Tents are surprisingly simple structures, a few walls held up by some flexible poles, but knowing how to choose a backpacking tent that’s right for you can be anything but simple.
What size do you need? Single-wall or double? What type of poles? Nylon or polyester? Freestanding or not? The list goes on and on.
Well, you are in luck! In this comprehensive guide to choosing a tent, we are going to answer all those questions and more.
By the end of this article, our goal is for you to feel like a tent expert so you can go out and get the best possible shelter for your next adventure.
How To Choose A Tent From A-Z
The tent you choose will be responsible for protecting you from the elements and you will be responsible for caring for it like a baby; wrapping it up nicely every morning and carrying it everywhere you go.
Choosing a tent isn’t a decision you want to rush into. Getting the wrong tent can make your next backpacking trip a miserable disaster.
Finding the right tent will transform your adventure into one of comfort and assurance.
Additionally, backpacking tents can be an expensive item and getting the wrong one can be a wasteful expense.
Take some time to learn the basics so you can make an informed decision when choosing your next backpacking tent.
The Basics: Tent terminology
Let’s start from the outside-in.
Outer Tent or Rainfly
This is the layer that makes your tent weatherproof. On double-wall tents (more on this later), the outer most layer will be ‘outer tent’ or what most people call the ‘rainfly’.
On single-wall tents, there is only one layer between you and the outside and this layer is usually water-resistant.
The rainfly can be made of the same or different material as the rest of the tent and is often treated with a waterproofing agent.
Tents are made of either Nylon or Polyester. Both fabrics are almost identical except for a few key factors (see below).
Important to know in regards to the rainfly, polyester is much more water-resistant and does not sag or stretch when wet compared to nylon.
In wet and windy conditions polyester will almost always perform better than nylon.
As the name implies, this is the ‘inner’ or main tent body underneath the rainfly.
Most light-weight double-walled tents have an inner tent that is constructed mostly of mesh. This decreases overall weight and flexibility for warm nights or star gazing.
Some inner-tents have what is called a ‘bathtub’ floor. A bathtub floor is where the floor material continues high up the sides of the tent.
This feature can increase weather resistance and durability but may also increase overall tent weight.
When possible, structured vents are always better.
Rain-flies will often have little flaps or vents sewn into them. These are great for decreasing moisture buildup inside the rain-fly and consequently inside your tent.
A structured vent will have some sort of inner support to keep it open without letting in rain or wind. Look for this feature on quality rain-flies.
The antechamber or hall opening into another area. In a home, this would be like the arctic room or what is often called the ‘mud room’ where people take their shoes off and hang their coats before entering the main living area.
In tents, vestibules are the small ‘dry’ areas created by the rain-fly just outside the door of the tent.
This area can be used for a number of purposes, but the most important is creating a protected area outside of the main living area of the tent where you can keep your gear safe from the elements.
When searching through tent specifications you will often see the vestibule space indicated in the total area provided by the tent.
Simple enough, poles are poles. They are the long skinny metal pieces you snap together that give the tent its structure.
Most often made of aluminum, tent poles can also be carbon fiber or fiberglass.
Carbon fiber is ultra-light but less durable. While fiberglass is heavy and cheap.
A circular or similar shaped area where many poles come together, a sort of pole roundabout.
Not all tents will have pole hubs, but they can help increase tent stability and strength.
The fabric sleeve or tube that the tent pole is fed through which attaches the pole to the tent.
An increasingly popular alternative to pole sleeves, clips snap onto the pole to attach it to the tent body.
Clips allow for a much easier setup but, all things being equal, do not create as solid a structure as do tents with pole sleeves.
Usually located at the corners and along the sides, this is where the end of the pole attaches to the tent.
Bindings come in a variety of designs, the most common being a simple ring or hook and loop.
Wikipedia defines a guy-line as a tensioned cable used to add stability to a free-standing structure.
As the definitions suggest, guy lines provide added stability to a tent and a properly ‘guyed-out’ or staked out tent will be much stronger than one without.
Some tents or parts of a tent—the vestibule for example—will not function properly without being tied under tension with their guy lines.
The loops or rings sewn into the tent or rain-fly where the guy line is attached.
Pegs or Stakes
A spike or peg, usually with a pointed tip and hooked end, that is driven into the ground through attachments to the tent to hold the tent in place.
Most tents will have stake points at their corners.
In windy conditions, tent stakes can make a huge difference in how well your tent withstands the gales. There are a variety of stake types from astoundingly cheap to absurdly expensive.
Tent footprints can refer to two things; the area of ground space they occupy when fully setup or a thin sheet–roughly the same area as the tent–that is placed under the floor of the tent to increase durability.
Although carrying a footprint is extra weight, they greatly increase the life-span of a tent, especially if you are camping on gravely terrain or areas with lots of small twigs and stones.
When not being used for the tent, footprints can also double as picnic blankets, gear sorting areas, and rain shields.
Total Weight or Pack Weight
Weight of everything initially included with the tent.
Weight of the components necessary for complete setup and function of the tent.
Ok, now the basics are out of the way what is the next thing to consider when choosing a backpacking tent?
What Is It Made Of?
As mentioned above, tents are usually made of either Nylon or Polyester, or a combination of the two.
So why does it matter? What’s the difference?
Nylon was patented by DuPont in the 1930s and today is used in just about everything.
Due to its desirable combination of properties, nylon is an ideal material for the construction of outdoor gear such as tents and climbing ropes.
Extremely durable, light, and resilient a majority of backpacking tents are made from nylon.
When it comes to tents however, the only problem with nylon is that it is hydrophilic (absorbs water) and when it gets wet nylon loses a lot of its strength.
To get around this, manufacturers will often coat nylon rain-flies with water repellent treatments the same way climbing rope manufacturers do.
This works well and allows for a balance between weight and water-resistance but another option is polyester.
Both nylon and polyester are derived from similar processes and are almost identical materials.
The key difference between the two is that polyester is hydrophobic (does not absorb water) and does not lose as much strength when wet.
Nylon is much stretchier and has a better strength to weight ratio, whereas polyester is more rigid but is much more resistant to abrasion and UV light damage. As a downside though, polyester is a slightly heavier material.
Tents made with polyester will likely last longer and be more weatherproof but chances are they will be much heavier than their nylon counterparts.
A term you will often see in relation to tend materials, denier is a measure of fiber thickness. Higher denier means thick and durable whereas lower denier would imply a softer more sheer fabric.
Freestanding vs Non-Freestanding
In the middle earth of tents, the battle between freestanding and non-freestanding has been raging since the beginning of time.
Today, with gear getting lighter and faster, it is not likely this battle will end anytime soon.
Tents that stand up by themselves once the poles are inserted without the use of stakes or guy lines. For complete weather protection, you will still need to tie off and stake out a freestanding tent, but the structure will remain upright without them.
For solo hikers, freestanding tents are much easier to set up alone and can be easily picked up and moved in case of a change in conditions or location.
Freestanding tents will almost always be heavier than an equivalently sized non-freestanding tent.
Tents with few or no poles requiring the use of guy-lines and often trekking poles to remain upright.
Tarptent Protrail:These are the tarp style or suspended A-frame style tents you see out on the trail. As they require fewer components and materials, non-freestanding tents can be significantly lighter than their freestanding counterparts.
Setting one of these beauties up alone can be a real challenge. Be sure you know what you are getting into.
Before buying your first non-freestanding tent try setting one up in the store or get a work tarp from a hardware store and try that out in the yard or at the park. It will take some practice for sure and will be easier to set up with more than one person.
Single-Wall or Double-Wall
For the most part, single-wall tents are better suited to cold dry climates like high altitude mountains or winter ascents. Double-wall tents will perform better in warmer and wetter weather.
Often chosen for mountaineering trips or fast and light style adventures, single-wall tents do have their time and place.
Single-wall tents are usually made of a thicker water-resistant breathable material. Because they don’t have two layers to help dissipate moisture build-up, single-wall tents are better for dry arid climates.
Modern materials used in single wall tents like the ToddTex material used in Black Diamond’s Bibler Series Bombshelter tent are actually layers of material laminated together to provide breathability and water resistance.
Most of these materials are rated as waterproof and do provide an incredible amount of breathability.
Remember, however, nothing is waterproof in a persistent heavy downpour, and you will always get some moisture buildup on the inside of your tent walls.
These new materials are better at preventing that buildup but will not eliminate it completely.
Because there is only one wall, single wall tents are often lighter and more packable.
Single-wall tents will have a smaller footprint making them better for tight camping spots or bivy ledges in the mountains.
In a snowstorm, high elevation cold conditions, or on and off downpour, high-quality single-wall tents will keep you warm and safe.
In wetter weather double-wall tents give you double the protection. Additionally, in rapidly changing conditions, double-wall tents provide greater flexibility.
Consisting of two layers, double-wall tents are usually 3-season shelters that give you greater flexibility and moisture control.
With the rainfly acting as the outer layer, moisture that builds up on the inside of the rainfly does not come into contact (ideally) with the inner tent.
The air space between the fly and the inner tent provides air circulation to help vent moisture buildup, ultimately working to keep the inside of the tent where we live much drier.
Further, in a heavy storm, having two layers between you and the elements instead of one can be the difference between getting totally soaked or just damp.
Moisture management is one of the main advantages of a double-wall tent but not the only advantage.
Double-wall tents also provide a few more valuable options:
- They can be much lighter than their single-wall counterparts; if the weather is forecast as clear the rainfly can be left at home—greatly decreasing trail weight.
- Without the fly, the setup time is dramatically decreased.
- When not in use on the tent rain-flies can be used as ground tarps, blankets, or extra weather protection.
- Rain-flies are easy and cheap to replace. The outer tent or fly takes most of the wear and UV damage so it will wear out long before the main inner tent.
- Tip: Do not throw out your old rain flies. They are handy as rope-tarps, picnic blankets, bag covers, groundsheets or footprints, shade tarps, can be cut to make patches in your new rainfly, and really whatever else you can think of.
Vestibules & Doors
The number of doors you need will depend on your intended use. The majority of lightweight tents have two doors. Some tents feature different sized doors so be aware of this when shopping around.
As a general rule of thumb, doors are placed on the two long sides or the two ends of the tent.
At least one door will open up into the vestibule area.
Vestibules are valuable pieces of real estate. They provide a safe-covered area to store gear, dry clothes and cook.
Each tent design provides different sized vestibule areas. Based on your needs or the type of weather you most often camp in, you may opt for a larger vestibule.
Keep in mind, the larger the vestibule the greater your tent’s trail weight.
The majority of single-wall tents do not have vestibules but have vestibule add-ons you can purchase as an extra piece.
Weight is a factor on any backcountry trip and tents are often the heaviest single item in your pack.
The average trail weight of a 1-2 person double-wall tent is ~4lbs.
As mentioned above, double-wall tents give you more flexibility in how much weight you want to carry. They also allow you to split up the load between two people by separating the inner and outer tent.
There are a plethora of ultra-light tents on the market, they are, however, usually the more expensive option.
Another way to get around this, mentioned in a previous article, is skimping on size. Obviously, bigger tents are heavier tents.
It is possible to sleep two people in some 1 person tents or three people in some 2 person tents.
Doing this won’t give you much living space but if you’re not spending a lot of time hanging out in the tent, it is definitely doable and will save you a lot of trail weight.
There are few standard tents shapes to consider; dome, tube or tunnel, geodesic, and wedge or A-frame.
For backpacking, most tents will be geodesic or tunnel type tents.
Ultra-light tarps or tents might fall more into the A-frame category.
Important to consider for tent shape is the number of pole crossings and the sidewall profile.
More pole crossings mean more structural integrity. So, 3 poles that cross in 9 spots would be a much stronger structure than 9 poles that cross in 3 spots.
Depending on your tent’s pole structure the wall will be more or less slanted. If you livability is something you value in a tent, opt for designs that provide more vertical walls.
Most often, backpacking or mountaineering tents are rated as either 3-seasons or 4-seasons.
As a general rule, 4-season tents will require heavier materials, making them a heavier choice overall while 3-season tents will usually be double-wall tents better suited for wet environments.
Unless you are mountaineering or snow camping, a 3-season tent will get you through most conditions.
Well, now you know the finer details of choosing a tent. Good job for reading all that!
There is definitely a lot to consider but now that you know the basics you are armed with the knowledge to make an informed decision that won’t let you down.
Our top choice of 3-season tent is the MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2
Our top choice of 3-season tent is the MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2. MSR is a trusted name in the outdoor industry. The Hubba Hubba follows through on the MSR name with a well thought out tent that gives lots of living space, packability, and durability in a moderately priced package. The Hubba Hubba sets up quick and easy and as an added bonus it looks pretty sleek too.
If you are looking for an inexpensive option, check out our previous article about the best 1-person tent under $200.
If you are not already a duct tape aficionado, backcountry repairs will make you one.
Bring it. Actually, this is a life tip in general; bring duct tape.
A broken tent pole or hole in your rainfly can quickly ruin a backpacking trip. Bring some duct tape and an extra piece of tent pole or stake if possible to make repairs on the fly.
For evidence, check out these awesome tent repair videos from REI.
To avoid the weight of an entire roll of heavy and bulky tape, wrap some tape onto a pen, pencil, small flashlight, or your trekking pole to your desired amount.
You know the stuff used to wrap housing insulation in? Yep, that stuff.
Tyvek is waterproof, lightweight, packable, and can often be found lying around near construction sites or can sometimes be purchased by the yard at a hardware store.
Use it as a footprint for your tent or sleeping to help lock out the moisture and protect your sleeping pad or tent bottoms from punctures.
Summing It Up
When it comes to choosing a tent knowing how to choose the best tent for you can make all the difference.
Choose the material and style of tent you opt for based on the conditions you will spend most of your time in. For warmer-wetter climates, a double-wall tent is the best choice. In more arid, dry, and cold climates a burlier single-wall tent will be a better choice.
Free-standing tents offer easy setup and more versatility while likely being heavier than non-freestanding tents.
If possible, opt for polyester rainfly. Watch the video above again. Polyester performs much better in the rain.
Last but not least, don’t forget the duct tape!
How Do You Choose A Tent?
Was this helpful? What do you look for in a backpacking tent?
This guide was intended to help you become more informed about the components of a tent that matter for you.
We hope you now feel empowered and ready to get out there and grab the perfect backpacking tent for your next great adventure.
Stay wild folks!