Best Backpacking Tents for 2021 | Lightweight & Ultralight
by Alan Dixon (fully revised May 2021)
Tents are undeniably the single most important piece of backpacking gear. The right tent will protect you from the elements, wow your friends, and provide ample living and storage space, while also reducing carried weight and bulk. Because tents can have such a big impact on quality of backcountry life, we believe they are the first thing a backpacker should upgrade; the most splurge-worthy item in a kit. In this guide, we’re proud to recommend an assortment of the very best tents on the market in 2021 (including some exciting new models!). As such, we have great options for all experience levels, budgets, group sizes, weight tolerances, and special use cases. Happy camping!
SlingFin Windsaber tent on the Southern Patagonia Ice shelf — Cerro Torre in the background. At only 5 pounds it goes toe-to-toe with Everest-level mountaineering tents twice its weight! Its little brother, the 2.8 pound SlingFin Portal is our top pick for a Bomber Tent.
When factoring in quality, value, performance, livability, and features, these are the best all-around backpacking tents currently available. We recommend them to all backpackers of all experience levels.
If you want one of the best freestanding tents money can buy, look to the 2021 Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2. At 2.7 lbs, it’s very lightweight (the lightest freestanding), and for 2.7 lbs, it’s tall and roomy (one of the roomiest freestanding). Its full-sized vestibules (now with an innovative awning mode), near vertical sidewalls, and fully lofted ceiling provide excellent headroom and livability that few freestanding tents achieve. We’re also big fans of the pockets to keep space organized and livable. For 2020 there’s a big 3D Bin Mezzanine pocket at the foot, an oversized ceiling pocket, & media pockets. And the frame is no compromise whatsoever! Its cross pole pitch is reliable, sturdy and super user-friendly. The Copper Spur HV UL2 does it all and does it all extremely well. At less than 3 lbs, you’ve got a real winner.
BEST FOR: Backpackers of all experience levels seeking the best and most livable lightweight freestanding tent.
At a scant 1.2 pounds, look no further than the Zpacks Duplex if you want the lightest full featured tent with an amazing volume to weight ratio. It is one of the very lightest 2 person tents on the market, yet it has all the creature comforts of a much heavier conventional tent — a full bathtub floor and mosquito netting, dual doors, dual vestibules, and interior storage pockets on both ends. Even with all these features it manages to achieve 35.8 ft2/lb. Impressive for just over a pound! And unlike many many “tarptent” style shelters, the Duplex can be freestanding with an optional Duplex Freestanding Flex Kit.
BEST FOR: Backpackers looking for one of the very lightest, and most livable two person tents on the market. Also one of the lowest cost Dyneema tents. And one of the few trekking pole supported tents with freestanding option.
New in 2020, the 2-person REI Co-op Flash Air 2 Tent sold out multiple times in the first few months of production! And it’s not hard to tell why. At hundreds less than the competition, it’s a full sized, highly livable, 2-Person Tent under 2 Pounds! That will save you a bunch of weight and money vs. comparable tents! We especially like the brow poles that increase livable space (more vertical walls) and peak height. And its multi-position doors easily go from stagazing to full storm mode. The REI Co-op Flash Air 2 Tent is among the best at managing potential condensation issues for this style of tent.
BEST FOR: Backpackers looking for an extremely light, 2-person tent that’s quite livable and won’t break the bank.
The only tent here that’s up to almost anything mother nature can throw at you! At less than 3 pounds, the SlingFin Portal may be the lightest, 2-person, freestanding tent that can handle four-season conditions. As such, the SlingFin Portal adds a margin of safety and protection that most 3-season, double-walled backpacking tents like the Big Agnes Copper Spur can’t provide.
The SlingFin Portal is an excellent choice for hikers who could be heading into stormy weather and high winds and can’t be sure of a protected campsite. It’s also ideal for hikers looking for a freestanding tent that can handle significant snow loading, without the weight of a dedicated four-season shelter. But the interior of the Portal is far from spartan. The SlingFin Portal has near vertical walls, generous headroom, two doors and vestibules, and tons of pockets that make it’s 28 ft2 of floor area seem much larger.
BEST FOR: Backpackers seeking a premium UL tent that can handle extreme winds and winter snow loading, but without a weight penalty.
At the end of this Guide we have Pro Tips you won’t find elsewhere. They will help you find exactly the right backpacking tent and accessory gear. And give you tips on and how best to use your tent. They cover topics like, “How Much Tent Do You Need?,” the best tent stakes; a cheap 4 oz footprint to protect your tent floor, how to beat the bugs, and more.
Two years in design, the Sea to Summit Telos TR2 Tent is likely the most innovative and best engineered ultralight backpacking tent to date — albeit not the lightest. It features more livable volume (volume in the tent above the floor) vs. tents like the Big Agnes Copper Spur or MSR Hubba Hubba. It does a great job of condensation management with crossflow from the Baseline Vent on bottom of the tent to up and out via the large Apex Vent at the top of the tent. Finally it has more adaptability and pitching options than any tent we have tested. A few of these pitches we really love, specifically the rolled up Quick Deploy RainFly Mode.
On the downside there are lighter tents. At 3.25 pounds the Sea to Summit Telos TR2 Tent is on the heavier end of freestanding ultralight tent spectrum — ½ pound heavier than the Big Agnes Copper Spur for approximately the same floor area (but a few ounces lighter than the MSR Hubba Hubba). We leave it up to the reader to determine if the increase in features is worth the additional weight.
BEST FOR: Backpackers who prioritize space and comfort over weight savings. The livability of this tent is a great option for people who like to spend time hanging out at camp.
Two years in design, the Sea to Summit Telos TR2 and Alto TR2 are likely the most innovative and best engineered ultralight backpacking tents to date. The much lighter semi-freestanding Sea to Summit Alto TR2 shaves 3/4 of a pound vs. the freestanding Telos — bringing it in under the weight of the Big Agnes Copper Spur. And it features more livable volume (volume in the tent above the floor) vs. tents like the Big Agnes Copper Spur or MSR Hubba Hubba. It does a great job of condensation management with crossflow from the Baseline Vent on bottom of the tent to up and out via the large Apex Vent at the top of the tent. Finally it has most, but not all, adaptability and pitching options of the Telos. A few of these pitches we really love, specifically the rolled up Quick Deploy RainFly Mode. In summary, you get most of the innovative features of the Telos TR2 but in a 2.5 pound tent. We like that a lot!
BEST FOR: Backpackers who prioritize space and comfort with only a minimal impact on weight — assuming you are OK with a semi-freestanding tent. The livability of this tent is a great option for people who like to spend time hanging out at camp and don’t want to pay a big weight penalty for that.
New for 2021 is a DCF version of Gossamer Gear’s “The Two,” their extremely popular trekking pole tent. Using DCF fabric shaves the weight down to just over a pound. Gossamer Gear DCF TWO’s single-walled design makes pitching easy, and there is a good amount of livable space for the weight — and we like the wider taper for the head end of the tent. We found it’s dual trekking pole design surprisingly storm-worthy and wind resistant. Though many single-walled tents can have condensation issues, the DCF Two has plenty of ventilation options (including overhanging door awnings) and with good campsite selection it does quite well. Of note is the tent’s 7d nylon floor which will likely require a ground sheet under the tent floor. As such we suggest getting a Gossamer Gear POLYCRYO (tent footprint/ground-sheet).
BEST FOR: Backpackers who want one of the very lightest two person tents on the market with a good feature set, good weather resistance, and good ventilation (for a single walled tent).
We love how much bug protected area the Owyhee Tarp (nylon version) provides for so little weight and using super durable 30d nylon fabric! In tarp only mode, it provides backpackers an amazing amount of bug-protected area for the weight (35.3 ft² per pound) — one of largest amounts of floor area for the weight of any non-DCF shelter. The Owyhee Tarp is essentially a Haven Tarp with bug netting around the perimeter and a full clip-in bathtub floor. Not bad for a 24.6 oz shelter with 53 ft2 of area! (bathtub floor is an additional 7.6 oz when used) Unlike many tarp shelters, the Owyhee has two doors and two vestibules making it more livable than most Pyramid Tents . Refreshingly, it comes with a full bathtub floor included in the price — something that is usually an additional cost from most companies. We like the flexibility of adding a bathtub floor only when needed (our you can use the bathtub floor as a groundsheet when it’s not raining. In all, the Owyhee Tarp provides near DCF level performance, at nylon prices and is surprisingly livable.
BEST FOR: Backpackers who want a ton of bug protected area and DCF level volume to weight performance — but at nylon prices.
Value & Budget Backpacking Tents
Price matters, which is why we’ve picked out an assortment of tents that deliver the most bang for your buck. They aren’t necessarily the cheapest, but they offer the best value.
When it comes to value, no other tent compares to the Kelty Late Start 2 (an improved version of the Salida 2). The Late Start 2 is a fully functional, free-standing tent that weighs only four pounds, for only $160 (many times for less online). That said, the price and weight comes at a cost: only one door and one vestibule. So despite its average-sized interior, users may find that it feels a bit smaller when they run out of vestibule space and have to store excess gear inside. This tent is a best-selling industry classic, and years of production and optimization have led to a reliable, and easy to pitch aluminum cross-pole frame system plus higher than average durability in the 68d floor and rainfly fabric.
BEST FOR: Budget campers or a great introductory tent for backpackers seeking the lightest and most affordable value tent.
For 2021 we go with the REI CO-OP QUARTER DOME SL 2 over the plain Quarter Dome. Or reason is that SL stands for “super light” — it’s almost a pound lighter vs. the quite similar to regular Quarter Dome. Beyond that, the major difference is that the SL is non-freestanding so you’ll need to stake out the rear corners (which you should do anyway). In our estimation, the only significant downside is slightly lower peak height of 38 inches vs 42 for the plain Quarter Dome. We thinks that’s a reasonable trade for the lower weight bulk of the tent with no cost increase. In summary, if you want a very light, traditional dome backpacking tent at a good price, this is your tent.
BEST FOR: Backpackers seeking traditional domed tent that is both light and low cost and don’t mind staking out the rear corners.
MSRP: $250 (on sale for $185) Weight: 4.9 lbs Material: 40 denier ripstop nylon Area: 35.8 ft² | Vestibule: 22.5 ft² | Area/Pound: 12 ft²
The REI Half Dome 2 Plus is a best-selling tent at REI for a reason; it just works. No matter where and how you choose to camp in the backcountry or front-country, this tent will keep you warm, dry, and comfortable. Its vertical walls, spacious interior, and expansive vestibules make for great livability, which is why this backpacking tent also has great crossover into car camping. If you need a quiver of one budget tent for all purposes, the Half Dome is your go-to. In addition to more volume and features than the Passage 2, it’s also made with higher quality, longer-lasting materials. A 60d floor prevents rips and pokes while durable DAC poles form a strong and light cross-pole frame with sidewall lifters. But all of these benefits come at the weight-cost of 4.9 lbs, making it the single heaviest tent we recommend. Quality and value run throughout the entire Half Dome Plus family, so don’t hesitate to buy according to your typical group configuration.
BEST FOR: Budget or beginner backpackers seeking a safe, comfy, reliable tent that works great for backpacking and car camping.
What follows are the best performance tents on the market. These are true ultralight shelters, weighing less than 2 lbs, and most are constructed with Dyneema (DCF) fabric. These are the tents we recommend if performance matters above all else, and money isn’t an issue.
Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid XL
MSRP: $365 SIL nylon or $690 DCF Weight: 1.0 lbs DCF or 1.3 lbs SIL nylon Material: SIL nylon or DCF Area: 65 ft² | Vestibule: 0 ft² | Area/Pound: 50 ft²
The Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid XL in Dyneema is a marvel of engineering. Like all pyramid shelters, it’s lighter, larger and stronger than any traditional tent or tarp tent, and it’s also the lightest and largest pyramid tent we recommend. On top of that, in SilNylon it is $350 cheaper ($25 in DCF) than its primary competitor, the HMG Ultamid 2 . Stats aside, we absolutely love its asymmetrical pitch. By keeping the support pole off center, the floor area is divided into two sections; sleeping (70%) and gear storage (30%). So, unlike other pyramids, couples looking to share a two-person sleeping bag or snuggle will be able to do so without interference from a center pole. And unlike regular pyramid tents, the asymmetrical layout keeps the sleeping area dry even with the door open. The award-winning MLD’s Duomid XL will keep you warm, dry, and protected in any environment you choose to camp. Shopping for a performance UL shelter on a budget? Make sure to check out the MLD DuoMid in SilNylon, to cut the cost in half!
BEST FOR: Backpackers (particularly couples) seeking the lightest, largest, and strongest ultralight shelter.
MSRP: $325 SIL nylon or $680 DCF Weight: 1.8 lbs Material: SIL nylon or DCF Area: 27.0 ft² | Vestibule: 19.7 ft² | Area/Pound: 26.6 ft²
The Tarptent Stratospire Li is a seriously light shelter that will protect you in the worst conditions. Unlike most products from Tarptent (the brand), it’s technically not a “tarptent” but a fully double walled, 4 season pyramid tent up to winter and strong winds. But at under two pounds it is 1/2 to 1/3 the weight of most 4 season, double walled, free standing tents. The tent’s Dyneema fabric (DCF) body is carefully designed to remain taut in high winds and snow-loads with catenary cut fabrics, and faceted panels to increase strength, and minimize fabric stretch and flapping. The Stratospire Li’s light but strong DCF fabric is an important contributor to its low weight. It also contributes to its high cost — although the cost is in line with many conventional, freestanding 4 season tents. Furthermore, the Stratospire Li doesn’t skimp on features. It is dual door, with two large vestibules — its interior is completely removable and can set up independently as a stargazing bug shelter (there is also a solid interior option). Unlike many trekking pole supported pyramid shelters, there are no poles disturbing the interior space of the tent. Finally, compared to almost all other tarp-tents (and their single-walled ilk) it is fully double walled, so it does a much better job of dealing with condensation. This is a big deal in humid or very cold environments.
BEST FOR: People who want a bomber shelter, but also the very lightest 4 season tent and are OK with a trekking pole supported design.
Palatial bug protection! If you need tons of floor area with full bug protection look no further than the Wild Owyee. Thanks to its DCF fabric, for just a pound you get a cavernous 51 ft² of bug free living area — more than any other 2 person shelter we know of for this weight. And no crouching here, the Wild Owyhee has tall 48″ peak hight keeping the ceiling well above your head. Unlike many tarp shelters, the Wild Owyhee has two doors making it more livable than most Pyramid Tents which have a single door. And it’s fast to setup. Once we got the knack of it we setup the tent in less than 3 minutes. I summary, if you can deal with no floor, this is the one of the most palatial bug-free tents for two people.
BEST FOR: Backpackers who want huge amounts of livable, bug-free area for the lowest weight but are OK with it having no floor and can handle the high cost.
Protected area and value. We love how much protected area you get with the Haven Tarp and for so little weight — at 47 ft² per pound, it’s the highest of all non-DCF 2 person shelters. And it’s a good value at a bit over $200. The Haven has a nice high, 48″ peak height which only increases its livable area. Similar to the Owyhee Tarp but with lighter 20d fabric and no bug netting around the perimeter, the Haven is just over a pound, making it one of the lighter 2 person shelters! And unlike many tarp shelters, the Haven has two doors and two vestibules making it more livable than most Pyramid Tents. In all, the Haven Tarp provides essentially DCF level performance, at nylon prices and is surprisingly livable — assuming you are OK with a shaped tarp — that is, no bug protection and no floor.
BEST FOR: Backpackers who want a ton of livable area and DCF level volume to weight performance — but at nylon prices — assuming that you are OK with no bug protection and no floor.
Gossamer Gear’s DCF One is their newest material upgrade to a fan favorite one-person trekking pole shelter. The One has been known for its livable space, fast, secure pitch, and reasonable price. The DCF one takes it to the next level with top-of-the-line material, a smart integrated construction with a Nylon bathtub floor, and superior ventilation for a one-person shelter.
BEST FOR: Ultralight backpackers traveling solo who don’t mind sacrificing livable space for extremely low weight.
If you hadn’t already guessed, this is the one-person version of REI’s brand new ultralight backpacking tent line. It’s a single-walled, trekking pole supported tent for an extremely reasonable price and plenty of livable space. And its multi-position doors easily go from stargazing to full storm mode. The REI Co-op Flash Air 1 Tent is also among the best at managing potential condensation issues for this style of tent.
BEST FOR: Solo backpackers who want a lightweight tent without breaking the bank. This tent also has plenty of interior room for a one-person shelter.
Weighing in at under a pound, the Plexamid is scaled down, solo version of the award winning Duplex. As such, it’s an extremely ultralight and spacious tent designed to help take your hikes to the next level. Whether you’re on a thru-hike or just getting the most out of those two weeks away from the cubicle, this tent allows you to put in extra miles without wrecking your body. The Plexamid is well-ventilated and can be set up in even the most cramped camp sites. And its 48 inch height with unique sqareed off peak gives it a lot of headroom. And it can be setup with just a single trekking pole. You won’t find a lighter functional one-person tent anywhere.
BEST FOR: Solo backpackers who want the lightest tent possible with the strength of Dyneema Composite Fabric. Also, the Plexamid has plenty of livable space and a 48″ peak height.
The Mountain Laurel Designs Solomid XL in DCF is one the very lightest and storm-worthy 1 person tents. It’s been refined and perfected for over 12 years and is one of a few sub-pound shelters capable of four season conditions. Andrew Skurka used this tent for “National Geographic Adventurer of the Hike” through Alaska and the Yukon. It’s also a large enough shelter (very spacious for one) that it can also be used as a two person shelter if you don’t mind sleeping close. In fact, Alison and I recently shared one on a 350 mile bikepacking trip where we were really trying save on space — and a SilNylon Solomid XL takes up about as little space as any shelter on the market. It did just fine! And unlike regular pyramid tents, the asymmetrical layout keeps the sleeping area dry even with the door open. Of course, like most pyramid shelters, there is only one door, no bug netting and no floor (although there is an inner nest that does just that!)
BEST FOR: Backpackers (particularly solo) seeking a spacious and strong ultralight shelter. A plus, it can fit two in a pinch for fantastic weight and volume savings. But if, you are OK going without bug netting and a floor.
Groups, families, dog owners, comfort-seekers, big and tall people – there are countless reasons to up the person-count of your tent. Listed below are the best 3-4 person iterations of popular backpacking tents, across the price and performance spectrum.
The Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL3 Tent has no equal when it comes to volume-to-weight ratio among traditional tents. It’s seriously huge AND light. In fact, at 2.6 lbs, it’s lighter than all the rest of our favorite two person traditional tents except for the Nemo Dagger and it’s little brother the Tiger Wall UL2. And its’ ~1/3 larger than them to boot. Somewhat mindbogglingly, the Tiger Wall UL3 is only seven ounces heavier than its 2-person counterpart (a great solo tent option), so why not go big? Complimenting the cavernous interior are two doors and two regular sized vestibules for plenty of access and gear storage. Keep in mind that while this tent is quite large for two campers, it’s a much tighter squeeze for three. A final note, some weight savings comes from the need to stake out the two rear corners. As such, this is a is semi-freestanding tent. Not a big deal to our minds.
BEST FOR: Anyone who prioritizes tent volume/livability and minimizing weight; two larger hikers; three smaller hikers.
Whether you’re camping in the Grand Canyon or going on a weekend family hike, the ultralight Triplex 3 person tent won’t be the thing that slows you down. With a designed inspired by ultralight backpacking and thru-hiking, the lightweight Triplex has a comfortable amount of space for three average-sized hikers or two larger adults with a dog or child. Storm doors on both sides of the tent provide protection from inclement weather or great cross-ventilation and breathtaking views when left open.
BEST FOR: Anyone who prioritizes tent volume/livability and minimizing weight; two larger hikers; three smaller hikers. This three person tent is lighter than many two person tents.
Bring the whole family & the dog! The Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid can sleep up to 4 people with gear! Like all Mountain Laurel Designs pyramid tents, the SuperMid lighter, larger, and stronger than any traditional tent or tarp tent, and the only sub-2-pound, 4 person tent we can think of. On top of that, it’s a great value in SilNylon costing the same as most 2 person tents — in fact the cost comes out to just $96 per person! Stats aside, we absolutely love that it has two doors, a rarity in pyramid tents. In summary, for less than 2 pounds Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid will keep the entire family and dog(s) warm, dry, and protected in any environment you choose to camp — and it won’t break the bank.
BEST FOR: Medium families, climbing groups, etc. seeking the lightest, largest, and strongest ultralight shelter that can house up to 4 people and gear. And for under 2 pounds!
The very big cousin of the 2021 Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2. Like all Copper Spur HV UL Tents it has full-sized vestibules (now with an innovative awning mode), near vertical sidewalls, and fully lofted ceiling (50 inches!) provide excellent headroom and livability that few freestanding tents achieve. We’re also big fans of the pockets to keep space organized and livable. It has a total 12 pockets in all: 8 interior mesh pockets and 4 media pockets so everybody gets a place to stash their stuff. And the frame is no compromise whatsoever! Its cross pole pitch is reliable, sturdy and super user-friendly. The Copper Spur HV UL4 does it all and does it all extremely well for up to four people! At a bit over 5 pounds, that comes out to a reasonable 1.3 pounds per person.
BEST FOR: Backpackers of all experience levels seeking one of the best and most livable lightweight freestanding tents that can handle up to four people.
Here is some gear and use tips that will help you get the best performance and enjoyment out of your tent. Either the tent you intend to buy or the tent you already own.
Note: A inexpensive tent used properly will usually outperform a far more sophisticated and expensive tent in inexperienced hands. As such, scanning through our Pro Tips is worth a read, no matter what tent you buy (or even if you already own a tent).
Pro Tip | How Strong Can an Ultralight Backpacking Tent Be?
While high altitude mountaineering tents that can withstand Everest level winds snow are not the focus if this guide, it’s interesting to point out a new ultralight tent that can. Check out new ultralight, super strong SlingFin WindSaber Tent (being updated and back in December 2021!) from a startup company SlingFin in Berkeley CA. It’s a sub 5 lb, double-walled high mountain tent that can withstand extreme winds and huge snow-loads. As such, it can go up against the 10 lb big-dog mountaineering tents like the TNF Mountain 25. The key to SlingFin tent’s high strength and low weight is their innovative SlingFin WebTruss™ which also makes it much easier to initially pitch the tent in high winds, the Achilles heel of many other mountaineering tents.
Picture here is of our SlingFin WindSabre on the Southern Patagonia Ice Shelf. The view is of the Circlo de los Atares with the highest peak in the background, the infamous Cerro Torre. Winds routinely blow over 100 MPH here. [Lead photo credit Alison Simon]
Pro Tip | How Much Tent Do You Need?
Liveable Area – Why Tent “Volume” Matters for a Backpacking Tent
The standard floor area for a tent (ft2) is a good starting point for estimating the “livable area” but it’s far from telling the whole story. That is, two tents with the same floor area can have dramatically different amounts of livable area. Increasing the height of the tent and adding top spreader bar(s) make tent walls more vertical. Combined, these design changes significantly increase livable area making it far more pleasant to spend time in the tent. To illustrate this we’ll use two tents in this guide as examples.
Low Volume Tent Example. Red Xs indicate where sloping walls and low ceiling reduce the tent’s livable area. Illustration used with permission of SlingFin. You can read their full blog post here.
First, we have the Nemo Hornet 2p with 27.5 ft2 floor area for the main tent body. But the Hornet’s low 39 inch peak height and slanted sidewalls (tent lacks a spreader crossbar at the peak or foot of the tent) make it better suited for sleeping than hanging out in (some even consider this a large person’s solo tent).
Second, we have REI Co-op Quarter Dome 2 Tent with a similar 28.7 ft2for the main tent body. But it has a higher, 43 inch peak height and a spreader bar at the peak of the tent, and another at the foot end to make its walls more vertical for much of the tent body. In addition, the more generous peak height is maintained over more of the tent’s floor area. This makes it possible for two people to sit upright in much of the tent. This is a tent that you can side by side in, or play cards sitting up — a tent that you can spend more time in.
Is One Tent Better Than the Other?
Actually, neither tent is better, it just depends on what your priorities are. While the greater “livable area” for REI Co-op Quarter Dome 2 Tent is attractive, it weighs 1.4 lbs more or 75% more than the Nemo Hornet 2p. So if you like room and intend to spend more time in your tent than just sleeping (maybe even one mosquito buzzing around is too many, or you are in a rainy area) then the extra weight may not matter as much. On the other hand, if you intend to hike much of the day, or spend most of your camp time outside of the tent only using it to sleep, then the Nemo might be a more attractive choice. And if you are hiking solo and like lots of room, you might get the Nemo Hornet 2p as a light and spacious on person tent. Or for two people who want more space, the upgrade to the The Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL3 Tent might make sense.
PRO TIP | Protect Your Backpacking Tents Floor for Less
Skip the Manufacturer’s Footprint which is heavy and expensive. Instead, use a 2 to 3.5 oz Polycro Footprint to protect the floor of very light tent floors (less than 30D), we recommend putting a $8 Gossamer Gear Polycro Footprint or MLD UL FOOTPRINT under it. This multilayer, cross-linked polyolefin film weighs less than 4 oz and is much stronger and more durable than the typical painter’s plastic sheet you’d get at a hardware store. It’s also ~ 1/2 the weight and 12% the cost of a footprint from the tent manufacturer. It should last for weeks or months of use. When it starts to wear it can easily be replaced by another $8 footprint. [Get a large size and cut it to fit your tent.]
Oh, and if your tent floor is 30D or better then you can likely skip a footprint or Polycro sheet altogether. It’s durable enough if you pitch it carefully. On the other hand, many of the lighter tents in this guide have 20D or even 15D floors. In this case, you should seriously consider protecting it with a footprint or Polycro sheet.
The light stakes that came with your tent are OK but you can do better. Good stakes make tent pitching faster and more secure. For pitching in rocky ground and other difficult areas we prefer these inexpensive but bomber TNH ‘Y’ Tent-Stakes on Amazon. They have only a single notch at the head making them extremely resistant to bending and damage when pounding in with a rock. And they have a pre-attached cord to make them easier to pull out — the cord is reflective to keep you from tripping on them during the night. Finally, ‘Y’ stakes have greater holding power than most stakes so they’ll hold your tent more securely. You can get similar ‘Y’ stakes, MSR Ground Hogs, at REI.
Even if you have a tent with bug netting, nobody really wants to be in tent-jail the entire time you are in camp trying to avoid the mosquitoes. And if you are using a tarp or a pyramid tent without bug netting this is even more important. Here are some tips to beat the bugs.
Campsite selection matters
Ten or 15 minutes scouting for a good camp may save you hours of misery. Mosquitoes and other flying insects that bite are fairly predictable. They like wet areas with little or no wind. So avoid camping near wet and boggy areas. Instead try and find a higher and drier ridge or other well drained area that will have less bugs. Try standing around in your prospective campsite for 5 minutes or so before committing and pitching your tent. If they are going to be bad you’ll know by then. And if it’s not windy, try and find a place that gets more wind — again a higher place with fewer trees or shrubs that will catch even slight breezes. Even during the height of mosquito season in Alaska we were usually able to find breezy area, like a bluff above a river, where we could eat dinner outside the tents and with our shoes off.
In western mountains the mosquito hatch moves up in altitude as the season progresses going to nearly zero by August in most areas. Before then the mosquito hatches are worst at a certain altitude and you can avoid camping there if possible. Finally, bug pressure may go down substantially in the late evening. In more arid climates they usually settle down once the temperature drops at the end of the day, and especially after dark. We’ve cowboy camped (no tent, faces exposed) many a night when the mosquitoes were buzzing around during the day, but dwinded to nearly zero after dark.
Sometimes you can’t beat the bugs
And yes, if you are in the Boundary Waters in July, you’ll likely want a tent with full bug netting. We would! But we find those instances the exception rather than the rule. Most times we can get away with a tarp our pyramid shelter without the netting.
PRO TIP | Tent Performance Upgrade – Pick the Right Campsite
Even a so-so tent will usually work great in a good campsite. First figure out what your major concerns are — wind, rain, cold & bugs are usually top. Below we tell you which campsites are best for which concerns. We cover bugs their own Pro Tip.
Wind Rain and Cold
while those catalog photos of a tent on a picturesque lakeshore with a tree nowhere in sight look great — they are horribly exposed places to be in bad weather! So do yourself a huge faver and pitch your shelter in a protected area — preferably in trees! But if not trees, behind a large rock, a small hill, a line of shrubs a — anything to break the wind.
Camping protected in the trees does a number of lovely things for you:
Trees block the wind: which keeps you a lot warmer (reduces convective heat loss). It also lowers wind load and stresses on your shelter and tent stakes. That is you don’t need a bomber tent if you are protected in the woods.
Trees keep you warmer: Trees prevent radiant heat loss. They reflect the day’s heat back to the ground at night in the same way that a cloudy sky makes it warmer overnight.
Trees keep you drier: Camping in the trees is also less prone to the heavy dew and condensation of exposed campsites.The worst place for dew is in a treeless meadow at the bottom of a canyon. The best place to be is in the woods on a flat area a few hundred feet above the canyon bottom (or surrounding lower area).
Trees provide shelter anchors: for tarps, shelter tie-outs, and hammocks. Far more secure than stakes in the ground. Just a few good tie-out to trees will make any tent a lot more stable.
Finally, make sure that your tent is not in an area where water will pool-up or stream through (this is far better than relying on your tent floor to be 100% waterproof).
Leave No Trace (LNT) Ethics
Current Leave No Trace (LNT) Ethics have you discreetly camping out of sight in the trees [e.g. all campsites in Rocky Mountain Park fit this criteria]. Camping out of sight is a favor to fellow backcountry travelers sharing the area with you — rather than advertising your presence to everybody for miles around. Then everybody can view that beautiful lake or meadow without any human presence to mar their experience. In addition, you should try and camp on hard, durable surfaces whenever possible. [Your park reg’s likely have you camping away from lakes, streams, and trails as well.]
Pro Tip | Is a Freestanding Tent Really Freestanding?
“Freestanding” is a bit misleading, and does not necessarily mean that you do not need to stake out these tents. In reality, it is a good idea to stake out any tent or shelter, freestanding or not. While the main body (less rain fly) of a freestanding tent will stand on its own without stakes, it is still better to stake it out. We have seen more than a few un-staked tents blow a considerable distance in strong winds, sometimes resulting in tent damage and lost gear (thus our recommendation to find a good campsite that avoids exposure to strong winds). And if you add a rainfly over your freestanding tent you will need to stake out the vestibules. And most important, you will always get a better/tauter and much stronger pitch if you stakeout the corners (and other points as necessary).
Key Information for the Backpacking Tent Buyer
& Tent Terminology Explained
Price: What You Get by Spending More
At this point with backpacking gear, spending more often means a lighter tent without losing durability. More expensive tents are often constructed with DCF (formerly Cuben) or other pricier fabrics with a light weight and high durability. More expensive tents will often last longer, have a better space-to-weight ratio for livability, and have more features such as multiple doors and vestibules. Be a smart shopper though: Are you paying a higher sticker price for a fancy name brand? Or will a tent from a lesser-known company provide the same durability and quality? Be sure to understand the specs (volume, material, weight) and read reviews for livable space and setup tips before buying. You can often save money without sacrificing too much in the way of construction quality.
Area Per Pound of Tent Weight
This a key factor to evaluate and compare tents. Our area per pound of tent weight gives you a good idea of how light a tent really is. That is how much volume/livable space do you get for each pound of tent weight. For the tents in this guide these range from around 10 ft2/lb for the more budget oriented tents, to near 40 ft2/lb for the lightest ultralight tents. That is the best ultralight tents are 1/4 the weight for the same livable area. And pyramid tents are amazing at around 64 ft2/lb!
Backpacking Tent Weight Explained
Your tent can be one of the heaviest items in your pack, relative to overall base weight. Your tent is one of your “big three” items (pack and sleep system are the other two), and is a constant in your base weight. For a freestanding tent, you are carrying a tent body, a tent fly, poles, and stakes. But! Pairs of hikers can often split up a tent to distribute the weight. For freestanding tents, it’s easy to divide the fly and tent body, and choose who carries the poles. This comes with a weight penalty vs. non-freestanding tent of (usually) two pounds or less per person, if the two-person backpacking tent is between 3-4 pounds. Most hikers should aim for carrying no more than 2.5 pounds of shelter weight per person (and those going ultralight backpacking might aim for 1.5 pounds or less per person).
Tarps and single wall tents are a great way to reduce shelter weight, as you use trekking poles instead of tent poles to set them up, and you’re likely already carrying the trekking poles. Single wall tents combine the tent body and tent fly, resulting in significant weight savings and some two-person single wall tent models weigh a scant one pound.
Packaged Weight vs Minimum Weight
You’ll see references to packed weight and minimum weight (or trail weight) on many manufacturers and retailers sites. Packed weight is referring to how much the entire tent package weighs when you purchase it, including tent body, fly, poles, stakes, guy lines, compression sacks or stuff sacks, and anything else included in the package. Basically, how much it weighs when it shows up at your door. Minimum trail weight can vary in what it’s referencing, but typically means the weight of the tent body, fly, and poles… the basics of what you need to pitch the tent. You’ll likely need stakes and some guy lines as well, so you can assume the actual weight of what you’ll be carrying is somewhere between minimum weight and packaged weight — but with good stakes, closer to the minimum weight.
Ultralight tents have to be treated with care. Regardless of price and quality, if the denier of your tent walls and tent floor go down, the durability goes down too, and the tent is more prone to ripping or punctures. For tents with floor material under 30D, be very aware of where you set it up, and avoid roots and sharp rocks. We recommend a footprint or Polycro sheet to help protect the tent floor.
“Denier” is the term used to describe the thickness of the tent fibers. One strand = 1 denier. So a 20-denier (or 20D) fabric has 2/3 the density of a 30D fabric. Many tents will have a higher-denier fabric on the floor of the tent vs. the wall. Durability in material matters too. A 20D DCF tent wall will wear differently than a 20D nylon tent wall.
There are a few things to consider with weather protection in a tent: precipitation from above, and soaking through from below. Some tents don’t come fully seam sealed, and you’ll have to apply waterproofing and seam sealing yourself. For other brands, this is an add-on option. Be sure you know your tent is fully weather-proofed before you take it out for the first time. You can also get “wet from the inside” due to condensation see more on this in Ventilation below.
For super weight savers, sleeping under a tarp with no bug net and no bathtub floor means less weight to carry, but also less protection from the elements. A fully enclosed tent with a bathtub floor and bug netting carries more of a weight penalty, but comes with increased protection. Four-season tents are shaped differently than three-season tents. Their steeper walls allow them to deal with snow loading better, and not accumulate heavy snow on their tops. Four-season tents have less mesh, and seal in heat better. This also means they accumulate condensation more.
Condensation management and ventilation is important to take into consideration when choosing a tent. Some models and styles vent better than others, but it also has to do with how you set your tent up and your site location. For double walled tents will do well with managing condensation.
The potential for excessive condensation is a downside to single-wall tents, but it’s starting to be addressed in different models. Tents like the REI Flash Air 2 with two mesh side walls, and doors on each side will vent better than single wall models with limited openings and solid rear walls. Tent models with doors on both sides allow for cross ventilation options, which is key to avoiding condensation. Opening a door or vents will help prevent condensation buildup, and choosing a high, dry site. Venting your tent helps prevent condensation buildup because the flow of air helps move water vapor outside of the tent. The warm air inside is continually pushed out, replaced by cooler air, and helps keep the temperature equal (or as equal as possible) inside and outside the tent.
Interior Space: Floor Area, Peak Height, and Walls
Interior space (or “livable” space) means the space you’ll be sleeping in, changing clothes in, and ultimately will be able to determine how comfortable you’ll be existing in this space, whether or not you share it with another person. The steepness of the walls and peak height of the roof also contribute livable space. A wall with a slant from floor to peak means less shoulder room, while a tent with a spreader bar across the top and more vertical walls equates to more shoulder space and sitting-up space without hitting yourself on the steeply pitched walls.
The standard floor area for a tent (square footage) is a good starting point for estimating the “livable area” but it’s far from telling the whole story. For example, two tents with the same floor area can have dramatically different amounts of livable area. Increasing the height of the tent and adding top spreader bar(s) and/or pre-bent poles can make tent walls more vertical. Combined, these design changes significantly increase livable area making it far more pleasant to spend time in the tent. For example the Big Agnes Copper Spur has a significantly more livable area than the Nemo Hornet 2p.
Number of Doors
For a two-person tent, two doors are ideal for many pairs of hiking partners. Having two doors eliminates crawling all over one another for midnight bathroom breaks, and gives each person their own side. However, two doors mean two zippers, which adds to the weight of the tent. This can be a matter of convenience and comfort over weight. Many people cutting weight are happy with one door, either on the side or the front of the tent because it’s less extra material, and also less chance of construction failure with seams and zippers. As noted two doors give you are better ventilation options.
Storage: Vestibules and Interior Pockets
Having a larger vestibule doesn’t just mean more space: it means you can save the inside of your tent from getting drenched with wet gear on rainy outings. The more space you have in a vestibule, the more you can leave your soaked gear outside of the while still having it be protected. Look for a vestibule at least 7 ft2, and for two-person tents, two vestibules are really nice. While interior pockets aren’t critical, they are really nice for organizing small items such as headlamps, ear plugs, small electronics, and other items that can get lost in piles of gear at night. A pocket or two at the head of the tent for quick access is great, and an overhead pocket can make a nice place to have a headlamp turned on to illuminate the entire shelter before you go to sleep.
What Does Freestanding Mean for Backpacking Tents?
Freestanding tents are the “classic,” full-featured, easy-to-pitch tents most are familiar with. Once you insert the poles, freestanding tents can stand on their own without being staked out… no trekking poles required. They 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 avoid setting up 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. The downside is that some of these tents are heavier than other options on the market, and a few have limited livable room. They are also sometimes pricier.
“Freestanding” is a bit misleading, and does not necessarily mean that you do not need to stake out these tents. In reality, it is a good idea to stake out any tent or shelter, freestanding or not. While the main body (less rain fly) of a freestanding tent will stand on its own without stakes, it is still better to stake it out. We have seen more than a few un-staked tents blow a considerable distance in strong winds, sometimes resulting in tent damage and lost gear (thus our recommendation to find a good campsite that avoids exposure to strong winds). And if you add a rainfly over your freestanding tent you will need to stake out the vestibules. And most important, you will always get a better/tauter and much stronger pitch if you stakeout the corners and other points as necessary.
Freestanding tents do have an advantage for Leave No Trace. 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). In high winds and at an exposed campsite, this is not a good idea.
In comparison, non-freestanding tents usually use your trekking poles to support them and need to be staked out be fully pitched. The advantage is usually a big savings in weight and usually lower cost as well.
Tent Poles and Stakes
Sturdy, lightweight stakes make tent pitching faster and more secure. It’s not a bad idea to replace the stakes your tent came with. For pitching in rocky ground and other difficult areas, we prefer inexpensive but bomber TNH ‘Y’ Tent-Stakes on Amazon. They have only a single notch at the head, making them extremely resistant to bending and damage when pounding in with a rock. And they have a pre-attached cord to make them easier to pull out. ‘Y’ stakes have greater holding power than most stakes so they’ll hold your tent more securely. You can get similar ‘Y’ stakes, MSR Ground Hogs, at REI.
Freestanding tents come with their own set of poles, usually collapsible single-hub or double-hub. Both styles will be hollow poles of varying weight, material, and durability, with elastic holding them together. A single-hub pole set will unfold and snap together with one central cross-point. Other models have a separate spreader bar or other components you’ll have to attach and configure. Tarptents and single-wall shelters utilize trekking poles for structure and stability, but some have a roof spreader bar for more shoulder room and interior space.
Footprints and Tent Care
When storing your tent, it’s imperative to make sure the tent is clean and entirely dry. Don’t crumple it into a stuff sack, rather fold it carefully and store it flat to help prevent degradation of waterproofing and seam sealing.
If your tent floor is 30D or better, then you can likely skip a footprint or Polycro sheet altogether. It’s durable enough if you pitch it carefully. On the other hand, many lighter tents and single-wall tents have 20D or even 15D floors. In this case, you should seriously consider protecting it with a footprint or Polycro sheet. We recommend skipping the manufacturer’s footprint, which is heavy and can be expensive. Instead, use a 2 to 3.5 oz Polycro Footprint to protect the floor of very light tent floors. We recommend putting a $8 Gossamer Gear Polycro Footprint or MLD UL FOOTPRINT under this type of shelter. This multilayer, cross-linked polyolefin film weighs less than 4 oz and is much stronger and more durable than the typical painter’s plastic sheet you’d get at a hardware store. It’s also ~ 1/2 the weight and 12% the cost of a footprint from the tent manufacturer. It should last for months of use. When it starts to wear it can easily be replaced by another $9 footprint. Get a large size and cut it to fit your tent.
This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you. I do not receive compensation from the companies whose products are listed. Many of the tents in this guide were provided for review by the manufacturer free of charge. Others were purchased with my own funds. I am never under an obligation to write a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Brief excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Alan Dixon and AdventureAlan.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Disclaimer: Posts on this site contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on these links, a portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you. I do not receive compensation from the companies whose products I review. Unless otherwise noted, products are purchased with my own funds. I am never under an obligation to write a review about any product. Finally, reviews express my own independent opinion.
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