Backpacking Tents - What to Buy and Why?

A good backpacking tent is a well designed lightweight, packable shelter.  It needs to keep the bad weather out, the good times in and not weigh you down on the trail.

There are a lot of backpacking tents out there.  And a lot more questions about them.  Here I’ll help you understand some of the basic options and choices you’ll run into when looking at tents.  At the bottom of this page I recommend three great tents that I think hit the design sweet spot.

Shelter

First and foremost the role of a backpacking tent is shelter.  It needs to meet your survival need of thermoregulation.  It does this by keeping the rain and wind outside and keeping at least some of your warmth inside.

Carryable On Your Back

Your house is shelter but you’re not going to bring that on your backpacking trip because you can’t carry it on your back.  That’s clear.

So your tent also needs to be lightweight.  It needs to be light enough that you can remain comfortable (or at least comfortable enough) while you’re hiking from campsite to campsite.  And it needs to be packable.  It needs to be able to fit inside your backpack along with everything else you are carrying.

Lightweight, Packable Shelter

This is what we are looking for in a backpacking tent - lightweight, packable shelter.  The issue here is that lightweight and packable are usually at odds with good shelter.

The recipe for a modern backpacking tents is 1 part tradeoffs between packability and good shelter and 1 part technical innovation.

Let’s take a look at some of the primary design strategies and why one might choose one over the over.

Fully Enclosed vs. Semi-Open

On the one hand you have tents that wrap fabric all the way around you and include a sealable door - these are fully enclosed tents.  On the other hand you have tarps and tarp-like shelters that primarily provide protection from above and use the earth itself as the floor - these are semi open tents and tarp setups.

The primary benefits of a fully enclosed tent are increased protection from the elements and therefore warmth, increased protection from bugs, and increased experiences of ‘coziness’. The primary benefits of a semi-open setups are less weight to carry, better ventilation, and increased experiences of being closer to nature.

Well, sometimes I like coziness and sometimes I like being closer to nature so I like to have both options available to me.

If you don’t currently have any tents I recommend the fully enclosed option.  It’s the best option to start out with and you will definitely feel way closer to nature in it then you will in your bed at home.

If you already own a fully enclosed tent and you’re looking to replace it or upgrade you might consider going with the semi open or tarp setup.  I only recommend this if you know that you enjoy being eaten alive by mosquitos, err, I mean, feeling more in tune with the natural rhythms of the earth.

Single vs. Double Wall

This is clear, right? Single-wall tents have one layer of fabric between you and the elements and double-wall tents have two.  Great, why would you choose one over the other?

At a certain point in history I think that most all tents were single walled.  Seems pretty straightforward.  Why would you carry more fabric than you need?

Here’s the issue: fabric that is more breathable is less waterproof and fabric that is more waterproof is less breathable.

In the case of a single-walled tent if you make that single layer of fabric more waterproof (the better to keep out the rain) then you end up with condensation on the inside of the tent from breathing and sweating inside the tent (just like how your windshield fogs up).

If you make the fabric more breathable (the better to keep the inside climate controlled) then it becomes much easier for the outside water to come in.  These tents will usually have a “don’t touch the walls from the inside when they’re wet recommendation.”

Ok, great, how does a double wall help this situation?  Well, you can have your cake and eat it too.  You take two walls, both made of fabric that is more breathable and you make sure that your support system keeps them from touching each other and viola, you have a breathable and waterproof system.

The reason this works is because you as the human on the inside of the tent never end up touching the outermost (wet) layer of fabric because you are separated from it by the inner (dry) layer of fabric.

Sweet huh?  How many billions of years did it take to think that one up?  I have no idea.

The normal configuration for double wall tents is to have a fully enclosed (ground, walls, roof all one piece) layer (called the tent, or inner tent) and an outer tarp-like layer (called the fly).  Some double wall tents can be setup as just the inner tent and/or just the outer fly.

I recommend the double-wall for fully-enclosed tents and the single-wall for semi-open tents (if you were paying attention just previously you may have noticed that some tents can give you both of these options).

3-Season vs All Weather / Winter

Just to have this clear up front: 3-season means spring, summer, fall and all weather means winter.

A better way to think about this is 3-season-good-weather vs 3-season-crappy-weather or even as summer vs winter tents.  Spring and fall are both seasons that could be summer-like or could be wintery.  You could get a summer tent that also mostly works for spring and fall or you could get a winter that also mostly works for spring and fall.

3-season (summer) tents have better ventilation and are lighter.  If they are double-walled the outer wall will usually have a multi inch gap between it and the ground and the inner wall may have large portions of mesh.  This increased ventilation radically increases warm weather comfort and significantly reduces condensation.  They are generally also made from lighter and less durable fabric.

All Weather (winter) tents are more weatherproof and generally more durable.  If they are double-walled the outer wall will reach all the way to the ground and the inner wall will generally not include very much mesh.  This increases protection from horizontal rain and snow and decreases heat loss from inside the tent.  They are generally made from heavier and more durable fabric.

Most of the information on this website is geared toward short-trip 3-season (summer) backpacking.  If you have a specific desire for winter or poor-weather backpacking or you will be out for longer than your average weather forecast then you’ll know you should consider a winter tent.

Freestanding vs. Suspended and Staked

Some backpacking tents will stand up all by themselves when setup with just their poles - these are freestanding tents.  These tents can be setup on a hard platform without any nearby trees.  It’s generally easier to find a spot to set up these tents.  Also I love being able to pick up the whole tent as a unit and shake any dirt right out the door.

Other tents and tarp setups require suspension lines to be staked into the ground and/or tied to nearby objects.  These setups are generally lighter and may have less breakable parts.

I prefer freestanding tents.

One-entry vs. Two-entry

Some tents will only have one door either because of their design or to save weight.  Since I generally prefer backpacking with a partner I prefer two-entry tents.  An extra door adds only minimal weight and definitely increases the livability of the tent.

Mesh vs. Solid Fabric

For 3-season double-wall tents you’ll find varying configurations of mesh and solid fabric on the inner tent layer.  Mesh is a fine weave of semi-transparent fabric kind of like a soft screen door.

I love to have lots of mesh.  If it’s good weather (and hopefully its good weather a lot) then I like to not even put on the fly.  If the inner tent is mostly mesh then it’s like sleeping under the stars but without the mosquitos up your nose.  And if it does surprise me and start to rain I can throw the fly on real quick.

Fair Weather vs Rainy Setup

Okay, let’s say it’s raining when you get into camp.  Your wet, your backpack is wet (or at least your rainshell and backpack cover are wet).  Your tent, sleeping bag and other clothes are still dry because they are protected inside of your pack.

Ideally you would get your tent setup and get your dry gear into your tent all while keeping the inside of your tent dry and your dry gear dry.

This can be easier said than done especially if it is raining hard.  Some tents make this easier to do and some tents make this harder.

It’s easier to keep everything dry during setup with single-wall tents and double-wall tents where both layers can be setup up simultaneously.  With these tents the inside of the tent is never exposed to the rain during setup.

With many double wall tents however, you have to setup the inner tent first and then put the fly on.  During the time that you are setting up the inner tent and putting on the fly the inner tent is getting rained on.  This means that the outside of the inner tent will be wet after you put on the fly.  Part of what makes the double-wall tent work is that the inner tent stays dry.  So when you touch the inside of the now wet-on-the-outside inner tent you may bring water into the tent.

Generally this situation with double wall tents is manageable.  You might wait a bit until it’s not raining or raining less hard to setup your tent.  And even if the outside of your inner tent gets wet it should still be fairly dry on the inside.

I’m usually a mostly fair-weather backpacker so I don’t worry about this setup issue.  But if I were to do more backpacking in the rain I would definitely want a tent with a good rainy setup experience.

Recommendations

Cool! That is a lot of information about tents.  But the question still remains… which one should you get?

My recommendations are based on the above preferences and the kind of backpacking that I like to do: 2-10 day trips in the mid-spring through mid-fall sharing a tent with one other person.

I’m going to re-iterate my general recommendation for all your backpacking gear: find something that inspires you to get out on the trail and is comfortable enough to keep you out there.

Introductory / Budget Conscious Recommendation

The REI Half Dome 2 is my go-to recommendation for first-time tent buyers and anyone looking to keep their expenditures moderate.  Don’t let the low cost fool you.  This is a great tent and will definitely meet all your basic 3-season backpacking needs.  

The Half Dome 2 is a fully-enclosed, double-wall, 3-season, freestanding, two-entry tent with a good amount of mesh on the inner tent.  It’s under 5 lbs total (which means under 2.5 lbs per person).  You won’t find a better tent under $200 bucks.

Buy the REI Half Dome 2 at REI.com

Lightweight Recommendation

The MSR Hubba Hubba NX is my lightweight recommendation for those who are willing to spend some extra bucks to drop their pack weight and add some extra flexibility in setup options.  

The Hubba Hubba NX is also a fully-enclosed, double-wall, 3-season, freestanding, two-entry tent with a good amount of mesh on the inner tent.

The Hubba is twice as expensive as the Half Dome but shaves off over a pound of weight getting down to about 3 lbs. 13 oz. (under 2 lbs per person).  The weight savings is great but the reason I recommend the Hubba over other similar tents is it’s multitude of setup options that cater to both fair-weather setup and rainy-weather setup.

Buy the MSR Hubba Hubba NX at Backcountry.com

Durability Recommendation

The Hilleberg Anjan 2 is my durability recommendation for those who are willing to make a long term investment in their backpacking future.  

The Anjan 2 is also a fully-enclosed double-wall, 3-season tent. But it differs from the the other two in that it is not freestanding and is single-entry.  It is still a lightweight tent similar weight to the Hubba Hubba NX but made of fabric that is significantly more durable.  Like the Hubba Hubba NX it has multiple setup options and is especially good in the rain.

This is a professional grade tent with a professional grade price (about $650).  But it's also the most well made fully-enclosed 3-season backpacking tent out there.

Buy the Hilleberg Anjan 2 at Bentgate.com

Questions?

More questions? Head over to the contact page and shoot me a message.