Because it has a big effect on both your budget and your pack weight, the backcountry shelter you choose is one of your most important gear-buying decisions. And, to complicate matters, backpacking tents come in an astounding variety of designs, from minimalist to mansion-esque.
To simplify choosing the right backpacking tent, you can break the process down into the following decision points:
- Capacity: likely number of sleepers
- Seasonality: tent construction relative to expected weather conditions
- Weight: ounces carried vs. dollars spent
- Livability: well-placed interior space, ease of access, ease of setup and more
For a quick rundown on tents beloved by REI Co-op members, read our roundup of the year’s best backpacking tents.
Backpacking Tent Capacity
Backpacking tents are categorized by capacity: from 1- to 4-person models. Most tent names include a number for the capacity: REI Half Dome 2, for example.
To save weight, tent interiors are “cozy.” No industry standard defines per-person dimensions, so a 2-person tent size can vary from brand to brand. And ultralight models are likely to be extra compact.
If you’re larger than average, or you simply crave a little more space, one option is to look at tents designated one-person larger than your group. Alternatively, you can hunt for a tent that’s one or two inches wider or longer than average. Some offer clues in the name: adding a “plus,” for example. Always compare exact dimensions between tents you’re considering, though, if having more floor space is important to you.
Backpacking Tent Seasonality
Your main choice is between a 3-season and a 4-season tent. The vast majority of hikers, especially newcomers to the backcountry, will choose a three-season tent. Because worst-case weather scenarios won’t be the same for every trip, frequent backpackers sometimes choose to own more than one tent.
Backpacking Tent Weight
The weight of your backpacking tent is a big part of your overall load, so tent designers work hard to keep weight low. Your biggest tradeoffs to cut weight are having less space, fewer features and less durability over the long haul. If you choose carefully, though, you should be able to find a lightweight tent that feels reasonably roomy and comfortable to you.
While heavy-duty materials make a tent more durable, ultralight tents can be surprisingly sturdy. If you want a premium ultralight tent, you’ll pay more for ultralight-yet-strong materials. Also, the term “ultralight” is used liberally by brands—if every ounce matters, then check specs carefully when you shop.
Backpacking Tent Livability
“Livability” is a catchall word for features that make the time you spend inside your tent more enjoyable. A big part of livability is how roomy—or cramped—a tent feels to you. Backpacking tents traditionally had steeply sloped walls, minimal floor space and hardly any headroom. This helped keep the weight low, but the tradeoff was comfort. Thanks to advances in materials and designs, tents today feel much more open and inviting.
Test-pitch tents: Visit a store and ask to set up prospective tents so you can hop inside them. Then make your mountain-storm pick: Which is the one model would you choose if you had to ride out a storm for hours on end?
All these factors should be kept in mind while choosing the best camping tent.