How To Choose A Backpacking Tent For Your Next Trek (Ultimate Guide)

 
How to choose the right backpacking tent for you

Choosing the right backpacking tent can make or break your trip.

Need help choosing a backpacking tent?

We get it.

New backpackers (and even some seasoned vets) are confused, and understandably so.

There are a lot of important things to consider and sometimes it seems like the options are endless!

Well, don’t worry.

Because in this ultimate guide you’ll learn everything you need to know to choose the right backpacking tent for your particular needs.

Everything You Need to Know About Choosing a Backpacking Tent

Reasons for Purchasing

When you head out on the trail, you’ll need a good tent. A standard camping tent will be too heavy and weigh you down like a ball and chain.

If you have a well-made shelter, you’ll stay warm and dry even in horrible weather. It will also protect you from bugs, and it’ll let you have a bit of privacy. In other words, your trip will be much more enjoyable.

You won’t have to rely on lean-tos or make sure that you can reach your destination before its dark. The freedom you get from purchasing the right trekking tent is worth it’s light weight in gold, hah.

There are many factors you should consider, such as:

  • How much can you spend?
  • What weight is best?
  • How much space do you need?
  • How quickly do you need to set up the tent?
  • How is the tent designed?

Think about these key ideas and balance your need to stay in a certain budget and save a certain amount of space.

How Many People Need to Fit?

When you look for backpacking tents, you will see them categorized according to sleep capacity and weather readiness. To help choose, look at tent sleeping capacity and the seasonality of the backpacking tent.

First, think about how many people need to sleep in the tent. Each tent will have a number, which refers to how many people fit inside.

However, these tents are snug! If you haven’t seen many backpacking tents, you might be surprised at how small they are. Try to see the tents set up in person so you know what the size is like.

If you’re trekking with a significant other you may not mind the space, but otherwise it might be a tight fit for two people in a two person tent. Feel free to go a size up if you want a little more room.

What is the Best Weight?

Backpacking Tent 3 person 375Weight is a key factor when you’re going to carry your tent for a while. Most range from 2-3 pounds, but larger tents can get closer to 6 pounds.

In general, you will have the best experience if you can aim for about three pounds per person, or lower if possible.

Usually, the higher the weight per person, the more room inside your tent. You will need to balance your desire to save space with your desire to have a little more personal space.

How Much Do You Plan to Pay?

Price is another important point. You can find one and two person tents at an affordable price.

Remember that the more you pay, the better quality and the more accessories you’ll get.

The price also matters more if you spend a lot of time hiking. People who hike just once a summer can probably make do with a low budget version, but people who are in their tents all the time should plan to spend a little more money.

Just like all the other backpacking accessories that you may want to bring with you, great backpacking tents will be the most expensive.

However, that does not mean you have to shell out hundreds of dollars before you find the right shelter for you. Instead, you can find plenty of good ones within any price range, but you will get better quality as you pay more for your tent.

It helps to make a budget for your backpacking gear. See how much you are willing to spend all told, and then divide that money up into different types of gear that you may need on the trip.

What Conditions Will You Encounter?

Consider the conditions you'll encounter

Consider the conditions you’ll encounter. Photo: Megan/flickr

You should think seriously about the weather you’re in. A backpacking tent made for winter won’t be fun in the summer, and vice versa.

Most people use a three season tent, which is great for everything except winter. Another good feature of three season shelters is that they have mesh panels on top, which helps with aeration.

You can also get a better view of the stars with a mesh top. In general, pick a tent that is best for the worst conditions you can expect. Being safe is better than sorry.

Make sure to look for vented and/or mesh panels if you plan to go adventuring in the summer, because humid conditions can be tough when you are inside a tent. The more panels on the room, the better the condition inside will be.

If you do a lot of hiking during each season, you might want to look at getting a four season tent for the winter months and a three season option for the rest of the year. A winter tent will not be pleasant in the summer months. So it is worth spending a little more to be more comfortable.

What Extras Should You Look For?

There are some extra things to consider. For instance…

See what the choices are for door and vestibules. Doors are important if you have more than one person in the tent. And a vestibule can help make sure your gear stays out of the rain. In a little more detail, the benefits of doors and vestibules include:

  • Doors: usually you see just one door for small tents. For larger tents that hold more than two people, it is nice to have a separate entry and exit point on each side so you can come and go as you please. If one of you is a night owl but the other person likes to go to bed early, you will get along better and not have to scramble over each other.
  • Vestibules: Just like a rainfly, the vestibule helps create a little extra space outside the tent, sheltered from the weather. Most tents suited for backpacking offer a two-person sized vestibule, but they can vary widely in size. Vestibule size is included in the tent specs.

How Do You Set Up Your Backpacking Tent?

Setting up your backpacking tent

Setting up your backpacking tent is important. Photo: Rich Meisel/flickr

In general, most of the backpacking tents that you see will be freestanding, so they can stand up without requiring you to put in stakes. That means the setup is pretty quick and you can move your shelter as needed. Just pick up the tent using the tent poles and go to a new spot.

It is important that you should make sure you know how to set up your tent. Most tents made for backpacking stand up on their own or with the help of a few poles.

Practice setting your tent up in the store so you know what to do. In general, the more poles a tent has, the more complicated the tent is. Fewer poles also means a lighter tent, which is good for people who want to travel light.

Tent Size and Getting Enough Space

One inconvenient factor is that each brand has different sizes.

A one-person tent from one brand might feel like a two-person size from another brand, so you’ll want to make sure you test out the tents before buying one.

If you’re nervous about getting a backpacking tent that is too small, try going one size up. That also helps if you want to sleep with your gear, or if you move around a lot during your sleep.

Check out all three dimensions when you look at a tent: floor dimensions, floor area in square feet, and peak height – they’ll help you see how large the tent really is.

What is the Sleeper Capacity?

Remember, not every two person tent will feel the same. Since each brand is different, make sure to look at the measurements carefully and not get surprised.

Thankfully, most tents from well-known outdoor gear brands have similar sizes, which is another reason to consider buying a more pricey version.

However, if you keep getting worried about how large a tent feels, you should take a moment to think about the point of tents in general. They are meant to keep you dry and safe when you are hiking outside, not to be a full-time living situation.

Do you have the right expectations and standards? You might be surprised by how you feel after thinking about the true purpose of a tent.

The bottom line for any hiker is to take just enough gear to fill up your pack and be essential, but not more than this. Adding in useless weight does not help make a hike easier, so cutting weight wherever possible is the right idea.

By giving up a little space by taking a smaller tent, you are actually making your trip and the hike itself a lot easier.

Remember: you only spend time in a tent at night while you are sleeping, so it does not really matter in the end just how large it is.

Sleeper capacity is also important

Sleeper capacity is also important. Photo: Warren Reed/flickr

The only reason you might have to look at a larger fit is if you and the people hiking with you have any of the following conditions:

  • Are large people who might need some extra space
  • Are claustrophobic and cannot get comfortable in a smaller tent
  • Toss and turn at night and wake up others
  • Sleep better with more than average elbow room
  • Are bringing a small child or a dog or have lots of valuable gear that you want to keep inside with you

Thinking About the Interior Volume

Another important tip is to check the interior volume of a tent. Depending on how the walls are angled, some versions may feel more roomy than others.

When you want to think about interior volume, you will need to consider the following specifications:

  1. Floor dimensions
  2. Floor area (square feet)
  3. Peak height

These are the three key numbers that you need in order to understand the interior volume. However, you should also think about how the ceiling and walls connect, because a steeper pitch means less headroom unless you are in the middle of the tent.

The best way to check is to set up a backpacking tent inside the store and test it out. You can also shop online and make sure to pay attention to the tent photo.

Compare the measurements you see with the slope of the walls in the picture, which can gave you a little better idea of how the tent might feel inside. When you see one with a steep ceiling, it probably weighs less, but that might also mean it is less roomy on the inside.

In addition to the specifications you learned about earlier, you should also think about the floor dimensions carefully.

On most tent floor plans you can see the length and width measurements, but these only come from the widest part of the tent. That may be a good marketing strategy, but it is not always the most helpful for understanding how a tent feels.

Think about the floor shape of the tent. Some are rectangular and square, but others are a little stranger. Some are narrow at the foot side and widen out to provide room for the head and torso, which means not a lot of space inside.

Other tents for more than two people are actually in a hexagon shape, which means there is more room for the hips. Sometimes in winter tents, there are extra poles inside, which add weight and take up a little space themselves.

When you look at a typical two person backpacking tent, it will probably measure in the mid-80s to upper-80s for length and mid-50s for width. If you want a sleeping pad for extra comfort, they will probably be about 20″ wide.

Altogether, for two people that means about 14″ to 15″ inches of hip-to-hip wiggle room. That is not so spacious, but it is perfectly acceptable for a few days of camping.

Interior volume is another important spec

Interior volume is another important spec. Photo: Alan English CPA/flickr

What about tall people?

Taller backpackers should make sure to look at the peak height of a tent and get a longer floor length. That way you can avoid unpleasant surprises and make sure there’s enough room.

You should also make sure that you pay attention to the actual floor area of the tent. Sometimes you will see two tents with the same floor dimensions, but completely different shapes and interior room.

That means a difference in the actual floor area of these tents. Since the measurements for floor dimensions come from the largest points of the backpacking tent, you can have tents of different shapes with the same dimensions, but completely different floor area.

Don’t get fooled by what seems like a fantastic floor dimension. Look at the floor area to see if you are getting a great deal or not. The larger the floor area number, the more floor level space you will find in your tent.

This also counts when you are looking for a shelter with a large vestibule area: the larger the square footage for the vestibule, the more room you will have outside the tent.

The last important number that you should consider is the peak height of a tent, which is exactly what you would think it stands for! The peak height revers to the largest vertical part of the tent on the inside, or what you might think of as interior head room. The more peak height a backpacking tent has, the roomier it will be inside.

Just remember that this peak height gets measured at the tallest part inside the tent, and it does not take into account the whole interior or how the walls slope.

Do You Have Combi-Poles?

Some tent making companies have come up with an interesting way to deal with the lack of headroom. Sometimes you can look for tents with combi-poles, which just means that the poles come in different diameters.

The poles used by the floor of the tent might be thinner and flex a bit, while the poles for the ceiling may flex a lot more. This gives you more head space when you move around inside, and that can be helpful.

Another way to make tents seem roomy but also stable is by using a tension truss, which some modern versions include. This truss is built into certain tents on a particular tent seam.

Once the tent poles get put through the tent and set up, the truss helps the tent stay taut and more stable. This can be a good fix for people who want something sturdy.

Remember to think about how sturdy your backpacking tent needs to be: a shelter with combi-poles might not be the best choice for someone who hikes in the winter and needs the tent to support a lot of snow. Be sure to combine all of the different specifications so you can find the tent that best suits your needs.

What Should the Season Rating Be?

Three Season Backpacking Tents

Backpacking Tent 3 person Kelty 375After you find the right size, start thinking about the type of tent you need.

Consider three season, extended season, and four season options based on the expected weather.

Three season tents are most popular, since they can survive wind, rain, and most temperatures, but they still have mesh panels and are breathable.

These tents are best in the more mild kinds of climates, particularly ones that stay temperate around the year. Because of all the mesh panels they can stay airy in the summer, but that will not cut it during cold winter temperatures or storms.

In general, the reasons to get a three season tent are for exploring in seasons except for winter, to stay dry during rain and even a bit of snow, to stay safe from bugs, and to have privacy from other hikers.

Extended Season Tents

An extended season tent is meant to last a little longer in the fall weather, but it’s still not quite ready for a long winter. These versions can be helpful for backpackers who spend a lot of time at high altitudes where the weather in unpredictable.

The best part of an extended season tent is how it blends the need for ventilation, tent strength, and keeping people warm. If you need a backpacking tent that meets all these criteria, you should consider an extended season tent.

They also hold up better under snow conditions, so you can even make one last through the winter if you have the right equipment.

Four Season, Mountaineering, and Expedition Tents

Backpacking Tent 4 Season 375People who hike all year long should look at four season tents, since they’re made to make it through snow and storms.

They’re also extra reinforced, so four season tents can hold up during lots of wind.

These tents are also known as mountaineering or expedition tents because they can hold up in all sorts of conditions.

People use them a lot when they climb mountains and go above the treeline, or when they know they will experience a lot of wind. In general, these tents have extra poles, which makes them more sturdy than other tents that you may see.

Another bonus of four season tents is how they do not have a lot of mesh panels, which helps you stay more warm when you decide to go exploring in the winter months. That makes four season tents a great backpacking tent choice, particularly if you know you will have a winter trip coming up.

The downside is that these tents can get a little stuffy, especially if you are planning to spend a lot of time inside. You will stay warm, but there will not be as many opportunities for a fresh breeze.

The roofs of four season tents are also more rounded, which lets snow gather on top of these backpacking tents. At first that might not sound good, but if you think about it, the snow helps you get extra insulation and stay warm.

You may have to sacrifice a little head space, but your temperature should stay higher.

Minimalist Tents and Shelters

Ultralight Tents

Ultralight backpacking tentIf you would rather save a few ounces and go with a more minimalist backpacking tent, get an ultralight or single wall backpacking tent.

Ultralight tents use special fabric to save weight, but that means these tents are fragile, so make sure to set up your tent on a good campsite.

The best way to take care of an ultralight tent is to only set it up on places where you have cleared the ground of any debris.

Otherwise you may find yourself with an expensive backpacking tent that gets ripped to shreds in one night, which is not the goal for any hiker.

The biggest pro of an ultralight tent is its light weight and the minimal amount of space that it takes up, but the con is that it is so delicate.

Single Wall Tents

Ultralight single wall backpacking tentSingle wall tents are best in dry conditions, because they skip the extra rainfly and just have the main tent body.

When you know that you will be hiking in cold conditions, you might want to look at these tents. Since they do not have a rainfly, the tent fabric itself is waterproof.

When you are in tropical or very warm conditions this will not be ideal, but the temperature will hold up well in snowy conditions.

In general, a single wall tent is best when you expect to find a lot of snow on your trip, since they are designed to keep snow from getting through. That is the best pro, in addition to the reduced weight compared to a double wall backpacking tent.

However, the con is that these tents can get too warm in mild conditions.

Bivy Sacks

Bivy SackIf you want the bare minimum, check out a bivy sack.

This kind of tent is only large enough to hold your sleeping bag, so they’re not good for people who get claustrophobic!

You will have just enough room to get inside, and there isn’t space to sit up, but this is one of the lightest options and fastest to set up.

The fabric itself is waterproof on top and bottom, so the bivy sack is like a waterproof barrier for your sleeping bag.

This is the same idea behind a single wall tent, just in a much smaller size. These used to be popular with climbers, who only wanted the smallest option possible in terms of size and weight.

Some of these bivy sacks have only a face hole for you to peek out of, but others actually have a pole to give you at least some head space with netting to keep the bugs off. The problem some people have with bivy sacks is how small they are. There is just room for you and a sleeping bag, and you will not be able to fit your gear inside this backpacking tent.

On the plus side, this is a light option and probably the smallest backpacking tent you will find. Sometimes the models without netting do not provide bug protection, so think carefully about your needs.

Tarp Shelters, Floorless Tents and Tarps

Tent Tarp ShelterThere are even some shelter options that aren’t tents.

Things like tarps, hammocks, and bug shelters.

Putting up a tarp is good for keeping the snow or rain off, but it won’t give you a lot of protection from bugs.

If you just want to keep the rain off, you should think about using a tarp.

These are easy to set up and very light to carry.

On the downside, they do not have a floor to keep you dry or safe from winter conditions.

Hammocks

HammockHammocks come in all shapes and sizes, but they can take a little while to get used to.

These backpacking tents (or rather, not tents) are easy to set up because you just need to find two trees.

Some hammocks have rainflys, bug netting, and even ways to enter the hammock from the bottom.

The best part of a hammock is how small and lightweight it is, but you will have to learn to sleep in midair and to set up your hammock safely. In some hiking situations, you may not be able to find enough trees to hang up the hammock.

Bug Shelters

Bug ShelterBug shelters keep out bugs, but not the weather – they can still be useful, though!

Usually these shelters are some bug netting and poles, but not always a floor. The only point is to keep bugs off.

But these will not help you stay dry from the rain or warm in the winter.

Make sure to only set up a bug shelter when there are dry conditions ahead.

Terminology to Know

Once you know what kind of backpacking tent you want, get familiar with some of the common backpacking tent terms. That will help you as you purchase your tent.

“Minimum Weight”

When you want to look at backpacking tent weight, use the Minimum Weight measurement. The minimum weight refers to the total weight of the tent body, rainfly and poles only—the bare essentials, not anything extra.

For most hikers, you may need to pack more tent-related gear like tent stakes or a tarp to put on the ground, but the minimum weight is the figure all manufacturers present as a tent’s weight. Sometimes you will see this called the average weight.

“Packaged Weight”

This measurement is a little different from the minimum weight, because it includes the total weight of all tent components, like the body, rainfly, poles, stakes, stuff sack, pole sack, instructions, etc. This weight covers every possible item that could come with your tent.

“Packed Size”

For this measurement, what you are thinking is probably correct. The packed size of a backpacking tent refers to the amount of space a rolled tent will occupy in your pack. One clever strategy is to reduce this load by splitting up tent components with others from the hiking group.

When you plan to hike with several people, have someone else tote the poles or rainfly while you carry the body of the tent.

“Vestibule”

We did mention this part of a backpacking tent, but make sure you know what it means.

The vestibule is the extension of the rainfly that creates a covered storage area for boots, packs, supplies, and all kinds of other gear that you think should stay outside your living space. When you look at larger tents, some actually have more than one vestibule. This is very convenient, but it will make the tent weigh more.

“Guy Points and Guylines”

Sorry for getting a little technical, but these are key terms to know.

A guy point is a reinforced, patch-like area on the tent to which a guyline is attached, or can be attached. After this step, you pull the guyline tightly and tie or loop it to a stake. During rain, using this guyline helps to make sure that the wet rainfly does not sag on the canopy. The guylines and even help in a windy situation, since these cases make the rainfly flap.

Additionally, the rainfly will keep in less condensation if the guyline is tight and creates space. Here’s a great video that will show you how to set up tent guylines:

“Pockets”

Here is one part of a backpacking tent that you know! These pockets usually refer to spots on the tent interior where you can keep storing gear. In general pockets are flat and shaped like envelopes. You can add all kinds of gear and tools that you have to keep close by.

In fact, some pockets help stack the tent’s door—all you do is ball up the door and then you stuff it into the nearby pocket. However, you will not find many pockets if you choose one of the ultralight options.

“Perimeter-cut Floors”

These parts of backpacking tents can make a difference when you are looking for something with the most floor space. Many selections have perimeter-cut floors, which means that waterproof floor sections (including the sidewalls and ground-touching panels) are made up of separate pieces of fabric stitched together at the perimeter.

In fact, these perimeter cuts are sometimes called as a Catenary cut, or a “cut-in” floor, or even a “taped insider” floor. The whole point for this technique is to make taut edges along the tent’s perimeter. It may not sound like much, but this can actually give more floor space.

“Bathtub Floors”

These parts of a tent have more rounded perimeter edges. Except for possible bottom-floor seams, tents with bathtub floors have no stitch marks susceptible to leakage. These floors still do have a downside. Sometimes bathtub floors can curl up in a loose, baggy manner and reduce interior space.

“Hybrid Floor”

This kind of floor helps fix the problems people had with bathtub and perimeter backpacking tents.

On a hybrid floor, the side seam on the longer side has a perimeter cut while seamless bathtub edges help make up the foot and head ends of the tents.

What Type of Ventilation do You Need?

Mesh Panels

Mesh will allow you to get plenty of air circulating in your backpacking tent

Mesh will allow you to get plenty of air. Photo: OldManTravels/flickr

You should also think about the ventilation you need. Since people breathe in and out all the time, there are plenty of water molecules in our breath. If your tent is not ventilated enough, you will start to see a lot of water condensation at the top of your tent, and it can even start to drip down on you.

Mesh panels can help improve ventilation, but make sure you won’t get too cold if there are lots of panels. The three season tents most people use have several mesh panels, which can help you out when you are in temperate conditions.

Sometimes you can even take off the rainfly on a clear night to get an extra level of ventilation, but you have to be careful not to misjudge the weather.

Another good part of mesh panels is that they keep the bugs far away from you at night. As tempting as it can be to sleep out under the stars, you will wake up in the morning and regret it because of bug bites! Instead, find a tent with as many mesh panels as you need in order to be happy.

Vented Rainflys

Vented rainflys can help reduce condensation, which is extra important when the weather does not cooperate. These rainflys are better than the standard rainfly you might see because they have extra vents. This creases an extra ventilation channel, and that is perfect on long, humid, rainy nights.

These vents can even help during winter conditions when it is too cold to unzip the tent door, but you still feel hot.

How Many Doors?

Even if you think you know which tent you want, make sure you know how many doors you need. For more than two people, you should probably get a two door tent. Otherwise there will not be that much room and you will have to work together not to get in each other’s way every time you go outside.

What About the Setup?

When you plan to set up your tent, think about whether it’s freestanding or if it needs stakes to stay upright. Freestanding tents are faster to set up, but tents with stakes are better during storms or windy days. However, the best part of a tent that is freestanding is how easy it is to break up the campsite in the morning. You do not have annoying stakes to pull up or a ton of things to untie. Instead you can pack up the tent and poles and hit the trails.

There are also a few different types of pole configurations to help set up your tent. Pole sleeves are fabric sleeves you put the poles through, and pole clips are clips that help keep the poles stable. Pole hubs help connect a few different poles, and they’re the most stable. In general, look for an outdoor tent with the smallest number of poles that still fits your needs.

You should also think about the stakes you want if you have a backpacking shelter that requires stakes. A tent will come with one set of stakes, and if you need more, you’ll have to buy them separately. Usually the stakes that come with a tent will do just fine, but hardcore hikers might have different needs.

What Materials are Best for Your Backpacking Tent?

Another key thing to consider is the type of material you want for your poles and tents.

The most common types of material for poles are DAC Featherlite NSL, Yunan Air Hercules, 6000-series aluminum, or 7000-series aluminum.

The Featherlite poles are pretty light, but not quite as strong as aluminum. The Air poles have a more sophisticated connecter than the Featherlite poles, which can make a difference in fast tent setups. The 6000- and 7000- series poles are both made of aluminum, but 7000-series poles are more flexible. If you’re going to be in lots of storms or windy environments, these poles can be a good choice.

Consider the Fabric

The lighter the materials, the more comfortable your hikes will be

The lighter the materials, the more comfortable your hikes will be. Photo: Calochortus/flickr

The material of your tent matters too: think about whether you want nylon, which is lighter, or polyester, which is a little more water-resistant.

You can also check the weight of each fabric to see how durable it is: higher numbers mean tougher material, while lower numbers mean a finer material.

You’ll want to check for ripstop nylon on your tent floor, since it saves weight but is still durable.

The waterproof coating on your tent is also worth examining: some tents use it on the floor and the rainfly, and others only use it on some parts. Check the fabric weight for these tent parts to make sure it meets your needs.

Think About the Accessories

There are some extra accessories you may want when you buy a tent for your outdoor adventures. A footprint is a ground cloth that goes under your tent, and it can keep the bottom of your tent protected from rocks or other sharp objects.

Footprints are the exact size of your tent, so you have to make sure that you pick the correct one.

If you anticipate a lot of bad weather, look at seam sealer for the tent seams. You just squeeze a little of the sealant onto the seams to make sure they’re extra watertight. Similarly, if you will be in a lot of windy areas, think about going for an extended or four season tent. These tents have extra poles, so they’ll feel a little more sturdy when it’s windy.

Check the Looks

Do you want to blend in or pick a colorful tent? Think about how your choice might affect other hikers. Even though it may seem like all of these accessories are silly or not necessary, they can make a huge difference depending on how long you will be on the trail.

If you see that traditional weather for the trail area is very rainy, you should make sure to pick up a seam sealer. Alternatively, if you will be up in the mountains, make sure that you get the extra sturdiness of a four season tent.

Your Next Step

Use the information in this guide to pick your backpacking tent. After you’ve made your choice, make sure that you can set it up at home under good conditions. Then try it out in the field. Practice taking your tent apart and storing it, and make sure to keep it dry when you’re not using it.

Use this backpacking checklist to make sure you pack all the essentials.

If you take care of your trekking tent, it will last you for years, and you’ll be able to use it on tons of hiking trips.

The right tent will make the difference between you hiking in awful weather and being miserable, and you being able to relax and stay dry at night, so give your backpacking shelter some thought before buying.

Once you have it, get outside and enjoy!

If you’re still unsure of which tent to get, here are our backpacking tent picks for you to check out: