With so many types, designs, features, capacities and sizes to choose from, it can be difficult to know where to begin when it comes to buying a backpacking tent. Your decision directly affects the weight you carry, not to mention the comfort you experience inside. Here’s our guide to buying a tent for your upcoming backpacking trip.
Capacity is the first decision you'll make when it comes to purchasing a backpacking tent. It's of paramount importance as it greatly affects the weight you'll carry on a hike. Backpacking tents are generally specified as between 1 to 4 person in size. However, different manufacturers gauge the size of backpacking tents using different metrics.
While some tents are dome-shaped, others have a fly creek design, and regardless of the rating, the available capacity inside can vary widely.
For those less concerned about weight, or those slightly larger in size, then you may want to choose a tent with extra capacity. This will give you the internal space to organise your belongings and ensure a more liveable environment if you have an aversion to the cramped nature of tent living.
When it comes to seasonality, most backpackers will choose tents rated either for 3 seasons or 4 seasons.
3-season backpacking tents provide the optimal balance between low weight and protection from the elements. They are designed to stand up to the conditions they’re subjected to in spring, summer and autumn—that's rain, moderate wind, even light snow. Due to the fact they don't withstand violent storms or heavy snow, they are lighter in weight and therefore much more easily carried.
In general, they have ample mesh panels to ensure optimal airflow and keep insects out. And with fewer poles and stakes, coupled with lighter fabrics, it results in a significant reduction in weight.
4-season tents offer total protection against the elements. Designed to stand up to what winter can throw the backpackers way, they resist heavy snow, high winds and the associated hardship you might experience at high altitude.
Mesh areas can generally be sealed over with fabric panels to keep out snow and a battering wind when the conditions turn sour. But this additional strength comes at the cost of increased weight when compared to a 3-season tent.
With the best backpacking tents, the tradeoff comes down to the weight you’re prepared to carry, and the space and features you want to enjoy inside. Many are prepared to sweat a little more on the uphill sections of a hike for the promise of a comfortable space each evening!
It all comes down to personal preference, but every backpacker still wants to save weight. And for those, ultralight backpacking tents are an attractive option. With ultralight tents comes the lack of features and internal space, so it’s important to do your research before buying.
For the more innovative hikers, there are a few tricks you can employ to lighten the load of any tent. If you're hiking in the balmy heat of the summer, you could forego the rainfly or leave some of the stakes at home. Removing the tent from its original package can also save some precious grams that your body will thank you for after a long day in the mountains. But for those with real minimalist tendencies who simply can't afford any excess weight, then several ready-made solutions exist.
The fly and footprint option includes poles and a rainfly which can be pitched over a footprint that helps insulate you from the ground.
Tarp shelters are another option. They are ultra-minimalist and contain a rainfly that you can erect over you. However, they offer no protection from insects and damp ground.
Hammocks are a low-weight option that offer a surprisingly comfortable and protective solution. Many models include a rainfly and bug netting to keep you even more protected.
Bivy sacks—also known as bivouac sacks—are commonly used by those venturing into high altitude who need optimal protection all in a lightweight solution. They provide a waterproof and breathable layer designed to cover and insulate your sleeping bag.
Finally, bug shelters are often an attractive option for those at lower altitude in warm weather. Consisting of netting and some poles, but without a floor, they help ensure you stay protected from biting insects while you sleep.
To ensure the camping experience doesn't degenerate into chaos, many people like to ensure their living space incorporates a few comforts at the very least. Some important considerations when it comes to livability include colour, doorways, vestibules and ventilation.
Don't underestimate how the colour of the rainfly can affect the mood inside. Light and brightly coloured flys help make the interior brighter, which leads to a more pleasant living space.
Getting in and out of the tent can often be an issue when more than 1 person is sleeping inside. Many tents offer a multi-door option where, in a 2-man backpacking tent, for example, each person has their own door. It provides an element of freedom and prevents people from having to walk through, or over, the belongings of others.
No one wants to sleep with stinky boots inside a tent, but neither do they want to wake up to boots that have been soaked in overnight rain. Most tents have vestibules, but if you're willing to carry a little more weight, then an oversized vestibular can really enhance liveability within the tent. The extra space and protection it provides can be achieved with comparatively little extra weight.
Finally, ventilation is an important consideration. You may be using a tent in the cold depths of winter as well as during still summer nights, so being able to configure the tent for both is important. Many tents come with adjustable mesh panels that allow you to modulate airflow as needed. An additional advantage is that they can also allow you to see outside, and even peer out at the night sky as you fall asleep!
Does it feel like you have an understanding of this backpacking tent game? If so, check out our line of backpacking tents. In a variety of sizes and with ratings for different seasons, you’ll be sure to find just what you need for your next backpacking trip!