5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent
By Michael Lanza
There are a lot of tents out there. How do you choose between them? Backpackers come in different sizes and have different needs and preferences in a tent. In testing scores of backcountry tents over the past two decades, for reviews in Backpacker Magazine and this blog, I’ve seen the best and the worst—and gotten a sense of what to look for in a tent and how to help people pick out one they like. Here are my five simple tips for finding a tent you’ll love.
#1 Read the Reviews
Yes, there are a lot of reviews in the ether and in print. Some of those authors know what they’re talking about; many have little experience. Find sources you consider authoritative and read them for details you can’t glean by simply checking out a tent in a store, like how well it stands up to wind and rain, and whether it has a problem with condensation buildup.
See my “Gear Review: The 5 Best Backpacking Tents” and all of my tent reviews.
#2 Crawl Inside
Never buy a tent blind—that’s a formula for disappointment. After reading the reviews and identifying at least a few tents that sound good to you, visit stores that carry them. Pitch the tent yourself to see how that goes. Sit and lie down inside it—ideally with your partner(s)—to see whether you consider the headroom and interior and vestibule space adequate. If you don’t like bumping shoulders in the tent when you’re in the store, you’ll really dislike it when you’re trying to sleep in the backcountry.
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#3 Look at Details
Some little things matter more than others. See whether the rainfly overhangs the interior tent door, so that rain doesn’t drip inside every time you come and go. Check that door zippers move smoothly rather than sticking at corners. Make sure the rainfly doesn’t sag into the ceiling and walls of the interior tent when it’s pitched taut; if it’s even close, wind and rain will paste them together in the backcountry, and your bag and anything else that brushes those walls will get wet. Many backpackers insist on a freestanding tent, but I don’t: You’ll virtually always need to stake out a tent, anyway, to achieve a sturdy pitch in wind and weather, and non-freestanding tents are usually lighter. Lastly, look for brands known for making good tents or that you’ve read good reviews about.
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#4 Go Light
The tradeoff for a lighter tent is often either less space or higher cost (sometimes both). When considering space versus weight, ask yourself these questions: How much time will you spend in camp and potentially in the tent as opposed to carrying the tent on the trail? For example, do you often encounter wet weather or usually wait for good weather to backpack? Are you more of a weekend tripper and base camper (hiking less, more time in the tent), or do you prefer long, multi-day trips (hiking more)? Are you and your partner(s) big, strong people capable of carrying an extra pound or two, or small people (maybe including children) who should prioritize low weight over more space? My advice: However you answer the above questions, minimize all gear weight as much as you can—it will always make backpacking more fun.
Don’t suffer with an unnecessarily heavy backpack. See “My Top 5 Ultralight Backpacking Tips.”
#5 Don’t Prioritize Price
Okay, cost matters, and you probably have a budget. But making it your top priority blinds you to more important aspects to consider. Seek out what you want in a tent first, then shop for prices. If you’re on a tight budget, you can still get a good tent, but you will most likely have to compromise somewhere—probably settling for something a little heavier; lightweight tents are more expensive. But if you have the means to splurge on a high-end tent (or any gear and apparel), it will be money well spent, making you more comfortable both on the trail (thanks to lighter gear) and in camp. Plus, a tent will typically last for many years. If you use it a lot, think of the value in terms of dollars spent per night of camping.
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NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews and skills stories at The Big Outside.
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