By Michael Lanza
Switching from a standard backpacking tent to an ultralight tent can shave pounds from your total pack weight—a huge step toward a lighter pack. But when comparing models, the specs on them can look like a big pot of numeral soup, leaving you wondering: What differentiates them from one another? Which one is best? I’ve tested and reviewed scores of tents of all sizes. I love the best ultralight tents, but I’ve used some that had flaws or shortcomings not immediately obvious. In this article, I’ll tell you how to find the three-season, ultralight tent that’s best for you.
Consumers of backcountry gear have grown accustomed to focusing on the weight of a product—which is smart—but not always paying adequate attention to other performance metrics. Think of your tent’s weight like it’s a prospective spouse’s feelings about starting a family: It’s a critical and potentially make-or-break factor, but it’s not the only question to ask when evaluating compatibility.
An ultralight tent is a two-sided coin: Before getting one, be certain that low weight ranks as a higher priority to you than living space, or you might be disappointed.
Fans of them typically include ultralight backpackers, thru-hikers, climbers, and others who focus on the experience outside rather than inside the tent, who often spend much of each day on the move, and who don’t mind dealing with the inconveniences or quirkiness of a non-traditional tent design. Big people looking to trim pack weight may be smart to get a tent that’s not the absolute lightest, but still reasonably light while providing a bit more space (more on square footage below).
That said, there are ultralight tents and shelters that do have adequate or even abundant living space, especially those employing non-traditional designs. Floorless tents and tarps that pitch using trekking poles weigh mere ounces while offering much more sheltered living area per ounce (or gram) than traditional tents. While not freestanding, when pitched and staked out properly they often stand up to strong wind as well as any heavier, three-season, freestanding tent. Some have a single-wall or hybrid single- and double-wall design (see below) and optional mesh inserts for buggy conditions. Ventilation, of course, is never a problem under a tarp.
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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 my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert buying tips.