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How to choose the best backpacking tent seems easy in 2016 — right up until you struggle to set up your tent in middle of a rainstorm on the side of a mountain. The decisions you make now will affect you later. If you’re like many new backpackers, if you choose the wrong tent, you’ll have to suffer through it a few years before you can invest in a new one. Still, with dozens of tent types available, the important thing is this: Don’t overthink it. Here’s how to get it right the first time.
There are four primary concerns: size, design, weight, and quality.
How to Choose the Best Backpacking Tent Size
I go backpacking with buddies, and usually we sleep two people to each tent. Some guys pack a single-person tent (who snore loudly) but the most versatile option is a 2-or-3-person tent. Unfortunately, you can’t trust the manufacturer’s stated “size” of a tent. Many so-called “2-person” tents are for two very small and very intimate people.
For realistic comfort, a 3-person tent is usually best for two medium-to-large men.
The size you really need to pay attention to, though, is the dimensions of the floor. If it’s 44×75 inches, that’s just 22 inches of width per person (tight) and 6’3″ of length. If you’re over 6′ feet tall, this would mean that your head and/or feet inside your sleeping bag will be pushing against the tent wall. Not good. If you’re tall, pay special attention to the length. (I’ve been burned a couple times, so length is what I look for first.)
How to Choose the Best Backpacking Tent Design
The best three-season backpacking tent design is a basic rectangle with two doors and two vestibules. Two doors mean you and your buddy can both enter and exit easily — or situate your tent in an odd place and still have at least one door of access. Better still is a set of poles that bend from corner to corner on diagonals to form an X. This X structure gives you a freestanding design that’s dirt simple and easy to repair. Plus, they can be assembled by most anyone, even at night.
Some manufacturers go to great lengths trying to improve on this basic design, but in my mind, more parts and connections with specialized clips just give you a tent that’s a pain in the ass to set up — and if it breaks, hard to repair or fix in the field. (I believe the pressure to create something “new” has led to overly complicated pole systems that deliver only marginal structural gains: If you buy one, practice setting it up at home before you’re doing it in the dark in the rain.)
What About Winter Tents or Minimalist Tarps?
Winter tents are usually much heavier with stronger pole systems and single doors — all fine for camping in serious snow and wind — but overkill for spring, summer, and fall.
Other tent types include a minimalist fly (lightweight tarps) that can be strung between two trees with ropes or supported by trekking poles. These can be insanely light, but they aren’t that flexible — they require being tied down, which requires excellent soil for stakes or tying cords to rocks or bags of rocks to pull them into taught positions. These types of tents are best suited to experienced lightweight minimalist backpackers.
Most people will appreciate a freestanding tent with a bathtub floor (waterproof fabric in the shape of a shallow box), as well as breathable mosquito-proof mesh for walls with a full-coverage rain fly to cover it all. Fly-less tents, which are made only from single-wall waterproof fabric, tend to build up condensation on the inside, so proceed with caution.
Backpacking Tent Weight in 2016
Some guys believe weight is the most important factor. It’s not. For most people, tent cost and their budget is the most important factor. With smart thinking, you can minimize your cost, spread your budget around your gear, and get doable tents and invest in other critical backpacking gear for your smartest overall spend.
For example, if your chosen tent is just one pound heavier than a lighter, but more expensive option, that pound matters little when you split the load between two people — just 8 ounces each. Better yet, sometimes you can gain a pound of tent but save $200 or more — for instance, a common choice is a 6-pound tent for $200 or a 5-pound tent for $400. When you come up on this sort of choice, you might be smarter to invest in a down sleeping bag or super light air pad with that $200 difference . . . and save 2 pounds of pack weight by investing in a better sleeping bag and/or ultralight pad.
For most people, a 6-pound tent gives you a reasonable tradeoff in weight vs. cost. A 5-pound tent is preferable, and a 4-pound tent is an outright joy. If you have the money, go light. On a budget, go with a 6-pound tent if you tend to hike with a friend — but avoid anything heavier.
Backpacking Tent Quality
While it’s possible to save $100+ by getting a cheap tent, something will fail far too soon. A zipper will break, letting mosquitos eat you alive while you try to hide in your tent. A pole will snap, forcing a trail-side fix. The floor will leak, giving you a cold, wet miserable night. The fly will leak, giving you a cold, wet miserable night. The weight will start to hurt your back.
I usually recommend that backpackers invest in an intermediate quality tent, spending between $200 and $300. If you’re really serious or have the funds, splurge on a super light high-quality tent. Check out our guide to the 10 Best Backpacking Tents 2017 to learn more.
When you go backpacking, remember that you’ll be visiting places you may never return to, and having a comfortable experience while you’re there is a smart investment in not only your money, but your time.
Here are some can’t-go-wrong backpacking tent recommendations:
Best 2-Person Backpacking Tents 2016
Marmot Ajax 2 Tent — strong, durable, orange, and one of our all-time favorites. It’s a closeout, so get one now at Sierra Trading Post before they’re gone forever.
Kelty Salida 2 Tent — dirt simple with just one door, but for a 4-pound tent, the price is right.
REI Half Dome 2 Plus Tent — this bad boy is just over $200 and it offers extended length and width for fitting two grown men. Durable, bad weather-worthy design.
Sierra Designs Lightning 2 FL — the new tents from Sierra Designs change up the design to give a wide open door at one end — but retains the gear storage of a vestibule. Innovative and just 3 lbs. 4 oz.
Best 3-Person Backpacking Tents 2016
Marmot Ajax 3 Tent — strong, durable, orange, and one of our all-time favorites. It’s a closeout, so get one now at Sierra Trading Post before they’re gone forever.
Marmot Limelight 3P Tent — a slightly heavier, slightly more durable version of the Ajax. Get the Limelight when the Ajax is all gone.
Best Ultralight Backpacking Tents 2016
Big Agnes Copper Spur Tents — this entire line of tents boasts enviable quality with two-door designs at superb packed trail weights. Truly can’t-go-wrong lightweight tents.
Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 Platinum Tent — this under 2-pound tent has only one door and one vestibule, making it great for one person who likes a lot of room, but it’s also large enough to handle two people in a pinch. Sweet versatility, crazy light trail weight option at 1 lb 9 oz.
When it comes to tents, a footprint is a light, waterproof groundsheet that fits underneath your tent. They can help protect the bottom floor of your tent from nicks and cuts, as well as fend off mud and tree sap. They are light but add weight to your pack. Necessary? No. Handy? Yes. You can also use a footprint with a tent fly — leaving the mesh interior at home — but then you risk bugs and water seepage.