How to Choose a Tent for Backpacking
Updated: May 21, 2021
Your home away from home.
The allure of backpacking is being able to trek with your home on your back. Of the things you choose, few are as important as your shelter. While there are a number of options, most people choose a tent as their backpacking shelter.
Aside from being what most are familiar with, there are a number of advantages to going with a tent.
Advantage of a tent
Self-contained with everything you need in one package
Easy to setup
The fully enclosed design gives the best weather protection
Can share with others if your tent is big enough
The most privacy of all the shelters
Even in the most rugged terrain, you can usually find a flat spot to set it up
If you are moving fast and light you can use a hammock, tarp, or bivy-sack but none of those let you hang out with your friends on rainy days playing cards protected from the bugs.
3 Season vs 4 Season
First I want to say that the term 4 season tent is a misnomer. The tents labeled 4 seasons are aimed at winter camping and mountaineering. They are too heavy and hot for summer. They really are 3 season tents, just a fall-winter-spring rather than spring-summer-fall.
If you are going backpacking in the warmer seasons then choose a 3 season tent and get a 4 season tent for your winter and mountain activities.
3 Season Tent
Waterproof floor with bug netting on top with rain fly over the top for weather protection
Generally lighter fabric and poles for less extreme weather conditions
More ventilation options for temperature and moisture control
4 Season Tent
Waterproof floor with breathable fabric on the top. In double-wall tents, this helps retain heat
Usually, more poles are heavier to make a stiffer stronger tent for high winds and snow loads
Less venting options which can lead to moisture build
Double Wall vs Single Wall
Both 3 and 4 season tents come in single and double wall designs. Single wall tents, though generally lighter are more prone to condensation build-up.
As the name implies, a single wall tent is just one layer of fabric between you and the outside world. For weather protection, it is waterproof so they rely on strategically placed vents to deal with moisture build-up.
A double-walled tent is a waterproof floor with either bug netting or breathable fabric on the top. A rain fly is then put over top to provide protection from precipitation and wind, hence the double wall. They can be used in the evenings with little risk of rain without the rain fly as a bug shelter.
Number of People
Backpacking tents are available in capacities from 1-4 people. Versions bigger than that are more suited to car camping than backpacking. There is no standard of how much space each person gets so check the measurements from each model. A two-person tent from one company could be the same space as a three-person model from another.
When you see a tent labeled they will have the capacity in the name.
If it is just you then the lightest option is a 1-person tent but that means you will have to store your gear in the vestibule as there is only enough room for your sleeping pad. If you want room for gear as well as people then consider getting a size that is one person more than will be occupying the tent.
Once you've figured out how many people you want to fit in your tent then compare how much room each person gets. Is there room to sit up with good head clearance? Is your sleeping pad going to be against the sidewall of the tent leading to your sleeping bag getting damp from condensation?
Go into an outdoor store with a good tent selection and see what the space in the tents feels like.
Freestanding vs Tarp Tent
Freestanding tents will hold their shape once the poles are installed without being pegged to the ground. These are often double-wall tents that have a separate rain fly. This can be of benefit in areas like the southern canyons where you are often set up on the bare rock.
Tarp Tents are single-walled tents that use your trekking poles to hold the tent up and need to be pegged out to hold their shape. While easy to learn, a tarp tent requires more practice to set up. Since they are a single wall tent they will be prone to more condensation.
For backpacking aim for a weight of 2.5 pounds or less per person. If you are sharing a tent with other people then you can split up the weight with once carrying the tent poles and fly and the other the tent body and pegs.
Weight is a function of materials and design so ultralight tents will often come with some trade-offs such as smaller space, higher price, and less ruggedness. If you backpack a lot then these compromises are often worth the cost as the energy saved with each step due to lighter weight allows you to cover more ground and feel less tired at the end of the day.
The lightest tents will be tarp tents that use your trekking poles and pegs to hold their shape. Brands like Hyperlite Mountain Gear will use exotic fabrics made from Dyneema to further lighten the weight.
If you get a single-person tent then it only comes with one door but various bigger tents may come with one or two doors. The extra door adds weight but if you are sharing the tent with someone, you don't have to crawl over them in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.
The vestibule is the extension of the rainfly that when pegged out, will give you space outside the tent that is protected from the weather. This is where you can keep your pack and your boots to protect them from rain. There will be a vestibule at each door so a two-door tent will have more protected storage space.
Groundsheet, Repair Kit, and Pegs
When buying your tent get a matching groundsheet to put under the tent. This will protect the bottom of the tent from punctures and improve the water protection from the ground. Make sure the groundsheet is slightly smaller than the footprint of the tent as if it extends past the edge of the tent it can allow water to pool under your tent.
Even if it is only some duct tape, having some sort of tent repair kit is required as you never know when a rip or leak may leave you exposed to the weather. I've had to repair broken tent poles with duct tape and a tent peg. Plan ahead and you won't be caught unprepared.
Most tents come with pegs but they are often pretty cheap. I would suggest getting a set of pronged aluminum tent pegs such as the MSR Mini Groundhog. And always carry an extra peg as they can get lost or broken.
When buying a tent for backpacking, stay away from off-brands and department store options. They are too heavy, don't offer the weather protection needed, and often won't stand up to high winds.
The regular price for an appropriate tent for backpacking can range from $200 to $600 USD. Depending on where you from this price will vary. When it comes to any purchases if you are a smart shopper you can find deals. If the tent you want is from a major manufacturer you are more likely to find a store with it on sale. Small companies like Zpacks and Hyperlite Mountain Gear are ordered direct so you don't have the option of comparing prices.
Generally, the more you pay the lighter you will get. An MSR Elixir 2 person is $249 and weighs 5 pounds. The MSR Freelite 2 is $489 and weighs 2.5 pounds. Double the price for half the weight but in the long run, you don't remember what you paid for something, only if you are happy with it. I'm a big believer in buy once, cry once. If you buy a cheaper option than you truly need you will be buying a new tent next year making it more expensive overall.
LiveWild Radio's Recommendations
REI Passage 2
If you are just getting into backpacking, REI is where a lot of folks start. The Passage 2 is not super light but a really good value and well made. The tent is roomy, has good ventilation, and fully freestanding. Fast setup and relatively lightweight from a big brand with a good warranty.
Price: Check Current Pricing at REI
Weight: 4 lbs 13 oz
MSR Hubba Hubba NX2
I'm a big fan of the Hubba series as they are relatively light and easy to set up. The pole system is interconnected so you have one pole but it acts like two. You just need to check it out to see what I mean. The poles are made by Easton which gives both lightweight and durability.
For the weight of the tent, it gives you a lot of headroom making it comfortable to hang out in.
MSR has a lifetime warranty on their tents giving you peace of mind that if you run into a problem that you will be taken care of. And since they are such a big company they are sold everywhere making it easier to find a good deal on one.
Price: Check REI for Current Pricing
Weight: 3 lbs 8 oz
REI Quarter Dome SL2
Most house brand products are cheap but not very good. REI bucks this trend. Their Quarter Dome SL2 tent is light and reasonably priced. It has all the modern features like DAC poles, a color-coded system for ease of set up, and lots of internal accessory pockets and hang points.
The vertical sidewalls make for a good amount of headroom. It has two doors and vestibules making it relatively light for the amount of space.
Price: Check REI For Current Pricing
Weight: 2 lbs 14 oz
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid 2
This tent is popular among thru-hikers for its lightweight and ease of setup. It needs to be staked out and then you will use your trekking poles to hold up the tent. The pyramid design will stand up to 4-season use. It can be used with or without the bug net or floor.
For a single-walled tent, it is very well ventilated thereby limiting condensation buildup. The Ultamid 2 is made from a Dyneema fabric which is light and tough but accounts for a large part of the high price tag.
Price: Check Current Pricing at Hyperlite Mountain Gear
Weight: 1 lb 2 oz
The Wrap Up
There are a lot of great options for a backpacking tent but the ones above are my favorites. Just make sure your tent is light and small enough that it isn't too much to carry.
If you already backpack, what is your favorite tent? Let us know in the comments below.
Cover Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard