Ultralight Backpacking Tent
MSR FreeLite 2
$450, 2 lbs./907g
MSR’s newest version of the Freelite 2 immediately baffled me. I wondered: How can this double-wall, two-door, three-season, semi-freestanding tent weigh anywhere from three to nine ounces less than very similar tents in this category that have basically the same design… and still have more interior space? Searching for some explanation other than some implausible, sudden, radical shift in the laws of physics, I took the Freelite 2 for a spin in Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon—and found many ways in which MSR’s latest versions of its Freelite series distinguish themselves from a pack of doppelgangers.
To give a bit of back story, you might have noticed something about today’s three-season backpacking tents: A lot of them look very much alike. That’s no coincidence. Companies have found designs that resonate with backpackers—which says something about how far tents have evolved. But it also means you have to look more closely at the little details when choosing a tent because that’s where the competition happens.
A friend and I spent two nights inside the Freelite 2 while backpacking Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon in the first week of April. While we saw no precipitation, strong winds buffeted our camp at times and overnight lows ranged from just over freezing to the low 40s Fahrenheit.
Perhaps the most significant changes to the updated Freelite tent series are that they’re lighter—by a whopping half-pound, or the equivalent of four days of trail food, a big deal in the world of backpacking tents—and have three more inches of peak height.
At a mere two pounds/1.1 kilogram, with 29 square feet/2.7 square meters of floor area and a peak height of 39 inches/one meter, MSR appears to be taking on a specific sub-category of ultralight, two-door, double-wall, three-season backpacking tents. Compare some of the bestselling tents that meet that description and not only does the Freelite 2 weigh anywhere from three to nine ounces less than very similar tents while offering more interior space—but some similar freestanding tents that have a little more space are upwards of 10 ounces or more heavier.
Those metrics may appeal to people who want a light tent but have a limit to how much they want to bump into each other or how much time they want to dedicate to practicing pitching it the first time. (From my viewpoint, that’s a lot of backpackers.) That’s even more appealing on mostly fair-weather trips like Aravaipa, where we’re in the tent only to sleep and maybe read a bit before sleeping.
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My tentmate, who’s about five feet 10 inches, and I—both of us well acquainted with larger and smaller tents—found the Freelite 2 predictably snug for two somewhat average-size people but perfectly livable. In short: more comfortable than I’d expect from a two-pound tent with all these features.
It goes up quickly and easily. The Y-shaped, hubbed, DAC NFL 8.7mm aluminum poles feature one center ridgeline that forks to two corners—an increasingly common pole shape in this tent class, which trims weight but also requires staking, spawning the term “semi-freestanding.” A second, short, eyebrow pole crosses the main ridge pole to elevate the ceiling above the doors, creating more headroom—another common design element in lightweight tents. Clips and grommets attach the interior tent body to the poles and the Freelite requires just six stakes.
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This structurally sturdy shelter withstood gusts of 20 to 30 mph without any suggestion that such winds even tested the tent, and the rainfly drip line keeps rain outside the interior when vestibule doors are open.
The almost entirely micro-mesh interior walls, aided by the natural cross-ventilation of opposing doors, facilitate excellent air flow that prevented any trace of condensation inside even on a calm night just above freezing.
The two doors are reasonably large for a tent in this weight class, for easy entry and egress. And the smart, no-curve door zippers, with two zippers closing to the same point at one corner, enables one-hand operation because they never get stuck around a corner and eliminates fumbling around for the zipper pull in the dark.
Eschewing the tapered floor of many lightweight tents, the Freelite floor’s rectangular shape, measuring 84×50 inches/213×127 centimeters, creates a bit more storage space at the foot end while also slightly increasing the tent’s footprint negligibly—most backpackers will appreciate the extra living space but won’t find the bigger footprint problematic. (This isn’t a mountaineering tent.) The Freelite features abundant interior pockets, including a ceiling mesh pocket convenient for using a headlamp as an overhead light.
The combined 15 square feet/1.4 square meters in two vestibules, slightly less than found in comparable tents, provides space for boots and a mid-sized backpack; and each door can be kept half-open or rolled completely back for maximum cooling, air flow, and stargazing.
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The tradeoffs for such a low weight and high space-to-weight ratio are typical of tents in this weight class. The ultralight, 15-denier ripstop nylon fabric in the rainfly and tent floor, both treated to repel water, reduces weight but is not as durable as heavier fabric; and the 10-denier micro-mesh is obviously more vulnerable but no different than most three-season tent interior walls. The packed size of 18.×4.5 inches/45.7×11.4 centimeters is typical of tents around this weight.
The Freelite tents’ Fast and Light Body, sold separately ($130 for the Freelite 2)—used instead of the interior tent when bugs are not an issue—have a bathtub floor and low walls at each end, to provide more protection from the elements and help prevent your stuff from rolling or slipping outside overnight. The Freelite 2 Fast and Light setup trims the shelter’s weight by six ounces.
Other models in this series are the Freelite 1 ($420, 1 lb. 10 oz./0.74kg) and the Freelite 3 ($540, 2 lbs. 6 oz./1.1kg).
MSR Freelite 2
If you’re a fan of the high space-to-weight ratio, ease of use, and good ventilation of double-wall, two-door, three-season, semi-freestanding backpacking tents, imagine one that’s even lighter and more spacious. That’s the MSR Freelite 2.
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You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase an MSR Freelite 2 at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or msrgear.com, or any Freelite tent model at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or msrgear.com.
See “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents” and all reviews of backpacking tents, ultralight backpacking tents, backpacking gear, and ultralight backpacking gear at The Big Outside. See also “5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent” and “How to Choose the Best Ultralight Tent for You.” (Both of those stories require a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full, which costs as little as $7, or under $5 per month for an entire year.)
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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.