Gear can be really expensive. If you live for nights under the stars, we want to make that goal just a little more accessible. In this article, we will take a look at a few things to look out for in any tent that you are considering and break down what makes a budget tent an inexpensive but solid investment (as opposed to just a cheap piece of equipment).
Considerations When Purchasing a Tent
If you are looking to purchase your first tent, there are a few things you should keep in mind regardless of which model you ultimately settle on.
(1) For adventures with a companion, reach for a tent with two side doors — the bigger, the better. The convenience of not having to climb over your sleeping friend is just worth it (tents made for two people that have only one door are usually annoying to navigate).
(2) The right dimensions are everything. Make sure you have enough headroom to comfortably sit up and that your head and/or feet don't touch the ends when you are stretched out. If you are a fetal-position sleeper or a sprawler, don't downplay width either. You want to make sure that there is room for each pad and sleeping bag, plus a little extra. Your partner will appreciate it.
(3) If you are going to be in the backcountry, we also strongly recommend a model with vestibules — the portion of the rain fly over each door that extends to the ground, creating a little entryway to store gear (like your boots) that you don't want in the tent with you, but you don't want to leave out in the open either. This feature is less important if you are primarily car camping and can store gear elsewhere, but it can still be a nice plus.
(4) The right gear storage pockets are an important feature, as well. We look for tents that have easy-access pockets for small items like a headlamp, gloves, glasses case, or anything else we want to keep at hand.
(5) Much more on the merits of weight below, but as a general rule, the longer your trip and the more often you use (read: carry) your 3-season tent, the lighter it should be.
Budget Backpacking Tents vs. Other Tents
For this review, we are defining a budget tent as one that retails for $250 or less. The overarching theme of budget backpacking tent economics is tradeoffs, and those tradeoffs almost all lead back to weight versus everything else. As a general rule:(1) Lighter Tents are More Expensive Tents
The correlation here is not arbitrary. If you are carrying all of your gear on a multi-day trip, the tent will spend as much if not more time in the pack on your back as you do inside of your tent. As a result, long-distance adventurers are often willing to spend more money for less tent. Manufacturers achieve this goal in several different ways: (1) they are constantly developing lighter materials, (2) they take a minimalist approach to the extra features that are included in any given model, (3) they reduce the amount of fabric they use in the design. This tradeoff makes good sense for a lot of folks. However, on the whole, tent technology continues to improve, making tents generally lighter than their predecessors from even a few years ago.
So, where does all of this leave an outdoor enthusiast trying not to break the bank? As it turns out, in pretty good shape to land a decent tent without having to spend a pretty penny. Here are some other general rules and reasons that you may want to consider a budget tent:(1) Less Expensive Tents Are (in some ways) More Durable Tents
Fly and floor materials are often made to be lighter by using lighter weight fabric (nylon over polyester) and by reducing the fabric denier (the unit for the measure of a fabric's linear density). What this means for the typical outdoor enthusiast is that the more expensive a tent is, the more delicate it is as well. It's not uncommon to see less expensive tents with 68D or 75D polyester floors, while the fly of an expensive "ultralight" tent can be right around 7D nylon. That's the difference between years of high-quality use and an errant rock or stick wearing its way through the floor during a restless night. Even though budget tents are usually not manufactured using the latest and greatest materials technology, they are made with thicker, heavier fabrics that can stand up to abuse.
(2) Less Expensive Tents Have Just as Many if Not More Features than High-End Models
Another way that manufacturers reduce weight is by designing tents with just the bare essentials; forgoing extra pockets and using lightweight zippers, clips, stakes, and guylines. However, if a company is already making a budget tent out of (heavier) polyester, it's not going to hurt to add a couple of extra ounces for those additional features (e.g., gear lofts). Consequently, you may find that many less expensive models have fairly generous pockets.
(3) Less Expensive Tents are Roomier Tents
A third way to reduce weight in a tent is by reducing its dimensions, thereby using less material. On the flip side, if you are a tent manufacturer already designing a tent with particular materials at a specific budget price point, using a little extra fabric to increase headroom and floor space will likely be a welcome addition.
Budget Tents vs. Cheap Tents
In all of this, it is important to remember that if you are planning to spend a night (or several) outside, your tent can be a critical piece of safety equipment. The guiding principle that differentiates an inexpensive quality tent versus just a bad tent is its ability to keep you safe, warm, and dry enough if the weather takes a turn while you are out in the elements.
Even if price is your primary consideration, your tent still needs to meet a few minimum standards. Ideally, it should be:(1) Made from Nylon or Polyester
If a tent can't protect you from rain and sleet, it's not worth it. We know even expensive tents have their flaws, and it's tough to keep out moisture entirely, especially because a tent also needs to be able to vent condensation from the inside. The reality is that being wet is sometimes just a part of the adventure. However, what we are talking about here are tents that either avoid making a statement about their weatherproofing or do say that they are water resistant. If you will be in the backcountry for an extended period, you need to be able to deal with the potential for hypothermia, and a decent tent can be a literal lifesaver.(2) Manufactured by a Reliable Brand
This primarily has to do with piece-of-mind. Brands like REI, NEMO, Big Agnes, Eureka, and Kelty all stake their business on manufacturing products that users trust and come back to again and again. Specific models may be hit or miss, but wherever possible, opt for a brand that has either a track record of quality or is well-reviewed.
(3) A 'Believable' Design
As with any piece of equipment, part of what you are paying for in the price of a tent is R&D. Materials are an essential component, but so is construction quality and design. Look for tents that are seam-sealed and don't have any obvious weak points. Again, if you are caught in a situation where it is raining sideways for hours at a time, does this tent look like one that could keep most of the water out, or will it crumple and snap if it gets broadsided by the wind?
For even more information, read our article about how to choose a backpacking tent.
Who Should Consider a Budget Tent?
Budget tents save you money and don't necessarily require a loss in comfort and performance. While most budget tents are relatively heavy compared to their more expensive counterparts, they are also generally spacious with tall peak heights and generous floor areas. With all of this in mind, if any or all of the following apply to you, a tent from our budget category might be just right:
(1) You plan on using the tent primarily for car camping, or on other trips (e.g., canoeing) where carrying extra weight is less of a concern.
(2) You are looking for a general-purpose tent to have on hand for a few different scenarios (you don't necessarily have a specific adventure in mind).
(3) You have young children, a dog, both(!), or have good reason to believe that someone in your group might run into or claw at the sides of your tent.
(4) Cost is more important to you than anything else.
Sizing Your Tent
A backpacking tent that is marketed as a two-person tent generally fits two grown adults with not a lot of extra room. The inside of the tent itself does not include space for your pack (a good vestibule can really be a camper's best friend). If you want extra space for gear or just a little separation from your tent mate, consider a three-person model. In general, three-person tents will be about 10-20 percent heavier, and slightly more expensive but most importantly are wider than 2Ps and often have increased headroom as well.
On the flip side, if you are primarily a solo camper, then you might find a winner in a 1P version. For most people, our recommendation is the REI Co-Op Passage 1. The advantages of a 1-person tent are pretty much weight and price; on the whole, they are both lighter and less expensive than their 2-person counterparts. We have a word of caution though around design. Just because you love a particular tent in a 2P, don't assume that it will have all of the same features in a smaller version. We have been burned before by a solo shelter having head-scratchingly different features from its larger counterpart.
Whatever your budget, we want you to be able to get outdoors. Though they are almost universally heavier and aren't necessarily made with the most innovative materials technology, some users may find that a budget tent may actually offer more of what they are looking for than more expensive models. We hope that this overview has made it clear that there is good value to be had in the budget tent world and has offered some helpful information as you decide which one is right for you.