Backpacking Tents

Backpacking Tent in Canyonlands

A backpacking tent perches on the edge of a canyon in Canyonlands National Park. © Rob Lee

Define your needs

If you spend more than a couple of nights per year outside, your tent is probably one of the most important pieces of gear you own. For an avid outdoor enthusiast, a tent may be like your second home. Choose a good one, and it will keep you warm and dry during vicious storms and cold mountain nights. Take good care of it, and your tent will probably last for years.

Tentmakers are in a tight spot. Customers expect them to build something that is light but durable, well-ventilated but waterproof, and easy to set up but still structurally sound. Back in the days of burlap, such conundrums didn’t exist. Fortunately technology has come to the rescue. New materials and construction methods have created a plethora of designs.

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all tent. Unless you can afford three or four tents, the best you can hope for a good compromise. But finding a good fit is possible. You’ll need to consider what kind of trips the tent will be used for, i.e. where, when, and with how many people you’ll camp.

A season for everything

Three-season tents are the most popular and widely available models. They are designed to handle spring, summer, and fall in temperate climates. In reality, most three-season tents will even handle a few inches of snow. These tents are light and versatile, making them a good choice for most backpacking trips.

Four-season tents are far sturdier than their counterparts. Despite the name, they are actually designed with one season in mind: winter. They are built with heavier materials. Their shapes are designed to resist severe winter storms and heavy loads of snow. These tents can be used year round, but the extra poles and material make them heavier and less breathable than three-season tents.

Think three-dimensionally

Tent manufacturers often take liberties with their tent capacities, so play the skeptic when reading tent specifications. Packing two people inside a two-person tent doesn’t leave much space for anything else. If you’re tall, if you like having some elbowroom, or if you plan on storing gear inside the tent, you might need to tally an extra “person” onto your desired tent capacity.

Mulling over the square footage will only get you so far. Always examine a tent in person before buying. If the salespeople at a particular store won’t let you crawl around inside a pitched tent, then it’s probably best to find another store that will.

Single-wall, double-wall

When it comes to water, a tent must satisfy two competing qualifications: it needs to repel precipitation and dew, while also allowing water vapor inside the tent to escape. If the tent doesn’t allow free airflow, condensation forms on the inside surfaces of the tent. Double-wall tents usually solve this problem by using a mesh roof, which is then covered by a second layer, the rainfly. Air can flow around and underneath the fly, then through the mesh. Single-wall tents, on the other hand, are constructed of a single layer of material, eliminating the rainfly. In single-wall tents, air flows through open overhangs in the material, or small mesh vents around the bottom edges.

Backpacking tent in Denali National Park

A backpacking tent in Denali National Park, Alaska. © Marc Shandro

Single-wall tents are usually much lighter, have fewer parts, and are easier to set up than double-wall tents. Most importantly, they eliminate the possible frustration of trying to attach a rainfly to your tent on a dark, windy night. Avoiding that scenario alone is a compelling argument in favor of single-wall tents. Double-wall tents, on the other hand, are less expensive and greatly reduce problems with condensation. If you’ve never jostled around inside a condensation-laden tent, just know that it’s like experiencing your own private rainstorm.

The contest for most people comes down to weight. If weight isn’t an issue, double wall tents are typically roomier, better ventilated, and more comfortable in general. For ultra-lighters or those who backpack long distances, however, saving a few pounds on your back may be worth more than sleeping in a tent as roomy as a cathedral.

Vestibules

A vestibule is a small space that serves as something like a porch or garage. Vestibules are handy for changing clothes or pulling off boots before hopping into the tent. They also provide a convenient, easily accessible spot to store backpacks or gear where they’ll be relatively safe from the elements. Only the lightest tents eliminate vestibules in order to save weight.

Footprints

A tent footprint is essentially a custom-built ground cloth that matches the contours of your tent floor. Using a footprint protects the bottom of your tent from sharp rocks, sticks, and abrasion that can damage the material or its waterproof coating. Footprints may extend the life of your tent by absorbing some of the abuse, but they come at the cost of additional pack weight. If you opt for buying a footprint, it may be worth leaving behind on high-mileage or strenuous trips.

Double-wall tents sometimes allow you to pitch the tent with only the footprint and rain fly, eliminating the body. This can serve as a lightweight option for trips where you won’t encounter bugs or heavy weather.

A question of price

The key to balancing quality and value is neither underspending nor overspending. A custom-built $800 tent probably won’t be noticeably more comfortable or durable than a more standard option that costs $300. Sometimes, and especially with backpacking, less is more. On the other hand, a cheap tent may leak, suffer from condensation problems, or quickly fall apart. Spending a bit more money opens you up to high-tech materials that can save a significant amount of weight. Most good tents are priced somewhere between $150 and $400 dollars.

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