How to Choose a Backpacking Tent

How To Choose the Best Backpacking Tent for Your Next Adventure

We ask a lot of our backcountry tents. They need to protect us from rain, wind, and bugs of course. And they should also be light, packable, spacious, durable, and well-ventilated. Bright and cheery as well—who needs a gloomy tent in a storm? The good news: You really can have it all with the best new backpacking tents. There are tradeoffs between models, naturally, with some favoring low weight over space and vice versa. But understand the various features and materials and ask yourself the following questions, and you’re guaranteed to get what you need.

How much space do you need?

Start here because nothing is worse than squeezing into a tent that doesn’t have enough space. And it’s not just a matter of getting a two-person tent for two people. When shopping, crawl inside and check fit. Can you place your sleeping pads inside without overlap? Is there enough headroom? Consider these size categories and factors:

One-person tent: How often do you go backpacking alone? If you go a lot, great, a one-person tent makes sense. They’re generally the lightest models simply because they’re the smallest, with options as low as 1 to 2 pounds. But if you only need a solo tent occasionally, a more versatile option is a lightweight two-person tent. An ultralight two-person tent could weigh as little as 3 pounds or even less, which is light enough for solo trips, but it accommodates two campers—so it’s like getting two tents in one.

Two-person tent: You’ll find the most variety in this category, since most people want a two-person tent, prompting brands to make models that span a variety of weights, protection, space, and prices. If you like a lot of extra room for gear, card games, a dog, or just sprawling out, you might want a tent made for three. You can find ultralight models that provide exceptional space for just a pound or so extra.   

Three-person tent: These tents are great for trios, of course, but also parents with young kids, backpackers with a dog, and duos who simply need a little more elbow room. Remember that with three people, the door design is critical so you’re not crawling over each other to get in and out.  

Four-person tent: Families will appreciate tents this big. But check the math: Your group might carry less overall weight with a pair of two-person tents than one big one.  

What kind of weather do you expect?

Get a tent for the conditions you’ll see most often. If you mainly camp in summer and fall, with only occasional rain and moderate temperatures, you don’t need a heavy mountaineering tent. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you’re going to want a full-coverage fly and a roomy vestibule for wet gear. Here are the two categories of protection you should consider (some tents are also marketed as summer models; these generally don’t have the weatherproofing you want in the backcountry). 

Three-season tents: These tents work well for the majority of backpackers. They’re made for spring-through-fall conditions, with enough protection for pretty serious rain and wind. There’s a big range in stability and weatherproofing, however, so check a tent’s wind protection by leaning on it. Does it bend easily or can you feel the stability of the pole structure? Does the fly cover the tent completely or are there any gaps where wind-drive rain can get in? 

Winter Camping Tent: If you’re heading into high-altitude terrain and/or snow camping, a winter tent will be durable and stable enough to handle high winds and heavy snow loads, and usually has the space to hold extra winter gear. They also have less mesh and thicker fabrics, which boost insulation. These tents are heavier and more expensive than three-season models, but if you need the extra protection, you don’t want to take any shortcuts.    

Tip: If you’re really tempted by that Everest-worthy tent because heck, you might go to Everest someday, remember that you can always rent a tent for special occasions. 

How much weight do you want to carry?

As little as possible, right? The answer isn’t that simple. While there are certainly ultra ultralight tents available (under 2 pounds for a two-person), they achieve that low weight with specialized fabrics that require TLC and increase the price, and they’re often cramped compared to their heavier cousins. 

First, consider how much interior space and durability you need. Camping with kids or dogs? Simply don’t want to worry about wispy fabrics? You want a tougher tent. You want the lightest tent that fits your priorities and budget, which won’t always be the lightest tent available. Most two-person, three-season tents these days weigh between 2 and 7 pounds, which is a big range. A good guide: Aim for about 2 pounds per person, and then adjust up or down based on personal preferences.   

How durable does it need to be? 

A well-made tent should last for years. But manufacturers use a variety of fabrics and materials, and some are more sturdy than others. Some tents are made with very low-denier nylon, like 15-denier, that saves weight but is less durable than heavier 40-denier nylon (denier measures a fabric’s tear resistance; the higher the stronger). Extensive mesh is great for ventilation but can develop small holes. Similarly, smaller and lighter zippers tend to snag more easily. Does the tent come with a footprint? This is an extra piece of fabric that protects the tent floor from the ground. It will extend the life of your tent but adds weight.   

Does it need to be freestanding? 

The majority of tents today are freestanding, which means they don’t need to be staked out to hold their structure (you still need to stake them out for a taut pitch and to keep them from blowing away). Freestanding tents are easier to set up than non-freestanding tents, and it’s easy to pick them up and move them around. But the pole structure usually makes them heavier (and more expensive) than non-freestanding tents.  

How much ventilation do you need? 

If you frequently camp in hot, humid, or wet conditions, you want a tent with excellent ventilation. Well-ventilated designs cut down on condensation forming on the inside of the fly, which then rains down on the inside. Tents with a lot of mesh generally have better ventilation. Just remember that they’ll be less insulated and less durable than tents made with solid fabrics. Also beware of single-wall tents. These models, which use a single-layer of waterproof/breathable material instead of a tent canopy covered by a rainfly, tend to have the most problems with condensation.   

How many doors do you need?

A single door saves weight, but makes a tent less livable for multiple people. If that’s a compromise you’re willing to make, look for a big door that makes it easier for everyone to use.   If you know you want two doors, don’t be tempted by a sexy ultralight model with only one door. The few ounces you save won’t be worth it.  

How much vestibule space do you need?  

Vestibules provide a floorless “anteroom” that’s protected by the fly. They’re great for storing gear, cooking, and putting on wet boots and rain gear. The size and number of vestibules vary greatly. As a general rule, bigger vestibules are worth the extra weight and cost if you’ll be in extended wet weather. 

How organized are you? 

If you like a place for everything, look for multiple interior pockets for storing items like phones, headlamps, electronics, and sunglasses. Some tents have pockets on the ceiling—useful for placing a headlamp to create an ambient glow. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.