continue to suffer from issues with fly tension, as is the case with the Mountainsmith Morrison 2 and the Marmot Catalyst 2. A couple of models, like the Eureka Suma 2 and Kelty Late Start, have a unique issue in that once we are satisfied with the fly tension, the two primary poles are squished together in an odd way that makes the tent canopy sag.
We test each tent thoroughly and use our experience and knowledge of materials and design to assess how we think models will hold up over time. We look at floors, canopies, poles, clips, zips, stakes, hubs, and toggles. Budget tents are not the same as cheaply made tents, so we want to be sure to differentiate between models that are worth the investment and those that have parts that are more likely to fail on trail.
Taking top honors for durability are the REI Passage 2 and The North Face Stormbreak 2. They both remained sturdy allies in inclement weather, which helps to reduce overall wear and tear (as opposed to a model that is constantly being whipped by the wind). The clips, grommets, seals, and materials all seem solid as well.
The middle group in the metric is also pretty solid, but there are a couple of minor concerns that we have. For example, when we took down the Slumberjack Nightfall 2, the 'foot' of the pole would pull out from the rest of the pole body. This happened multiple times on different poles. Toward the bottom are budget tents that we have broader concerns about; for example, when taking down the Eureka Suma 2, without applying a lot of force, we inadvertently tore the stitching that secures the vent kickstand to the fly. It not only rendered the kickstand useless, but it also meant rain could find its way in from the top of the tent.
In the 1-person head-to-head, the simpler two-pole design of the REI Passage 1 proves to be a liability. It has less rigidity than the lower-profile The North Face Stormbreak 1, and its greater peak height makes it more likely to get broadsided and damaged in the wind (but it is always worth considering for your particular situation the tradeoff between slightly decreased weather resistance and increased comfort).
Weight and Packed Size
Weight and size are measurements that don't really matter at all once you are using the tent. However, the reality is that you can spend as much (or more!) time with it on your back as you do inside of it, so this is an important consideration for us. Similarly, though budget tents, on the whole, tend to use bulkier fabrics like polyester, it can still be important to reduce the amount of space that it takes up in your pack.
Just dipping below four pounds, the Big Agnes C Bar 2, and the Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight 2 are comparable to some of the tents in our backpacking tent review. They could go on longer adventures, especially if the weight is split between two people.
Most models are in the four to five and a half pound range, including the Eureka Suma 2, Kelty Late Start 2, Marmot Catalyst 2, REI Passage 2, and Mountainsmith Morrison 2. On the heftier end of the spectrum are those like the The North Face Stormbreak 2 and the Slumberjack Nightfall 2 that push six pounds and take up quite a bit of space in a backpack.
Unsurprisingly, lighter contenders, like the Big Agnes C Bar 2 and Eureka Suma 2 tend to take up less space. Heavier models, like the ones mentioned above, are also volume hogs.
Our one person contenders, like the REI Co-Op Passage 1 and The North Face Stormbreak 1 are both sub-four pound models, so if traveling lighter on a budget is a top priority, and going solo is your preferred method, then you may want to consider downsizing as well.
You don't have to compromise performance on the things that are most important to you to find a tent that won't break the bank. Though these models are often heavier than their more expensive counterparts, there are a handful of benefits as well. By and large, the added weight comes with extra room, which can be sorely needed after a day of hiking. You may also find additional features and increased fabric durability with many of these models. We hope that this review illustrates that there are excellent inexpensive options out there and offers you the information you need to make a more informed decision when buying a budget backpacking tent. Happy trails!
— Ben Applebaum-Bauch