Photo: Dan Holz/TandemStock

How to Choose an Ultralight Tent

How to Choose an Ultralight Tent

Looking to lose a little pack weight? Choosing an ultralight tent will have one of the biggest impacts on your overall backpacking load. Some of today’s featherweight shelters provide impressive durability, living space, and features despite how little space they’ll take up in your pack. The most obvious benefit of ultralight tents—which come in solo up to four-person models, and weigh in the neighborhood of a pound and a half per person or less—is how easy they are to carry and pack. That’s more than just a luxury: For older or injured hikers, a lighter load can make the difference between being able to go backpacking or not. 

In this article, you’ll learn about:

  • The pros and cons of ultralight tents
  • The different tent shapes and styles
  • Ultralight tent materials
  • Tent features to consider

Is an Ultralight Tent for Me?

As tempting as it sounds to go for the lightest possible shelter, ultralight tents aren’t for everyone. They tend to skimp on peak height and living space to shave ounces, making some of them feel cramped. Many are also made of delicate materials that require a lot of TLC to prevent tears. Ultralights might not be the sturdiest shelter option in high winds, and some models (the single-wall types) will have you struggling with condensation. Some ultralights can also be finicky to set up, and finally, they’re expensive—sometimes extremely so. 

But if none of that deters you, you might be the perfect fit for one of these airy tents. Thru-hikers, fast-and-light climbers, and any other folks who obsess over pack weight gravitate toward them—if you’ve ever decided a mini toothpaste tube was too heavy to pack, you might just be one of them.

Ultralight Tent Styles

Some featherweight shelters look like any other backpacking tent, but others employ one of these design tricks to keep weight down.

Trekking pole pitch

You’re carrying trekking poles already (or so goes the theory behind these tents), so why not use them? These tents ditch the typical poles and sub in trekking poles for structure. Poles are some of the heaviest parts of a tent setup, so eliminating them makes a big difference. Some models place them on the exterior, while others bring the trekking poles inside the tent (where they might sometimes get in your way). Pitching a tent with trekking poles can be tricky, so make sure to practice at home before you take it out.

Single wall

Most backpacking tents have a double-wall design: One “wall” is the tent itself, and the other is the waterproof fly. A single-wall tent is waterproof enough on its own, eliminating the need to carry the fly. The biggest drawback to this style is that condensation tends to build up on the inside (versus a double-wall tent that allows air to flow between the fly and tent body). Careful campsite selection can help, pitching the tent to maximize venting and take advantage of breezes. 

Floorless or fly only

Another school of thought when it comes to weight loss: Get rid of one or more of the sides entirely. Floorless tents are usually pyramid-shaped and quite roomy. And some double-wall tents can also be set up with just a footprint, poles, and fly (no tent body) to save weight. In both cases, you give up protection from bugs, mud, wind, and rain

Photo: Alex Messenger/TandemStock

Ultralight Tent Materials

Most shelters in this category use thin fabric: 40-, 20-, or even 10-denier or lower (denier is a measure of a fabric’s strength). That means you’ll have to be selective about where you pitch it—find a spot clear of sharp rocks or cactus! Some tents use a slightly heavier-duty fabric for a bathtub floor (which extends up from the ground a few inches) for more durability, but we’re still talking delicate.  

The premium material for ultralight tents is Dyneema, an exceptionally light-yet-strong fabric that’s waterproof and doesn’t stretch or sag. It’s also expensive: Tents like this can have price tags between $500 and $1,000-plus. More affordable options might use siliconized polyester or siliconized nylon (silpoly or silnylon). 

Ultralight Tent Features

Low weight doesn’t necessarily mean your shelter has to be bare bones (though if you’re interested in the most minimal shelters available, consider a tarp or bivy sack). Weigh the following options as you shop, keeping in mind that more features usually mean a little more weight. But the comfort and convenience they add might be worth it for some backpackers.

Interior space

Some ultralight tents could double as a sarcophagus—claustrophobic, but just fine for backpackers who only plan to sleep in them. Others have impressive interior space with room for sitting up or changing clothes comfortably. Look at the specs for peak height and floor space, but also consider the architecture and the pitch of the walls—the tent’s shape can make it feel bigger or smaller than the numbers suggest. Also check to make sure the desired number of sleeping pads will fit inside. 

Vestibules

Vestibules are handy for storing boots and packs, but not all ultralight tents have them. And the ones that do might offer notably small spaces. Make sure the gear you want to store will fit inside a tent’s vestibules. 

Doors

A single door is lightest, but double doors are more convenient when more than one person is camping (no stepping on tentmates when you need to use the bathroom at 3 a.m.).

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.