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.

Use | Shapes and Sizes | Weight | Secrets

Half a century ago, campers needed a car-top roof rack to lug their home-away-from-home to the backwoods. And more times than not, they’d leave the tent at home in favor of saving pounds of shoulder weight. These days almost no one sleeps without a tent, because backpacking shelters are lighter, stronger, drier, and roomier than their predecessors. Your only concern is which model to choose. 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.

Your first consideration when choosing a tent should be whether it will suit your seasonal backpacking needs. Here are your options.

This has always been the most popular tent category for backpackers because these shelters are designed for the seasons most of us like to camp: spring through fall. These tents can handle a little surprise snowfall in early spring and late fall, and most have plenty of ventilation options to let in cooling summer breezes. They typically are held up by two or three poles, and some are even sturdy enough to handle mild winter conditions.

In the old days, the only way to see the stars was to sleep with the bugs. Most modern summer-only tents feature wide swaths of netting that let you be almost one with Mother Nature’s elements rather than with her critters. If the sky clouds over, just pull on the fly and you’ll stay dry during a downpour. Beware, though, because strong windblown rain can get up under the typically scant rainfly. Likewise, the tent won’t do much to keep you warm if an
early fall frost settles in during the night. Desert travelers can use these tents for midday sun shelters because the light-colored fabrics are good at reflecting heat.

Think of these as ragtop Jeeps; they’ll take you just about anywhere and adapt to almost any climate. Like summer/screen tents, convertibles have large vent panels for stargazing and breeze-catching. But when the weather turns foul, fabric panels seal up the screen to trap heat and seal out blowing rain or snow. The rainfly provides full coverage and often features more guy-out points than you’d find on a rainfly designed for mild three-season conditions. Of course, all the extra lines and stakes mean this type of tent can take longer to set up, but in bad weather it’ll be extremely stable.

Mountaineering/Hhigh altitude
These tents, also known as four-season tents, will stand up to whatever comes your way. The price you pay for such all-weather toughness isn’t measured simply in dollars, but also in increased weight and sometimes reduced ventilation. The design often employs four and sometimes more poles that crisscross for strength, and maybe even an extra pole to prop up a large vestibule. The fabric is beefy, and ventilation panels may be skimpy. Some mountaineering tents are made with a single waterproof/breathable wall, rather than typical double-wall construction. The single-wall design reduces weight but elevates price because of the special fabric used.

Use | Shapes and Sizes | Weight | Secrets

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.

Use | Shapes and Sizes | Weight | Secrets

A decades-old maxim for figuring tent weight–3 pounds per person–still holds as a rough estimate, but these days improved technology generally gives you more interior space per pound. Tents haven’t gotten that much lighter on average because standards for comfort have gone up right along with improvements in technology. Where once you’d be willing to bump shoulders against a sagging A-frame wall, now most of us want steep, dome-like walls that provide more freedom of movement inside.

Your personal tolerance for cramping will determine how you view the capacity figures listed by manufacturers. One tent’s two-person rating might leave you and your mate butting heads, while another “two-person” tent lets three people sit up and play card games.

Since weight increases with volume, you’ll need to think carefully of your specific needs. Snow campers, for example, like to bring their gear inside and sleep in warm, puffy sleeping bags; they need to dress inside the tent and cook in the vestibule when extreme conditions mandate it (remember, cooking inside a tent is never recommended). Likewise, if you’ll be holing up in a multiday rainstorm, you’ll want some wiggle room. But if a light pack matters more to you than a spacious bedroom (say, you’re a Sierra summer hiker who hasn’t seen rain in years), go for tighter quarters. Use the manufacturers’ capacity ratings as a rough guideline, then focus on actual square footage and shapes of tent floors. In general, an average-size adult needs 20 square feet for sleeping comfort and necessary gear. To get a better idea of what shape and square footage mean in real life, go to your local outfitter and stretch out in several different models. Make sure you take a sleeping bag with you, and note how you like each tent’s floor plan.

Use | Shapes and Sizes | Weight | Secrets

Invest some time along with your money, and your tent will age well.

Set up your tent immediately after the purchase and make sure you have all the components, including all the necessary guylines, a pole repair splint in case a pole breaks in the field, and the right number of stakes (plus one to be safe). If the stakes are flimsy wires that bend when inserted in your lawn, replace them with better-quality lightweight models.

Check the manufacturer’s instructions for seam-sealing. Unless the tent maker specifically recommends against it, seal every weather-exposed seam that doesn’t have seam tape on it. In the case of single-wall tents, seal even the taped seams. If you’re using a liquid sealer, apply two thin coats. If you’re using the viscous kind in a tube (Seam Grip), use a single coat. Allow the tent to dry overnight, or better yet, for 24 hours. If there’s any chance of moisture or freezing, let it dry inside your home. Then test your sealing under a sprinkler for several hours. If the manufacturer said no sealing was required, test the tent under the sprinkler anyway. Let it dry thoroughly before reapplying sealer to leaky spots. Allow the tent to dry completely before cramming it in the stuff sack.

Dry your tent between trips to prevent mildew, which can discolor the fabric, make the tent stink, and ultimately delaminate the water-repellent coating and destroy the fabric. As soon as you get home, hang the tent or set it up until it’s 100 percent dry. Repair holes, broken zippers, and wear spots while you’re at it. Gently scrub bad stains with mild soap and water, and leave the rest alone. Never put your tent in the washing machine, because the turbulence delaminates waterproof coatings with frightening efficiency.

Avoid shoving a wet tent into a stuff sack on the trail. Weather permitting, drape the tent and rainfly over branches or a stout bush before moving to your next camp. If you must stuff it wet, set up the tent immediately upon arriving at the next site. Experts are divided on whether to roll or simply stuff a tent in its sack. Stuffers say rolling causes creases that weaken the waterproof coating. Rollers dispute this and prefer the neatness of the fold-and-roll technique.

Use a ground cloth to reduce wear and tear on the tent floor. You can make one from any kind of plastic or weatherproof housewrap scrounged from construction sites. You can also buy a “footprint” from some manufacturers. If you make your own, cut it so it fits just inside the tent floor’s boundary. Overlaps can direct water under the tent.

Don’t set up your tent in the backyard to dry, then forget about it for a week or two. UV rays will damage the fly fabric or perhaps even destroy it.

Refurbish old floor and fly coatings with an application of waterproof treatment.

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