Tents come in all shapes, sizes, weights, and prices. The tent can make or break your backpacking bicycle-camping, or paddle camping experience.
Whether you are in the market for a replacement tent or you are taking up backpacking or paddle camping for the first time, a tent is an important investment. It’s your primary means of protection from the weather, bugs, and temperatures.
There are several factors to consider that will help you choose a tent that best meets your needs and wants.
Types of Tents
If you are car camping or if weight and size is not a factor then any tent that is large enough will fit the bill. For backpackers and paddle campers, size and weight are two significant factors to consider.
These are the most common style of tent. They stand by themselves and don’t need to be tied to any other structure to stand upright. They are ideal for camping in any environment because you won’t require trees and they tend to do well in harsh weather conditions.
Like the name indicates, these tents have regular tent poles but also require stakes or rope tied to another structure (like a tree) to get the tent to its full size. They are very popular among adventurers who want the advantages of a double-wall tent without all the weight from the tent poles.
These tents are made with three main parts: an inner tent with a waterproof floor, a rain fly or waterproof outer tent, and tent poles. At least part of the tent wall is not waterproof to help with ventilation and reduce overall weight. They are easy to pitch and offer good protection from all kinds of weather. They come in freestanding or semi-freestanding models and “tunnel tent” models.
These are semi-freestanding tents with a unique, hoop-shaped pole structure. They require guylines to stand up. Tunnel tents are usually strong tents that offer a lot of space without a lot of weight because they usually have fewer poles.
For those counting every ounce they pack or want to carry as little gear as possible, consider a minimalist shelter. This is a “catch-all” category for any shelter that is designed to cut weight and still offer some protection against the elements. Hammock tents, bivy sacks, and bug shelters are popular tents for minimalists.
Seasonality is the type of weather the tent is designed to withstand and protect you from. There are two main “season” categories for tents, 3-season and 4-season. Most backpackers choose a 3-season tent because this offers enough protection for a broad range of climates and adventures but some backpackers own multiple tents to ensure they have the right tent for each environment.
These tents are a great balance between weather protection and lightweight construction. They aren’t designed to stand up to harsh storms, strong winds, heavy snow, or downpours, but they handle a wide range of spring, summer, and fall camping conditions.
3-season tents have mesh panels to allow maximum airflow through the tent. This keeps things cool in warmer weather and allows you to enjoy the views without having to endure the bugs.
These tents tend to have more upright walls to give you more living space and headroom in the tent. Because these tents use mesh panels in part of the tent and lightweight fabrics, 3-season tents are a good low-weight option.
These tents offer a little more protection in colder weather than 3-season tents. They are great for early spring, late fall, or high elevation camping where there might be a surprise snowstorm or the temperatures are still cold at night.
Usually, cloth panels can zip over the mesh to hold in more warmth and keep out the weather. They often have a few more poles for added strength in harsh weather.
4-season tents are designed to stand up to strong winds, heavy snow, and harsh winter weather. But, if you try to use them in warm, or even mild weather, they will probably feel stuffy because there is less ventilation.
More poles and heavy-duty materials help this tent protect you from harsh conditions. Even the rounded, dome-like designs help it stand up to strong winds and minimize flat areas where snow can collect. The rainfly extends close to the ground on 4-season tents as well.
Some 4-season tents are made with waterproof/breathable, single-wall tents and no rainfly. In warm weather these tents become hot and condensation tends to accumulate inside. Therefore, 4-season tents are ideal for cold, dry conditions.
Things to consider when purchasing a tent
There are a number of factors that will help determine the best tent for your adventuring needs.
When backpacking or paddle camping, weight and size matter. But lighter tents are usually smaller, have fewer features, and offer less protection from the elements. Backpackers and bike-campers usually try to find a tent that weighs less than 5 lbs. Paddle campers can usually carry a little more weight, though the size is a significant factor.
The “maximum weight” of the tent is the total weight of the tent, poles, rainfly, stakes, stuff sack, and any other small accessories. This is sometimes called the “packaged weight” since it is the total weight of everything in the tent package.
The “minimum trail weight” is the total weight of everything you will need out on the trail, leaving out the weight of the stuff sack, guylines, stakes, or other accessories.
Ultralight tents are surprisingly strong and durable, but they come with a higher price tag. If weight is the primary concern for you, consider paying a little more for a durable, truly lightweight tent.
Space is very limited when backpacking. The amount of space your tent takes up largely determines how easy the tent is to pack and carry. One way to reduce weight and size is to split up the tent between you and your backpacking partner(s) who will be sharing the tent.
When my husband and I go backpacking, I usually carry the poles, stakes, and rainfly while he stuffs the main tent into his backpack. This helps distribute the weight and ensures everything fits easily. We usually leave any unnecessary storage bags at home but bring a stuff sack for the tent body.
The floor area tells you how many square feet the inside of the tent is. If you need to store gear inside your tent or you are a very tall person who likes a little extra space to stretch out, look for a tent with more floor area.
Most people feel comfortable in tents that offer at least 20 square feet per person. If you are an ultralight backpacker or really want to shave off some weight, consider a tent that offers 15 square feet per person, as long as you don’t mind the tight squeeze.
If your adventures require a lot of gear that needs to be stored in the tent, be sure to take that into consideration.
Speaking of excess gear, vestibules are a great feature to consider. They are floorless storage areas under the rainfly but outside the tent. Just 5 feet of vestibule space is plenty of room to stash a full-sized backpack out of the rain without having to bring it into the tent with you. Vestibule space adds very little weight to a tent but you will appreciate the protected space.
A tent’s height is measured from the ground to the top of the tent’s exterior. To figure out the height inside the tent, subtract 2 or 3 inches from the “peak height” number. Most people can sit up and move around comfortably in a tent that has around 3ft 6 inches of interior tent height.
Other features to consider:
Tents come with countless little features and perks that don’t really add or detract from the effectiveness of the tent. However, some perks and features make the tent easier to use or more comfortable.
Clips vs. sleeves
Clips and sleeves are the most common ways to attach the body of the tent to the tent poles. Sleeves are stronger and more durable, but you have to feed the poles through the long sleeves, which can be difficult to do in tight spaces.
The clip method allows greater air circulation between the main tent and the rainfly and clips are very easy to set up. However, plastic clips can break more easily than sleeves.
There are many sizes, shapes, and variations on tent doors. There are three main types of doors on tents: double side doors, single side doors, and front-end doors.
Double side doors have a door on both sides of the tent. This is the most versatile and comfortable type of door configuration. It allows you to enter or exit the tent from either side–which is very helpful if you are sharing the tent! It also usually adds more vestibule space on both sides of the tent. Having two doors also makes it easier to set up the tent in small spaces.
Front-end door tents have just one door at the front of the tent. That means both people in the tent can get in and out easily, but it may be difficult to pitch your tent in irregularly sized campsites.
Single door tents have just one side door. They are great if you aren’t planning to share your tent with anyone.
2, 3, or 4 person tent
Many companies advertise their tents as 2, 3, or 4-person tents. Two and three-person tents are the most popular models. Usually, the biggest difference is the width of each tent. Manufacturers add about 20 inches of width per person to the tent and sometimes a little extra headroom or length.
If you plan to backpack with a friend or dog, consider purchasing a 3 person tent. Sometimes it’s worth it to carry a few extra ounces in order to be comfortable.
There are many other features to consider when purchasing a tent. Here are a few others you should factor into your decision:
- Ventilation: you exhale moisture and that creates condensation inside the tent. Mesh windows or panels and an adjustable rainfly allow you to increase the airflow and prevent condensation build-up.
- Colors: choose a tent that has light, bright colors. This isn’t just for fashion. Light colors transmit more light inside the tent, making it brighter and feel roomier. Brightly colored tents are also helpful in emergency situations because they are easy to spot from far away.
- Color-coding: Some tents have a color-coded assembly system that eliminates the need to guess which pole goes where. This is a great advantage… as long as there is enough light to see the color-coding system.
Do you have a favorite backpacking tent? Share what you like about it in the comments below!