These are the tents you’ll most likely see at big retailers like REI, e.g. Big Agnes Tiger Wall. They score Good to Excellent in most areas. They are feature rich, and provide good to excellent storm and bug protection. These tents are simple to setup and use — most of you have probably pitched one like them many times.
Read Pros & Cons for Traditional Lightweight Backpacking Tents
A key features for these tents are they the are freestanding. That is, once you insert the poles these tents can stand on their own without being staked out. So no trekking poles required. The are also double walled, having both an inner tent with breathable fabric walls, mosquito netting and bathtub floor, and separate outer rain fly (waterproof fabric). This allows you to not setup the fly for better views and ventilation when it’s not raining. And when you do have the rain fly up and it begins to condense, the walls of the inner tent keeps you and your gear away from the fly’s wet inner surface. Downside is that some of these tents are heavier than other options in this guide and a few have limited livable room. They are also some of the pricier tents in this guide.
Freestanding tents do have an advantage for Leave No Trace. That is, when the winds are light you can pitch them on hard, durable surfaces such as solid rock with a minimum of anchor points (although you may need to use a few rocks to anchor things like the vestibule tie-outs). Obviously, in high winds and at an exposed campsite, this would not be a good idea. See our Pro Tips Section for how to choose the best campsite to maximize your tent performance.
We Have a Higher Standard than Most Guides
Note that we have a higher standard for inclusion than most guides. A traditional 2-person, 3-season tent must be under 3.5 pounds, preferably well under. For this weight you can get a fully storm-worthy shelter, with reasonable living area, and a good set of features, like double doors and vestibules. The cutoff weights for TarpTents, Pyramid Tents, and True Tarps is considerably lower. So except for our budget choices, you will only see the very best, highest performing lightweight backpacking tents — some surprisingly affordable!
Single walled tents are quickly rising in popularity in the backpacking community. And with good reason. They weigh significantly less than conventional double walled tents while providing similar features and performance like a full bathtub floor, and 100% rain and bug protection. Most single walled tents are not freestanding and usually require user-supplied trekking poles and good staking out. And as their name implies, they are single-walled – that is the tent body and the rainfly are one-in-the-same, making them lighter than a conventional tent. Read more in the Pros and Cons below…
Read Pros & Cons for Single Walled Tents
Single Wall Tents and Pyramid Tents, contain the shelters Alison and I use most often. From Patagonia to Alaska they get the job done! But you won’t see these shelters at REI. As such, many readers may not be familiar with Single Walled Tents and Pyramid Tents.
In a nutshell, Single Wall Tents are considerably lighter than conventional tents while providing similar precipitation protection, and keeping the bugs out. Single Walled Tents have more in common with the conventional tents above including a bathtub floor, and 100% rain and bug protection. But they are not freestanding and usually require user-supplied trekking poles and good staking out. They are single-walled – that is the tent body and the rainfly are one-in-the-same, making them lighter than a conventional tent.
The downside is that single-walled tents are more prone to condensation on tent walls. In contrast, most conventional tents are double-walled, having both an inner body of breathable nylon and/or mesh and an outer rainfly of waterproof fabric. The inner body fabric prevents you from bumping up against the wet condensation on the underside of the rain fly. But some newer single wall tents like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Dirigo 2 also do a very good job managing this.
Also single walled tents can take a bit of time to learn how to set-up properly. The rely on user supplied trekking poles and generally require more staking out than conventional free-standing tents. (Note: this setup is not much harder than a conventional tent, it’s just that most people are not familiar with how to do it.) But again, most Single Wall Tents weigh half of what a similar double walled Traditional Lightweight Backpacking Tents.
Read Pros & Cons for Budget Backpacking Tents & Shelters
The good news is that the Budget Backpacking Tents in this Category have similar features and performance their lighter cousins, and perform well. But they are not lightweight. As such, these budget tents usually weigh 50% to 100+% more vs. the Lightweight Tents above and can have fewer features. An upside is that their thicker and heavier fabrics make these tents more durable than the lightweight tents. The exception here is for the included Tarptents, Pyramid Tents, and True Tarps where you can have both low price and low weight. So make sure you look at all the options we present in the Budget Backpacking Tents & Shelters Category.
Pyramid Tents are the lightest and most protective shelters out there. A 2-person pyramid tent can weigh less than a pound but have 2x to 3x more livable area than a 4 pound tent, while providing excellent protection from wind and precipitation. Most Pyramid tents are strong enough for 4-season use.
Read Pros & Cons for Pyramid Tents
Pyramid Tents contain the shelters Alison and I use most often. From Patagonia to Alaska they get the job done! But you won’t see these shelters at REI. As such, many readers may not be familiar with TarpTents and Pyramid Tents/Shelters.
In essence, a pyramid tent is a fabric tarp in a pyramid shape that is supported by a center pole (usually trekking poles). But don’t let pyramid tents minimal nature fool you. These are some of the most storm worthy and protective shelters out there. They are our first choice for brutal weather like Alaska and Patagonia where we’ve seen good conventional tents crushed by driving Patagonian winds while our pyramid tent remained standing and undamaged.
Pyramid Tents are strong enough for 4-season use and provide great protection from wind and precipitation including snow. But in their basic setup they do not have a waterproof floor or bug netting — although almost all have an option to add an inner nest that provides a floor and bug netting. An optional inner nest provides both a bathtub floor and bug netting for 100% bug protection. Altho that does add weight and cost to the tent. If you like us, choose not to use the inner nest and instead use a light groundsheet, THEN see our Pro I Tip on good campsite selection and also see our Pro Tip | Beat the Bugs
Livable Area in Tarptents and Pyramid Tents vs. a Conventional Tent
To be fair, for the same floor area, livable area for a tarptent or pyramid tent is not the same as floor area on a modern, more vertical walled traditional, double walled tent.
- First tarptents, and pyramid shelters are single walled. When the walls condense (in certain conditions) your actual area and useable volume is less as you need to avoid brushing against wet walls. But given their low weight vs. a double walled tent you still come out ahead on “useable area” to weight ratio, but the advantage is not quite as high as it might appear if you did not take condensation into consideration.
- Second, the sloping walls on pyramid shelters (and some tarptents) can be fairly low around the shelter’s perimeter (vs. a modern, more vertical walled conventional tent) and may not be usable for living or sleeping. This is not necessarily a problem because it provides a great gear storage are, leaving the middle of the shelter free for sleeping/living area. And again, most pyramid tents have substantially greater area than a similar weight conventional tent. As such, even taking into account the sloping walls they have more area. But this should be taken into consideration when comparing it to a double walled tent.
Read Pros & Cons for True Tarps
Tarps like this take up little room in your pack and can be pulled out of a outside backpack pocket and pitched in just a few minutes to weather a rain burst. Then they can be just as easily folded back into an outside pocket of your backpack — away from all your dry gear inside the pack.
Downside is they have no bug protection so are best for drier climates, and places like the Sierras (like the John Muir Trail), or Rockies past the early season mosquito hatches. In this section we also give you some tips on how to successfully deal with moderate bug pressure when using a tarp. . Good campsite selection is important for tarp use. Also see our Pro Tip | Beat the Bugs
Where and When Tarps Work
Tarps like this work great in areas of intermittent rain, e.g. the afternoon T-storms typical of summer in the Sierras and Rockies and areas that have low bug pressure (Desert Southwest, or Rockies and Sierras past early season mosquitoes). Note: that this covers the bulk of the hiking season for many locations in the US. We have used tarps quite successfully to protect two people and gear in many high mountain rages, above treeline and in some strong storms — even snow.
Tarps and Bugs
The obvious downsides of the tarps are lack of bug protection and that they require some skill to pitch. For bug protection:
- Some tarps do have inner nests with a bathtub floor and bug netting similar to the Pyramid Tents above. e.g. the highly flexible HyperLite Mountain Gear ECHO II ULTRALIGHT SHELTER SYSTEM and MLD has a TRAILSTAR INNERNET for their Trailstar Tarp.
- Your other option is to pair a bug netted bivy sack like the MLD SUPERLIGHT SOLO BIVY with a tarp for intermittent to light bug pressure. This is our favorite system for Sierras in the summer (John Muir Trail, etc.). Cowboy camping in a bivy is one of our favorite ways to sleep out. We just bring a tarp as a backup in case of rain. Best of both worlds. Most nights, the bugs die down and we sleep with our faces out staring at the tarps.
Tarps Setup and Pitching Skills
Finally, tarps are not as difficult to pitch as people imagine. Take a tarp, some cord and two trekking poles into your backyard and you should be able to learn to pitch it well in about 30 minutes. Oh, It’s easier and faster with two people, especially when you are starting out.
Tarp camping in the Wind Rivers Mountains during a 2-day blizzard. This was much cozier than it looks! We walked out next morning warm and fine. In contrast many tent campers fled the mountains due to the impending storm – their loss as we had a glorious snow capped Circ of the Towers to ourselves in the morning!
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