If you’ve been enjoying day hiking for a while, and looking to get into backpacking and overnight hiking, shopping for gear can be overwhelming! There are so many options, brands and price points it can be hard to tell which will be the best backpacking tents and which ones will just fall apart on you after one summer.
In this ultimate guide to choosing the best backpacking tent, we’ll go over things you should consider before you buy, what different types of backpacking tents there are, what the top rated tents are and where you can get them.
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What to look for in a backpacking tent
Different hikers will have different needs, for example, a solo hiker won’t want the same tent as a family of four! So, think about how you’ll use your tent – how many people will be sleeping in it? What times of year are you most likely to use it? Will you be camping in particularly buggy areas, like near lakes and streams?
The first question is easy – how many people need to sleep in your tent. This will help you start to narrow down your search, whether you need a one-man, two-man or more, tent. While you’re checking out, say, one-man tents, keep weight in mind. Don’t be deceived by tents labeled as a backpacking tent for one or two people but that weighs more than 4 pounds! That is not a good backpacking tent! That might be a good tent for car camping, but for backpacking, you’ll want something lighter. As a general rule of thumb, I wouldn’t go over 2 pounds per person for a tent or shelter. I have a one-man tarp tent for myself that I love that is just over 1 pound. So, I’m always surprised when I hear some hikers lug around a 4 pound tent by themselves!
Also, lighter weight doesn’t always have to break the bank. For example, my tent that’s just over a pound, cost about $150, which isn’t so shabby for a good quality tent that’s held up over 1,300 miles on the Appalachian Trail, plus 5 summers since then. I know you may be tempted by the $30-$40 Walmart tent – but I promise it will be worth it to splurge a little on one that will last – and won’t leak on you.
Then, you have to think about when you will be camping. If you’ll be winter camping, you’ll want a four-season tent, specific for winter temperature and conditions. But if you’ll be camping out mostly in the summer, and maybe Spring and Fall, then a 3-season tent will be just fine.
If you’ll be camping in really buggy areas, think like back-country boating on a lake or river – you’ll most definitely want a tent or tarp tent that is enclosed, to help keep the bugs out. But if you’ll be camping mostly in high alpine areas, where bugs aren’t nearly as much of an issue, you could get away with just a tarp if you wanted. Or you may be able to squeeze by with a tarp and a bug head net if it’s too buggy out.
Types of backpacking tents
Free standing tents – like the name implies these tents can stand up all by themselves, using their own poles. They don’t rely on tent stakes or tension to hold their shape. While tent poles are getting lighter and lighter over the years, these are going to be one of your heavier options as far as tents go. But they are a little sturdier in general, by design, and a little more fool-proof to get set up.
Best free-standing backpacking tents
Tarp tents – these are a kind of hybrid, based on the idea of using a tarp as a shelter, but they are still usually fully enclosed, with a solid floor and mesh along the sides to keep the creepy crawlies out. They do not stand up by themselves, they rely on a trekking pole (or two) and the tension of being staked well into the ground to keep their shape. Since they don’t use traditional tent poles, they are a lighter option. And, yes, then you need trekking poles – but you should have those anyway, so it’s a win-win. These can be a little intimidating at first to set up, but once you have it figured it out and create a system and habit that suits you on the trail, you’ll have it set up in no time at all.
Tarps – as simple as it sounds, you can use just a plain old tarp. Well, not just any old tarp, those blue or brown tarps you get at hardware stores are heavy! Backpacking specific tarps are made of ultralight material and reinforced in all the right places. Like tarp tents, these go up using tension, either staked down over trekking poles, or tied out to trees to create a shelter. If you’re using a tarp, you will be more exposed to nature, putting your sleeping right on the ground, or just a small ground cloth, and the sides are open to critters and creepy crawlies. Most hikers that I’ve talked to who use tarps, say they’ve never had issues with critters…. But I’m not willing to take the risk! I like to be all screened and zipped in at night, but that’s personal preference.
Best Backpacking Tarps
Bivies – Okay, a bivy is not exactly a tent, but I think it’s worth mentioning while you’re shopping around. A bivy is simply a shield or cover that goes over you and your sleeping bag to protect you from the elements. You can find very lightweight bivies, about a pound, for under $200, so it is worth considering. Just keep in mind, these are great for sleeping in, probably not so much for hanging out in or spending a rainy zero day in, since there’s not much room in there.
Do you need a ground cloth for your tent?
Most manufacturers and retailers will recommend a ground cloth to extend the life of your tent and help protect the floor of your tent from tears and excessive water exposure. And, yes, that might help. But honestly, I think it’s a little over kill. Like I said, I’ve had and used my tarp tent for five summers now with NO ground cloth. Gasp. And it’s really fine. I mean, I am careful with my tent and where I put it, but I’ve never had any issues or tears on the bottom from not using a ground cloth, knock on wood! Ground cloths are going to add a little extra weight, and sometimes extra cost, especially if you buy one from a retailer.
Alternatively, a lot of hikers just use leftover Tyvek from construction sites or hardware stores as a ground cloth, which you can sometimes get for free by asking nicely, so I hear.
If it’s going to give you peace of mind to have a ground cloth under your tent, then by all means, use one!
If you’re just tarping it, a ground cloth may be a little more beneficial there to help keep your sleeping pad and sleeping bag clean and dry.
Where to buy your backpacking tent
First on the list, I have to say REI. REI has totally won over my heart with everything they stand for, and fight for, as a company though their actions and advertising. All the feels aside, their customer service and return policy can’t be beat. This is the place to go if you still have a lot of questions and need some more guidance about gear, their staff will walk you through everything and get you set up. Be sure to become a member first to earn back a dividend on your purchases.
If you already know what you want, and don’t need any extra help deciding from expert staff, then you can search for deals online on backcountry.com, steepandcheap.com or campsaver.com. Or, if you have an REI near you, keep an eye out for their annual garage sale, where you can get steeply discounted, used gear.
If you have any other questions about backpacking tents – let me know in the comments below!