How to Choose a Backpacking Tent

Choosing the right backpacking tent is overwhelming at best. You want to maximize the value of your budget by making sure that you get all the features that you want. You will soon realize that it is easy to get lost in the thousands of options out there.

Whether you are buying your first tent or looking to upgrade, you need a plan to identify the backpacking tent that will fit your needs. That plan starts with a crucial question, “what kind of a backpacker are you?”

Serious vs. Casual Backpacking

As an outdoor enthusiast, you already know the value of planning. Anticipating your needs during your adventures ensures that you have the right gear with you, tent or otherwise. Also, you do not want to be dealing with sleepless nights because you did not bring the correct tent.

Start by thinking of the types of trips that you are planning on taking. If you already have plans on visiting top camping destinations, those are great starting points in choosing the right sleeping gear.

Casual backpacking trips usually involve shorter distances that last overnight. Weekenders on a well-known trail also fit this type of trip. For this type of backpacking, you need solid features, durable materials, and an easy-to-set-up tent.

Additionally, consider backpacking tents at affordable price points. Unless you want specific functionality, you will not need any bells-and-whistles. Premium-grade tents may be overkill if you are a casual backpacker.

On the other hand, if you are going on longer trips in challenging terrains, then packed size and weight become top priorities. Every ounce matters, especially if you are a long-distance backpacker. If you are climbing Mt. Everest, you do not need all the extra weight. You may need to sacrifice a bit of comfort and livability for an ultra-lightweight tent.

Also, if you are expecting extreme weather conditions, protection is also a top concern. Top-of-the-line tents are typically designed for specific types of adventurers. You may already be familiar with brands such as Marmot, R.E.I., Coleman, The North Face, Kelty, and more. However, that also means higher price tags.

By identifying what type of backpacker you are, you can set a reasonable budget and the features you need. You may even have a bit of wiggle room in your budget for the functionalities that you want.

Tent Weight and Size

Weight and size are two of the top factors that you should consider when choosing a tent. Along with livability and comfort, you will have to balance these features depending on your backpacking trip.

Fortunately, brands work hard to keep the weight low without sacrificing much space. Heavy-duty materials definitely lend better durability to the tent. But, new ultralight models can be surprisingly sturdy as well.

Do take note that the term “ultralight” does not specify a standard weight range. As such, check the tent specifications carefully before making the purchase.

Speaking of specifications, there are three key weight specs that you should look into:

  • Minimum trail weight – This includes the bare essentials you need to pack, including the poles, rainfly, and tent body. Depending on your needs, you may also need to pack footprint, stakes, and other gear. Think of this as the base weight of the tent.
  • Packed weight – It indicates the total weight of all tent parts such as body, poles, rainfly, stakes, stuff sack, and even the instructions. This can be considered as the maximum weight of the entire tent plus its accessories upon purchase.
  • Packed size – It refers to the space that the packed tent will occupy using the included storage bag. But, if you have a companion, you can always divvy up the components to save space and weight in your pack.

Seasonality

For most backpackers, a 3-season tent is more than enough to take on most trips. It is popular among casual adventurers and beginners alike. You may also have heard of 4-season tents that are popular among hardcore backpackers.

However, take note that there is no such thing as a truly all-season tent as weather conditions won’t be the same for every trip. As such, it is common for outdoor enthusiasts to have more than one tent, each reserved for a specific type of trip. So, which type of tent is right for you?

  • 3-season tent – This tent can handle a wide range of weather in summer, spring, and fall. With a sturdy pole system and proper pitching, a 3-season tent should hold up against light snow and heavy rains. However, they are not designed to last through heavy snow, strong winds, or violent storms. Its most common features are:
    • Lighter fabric and minimal poles to maintain a lower weight.
    • Maximized interior space with upright walls.
    • Mesh canopy that keeps critters out while ensuring breathability.
  • 3-to-4-season tent – The in-betweeners come with features that can last through the snow during late fall or early spring. They can also withstand conditions in high-elevations areas where snow is likely even when it’s not winter. On top of 3-season features, it usually has:
    • Extra poles for added sturdiness.
    • Added fabric over mesh canopy to keep the snow out and keep in heat longer.
  • 4-season tent – This type of tent is made to be strong enough to last through substantial snowing and windy conditions. Additionally, these tents are crafted to provide complete weather protection. That also means the ventilation is quite limited, which makes these tents feel stuffy even in mild weather. Notable features are:
    • A rainfly that extends down to the ground.
    • Minimal mesh panels or extra fabric panels that zip over the mesh.
    • Heavy-duty poles.

Livability

Livability means a lot of things when it comes to using tents, from comfort to interior space. There are various factors that come into play when it comes to determining the livability of the tent. Depending on your needs and wants, you will have to determine which ones you prioritize the most.

  • Floor area and dimensions – Floor area refers to the square footage of the floor area of then. This is a good estimate of the interior space, but not enough to determine how you fit inside. For that, you need to know the dimensions. Determining the length and width will give you the full picture, especially if you are a taller individual. You will also find tents with dimensions such as 80” by 50”/40” (L X W head/foot). This measurement describes tents that taper from the head area to the foot area. Manufacturers do this to save overall weight.
  • Peak height – It refers to the highest point in the tent, which determines how well you can move vertically inside the tent. Take note that this does not describe the overall headroom.
  • Wall shape – More than peak height, the tent’s wall shape best determines its livability. Ideally, vertical walls provide the most interior space, but they won’t hold up much to the wind. On the other hand, tents with angled walls are more weight-efficient, but it sacrifices volume inside.

A surefire way to determine if the tent is comfortable enough for you is to test-pitch it in the store. Determine if space is enough for you and what tradeoffs you need to get the right tent.

Conclusion

These are just the basic factors that you need to consider when purchasing a tent. You also need to determine how easy it is to pitch the tent. Fortunately, most tents take on a classic construction, which makes them familiar to you. Modern designs are also intuitive, with colored parts to easily match where the sections go.

As you explore your options, it is worth noting the rainfly, pole type, vestibules, and ventilation. These contribute to the ability of the tent to provide comfort and protection while you are on your adventure. If your budget allows it, explore other gear and accessories such as footprint, extra stakes, utility cord, and more. 

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