How to Choose a Backpacking Tent

It’s easily overwhelming; With so many options, brands, designs and an entire book full of terminology, the simply act of choosing a tent can become nearly impossible. This guide is designed to simplify the act and to help you decide what you need out of tent, and what you don’t. Let’s get started.

What do you need the tent for? 3 season vs 4 season tent. 

The first consideration should be always be where and when you plan to use the tent. Most tents are designed to be used during the entire year, albeit in milder conditions. A 3 season tent should be generally used under tree cover in the absence of large snow dumps and intense wind, although better models are usually fine for exposed peaks as well. They’ll provide more ventilation, which is great for warmer weather, and will pack down smaller while weighing less.

Big AGnes Seedhouse SL3

Big Agnes Seedhouse 3

A 4 season tent, conversely, will be much heavier and more expensive than most 3 season tents. These are built first and foremost to provide impressive amounts of protection from the elements. These are designed to withstand heavy snow dumps, high wind, and generally provide a better barrier against wind, and thus provide somewhat less ventilation. These are great for winter as they’ll provide more protection from the cold, but they’ll cost much more and weigh at least 2-3 times that of a 3 season tent. They can also be quite stuffy for warmer weather and can become a sauna in the summer.

backpacking tent review

Big Agnes Battle Mountain 3

Generally, backpackers will use 3 season tents year round as they provide enough protection to keep the user safe in fairly nasty conditions. Very few people actually need a 4 season tent, and even fewer will want to foot the bill for one. Those who want a warmer, sturdier shelter for the most intense of scenarios can consider them a viable option for nearly any condition.

This is your first consideration in choosing a tent, and will greatly narrow down your search.

Where will you be camping? Single wall vs Double wall vs hybrid. 

A double wall tent is the more traditional and common design used today. Outfitted with a full nylon rain fly and a completely separate inner body, usually made of nylon or mesh, these shelters provide more protection from moisture and condensation . The idea here is that the outer wall, the rain fly, will block rain and wind, but can also build up condensation inside from the breath of the user or from moisture in the air sticking to the surface. The inner mesh body will catch any of this condensation as it drips down and evaporate it away before it reaches the user. This does double duty as it also prevents the camper from touching the often damp outer wall while moving about inside the tent, protecting clothing and sleeping bags from becoming wet. These tents generally provide excellent ventilation and handle condensation more readily than other designs as air flow moves moisture out as it builds up. Double wall tents are absolutely necessary in wet, humid conditions, especially in areas with lots of dew and fog. Double walls tents are heavier and pack larger than single wall tents simply due to the fact that they’re built with more material.

Big Agnes Rattlesnake SL2 mtn GLO

Big Agnes Rattlesnake SL2

A single wall tent is simply an outer body aka a rain fly and floor. This cuts a lot of weight as the design eliminates an entire layer of fabric, the inner mesh body. However, this exposes the user to the walls of the tent and thus should only be used in drier conditions where condensation isn’t as much of a concern. Having no inner mesh, the ventilation is usually compromised and limited only to vents and open doors, which results in even more condensation. In a very humid environment a single wall tent can literally rain on the inside as condensation builds up rapidly and wind shakes it loose, completely soaking the users, even when it’s not raining outside. Deserts which are very dry and areas that are very cold (condensation generally occurs at temperatures of about 30 degrees and up)are great environments for these styles of tents.

Marmot Hammer 2p

Marmot Hammer 2p

Hybrid models also exist. Becoming more popular as they reach a compromise between weight and protection, these implement both single and double wall sections throughout the shelter. Generally, these designs provide excellent ventilation and manage condensation better than single walled tents, although areas that lack the mesh panels to protect the user can transfer moisture to sleeping bags and clothing on occasion. These shelters typically pack smaller and work well in most conditions.

backpacking gear tent review

Sierra Designs Lightning FL2

Full frame or trekking pole supported? 

Tents always require some type of framing to function. Without a frame a tent will simply be a well staked stack of fabric laying in the dirt. Lifting the material up and thus creating interior volume is handled by the frame. This is either handled by including a full frame, built from the traditional system of shock corded aluminum poles that snap together to make longer poles, or the use of trekking poles to act as the frame instead.

Full frame tents generally provide more protection and an easier setup. The full frames usually allow the tent to stand on it’s own accord even without staking the tent (although you should always fully stake out your tent)with the aluminum poles holding the tent walls out. With bulging metal frames and many stake out points to provide a foundation, the tents can easily withstand winds from various angles, resist buffeting, and a clever engineer can use the tent poles to produce  shapes that provide more vertical walls to enhance head, foot and shoulder room. This style of tent is usually less flappy and noisy in the wind also. These are great candidates for any condition as they can hold up well under pressure even in poor soil conditions as the tent doesn’t overly rely on quality stake out points to function. The poles do most of the work. The downside here is the frame provides extra weight to carry and takes up a lot of pack space inside or outside of a backpack. Aluminum poles are also expensive and will add to the cost of the tent.

Big Agnes Rattlesnake SL2 mtn GLO top off

Big Agnes Rattlesnake SL2

Trekking pole tents of course rely on trekking poles for support, and occasionally accessory poles for extra shape or support on some models. The benefit here is that many backpackers are already carrying trekking poles, and thus can be implemented into the tent design. Separate aluminum tent poles are not required. This will save weight and also reduce cost for the end user. The downfall here is that most trekking pole tents will sacrifice head and shoulder room, and often provide a less robust structure in a storm. Most of these designs are also single walled structures, and thus have condensation concerns, but double walled models do exist. They’re also more complicated to set up, often requiring adjusting of pole length, and multiple attempts to stake out corners at the proper tension. These tents rely on not only the poles for stability, but also greatly depend on a good staking out conditions with firm soil with few rocks and roots. Rocky soils and loose dirt can make for precarious situation, as stakes can slide loose if unable to acquire a sturdy grip or full penetration, collapsing the tent. Often users will instead need to rely on tying the stake out points to stones, branches or roots when setting up the tent. Performance here varies greatly on the design, and the shelters can range from incredibly stable (with taut pitches, many guy out points and a wind resistant design) to dangerously unstable, with limited guy lines and shapes that catch wind. These can be excellent shelters with consideration for proper site selection and adequate practice setting them up.

Nemo Veda 2p

Nemo Veda 2P

Solo shelter or two person shelter?

With most quality tents only providing a few ounces difference in weight between solo and two person builds, I have a hard time recommending solo shelters these days. Two person tents are generally more stable, provide more interior space, and can of course house another person, extra gear or even a dog. If cutting every ounce is the top priority, consider a solo shelter. I do however recommend investing in a good two person shelter first. They’re light weight enough these days that they’ll provide little impact on a hiking experience, but greatly enhance the experience when you make it to camp. They’re also a palace for a solo camper. A two person tent can also be split up between multiple hikers, resulting in a lighter pack weight than individuals could manage carrying solo shelters separately. A solo shelter can squeeze into smaller spaces though, and this can come in handy in some situations.

How big should my tent be? 

This depends on the users and how much space is desired. When looking at a tent, especially online, look at the dimensions. Height, width, length and vestibule size are all very important. Try to imagine spending an entire day inside this space if you plan to use it to hide away from rain and storms. If not, you might just consider the floor dimension if you’ll only be inside the tent at night. Using masking tape, tape out the dimension on your floor including the vestibule space, placing your sleeping mats, sleeping bags and other gear inside to simulate the shelter as a working environment. Spends some time here and decide if that’s enough room for you and possibly another to be inside for extended periods of time. Also consider that many companies are generous with these specs, and the actual final product may be a bit smaller than advertised. Check user reviews to see if this is an issue before commiting. Also keep in mind that shoulder room isn’t to be under-appreciated. It has a huge impact on the livability of a shelter, especially over time, and is often an issue with tents that do not use a crossbar or brow pole to add more internal volume. Sloping walls can make a large floor plan feel claustrophobic with two people inside.

Big Agnes Super Scout UL2 backpacking tent

Big Agnes Super Scout

How much should the shelter weigh? 

I consider any shelter that falls under 5 lbs to be a perfectly adequate weight for most people and situations.  This isn’t hard to accomplish with the quality of tents rising and average weights dropping . If you’re carrying the shelter as a pair, splitting the weight between two people, a 6 lb tent should only come in at about 3 pounds per person. Many reliable and roomy tents can be found that weigh less than 4 lbs these days, but under that you’ll start to sacrifice room, protection, durability, or all of the above. There are exceptions, but generally going with a tent that weighs under 3 lbs starts to get a bit debatable unless you’re only camping in the best of conditions as achieving these weights often relies on removing pole sections, thinning walls, and even cutting out guy lines and stakes.

backpacking gear

Slingfin 2lite

Does brand matter?

Yes, absolutely. Many times in life brands don’t have a huge impact on the final product. With backpacking tents, brand absolutely matters. Well known and experienced tent makers have spent years perfecting their designs and can produce excellent tents that are tested for years before released. The other guys only imitate what they see, and it’s often the details that cannot be seen that have the largest affect on a tent. An off brand tent may look similar, but tiny differences in material tension, stitch quality, seam sealing, and especially material choice will have huge impacts on the protection a tent provides, it’s durability, and even it’s ability to hold up in even mild conditions. I’ve often times watched two tents that look nearly identical perform dramatically different in even a gentle wind where one will collapse as the other barely wavers. Too many times do I see new campers go with tents they’ve found cheap online, and they rarely make it on a second trip. There are affordable brands that produce great tents, but you’ll often sacrifice pack weight, features, and durability here.

Marmot Hammer 2p 12

Marmot Hammer 2p, failing to resist the wind

Other factors to consider.

Full mesh bodied tents provide more ventilation, but are often cooler in the winter or shoulder season. Tents with breathable nylon and mesh combinations for the inner wall provide more protection from breezes, but can feel stuffy in the summer.

Vents have large impacts on condensation in humid environments, and double zippers can be used to partially unzip a door from the top, letting in a nice breeze without sacrificing stability, weather protection or privacy.

Aluminum poles should be considered necessary for most conditions. During wind, freezing temperatures and storms, fiberglass poles can crack, snap, or even shatter unpredictably with no signs of wear.

Guy lines should not be considered optional on any tent. If they’re not included, add these to your tent before use, with extra tent stakes to accommodate them. These greatly improve the stability and durability of a shelter, and will also provide a quieter, more relaxed sleeping experience in a storm. If the shelter does not provide guy out points to attach such lines, avoid the shelter.

backpacking gear

Nemo Blaze 2p

Final words

So, that’s my guide. It’s not designed to provide you with an exact answer, but it is designed to help guide you in narrowing down the options in your pursuit of the perfect shelter. Consider primarily how much time you’ll be inside the tent and where you plan on using it. If you plan long days and nights inside, consider a larger tent. Get a lot of rough weather? Consider a sturdier frame. Small features like vents, pockets, double zippers and such will have lesser impacts on your enjoyment of the shelter, but in the end can be great factors in helping making a final decision. But, always put you needs first.

If you have any questions, or if you need help narrowing it down, feel free to comment below or send me an email. I’m happy to help.

 

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7 thoughts on “How to Choose a Backpacking Tent

  1. This article has provided me with a useful set of guidelines to narrow my search, and
    reduce the tedium of sorting through the overwhelming (indeed) array of light weight tents out there.
    What is puzzling to me is that the major brands have had years to perfect their product, yet there
    seems to be a constant churn of new designs and features. I understand the need to differentiate
    your product from the next guy’s, but you find glowing reviews from multiple users of a tent only to find that the item has been discontinued, “no longer available.” This makes no sense. We’re talking
    about a basic shelter for challenging conditions, allowing for a balance of comfort, reliability,
    and economy of weight and price. “Discontinued” should only occur when something truly better
    comes along. When it comes to packing a tiny shelter into the wildness, tried and true is what
    you want, not the one with the new thingamabob in the latest color palette.

    I think you article would be enhanced if you listed the make and model of the tents you used to
    illustrate it. So many of the tent photos you see are stock photos that do little to differentiate
    one tent from the next. Yours look original and provide some aspects that are seldom scene.

    • Thanks for the well written comment Roger!
      I agree with what you mentioned of tents being replaced instead of revised. Some brands such as Big Agnes, The North Face and a few others have long running favorites that survive for many years and they’re improved as they go, but many companies simply replace solid models for no apparent reason. I suspect a new design garners many more sales than a simple update, as updates normally slip by without much excitement. I have noticed though, often times a new color palette can accompany new features and tweaks, even if they’re not mentioned. Perhaps it’s more of a marketing mistake than anything?
      I’ll definitely make the additions that you suggested. It does make sense to have all of those models listed, and I’ll make sure that happens. Thank you for the suggestion! I do make sure to take all of my photos myself, and I try to do so in natural light and in natural conditions. It provides a much better idea of what the product may look and act like.

      Thanks again!

  2. Thanks for all the information on your website! I am trying to decide between the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 and Nemo Hornet 2P. My hiking/camping is primarily done in the southeastern United States so how they handle heat and humidity is a serious consideration. I did not see any specific reviews on these two but thought you may have some insight. Thanks in advance.

      • Hi there.
        I’ve not tested the Nemo Hornet, but it seems quite similar to other Nemo tents in design overall. I would certainly lean towards the Copper Spur. I’m also testing the Copper Spur HV, which seems, so far, even better.

    • Hi there.
      I’m in very similar conditions, and that being the case, I’ll lean towards the Copper Spur every time. A top vent, excellent ventilation, and a true full double wall helps keep the sleepers away from condensation. You’ll get some dampness in the Hornet 2p in those single wall sections near the floor.

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