Heading out into the wilderness for a night, weekend, or longer? Your comfort, safety, and enjoyment are determined largely by the shelter you bring along with you. This guide will show you everything you need to know about:
Knowing how to choose a tent that is best for you and your adventure goals is key to your ability to stay safe from weather, enjoy nature without being overcome by it (and by that we mean bugs), and wake up feeling fresh enough to enjoy another day on the trail or in the woods. So, with that in mind, let's talk about how to choose a tent for backpacking or camping.
It’s important to familiarize yourself with what kind of tents are on the market today. Then you can choose which is right for you.
The vast majority of tents you’ll see online and in stores are 3-season tents. These tents are designed for every situation except for harsh winters. They can handle lots of rain and even some light snow, but generally won’t be tough enough for powerful snowstorms or temperatures below freezing.
3-Season tents are lighter, more affordable, and have a smaller packed volume than 4-season tents; unless you plan to do a lot of winter camping, a 3-season tent should fit your needs well. If you end up becoming an avid backpacker and camper or are planning to climb a frozen mountain, you can always upgrade your gear arsenal later on.
If you need a tent that is made to withstand torrential downpours, snowstorms, bitter cold, and gale-force winds, then you need a 4-season tent. They’re the tents hikers take to Everest, Denali, and other mountains that most people will only dream of summiting. As such, the majority of us won’t ever need to buy a 4-season tent; they’re more expensive, heavier, and are far more intense than the needs of the average person.
The only reason to get a 4-season tent if you aren’t a mountaineer or winter camper is if you are a notoriously cold sleeper. 4-season tents have thicker walls and floors which help trap heat better than 3-season tents. Even then, the added expense is hardly worth the marginal increase in warmth, because warmth is really your sleeping bag’s responsibility, not your tent’s.
The seasonality of a tent is only one of the things you should consider when shopping for a new text. Here are some smaller tent categories that you need to understand before choosing a tent:
One-Person (1P) Tents
Lightweight and semi-cramped, one-person tents are big enough for one person to shimmy into at night and not much else. If you value having a lightweight, low-volume tent and you’re sleeping alone, this is the tent for you. If, however, you’re a taller person or you plan to share the tent, a 1P will be way too cramped for comfort.
Two-Person (2P) Tents
Probably the most popular tent size, two-person tents are big enough for two people to sleep comfortably (and you can usually cram in a third if necessary), but they aren’t so big that they take up too much space in your backpack.
If you’re just getting into backpacking and camping, it’s a good idea to get a 2P tent. Even if you’re alone, you’ll value the extra room while sleeping far more than you will the half-pound of weight that a 1P tent saves you.
Four- and Six-Person (4P/6P) Tents
Four- and six-person tents are typically better for camping with family or friends at a drive-up campsite. They’re too large for backpacking; packing a 6-person tent in your backpack means you won’t have enough room to pack food and clothing. If you’re planning on pulling up to a campsite, building a nice fire, and grilling dinner under the stars, 4P and 6P tents are for you.
These tents are the roomiest on the inside, not just in terms of floor space but also in terms of headroom. While you can hardly sit up inside most 1P tents, a 6P-tent is tall enough to stand up in—they’re almost like sleeping in a walk-in closet.
Any tent designed with an emphasis on keeping weight and packed volume low can be considered a backpacking tent. Typically, this means it will be a 3-season tent in a 1P or 2P size; however, some 4-season tents can still pack down to a very small size.
The most important part about a tent for backpacking is that you can stuff it into your backpack while still leaving enough room for the rest of your gear. The tent’s weight can help you gauge whether or not it’s good for backpacking. If it’s less than 8 pounds, it’s likely that it will also be small enough to fit in your backpack.
If it’s a bit too big, however, another option—if you are hiking with multiple people—is to split up the pieces of the tent between those in your group. For example, you can carry the tent body and rainfly, while another person carries the poles and footprint. That way, the burden of packing the tent isn’t limited to just one person.
Tents made for camping place the most emphasis on comfort and roominess once they’ve been pitched, rather than on how they fit into a backpack. If you’re camping on a maintained campground you can drive to, stick to a larger tent made specifically for camping. Since you don’t have to worry about fitting everything into a pack you’ll be carrying on your back, you can bring a much bigger, more spacious tent.
For the most part, it’s hard to find a good tent at a price most people can afford. Some higher-end tents cost more than $500, a hefty price for a night in the woods! If you only camp a couple of times with your tent, that’s comparable to paying for a few nights at a 3-star hotel.
While it is true that you usually have to pay more than you’d think reasonable to get your hands on a good tent, that’s not true at Hyke & Byke. In fact, that disconnect between price and quality is the frustration that led our founders to start Hyke & Byke in the first place. Our ultralight hiking tents, down sleeping bags, and light sleeping pads deliver all the quality of the big brands at a price the average person can afford.
That being said, it is definitely possible to pay too little for a tent; not every affordable tent is made equal, and you should do your research before settling on a tent that won’t be worth the savings.
If you’re camping close to where you park your car, the weight of your tent doesn’t matter that much. However, it’s crucial if you plan to go backpacking, so backpackers should pay extra attention to how much their tent weighs.
Because you’re going to be bringing several pounds worth of food, water, clothing, and gear for overnight backpacking, your tent should be as light as reasonably possible. A good weight for a backpacking tent is between 3 and 7 pounds; carrying a heavier tent will just slow you down and exhaust your energy faster.
Again, the volume and packed size is important for backpacking but not so much for regular camping. Every cubic inch of space your tent takes up in your backpack is space that could be used for food and gear. The smaller your tent is when it's packed, the better.
How do you know a tent is too big for your backpack? Compare its measurements to the measurements of your backpack. If a tent's packed size is 18 X 7 inches and you have a small, 40-liter backpack, you're going to have a tough time packing.
There is no hard-and-fast rule that determines whether a tent is a good fit for your backpack, though. The best way to truly figure it out is to do a live test. Take your backpack to an outfitter or outdoors store and see if the tent will work with your backpack. If you plan to shop for a tent online, first test a tent of a similar size at a store. Outdoor stores are familiar with the need to test gear, so they shouldn’t make a fuss when you visit.
It doesn’t really matter how light or how small your tent is when it’s packed in your backpack—if you can’t crawl into it and get a good nights’ sleep, it isn’t right for you. A tent’s capacity to comfortably hold you and your hiking partner or buddies is its livability. This is hard to judge by numbers; rather, it’s up to you to decide.
Many people judge livability by how well they can sit up and move around inside the tent. If it’s too short, all you can do is climb in and fall asleep. This doesn’t make camping very easy, as it forces you to be outside the tent to do everything but sleep. When it’s cold or raining, you will want to be able to at least relax inside the tent before bed. Spending your hard-earned money on a tent you can barely move around in is a bad idea, so make sure you read up on the tent’s height and floor space before purchasing.
The denier of a tent’s fabric is the measurement of thickness of each individual thread. The higher the denier, the tougher the fabric. The ideal tent denier, for nearly every purpose, ranges between 20 and 80. On the lower end, you’ll find ultralight tents; on the higher end, you’ll find more durable, rugged tents.
Tents with a fabric denier between 80 and 150 are heavy-duty and not always worth the added weight. They are, however, perfect for harsh conditions or longer trips when you want to make sure your tent won’t rip or wear down.
It is important for tents to resist water, of course. Water permeability (PU) is a metric that describes how well the fabric can resist water. Even the most waterproof tent will eventually leak if it’s rained on for days on end. The higher the PU rating, the more waterproof the tent is. For comparison, Hyke & Byke tents have a PU2000 rating, with PU5000 tent floors and footprints.
In dryer climates, you can get by with a lower PU rating, and climates with constant rainfall may require even more. If you’re in an extremely wet climate, make sure your tent has a water permeability of at least PU2000.
While tents are the preferred option for many people who love camping and backpacking, however, there are others looking for options that allow them to get even closer to nature. If the four walls of a tent still feel like too much comfort, you can try one of these more minimalist options:
The average tent has several different components: the tent body (walls and floor), the rainfly (waterproof outer covering) the tent poles, and the footprint (a tarp that goes on the ground under the tent). If you’re heading out for a trip with great weather on the forecast, you can cut down on weight by leaving the tent body at home.
With the tent body at home, you can “pitch” your tent with just the poles and rainfly, and you can spread the footprint underneath for protection from the ground. This form of minimalist camping makes the most sense for a lot of people: you have the full tent when you need it, but you can go minimalist when the conditions are favorable.
Tarp tents are a lot like using the rainfly and poles from a three-season tent, except that you don’t have the option of turning it into a full tent. If you’re a minimalist at heart who loves the thought of roughing it, you can either make a tarp tent yourself or buy one online. To make one, all you need is a tarp, 1-2 tent poles, and some guylines (rope used to secure tarps and tents) and you’re good to go.
Tarp tents are arguably the simplest way to have a minimalist camping experience, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most comfortable. Camping under a tarp means you have less protection from cold wind and rain. If you truly want to rough it, though, tarp camping is for you.
Using a hammock instead of a tent is just as minimalist as using a tarp tent but far more comfortable. Get yourself a hammock, rainfly, and a hammock-compatible sleeping bag, and you’ll be sleeping just as securely as anyone with a tent.
Hammock camping is a great idea for backpackers who want to save space and weight in their packs. The average hammock weighs about the same as the lightest backpacking tent—about 2 pounds. They don’t require poles or footprints, and they pack down to incredibly small sizes.
Using a hammock instead of a tent is also ideal for areas that are full of rocky, uneven ground that will make tent camping difficult, but where trees are in abundance. Many backpackers own both hammocks and backpacking tents and switch back and forth depending on what they are feeling and where they are headed.
Sleeping on a blanket under the stars is about as close to “cowboy camping” as you can get. The word "bivy" is short for "bivouac," a French word that refers to a temporary shelter. These shelters are carried by people who want the smallest, lightest possible shelter for their trip and by hikers who bring them in case of emergencies.
If you are the type of person who can fall asleep anywhere and wants the simplest possible shelter, a bivy is right for you. Nearly everybody else, though, would be more comfortable in a full-fledged tent.
The smartest “default” answer to this question is that you should get a three-season backpacking tent unless your circumstances demand otherwise. They’re the most versatile type of tent and useful in nearly any situation. Unless you truly hate the thought of tent camping or are heading out in the dead of winter, a three-season backpacking tent is likely the way to go.
But if you are still unsure what kind of tent to buy. Let’s break it down.
First, determine what tent size you should get based on the number of people you’ll be adventuring with.
Then, figure out what type of tent or shelter makes sense for you and your group (if you have one):
What size and type of tent do you think you’ll choose? A cozy, lightweight 3-season tent, a rough and rugged 4-season tent, or are you trying to ditch the tent altogether for some hammock camping? Do you have any questions about choosing tents? Let us hear your thoughts below. Most importantly, have fun and stay safe on your next camping or backpacking trip!
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