Choosing a Backpacking Tent

Posted: Nov 09, 2012 by Sam Szarka

Backpacking tent with mountains in background

There are two types of tents: dependable tents that can survive torrential downpours and 40 mph wind gusts… and those that can’t.

In this guide, I will walk through some of the considerations you should make when choosing a quality tent for backpacking in the great outdoors.

How to choose your backpacking tent

The fact is, most tents purchased at Walmart or the discount sporting goods store are not sealed well enough to repel heavy rains or strong winds. Most will soak completely through after a summer torrential downpour.

Second, most discount tents will weigh a ton. They are designed for use by the occasional camper, who camps a few yards away from their vehicle in a campground. For the car camper, the weight of the tent is not an issue. But, if you intend to lug the tent up a steep mountain trail, that extra five pounds is gonna hurt!

The following is a list of important points to consider and tips you should follow when choosing your tent:

Size / Number of Persons

The primary consideration for choosing a tent is how many people it can house at one time. Because most backpackers travel in groups, 2 and 3 person tents are the most popular. Keep an eye on the square footage numbers marked on the packaging.

Unfortunately, if you intend to share the tent with someone else, most 2 person backpacking tents are more like 1.5 person tents. To fit extra gear or the traveling companion, choose a slightly larger three person tent. This will come at the expense of WEIGHT… the backpackers’ nemesis.


The weight of the tent is likely the second most important consideration, if not the first. The lower the weight of the tent, the higher the cost. This is due to the manufacturer’s use of lighter, more expensive materials. Most of the weight of the tent will be due to the tent poles, and the rain fly. Look for aluminum poles. Skip the heavier fiberglass type.

Freestanding or Non-freestanding

A confusing term, freestanding refers to the way a tent supports itself. If the tent can remain upright without the need for ropes tied to stakes (or guy lines), the tent is called freestanding. Althought they may save on weight, non-freestanding tents require the corners and roof of the tent to be stretched out tightly using guy lines. Most backpacking tents on the market today are freestanding.

Ease of Assembly

Consider how easy it is to assemble the tent. At your local outfitter, ask permission to assemble the tent. Pay particular attention to how long and how difficult it is to erect the tent. Are the tent poles easy to clip into the tent fly? Does it take two people to erect, or can you handle it alone? Imagine trying to erect the tent in the dark, or in a storm. You might be surprised at how difficult tent assembly can be in non-ideal conditions.

Many tents will contain special design features that reflect light to aid you in the dark. The tent should have easy to use clips and pull tabs to help you. Pay attention to these features when comparing tents. It pays to buy a tent that is easy to setup.

Entrance Location and Ceiling Height

Some tents will have a single door, others will have two zipper doors. How easy is it for you to enter or exit the tent? Can you sit up in the tent or will your head scrape the roof?

Three Season / Four Season

The term “3 season tent” refers to the seasons Spring, Summer, Fall. A three season tent is not designed to hold up under the weight of heavy snow. A four season tent will be designed stronger to withstand winter wind and snow. If you intend to camp in the winter, buy a four season winter tent.

Last Word

If you learned nothing else, I hope you learned not to shop for a tent on price alone. The features that make the tent easier to assemble, the quality of the construction, and the size and weight of the tent are all important trade offs to consider. More often than not, choosing the least expensive tent will leave you wishing you hadn’t. Your life could even depend on it.

For more information, and tips about backpacking, especially in the Rockies, take a look at our backpacking guide.