The fact you're reading this is a sign that you're putting thought into being well-prepared, and that's a great sign. We've done some research on our own, and we'd love to show you what we found. There's an awful lot to learn about the different backpacking tents on the market, but before we get into that, we should take a step back & learn a bit about the activity itself.
What is Backpacking? How Did it Start?
If you’ve talked with a kid fresh out of college about their post-graduation plans, there’s a very high chance one of the things they have in mind is a backpacking journey. They might plan on going through Asia, Europe, the US, or anywhere else in the world, but their desire for adventure is the same.
It’s not just recent graduates, either; people of all ages & walks of life have found themselves joining in on the backpacking craze for decades. So what is it, exactly?
For those who are unfamiliar, backpacking is almost exactly what it sounds like: It’s when you go on a multi-day journey where you carry everything you need in a single backpack. It could be considered a combination of hiking & camping in many cases.
It seems like something people would have been doing since the dawn of backpacks, and in some ways, that's been the case, but the idea of backpacking as we've come to understand it today began back in the 50s & 60s. The youth were looking for adventure in an era that praised safety, comfort & security, and they began traveling by foot through Europe & Asia in search of discovery and spirituality.
Many of the places those early adventurers went through, like India, Nepal & Thailand, are still highly popular for their modern descendants. They’ve found plenty of adventure stateside as well, with hundreds of trails across the US welcoming backpackers for hikes that can last days & sometimes weeks.
Sounds pretty fun, right? Well, before you set off on the trail, you need to be sure that you’ve got your essentials ready to go.
Backpacking Gear: The Essentials
We figured this was an obvious one, but it’s worth stressing that the success of a backpacking trip can significantly depend on the quality of your backpack. We know you love your school bag, but bringing it on a 3-day wilderness adventure will only get you so far before you curse the day you ever bought it. You’ll need something intended to go as far as you need to & beyond, and there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind.
For one, you'll want to make sure it has space for what you need. That'll include changes of clothes, hygienic & cooking supplies, food, your tent & more (which we'll get to later). Look for different assortments of pockets that could keep supplies like water bottles, small tools, electronics & other things safe and secure. Furthermore, be sure you have some way of making your pack waterproof if you get caught in a downpour.
The next thing to consider is a comfort. Remember, you'll be walking through all sorts of terrain with that bad boy on, and you won't be stopping for hours at a time. It might be tolerable when you first put it on in the store, but can you picture yourself keeping it on for full days over a week? If not, we'd suggest you keep looking.
Your backpack, of course, isn’t the only thing you should be making sure is comfortable. The pair of shoes & boots you select will either be your best friend or your greatest enemy, and it all depends on whether you get the right pair for the journey.
Besides needing the tread required to traverse different terrains, they need to feature the sort of materials that can take a lengthy beating on the trail, along with offering your feet & ankles enough support to keep you going for longer.
They should be weather-appropriate as well; the full protection of a boot doesn’t mean anything if it feels like your foot’s going to burn off, and the mobility of a hiking sneaker is irrelevant if you’re ankle-deep in snow.
Given that you’ll be gone for at least a few days, you’ll want to have something else to eat besides granola & fruit leather. Bring those too, but make sure you’ve got the supplies to make yourself a legitimate meal, including the heating setup to get things cooked.
Camp stoves can be very easy to travel with if you pack right, and as long as you have a pot or pan that’ll fit on it, along with the right utensils, you’ll be all set to make a home cooked meal away from home.
After a nice, warm dinner, you’ll naturally want to curl up in a nice, warm bed & get some shuteye, but that becomes a tad complicated when you’re camping. The time you’re able to rest in your sleeping bag is your best opportunity to restore your energy, and you’ll want to know that you’ll be able to get full nights of comfortable rest no matter what.
Last, but very far from least, the tent you select for your trip is vital in many ways. Even before you set it up, the way it folds down will affect how you’ll be able to pack the rest of your things, and the process involved in setting it up can be a whole other effort to consider.
It’ll be your only real shelter during the trip, and if it can’t stay stable, keep you protected from the elements, and stay in peak condition the long haul, it’s not worth bringing with you.
The Importance of Your Tent
To reiterate, making sure you get the right tent for your trip is nothing short of fundamental. Unless you want to risk exposing yourself to the surrounding world, you should duly consider all your options in this category. You'll need to consider where you're going, how many people you'll have with you what you'll want to do in the tent and a myriad of other factors.
Here are a few ways in which you can distinguish between the different types of tents out there; be sure to keep these factors at the forefront of your mind when looking around for one to bring home.
Different Types of Tents
Tents come in many different forms, but let’s stick to discussing a few of the main types to keep things simple.
These are what most of us are likely to picture in our heads when we think of a tent. They're great for groups of two people, and their design makes them ideal for rain & other rough weather when they're properly set up. However, they're pretty heavy relative to their peers, and the fact you can't walk around in them means their use is relatively limited.
You could do pretty well with one of these if it's just you & one other person going on a 2-3 day trip, but if you're planning to go on bigger or longer trips, we'd suggest trying something else.
You might have guessed it from the name, but this tent is notable for just how quickly one can take it from collapsed to assembled.
Essentially, this is made possible by the structure of the frame, which is one long, sprung & coiled piece. When the frame is twisted, the tent collapses into an easy-to-carry circle, and turning it into a tent is as simple as untwisting the spring (or even throwing it straight into the air, in some cases).
After that, you’ve got a fully-set & stable shelter to enjoy! You can find versions of these capable of handling most environments, too, so this convenience isn’t just a fairweather friend. We still wouldn’t recommend them for longer trips or especially large groups of people, but this is by no means a bad option as far as tents for backpacking go.
As far as individual or small-group tents go, the dome variety is easily one of the most popular choices for all sorts of outdoorsy folk.
Their main foundation consists of two large and flexible poles, the ends of which are tightly secured to the ground. These poles are usually under an external cover called a rainfly, although they're on the outside sometimes as well.
There are a few factors that make these tents especially useful for backpacking. For one, they're lightweight and easy to pitch, along with being simple enough to pack down into a convenient size quickly.
They’re also pretty affordable, relative to other tents, and they’re far easier to walk around in than their ridge & quick-pitch peers. Lastly, if you’re in a group of 2-4 people, they’re extremely stable.
Stability becomes more of an issue if your group is larger, though, and especially windy weather can make things go awry if you don’t set up carefully.
Along with coming in many forms, tents can be made of a few different fabrics that significantly affect how effective they are in certain situations. Here are some of the main types you'll come across.
This is the most traditional of the fabrics that are used to make tents today. Most of them have been replaced by newer models made of polycotton canvas (which we’ll get to next), but the ones made of standard cotton can still be found today.
Besides being more breathable than other types of tents, the varieties made of cotton canvas also become waterproof after enduring what's called the "weathering" process. Mainly, this involves letting the material get exposed to rain on a couple of occasions. Why do this? Well, the fabric expands after this natural treatment, and you're left with a waterproof tent as a result!
Make sure you actually get that done, though, since putting a brand new cotton tent in the rain can result in some leakage.
As we just mentioned, this is the material that’s served as the direct descendant of the once-standard cotton canvas.
You might have guessed it from the name, but the new material is a mix of cotton & polyester, which results in a lighter fabric with the strength of the traditional cotton. With that in mind, backpackers will likely want to keep tents with that fabric in mind during their search.
Furthermore, the material is usually treated to make the tent water-repellent from the start, although untreated options are out there as well.
While this tends to be what the most affordable tents on the market are made of, it's also the main fabric featured on the most advanced options out there. The price, then, depends on the coating the manufacturer used. Silicone will keep you more protected than others, but it'll cost you more as well. Opting for acrylic will be safer on your wallet if that's your priority.
As far as the benefits go, tents with this material can be much lighter than their competitors, and you can find affordable small options without much difficulty.
However, the quality can vary between these types of tents, so you’ll have to pay more attention in that regard, and you’ll have to be careful in heavy sunlight due to the material’s vulnerability to UV rays. The material slackens when it’s damp as well, so keep things tight in wetter weather.
Polyester tents share many of the same qualities as their nylon counterparts, in that the price of tents boasting the material depends on the coating, and in the fact that they’re both lightweight.
However, polyester is generally more durable, doesn't get affected by dampness, and is far more immune to UV rays. As a result, it's usually a more popular choice than nylon for those that can afford to pay the difference.
Another thing you’ll have to keep in mind when selecting a backpacking tent is what system is used to keep it standing & stable. The following three are the main variations you’ll find:
This is the sort of fastening system you'll see with tents that stand up via the standard system of stakes. Primarily, these serve to connect the poles with the fabric of the tent, keeping things together in case of high winds. Backpackers & campers don't usually have a strong opinion on these, although their utility makes them a regular in any of their supply bags.
Quite a bit more controversial than the clips, pole hubs are (usually) circular units where all the pole ends are screwed into, offering stability & centrally to a tent's foundation. This, of course, is if the hub is manufactured correctly. While many of them are indeed properly produced, lower quality ones can leave your tent just as unstable as it would be without them, along with potentially damaging your poles.
While quite a few tents utilize a system of planted stakes to stay upright, freestanding tents are exactly what they sound like: free from any anchor to the ground but standing regardless. They utilize an exoskeleton of poles to accomplish this, and they can rest upon a wide variety of terrain as a result.
Since one can move these types of tents wherever they desire without any major effort, they've become increasingly popular with backpackers that are looking to spend more time on the journey. That being said, while you don't need anything additional to keep it standing, it doesn't hurt to have a couple stakes handy to keep it sturdy against the wind.
As you might have suspected after learning about the different fabrics used for tents, certain varieties are made for more mild climes, while others are built to take quite a bit of weather damage. Let’s go through your three options.
People tend to gravitate towards the three season tent simply because of its lightweight design. Its sturdy yet freestanding build allows it to serve as a suitable habitat for the summer, spring, and fall months.
These tents will surely withstand light rainfall and snow. Don't expect them to provide ample protection against heavy snow and winds common in the winter season. A three season tent ensures the maximum amount of ventilation possible in tent design.
Mesh walls that have an open layout permits air to flow continuously throughout the tent while you are not put in direct contact with violent winds. As a result, the condensation build up is avoided while cooler air can make its way inside the tent. In the summertime, a breeze will be most welcome inside a small two-person tent.
Three season tents come with either a side rain cover or vestibules that sit off the floor. This allows air to move in, so you don't suffocate in your tent. Nowadays, these type of tents is built with an extremely lightweight fabric as well as the floor materials being thin. This ensures less bulky material, which means it's less of a strain on your back.
These tents normally come with thin yet light aluminum frames as well as sleeveless poles that endure mild weather conditions without jeopardizing your safety and comfort.
Even though this tent is called a four season tent, you can only use it during the winter months. You'll have to be surrounded by tons of snow and extreme wind conditions to truly witness the effectiveness of a four-season tent.
This tent is specifically built to protect you from snow, ice, hail, and intense winds. None of the walls contain any mesh, which is the opposite design of the three season tent. A four season one will come built with the polyester or nylon, which works to trap in body heat and prevent gusty winds from infiltrating your abode.
More often than not, the tent comes with vents to allow you to control the interior condensation levels. Condensation won’t prove to be an issue in cold temperatures, which is another reason why this tent is used for the wintertime.
The rainfly extends to the floor, which blocks the wind. The built-in flaps fold inward, so snow packs onto it. The piles of snow then serve to improve the overall stability of the tent. When compared to the three-season tent, the four-season comes with thicker and heavy aluminum frames that will take a toll on your back.
This tent seems to come with more pieces making it more difficult to set up than the previous option. The more pieces there are to a tent set up, the more stable the tent is. A decent four season tent will hold up against the weight of ice or snow.
Is My Tent Waterproof?
Finding out whether or not your tent is waterproof isn’t difficult. We will tell you some key guidelines to take into account before you make the mistake of using a tent that isn’t waterproof on a rainy day.
First off, you have to check the seams of the tent. You can do this by observing the stitching from the inside of the tent. If the seams are sealed, then your tent is waterproof. Make sure to get some water on your tent before you set it up to ensure there won’t be any leaks.
The next thing you should do is check the zippers, particularly the doorway ones. Out of all the places in your tent, the doorway is the one spot that is guaranteed to let the rain come in. Only by ensuring that the zippers are waterproof will you prevent this from happening. Expert campers usually add a plastic cover to the zippers, so the water never makes any contact.
You can pay extra for tents that come with a waterproof treatment. These tents will also have a high hydrostatic head within the fabric, which is what gives it the waterproof feature.
How Big Does My Tent Need to Be?
Ultimately, the size of the tent depends entirely on how many people you’re trying to fit in it. If your backpacking, you want the lightest option possible since you’ll have to carry it around with you. Hiking with a tent that weighs a fraction of your own weight will prove to be a hassle after the first couple days of hiking.
After finishing our guide regarding backpacking tents, you have more than enough information to make a wise product decision. You have trained your eye to look for tent features specific to your needs. Finding tent options is the next hurdle you have to overcome.
Lucky for you, we have found five backpacking tents that have customers satisfied and looking forward to going camping. All you have to do is take a look at our buying guide, and you’ll pick out a backpacking tent in no time.