By Michael Lanza
The choices in tents for backpacking seem to get better every year, with lightweight models continually getting lighter and other advances that make tents sturdier and more livable without adding weight. But with all the options out there, how do you choose? The answer is simpler than you might think: It comes down to understanding the key differences that distinguish tents from one another—which will help you understand what you need.
Like tents, backpackers come in different sizes and their needs in a tent vary depending on their style of backpacking and where they go. In testing scores of backpacking tents over a quarter-century of testing and reviewing gear—formerly as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for about 10 years and even longer running this blog—I’ve acquired a sense of what to look for in a tent and how to help people pick out one they like.
The five simple tips in this article will help you find the tent that’s best for your needs. Please share any tips of your own or your questions in the comments section at the bottom of this story; I try to respond to all comments.
See also my story “How to Choose the Best Ultralight Backpacking Tent for You,” which explains specific details and design differences that apply to all tents.
See “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents” and all of my backpacking tent reviews.
#1 What Kind of Backpacker Are You?
Is tent weight your top priority, or weather resistance, or interior space and livability? You’ll spend countless hours and nights, as well as plenty of waking hours inside that shelter; make sure it’s going to be enjoyable, and it all comes down to your personal style of backpacking.
Consider these three backpacker profiles:
If you’re the kind of backpacker who’s not interested in rising early and rushing out of camp, and who prefers to hike for not much more than half the day and reach your next camp with time to relax in the warm afternoon sun and perhaps take a swim in a lake or creek, you may prefer a tent with good interior space. That becomes doubly true if your usual destinations present the prospect of rain keeping you inside that tent for hours. Weight may not be your top priority. Still, consider weight as you compare tents, because you do have to carry that shelter.
On the other hand, if you are the kind of backpacker who loves to hit the trail early and bang out big mileage every day—like many ultralighters and thru-hikers—then weight probably is your top priority, and you’re willing to tolerate close living quarters to minimize pack weight because you have a higher ratio of hours spent hiking to hours spent in the tent..
Do you fall somewhere between those two descriptions—not an early-rising, big-mileage backpacker, but nonetheless keen to keep your pack weight comfortable? There are midweight and nearly lightweight tent models that strike a balance between livability and moderate weight.
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#2 Read the Reviews Closely
Yes, there are a lot of gear reviews in the ether and in print. Find sources you consider authoritative and experienced, whose perspective is shaped by having slept in many tents: With tents especially, the average backpacker doesn’t buy or use very many models, and people have a natural bias to want to affirm that a purchase they made was a good one, so they’ll tend to comment positively—but vaguely.
Read reviews 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, the ease of pitching it and breaking it down, and whether it has a problem with condensation buildup, especially on chilly, calm nights.
Use reviews in conjunction with your preferences in a tent to narrow your list to a few finalists—or perhaps easily winnow it to one obvious good choice for you. And lastly, look for brands known for making good tents or that you’ve read good reviews about. You may ultimately settle on a tent from a brand after hearing or reading about another model from that same brand.
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#3 The Little Details Matter
But some little things matter more than others. Here are some key details to examine in a backpacking tent:
A tent will typically last for many years. Make sure you’re satisfied with it.
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
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 The Big Outside’s Gear Reviews page for categorized menus of all gear reviews and expert buying tips.