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Gear: Tents 101

There's a bewildering array of tent options available, including hundreds of three-season tents and specialized models built for hot deserts, Arctic summits, and steamy rain forests.

by: The Backpacker Editors

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Tents come in many shapes and sizes. What's the right design for you?

This is the classic design featured in top-notch nylon tents of the '60s and in canvas designs once favored by infantrymen and Boy Scouts. Aluminum poles frame the triangular tent ends, and staking, with perhaps an optional pole along the ridgeline, creates the tent's A shape. Because the steeply sloping, unsupported walls cut into headroom and tend to sag and flap in soggy, windy conditions, other shapes such as the modified A-frame have largely replaced this design.

Modified A-frame
Curved poles and an additional ridgeline pole or middle hoop pole improve interior volume and stability over the traditional A-frame design. The curved poles help pull sidewalls away from the narrow center peak, significantly increasing head and shoulder room.

Car campers have enjoyed basic freestanding dome tents since at least the 1950s, but those cotton-canvas affairs were too heavy for backpackers. It wasn't until the mid-'70s that lightweight nylon domes took the backcountry by storm. The upside-down bowl shape with four poles to keep the walls rigid quickly became the favorite tent among four-season campers. Domes provide spacious interiors and shed snow and wind with aplomb. Weight-wise, round floors aren't the most efficient for summer campers, but winter campers take full advantage of the odd space to store gear inside the tent. Domes come in shapes as varied as the boulders they mimic, with floors that are rectangular, round, hexagonal, and an assortment of other geometric forms. The number of poles varies from two to as many as eight (the latter usually for mountaineering or four-plus-person tents), and the weight follows suit.

Typically, three-season domes utilize three poles, and the four-season variety take four poles. Creatively shaped vestibules add even more versatility.

Strong, flexible poles permitted the development of the hoop tent, which basically rounds out the A-frame design to provide far more interior living space with a minimal increase in fabric. The hoop, otherwise known as a tunnel-tent, suffers from the same unsupported-fabric syndrome common to A-frames. Winter-worthy hoops use a third pole in the middle to reduce the span of flapping fabric and increase the tent's ability to shed heavy snow. Hoops, which come in a variety of modified designs, provide the lightest shelter short of a simple A-frame.

Tepee tents make up for their lack of weather-worthiness with simplicity and light weight. The typical tepee consists of a single center pole, a single-layer, cone-shaped, waterproof wall, and sometimes a detachable floor.

This broad term means that the tent, theoretically, does not need to be staked out, which is especially nice on loose sand, bare rock, and unconsolidated snow. In the field, though, these tents usually require guylines attached to stakes, trees, or boulders.

Most vestibules on supposedly freestanding tents also need stakes. But even if these shelters don't completely live up to their moniker, there are still many benefits to "freestanding" tents, including simplified setup, easy relocation when you discover a lump under the floor (or a better view nearby), and simplified drying and cleaning made possible by flipping these tents upside down.

Old cotton-canvas tents were almost always single-wall affairs, in which the canopy allowed water vapor from your breath or cooking to escape, while simultaneously keeping rain at bay.

Today's single-wall tents utilize the same principles but with fancy modern fabrics that usually cost more. The super-high-tech fabrics are typically three-layer laminates that provide waterproofing and breathability similar to that found in all-weather jackets, or super light siliconized nylons(waterproof but not breathable). The advantages include speedy setup and four-season strength at the lighter weight of a three-season tent. The disadvantages, aside from a high price, include a tendency toward condensation buildup inside, and fabric and seams that require close attention and careful sealing.

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Jan 23, 2012


LaMadre, Oregon Coast
Dec 03, 2011

Very well done! Thanks!

Jan 23, 2011

Typo in your heading: Mountaineering/Hhigh altitude

Sep 30, 2010


May 07, 2010


May 07, 2010

very cool


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