The Ultimate Tent Buying Guide for 2020

Screen tents are great for summer months, sacrificing protection for greater breathability.

How Do I Buy a Tent?

There’s a lot of factors to consider when selecting a one-person tent. Luckily, we’re here to help.

Given the vast amount of options there are for one person tents, it’s no wonder that some people might find the process confusing, especially if they are new to the outdoor world.

There are a ton of different materials, designs, features, and price ranges to choose from. It’s easy to pay to much for features you don’t need or purchase a tent that doesn’t serve your needs if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Luckily, we’ve made this simple guide to help you navigate buying the right one for you!

Key Tent Features To Consider When Buying An Ultralight Backpacking Tent

Here are some of the main things to keep in mind while selecting a one-person tent

What type of camping will you be doing?

This is probably the most important question to ask yourself.

Are you going for a strenuous multi-week excursion where every ounce of pack space counts?

Are you more of a weekend warrior, looking for more spacious and comfortable accommodations?

Will you be camping in the winter or in inclement weather?

How often will you be using it? Every weekend, or a few times a year?

Before you go any further, figure out exactly what your needs and requirements are.

Portability of Tent

Weight and portability are two of the most important factors when it comes to selecting a tent

The portability of your tent is one of the most crucial aspects when it comes to ultralight camping.

If you are truly interested in ultralight camping, you will want to budget for a high-performance tent that shaves off every possible ounce. These tend to cost a bit more than tents for more casual hikers.

If you are not as interested in this type of camping and are just using it as a shelter during occasional nights outdoors, you may want to consider another option.

A backpacking tent’s weight is one of, if not the most important determining factor when deciding between tents.

You don’t want to carry around a heavy backpack that hurts your back and joints. This can make camping a miserable experience.

The best one-man tents for backpacking are designed for the ultralight solo backpacker who values their hiking experience over sleeping space.

Space

Interior space is going to make a huge difference when it comes to how comfortable you are on the trail.

After portability, space is another key consideration when it comes to one-person tents.

The interior space is a huge factor determining the comfort level of staying in a tent.

As you may imagine, the more space a tent provides, the heavier it tends to be (and vice versa).

This is one of the main tradeoffs to think about when selecting a tent. Whether you think you will spend more time in the tent versus on the trail will affect your decision.

Number Of Sleepers

Simply put, the larger the number of people that the tent accommodates, the heavier and bigger it will be.

Along with weight and size, many bigger tents offer some more features.

For the solo backpacker, we highly recommend to only invest in a bigger tent if you plan on bringing more people with you, or you absolutely need the space and features for extra gear. Otherwise, stay as lean as possible.

That being said, it is possible to find 2 man tents that are the perfect size for the solo backpacker.

Key Tent Features

Tents Seasonality

Obviously the type of weather you are camping in will determine many of your decisions when purchasing a one-person tent.

There’s multiple different rating for seasonal appropriateness.

Summer Tents / Screen Tents

Screen tents are great for summer months, sacrificing protection for greater breathability.

As the name suggests, these tents are only appropriate during the warmest months.

Many have walls that are made exclusively from mesh netting, offering great breathability and protection from insects, but at the expense of protection from the elements.

The fact that they are made of see-through material also means that they provide great panoramic views of your surroundings.

3-Season Tents

These tents are significantly hardier and feature waterproof (or at least water-resistant) walls.

They provide some degree of insulation from the cold and can usually protect against everything except more extreme inclement weather.

3-4-Season Tents (Also known as Convertible Tents)

These are similar to 3-season tents, with the ability to convert to a 4-season tent by adding certain panels, poles, or flys.

This gives you the flexibility to pack lightly for the warmer months or bring along extra equipment that will enable you to brave the colder months.

Ideally, these models combine the best qualities of 3 season and 4 season tents.

4-Season Tents (Also Known as Mountaineering Tents)

Winter mountaineering tents are specially designed for inclement weather

These are the heavy-duty tents that are designed for camping in the dead of winter.

A good one person mountaineering tent will be able to withstand below-freezing temperatures and significant snowfall.

These also tend to be the heaviest and most expensive types of tents.

Common Shapes & Types of Tents

There is also a wide range of possible tent shapes and floor plans for different needs (and aesthetic preferences)

A-frame / Ridge Tent

The classic A-frame is about as simple as you can get.

The A-frame tent style is the “classic” tent shape that has been used for decades (if not longer). Think Yogi Bear cartoons or the Boy Scouts.

Since the adoption of lightweight poles, has dramatically increased the number of possible tent configurations, this style has declined in popularity.

That said, it is still a very sturdy design.

Modified A-frame / Ridge tent

This style of one person tent is an update to the classic A-frame setup. It generally looks similar to a normal A-frame, but with different variations that keep it from having a strictly triangular profile.

Dome-style tents

The dome tent is currently the most popular style on the market.

Dome-style tents are models that are rounded at the top. This gives them more internal space than A-frame models.

This is probably the most popular type of tent out there. It is known for its efficiency and relatively low cost.

Tube / Tunnel shaped tent

The tube or tunnel tent is distinguished by its system of hoops that run parallel to each other (rather than crisscross). Usually, these tents require external guylines as well.

This creates a distinct tunnel shape and means that these types of tents can have much larger interior volumes than others.

These tend to be better for group camping as they can be significantly heavier and bulkier, and may require multiple people to set up.

Instant / Popup Tents

The popup tent is the easiest type of tent to pitch, making it perfect for casual outdoor enthusiasts

Instant tents are generally the easiest to set up, as the name suggests. They are distinguished by having an all-in-one design that allows them to quickly unfold without requiring the camper to insert poles.

The downside to this design is that they tend to be bulkier, and more difficult to repair if damaged on the trail.

Inflatable Tents

Inflatable tents are relatively new on the camping scene. Instead of using aluminum poles for structural support, they use inflatable tubes.

These tents are intended more for car camping or “glamping,” rather than ultralight camping due to their bulk and weight.

Although they are more of a novelty at this point, they might be worth looking into if you have the cash and are interested in luxury camping.

Teepee / Pyramid tent

Although not as practical for modern ultralight hikers, teepees still have their own charm

Teepee tents include any structure that utilizes the classic Native Plainsman layout.

The circular base allows it to cover a large amount of ground, and the central point in the ceiling often includes an aperture that allows the smoke from wood-burning stoves to escape.

Trailer Tents

Tent trailers are luxurious and can make for an excellent home base for excursions

Trailer tents are the ultimate in outdoor decadence. These units fold out from flat-bed trailers and must be transported by vehicle.

Obviously, these tents are for drive-in campgrounds, not hiking.

Geodesic & Semi-Geodesic

Tent trailers are luxurious and can make for an excellent home base for excursions

Geodesic dome tents are intricate but extremely durable

Geodesic tents use multiple intersecting poles in a similar way to dome tents, but much more elaborately.

The crisscrossing effect creates a network of triangular hatching across the surface. This provides these tents with better performance in inclement weather.

However, it does mean these tents tend to be more complicated to set up and heavier to pack.

Semi-geodesic tents can be thought of as a hybrid between geodesic and more basic dome tents.

Structure: Freestanding vs. Non-Freestanding – What is the difference?

One of the major distinctions in tent styles is between “freestanding” and “non-freestanding.”

Let’s take a look at what that means.

Freestanding Tent

These are tents which use included poles to stand up. They are not attached to anything external and can be picked up and moved around without losing their form.

These tents are generally more convenient, easier to set up, and are more comfortable than non-freestanding tents.

However, they also tend to be heavier, more expensive, and less resistant to wind.

Non-Free Standing Tent

Non-freestanding tents require lines and stakes to hold their shape

These are tents that require rope or cord attached to metal stakes that you need to push or pound into the ground so that the tent keeps its shape.

Sometimes they use trekking poles to stand up as well.

Non-freestanding tents are more difficult to set up and move around, but they are lighter and more versatile once you get the hang of them.

Tent Poles

One of the most critical components of a tent is the poles. The material a pole is made out of can make a big difference on the trail.

Fiberglass

Fiberglass is a fairly cheap material, but it splinters easily

These are the cheapest poles on the market. They are not necessarily bad, but they are thicker and heavier than the other options, making them less suitable for ultralight camping.

They also have the unfortunate tendency to splinter under duress, which can be an issue. They require more delicate handling to prevent snapping during use.

Also, fiberglass tent poles tend to start fraying after repeated use, becoming covered with tons of tiny splinter.

This can be obnoxious when trying to thread them through the loops of a tent, and can be quite painful if you get a splinter in your hand!

Aluminum

Aluminum has a fantastic strength to weight ration, making a great option for tent poles. These are often used in high-end ultralight tents for this reason.

Aluminum poles are extremely tough and may bend, but they rarely break.

The downside is that they are usually more expensive. But, if you are truly interested in high-end performance, this is what you should be looking for.

Carbon Fiber

Carbon is extremely tough and lightweight, making it unlikely to break on the trail

This is the cream of the crop. Carbon fiber is specially engineered to be extremely strong and extremely light.

When shaving down every ounce is the most important factor, carbon fiber tent poles offer the best performance.

The caveat is that these poles are extremely pricey. You will usually only find them in specialty outfitters rather than family camping stores.

But, if you are truly interested in high-end performance, this is what you should be looking for.

Tent Materials

Obviously, the types of fabric used to construct the walls of your tent are going to be a major factor in its performance.

Make sure your backpacking tent is made up of the best materials which can fight and withstand the toughest circumstances. Sudden rains and strong winds are not uncommon when trekking the great outdoors.

The best one-man backpacking tents for backpacking are built to survive such strong rains. In general, look for a tent made up of a high rated nylon fabric wall. This tends to be more durable than polyester.

Also look for a tent floor made from coated materials, or ripstop nylon.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each option.

Polyester / Nylon

Polyester and nylon are the most common tent materials for their combination of price and performance

Polyester and nylon are what most modern tents are made out of. There are many different types and brands of these materials, but they all share most of the same qualities.

These tent materials are lightweight, durable, waterproof, and can be pretty inexpensive.

However, they are not insulating or breathable, which can be an issue in some weather conditions. This means they will not retain heat in the winter or keep you cool in the summertime.

They are also liable to allow condensation to build up.

Canvas / Cotton 

Cotton and canvas tents may be impractical for ultralight campers but they do have many benefits

These older materials are still sometimes used for tent walls, but it is much less likely these days with the popularity of synthetics.

Canvas and cotton are much more breathable and insulating than polyester/nylon tents, which is a major plus. However, they are also much heavier, which is why they are not used as often these days for backpacking tents.

Polycotton

As the name suggests, this material is a blend of cotton and polyester materials. It is lighter and more affordable than normal cotton, but it retains the advantages of being insulating and breathable.

Tent Floor Length

Tent floor length is a basic consideration that many people overlook. You do not want to purchase a tent that you cannot lie in comfortably!

This can be a problem with smaller one-person tents especially. You should account for extra “wiggle room” when selecting a shelter that will keep you from rubbing against the interior wall, especially if it sags under precipitation.

We think a good rule of thumb is your height plus 6 inches minimum for floor length when selecting a tent. Many times solo hikers will get the best results from actually using a smaller two-person tent.

Tent Doors

Having a convenient doorway configuration can save a lot of headache on the trail

The door configuration is something to think about when buying a tent. You want something that is going to be comfortable to get in and out of, especially if you are going to be using it a lot at the campsite.

It is good to have two doors in the tent for easy entry and exit. A good one-person tent may not need more than one door.

However, when looking at tent doors try to opt for side panel doors over front panel doors. This makes getting in and out of the tent much easier.

Also, be sure to check reviews of the tent’s zipper reliability. Faulty zippers are at the top of any backpacker’s list of frustrating design flaws.

Rainfly

For most hikers, a rain fly is NOT optional

A rainfly is an impermeable sheet of fabric used to make a tent more resistant to inclement weather. Basically, it is what keeps you dry while camping.

In most cases, a tent requires a rain fly to function properly. Tents are not made to be waterproof, so an additional layer of fabric is needed to resist the rain.

Usually, this means that once you set up your tent, you will attach the rainfly over top of it, forming an inner and outer wall.

You now have an inner wall of the tent body that has breathable mesh for good circulation AND an outer wall that prevents wind and rain from interfering with your sleep.

There are full coverage and partial coverage rainflys available, depending on how intense the precipitation you expect to encounter is.

Most quality one person tents will include its own attachable rainfly.

Vestibules / Garage

Having a vestigule under your rainfly can save space and protect your gear

Vestibules are the space created between the footprint of the rainfly and the tent itself. This space is not inside the living area of the tent itself but still protected from the elements.

This means that you can store your excess gear outside your sleeping area without worrying about it getting wet.

This can be a huge comfort issue on the trail, so check and see what type of vestibule space each tent offers before buying.

Think about it: any space that you can keep your gear outside the tent frees up that much space inside the tent.

Ventilation

Ventilation is a critical issue, and not just in the warmer months. Even in the dead of winter, you could run into trouble with a poorly ventilated tent.

This is because your breath creates condensation, which can buildup in your tent without a vent, leaving you soaked by morning.

Make sure any tent you purchase includes an adequate amount of mesh paneling to allow for airflow.

Interior Loops and Pockets

This is a nice convenience factor that some tents feature. Loops inside the tent walls can be used to suspend packs and other gear so they do not take up valuable floor space.

Most tents feature pockets on the sides for storage, but we find the ones that are on the ceilings of tents to be the best.

Guyout Loops

If you think you will be camping in particularly strong winds, you should check to see if your tent includes guyout loops.

These are loops attached to the outside of your tent that you can use to attach guylines. Guylines are ropes that stake into the ground and provide extra stability in the presence of high winds.

You’ll almost always find guyout loops midway up a tent wall, directly over a pole.

Optional Tent Accessories

These aren’t strictly necessary, but still nice to have!

Footprint

Even a basic tarp can act as an effective footprint for your tent

Tent footprints are sheets of material, usually synthetic, that you can put under your camping tent to prevent the wear and tear of against the ground.

This is especially useful if you camp on sandy, rocky areas, or in places with a lot of pine needles. The bottom of your tent will probably experience some wear and tear from scratching against the ground without a footprint.

Gear Loft

A gear loft is a nice extra, especially if you are packing heavy. This is essentially a small mesh hammock that suspends from the ceiling and can hold small and medium-sized units of gear.

Other Accessories

  • Extra ground stakes
  • Tent stake hammer
  • Tent camp lights
  • Tent whisk (brush) for cleaning out sand and dust
  • Seam sealant
  • Guyline and carabiners (for a hanging organization system)

Tent Tips

  • Practice setting up your tent at home
  • Make sure you have all your stakes every time you break camp
  • Pad your tent

 

Posted in

Love The Outdoors?

Sign up for our mailing list for our FREE gear and trail guides

Nick P

Nick spent his mostly unsupervised youth raising hell in the woods and ponds of 16 Acres in Springfield, MA (AKA Hell's Acres). He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY and loves hitting the northeast trails when his schedule allows and camping on his roof deck when it doesn't.

Leave a Comment