Backpacking Tents Are For Real Backpackers
Are you in the midst of planning your next backpacking adventure and you can’t decide on what kind of shelter works best for you?
Or maybe you’re just interested in backpacking and the only thing holding you back is the uncertainty that comes with sleeping in an ultralight backpacking tent?
These are common concerns for many backpackers regardless of experience.
In this article, we address many of these issues that may be affecting your decision whether or not to buy a backpacking tent for your next lightweight adventure.
A backpacking tent is a lightweight, portable outdoor shelter that’s built to accommodate any number of people depending on the capacity.
Most backpacking tents on the market are built to handle anywhere from 1-12 people.
They’re lightweight to make it easy to carry on your back and are designed for easy setup and break down.
After a long day of outdoor activities, it’s important to be able to easily have your shelter ready for the night.
Then in the morning after a good night’s rest, you can easily pack it up and continue your adventure.
After a long day on the trail, you don’t want to spend a lot of time working to set up your accommodations.
There are so many options on backpacking tents that it’s fairly easy to find one that will fit your requirements and help make your adventure awesome.
Should I go Ultralight?
The latest trends in backpacking revolve around the ultralight community.
Everyone wants to know how to shed weight out of their pack, and for good reason.
Going ultralight makes hiking easier on your feet, legs, and back while allowing you to fit more stuff in your pack.
While going ultralight is a great focus to have when it comes to most items in your pack, it should be taken with a grain of salt when it comes to your accommodations.
By all means, search for a lightweight backpacking tent that weighs as little as possible.
But don’t sacrifice the quality of a good night’s rest on the trail to save a half pound on your back.
There are a number of decent tents to purchase on Amazon alone that weigh less than 4 pounds and can fit 2 people.
A lot of ultralight campers think even this is too heavy and will make make-shift tents out of tarps.
This might save you a pound or more in your pack.
But will also add time to your setup trying to deal with the logistics of setting up a tarp.
If you go this route we encourage you to at least bring a bivy sack with you.
Especially if you’re not an experienced camper you might find yourself regretting the decision not to get a regular backpacking tent.
If you’re still not sure what shelter option works best for you, be sure to check out our article “BIVY SACKS vs TENTS” where we help to break down the pros and cons of going with either.
Your sleeping arrangements including your tent and sleeping bag will be the heaviest items in your pack.
Exhaustion from lugging around so much extra weight can dampen your adventure spirit.
So be sure to keep weight in mind as a factor in your backpacking tent of choice.
Because backpacking tents are built to hold different amounts of people, (1-person tents, 2-person tents, etc), the weight will increase and decrease depending on how many people you need to accommodate.
Even within each category of capacity, the weight can vary.
Some tents come with extra poles, some are built with heavier materials.
You’ll find heavier materials in more 4-season tents and lighter in 3-season tents.
For a lightweight, 1 person tent, for instance, you can reasonably stay around 2-4 pounds.
Even a good 3 person tent can keep you under 5 pounds.
As any good lightweight backpacker knows, keeping tabs on each item’s weight in your pack is very important in the planning phase.
Knowing the weight and density of other items in your pack will help give you a good starting point of how heavy a tent you can lug.
Every camper is built differently and luckily there are enough tents on the market with varying dimensions to fit any size camper.
From short to tall, thin to wide, you’d be hard-pressed to find a shelter that doesn’t fit you and your gear right.
Tents are measured in length, width, and height.
As we’ve discussed in our Bivy sack articles, the beauty of tents is that most are built tall enough for you to be able to sit upright.
Some are even built so you can stand, assuming your not a starting NBA center.
While most 1 person tents will be a tight fit, things really start to open up once you get into 3 and 4 person tents.
As a rule of thumb its good to get a tent 1 person more than you’re actually bringing.
For instance, if you’re a solo traveler it might be good to get a 2 person tent, or if it’s you plus one more a 3 person tent will work perfectly.
Although you can most certainly fit 2 people in a 2 person tent and 1 person in a 1 person, comfort wise, you are better off opting for the extra space.
The tradeoff in weight isn’t that substantial as you go up in size.
Usually a 1-2 pound difference.
Plan For The Unexpected
When it comes to your tent’s dimensions it’s important to take when and where you’re going into consideration.
What kind of weather do you anticipate?
Do you see yourself spending a lot of time in your tent?
If so, you may want something with some more height.
Claustrophobia can set in pretty quickly without enough headspace.
What sleeping gear do you intend to use?
Do you plan on using a sleeping bag, an air mattress or even a cot?
These accessories will change the amount of space that will be used.
For those who plan to use their tent for backpacking and bike camping, the size and weight of a tent is your first concern.
Don’t forget to also consider how the tent will fit in your backpack or bike.
Does the tent stick out the sides and impede the movement of your arms or body?
Is the size of the packed tent bulky, heavy, and reduces the other supplies you can travel with?
You do not want to be lugging around a heavier then than you need.
On the same token, there’s no reason to purchase the lightest tent just to find that you or your loved ones barely fit and there is no space to put all your gear and you have to leave it all outside in the rain.
Having a good sense of the challenges you’re going to face in your specific location will also help determine what kind of tent you should bring.
Factors like weather, terrain, elevation, wild animals all come into play when deciding what kind of tent you need.
Do you need a tent with a heavy rainfly?
Are you going somewhere that’s known for its heavy rain?
Is it a mountain trail with unpredictable terrain or is it lowland where it is flatter with more open space?
Maybe you’re backpacking in an area where there is a lot of forest land.
Your preferred shelter depends a lot on the environment of where you are hiking.
Do you need something with a smaller footprint because you know open space is hard to find?
Knowing the space you have to work with beforehand is crucial
Setting up a tent in an area with rougher terrain and hills can be a challenge.
Mapping out where you will be going and factoring in trails with extensive walking and climbing will help you decide which backpacking tent works best.
3 Season vs 4 Season Tent
Tents are categorized as 3-season or 4-season.
A 3-season tent will get you through 9 months out of the year, spring through fall.
It’s built lightweight with extra ventilation including vestibules and mesh walls to let air flow freely through the tent.
A 4 season tent is built for colder weather.
They’re typically heavier and provide much less ventilation.
A 4 season tent can work in the summer months, assuming it’s not going to be that warm out at night when you’re actually in the tent.
There are plenty of places to explore where it can be warm in the day and cool down substantially at night.
In that case, you don’t want the extra ventilation from a 3 season tent.
But if it’s warm at night, you can really be uncomfortable trying to rest in a 4 season tent.
A 3 season tent is perfect for the warmer months and climates.
However, it will not get you through colder temperatures, even with a heavy rain fly.
If the temps start to dip down into the 40’s and 30’s or colder you may find yourself reaching for extra blankets in a 3 season tent.
Vestibules and Gear Storage
Be on the lookout for tents with ample space to store gear.
This is where getting a bigger tent comes in handy as you and your trail mates can have ample space to sleep and store your stuff.
That being said many tents in 2018 are built with vestibules which provide external covering.
Usually, they consist of a flap that connects to the body of the tent with poles and rods.
Vestibules come in handy especially for campers with muddy boots, and smelly gear.
They really come in handy for saving space inside your tent.
Many tents today also are being built with pockets and storage compartments inside the tents.
These will fit your smaller valuables like phones, food, headlamps, etc.
Materials- NYLON vs POLYESTER
Most tents are made from Nylon and Polyester.
Nylon is great as it is lightweight, water-resistant and very strong.
You’ll find nylon tents that are coated with polyurethane, or uncoated.
Both have their advantages.
Coated nylon will give you waterproofing by sealing the gaps between the woven material.
The downside of a coating is the decrease in ventilation.
The tent becomes much less breathable when the nylon is treated.
Look for polyurethane coated nylon on the tent floor but don’t get too secure with this alone.
We recommend bringing along some kind of footprint or bottom tarp if you anticipate dealing with wet terrain.
Rip-stop nylon is also very popular.
It’s similar to regular nylon except it includes a heavier fabric woven into nylon which adds more strength and durability to the tent.
This is perfect for those who abuse their tent.
Just keep in mind the material is heavier and you’ll be lugging around extra weight.
Polyester is the other synthetic material you’ll find in most tents.
Compared to nylon, polyester isn’t as strong (not by a lot we must add), but is more water and UV resistant.
When soaked, polyester also retains less water than nylon.
For example, if your tent gets rained on, polyester will dry faster than the nylon.
Denier and Thread Count
Also, keep in mind DENIER and THREAD COUNT.
You’ll see labels with “30D ripstop nylon”, or “300T”.
These will give you an idea of the strength of the materials.
The denier refers to how thick the material is.
It’s a unit of density based on the length and weight of a yarn or fiber.
A single strand of silk is considered 1 denier.
Thread count refers to how many threads are used per square inch.
As an easy rule of thumb the higher the denier and thread count, the stronger the construction.
The higher number often also correlates to a heavier tent.
Tent zippers are one of the most problematic parts of the tent.
No matter how much research you do, predicting whether a zipper will break is impossible.
So much can go wrong with zippers.
They catch on loose material, get stuck on itself, or just plain fall off.
When selecting a tent, especially online be sure to read reviews of other campers and see if they had any problems with the zipper.
If there are more than two complaints then it could be a trend and we’d caution you to stay away.
If you experience a stuck zipper on the trail, try gently jimmying it loosely with your fingers.
Make sure it’s not stuck on the tent cloth.
If the zipper isn’t stuck to the tent cloth then it may be that the zipper teeth need to be lubricated.
The graphite from the tip of a pencil tends to work as dry lubricant.
Just run the tip over the following zipper ridges like your coloring them in and that should loosen it up.
Ventilation in a tent is one of the most important things to consider.
How well does it breathe by circulating the outside air?
Most tents on the market come with at least a little ventilation.
3 season tents are built for warmer temps and will give you the best ventilation by providing more mesh in the walls.
Many 3 season tents almost entirely mesh construction on the top third of the tent.
Some tents are made almost entirely of mesh.
If you go with one of these warmer tents, make sure you have a dependable rainfly.
Things can get messy pretty quickly if the weather doesn’t cooperate.
4 season tents are made of heavier materials as they’re built for colder temps and won’t offer as much ventilation.
However, they will usually offer at least some tiny windows on the side walls for some crosswind air.
Single Wall Tent vs Double Wall Tent
Also look out for SINGLE WALL vs DOUBLE WALL.
Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
Single wall tents will be less weight, but also less breathable.
You will most likely have to deal with some extra condensation built up inside.
Double wall tents are built to add on the rainfly.
They’re more breathable but heavier.
Staked Tent vs Freestanding Tent
At some point in the tent buying process you have to ask yourself, “How lazy am I?”
Traditional tents are set up by planting stakes into the ground and tying guy lines through the included loops on the sides.
There is a bit of a learning curve with correctly pitching a tent, but once learned, you can quickly set up a normal tent.
Non-freestanding tents also hold up better in bad weather including wind and heavy rain and are more lightweight than freestanding.
The biggest downside to a staked tent is the lack of versatility.
If you set the tent up in a bad location it can be a real pain in the arse to move.
Not to mention the inability to setup on poorer surfaces.
You also lose your ability to properly repel water if the tent isn’t staked correctly.
Freestanding tents, on the other hand, can be set up in less than a minute.
They require no extra parts, are sturdier than normal tents and can be pitched almost anywhere.
However, they do come with their own set of drawbacks.
Freestanding tents are usually heavier than regular tents.
They’re not good in windy conditions and harder to replace broken parts.
Also if a part of a freestanding tent does break, the unit can become completely unusable.
Knowing how long you’re going to be in the backcountry will determine what kind of tent you should get.
If you’re only going for a few nights maybe a smaller, 1 person tent will be fine.
But if you’re going out for longer, try something a bit bigger.
A small tent can get very cramped night after night.
Also, consider what you’re going to be doing.
Will you be sleeping somewhere different each night?
Or are you setting up one campsite over the course of a few nights and not moving?
A bigger tent should work in that case as you won’t need to worry about lugging it around so much.
Most importantly if you’re a serious backpacker choose quality gear.
A cheap tent may be enough for the occasional trip in mild weather.
But if you plan to go camping often in different types of weather, look for a high-quality backpacking tent for sale.
Also don’t be afraid of having a few different tents to choose from.
A good selection of shelters on hand gives you more flexibility to bring others with you.