By Michael Lanza
Switching from a standard backpacking tent to an ultralight tent can shave pounds from your total pack weight—which for many backpackers will be the biggest step they can take toward a lighter pack. But it can be confusing to sort through the various ultralight tents out there, and the specs on them can look like a big pot of numeral soup, leaving you wondering: How are they different? And ultimately, which one is best for you?
I’ve tested and reviewed scores of tents of all types 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 love the best ultralight tents, but I’ve also used some that had flaws or shortcomings not immediately obvious.
This article will explain all you need to know to find the three-season, ultralight tent that’s best for you. See also my “5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent.”
Please tell me what you think of my tips or share your questions, suggestions, or favorite ultralight tent model in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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 other metrics like 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).
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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—and sometimes better than—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 almost never a problem under a tarp.
You may want a light ground cloth, and site selection and an adequately warm bag both become more important when you’re not in an enclosed tent. But if you really want to reduce shelter weight, when bugs aren’t an issue and you don’t anticipate relentlessly wet, windy conditions, a tarp or similar minimalist shelter is unquestionably the best choice. Plus, if you also want to move to a lighter, smaller-volume pack, you have to first reduce the bulk of your two largest pieces of gear: your tent and sleeping bag.
All of which leads to the conclusion: Yes, size matters. There are tradeoffs to reducing weight. For many backcountry travelers, though, the benefits of a lighter pack far outweigh any disadvantages of an ultralight shelter. Once someone switches to one, they don’t tend to go back to carrying heavier tents.
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How Light Should You Go?
What is an ultralight tent? There’s no hard definition, but I would include any kind of backcountry shelter that’s under about three pounds (1.4 kg). While somewhat arbitrary, that cutoff lumps in a wide range of products, from freestanding, double-wall tents that are significantly lighter than traditional models to shelters weighing a pound or less.
I’m not suggesting you ignore all tents over three pounds; there are two-person, three-season tents weighing mere ounces over three pounds that have their merits. What matters more are your personal needs and preferences in a shelter. That will dictate the design features you want, which (along with your budget) will largely dictate the weight of the shelter you choose.
See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents.”
The weight of any kind of shelter (or any gear) basically depends on the type and amount of materials that go into it—a seemingly obvious fact, but one which affects everything from interior space to price. The visible differences include:
• Interior and vestibule space.
• One or two doors.
• Freestanding or requires staking.
• Double- or single-wall.
• Whether it has dedicated tent poles or pitches using trekking poles.
• Whether it has a floor and/or bug-proof mesh walls.
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Freestanding or Not?
Tarps and some tents employ your trekking poles, eliminating the substantial weight and bulk of tent poles from your pack. These models can require a little more time and possibly some practice to pitch correctly—you’ll be wise to pitch it for the first time in your yard rather than during a rainstorm in the backcountry. But you’ll quickly familiarize yourself with the idiosyncrasies of one. And tent poles represent one of the single biggest chunks of weight you can remove from your pack, which is why these non-traditional shelters are the choice for serious ultralighters.
Besides, “freestanding” is a somewhat misleading term: While such tents do stand independent of stakes, they virtually always must be staked out, anyway, including their rainfly, to ensure that they stay put in wind and ventilate well.
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See my stories “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,”
and “5 Tips For Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear.”
What’s Best for You?
As I’ve basically laid out above, choosing any kind of backcountry shelter, and particularly an ultralight one, requires asking yourself a few questions:
• How high a priority is low weight to you?
• How much space do you need?
• Do you usually backpack in buggy seasons and/or wet and windy conditions?
• Will this be your only tent or an alternative shelter to use in circumstances appropriate for it?
In the final analysis, if your goal is as light a backpack as possible, nothing gets you closer to that goal than your choice of a shelter. Find the lightest one that still serves your essential needs.
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.
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