Selecting a Backpacking Tent

Backpacking tents come is a multitude of shapes, sizes, materials, frame designs and price points. So, how do you choose? Start by asking yourself some basic questions. The answers will help narrow your options.

The Basics

You want to stay dry in the rain, free from insects and have a relatively easy time setting up the tent.

The keeping dry part is critical. If a tent leaks it can be a deal breaker, so look for reputable brands made of excellent materials, with features like factory sealed seams, 1500 mm waterproof coatings, a rain fly and doorways covered and/or perpendicular to the ground so that water doesn’t pour in as you go in and out of your tent. If you skimp here chances are you will be unhappy with your tent. ​

As for ease of set-up, that is a relative term. Don’t make the rookie mistake of waiting to set-up your tent for the first time on the first night of your trip. Practice at home before you leave on your adventure. This serves 2 purposes; first, you can inspect your new purchase and make sure there are no defects or missing parts, and second, you learn how all the parts – poles, tent body and fly go together so it’s not a surprise later.

How big of a tent do I need?

Backpacking tents are generally designed to provide sufficient area to sleep 1-4 persons. They have enough height to allow occupants to sit up but not stand up and may or may not have enough floor space to permit a lot of gear storage. Additional features such as storage vestibules and multiple doors are available in many models. ​

Backpacking Tents are divided into categories based on how many people they can sleep. But, let’s be honest here, the space allocated on a per-person basis when deciding how many persons can sleep in the tent is usually only around 27 to 30 inches of width and 6.5 to 7 feet of length per person.

​ A tent with 30 to 35 square feet of floor space is called a two person tent. That is not much room per person. So we are fond of saying that you either have to be very good friends with the person you are camping with, or you will be by morning! Because of this, many of our customers choose 3-to 4-person models for two person camping.

​One fallacy with describing tent sizes by sleeping capacity alone is that comfort inside a small tent is often as dependent on the vertical space (or the cubic area) as it is on floor space. So as you compare one tent with another please pay careful attention to how tall a tent is and the angle that the walls take as they leave the ground.​

Tent weight — how heavy is heavy? What constitutes lightweight or an ultra-light?

Most 2-person backpacking tents vary in weight from about 3 to 8 pounds. That is a big range and not everyone needs the ultra-light option. A rule of thumb is that the lighter tents use more expensive materials in order to save weight so they tend to be more expensive. If you are carrying the tent on your back it is probably worth the money to save the weight but if you’re car camping and just prefer or need a tent to have a small packed size the choice of materials is totally up to you.​

A lot of the weight in any tent comes from its poles. Backpacking tent frames come in a variety of materials, with the three most common being fiberglass, extruded aluminum and aircraft aluminum.

Fiberglass poles are extremely flexible so that they can be used on dome shaped tents that have extra head room. But they come is many different levels of quality. Better fiberglass poles have thicker walls and high quality ferrules. The thinnest fiberglass poles are extremely flimsy so you need to really check out the poles on any tent you are considering or you must trust in the manufacturer in order to have the confidence that your tent choice will be durable enough to withstand strong winds and/or young children. ​

Extruded aluminum poles are rare although some old standard backpacking tents still use this pole material. These poles are strong, but not very flexible, and by today’s standards they are a bit heavy. ​

Aircraft aluminum has more strength than extruded aluminum and the flexibility of fiberglass. It is also the lightest of the 3 major pole materials. Almost every better tent uses aircraft aluminum for the frame material. If you have ever experienced a really bad storm while tent camping then you understand the value of having the tent frame be made of aircraft aluminum! ​

As you research backpacking tents you will see weight terminology that may need defining. A tent’s minimum-weight is the measurement of the tent’s body and fly and frame only. No stakes, storage bags, ground cloth or other items like guy ropes are included in this figure. A tent’s package-weight includes everything shipped with the tent from the manufacturer. You are best to use that measurement to compare one tent with another.

Tent Fabrics

For tent fabric, the two most common fabrics used in backpacking tents are nylon and polyester. Polyester is often used for the rain-fly because it is considered to be more resistant to deterioration from ultra-violet rays than nylon. Nylon is slightly stronger than polyester and is usually found in floor and canopy areas of tents.

Additional Tent Considerations

It’s also important to think about other special needs you may have. Do you have special weather needs (e.g. a 4-season tent for snow, or for hot & humid conditions) or are there other conveniences you may want in your tent model?

When you select your tent please make sure it can handle the worst weather conditions you can reasonably expect to experience. Pole material, tent fabric, construction and shape all determine the maximum end use of a tent. You do not want to be caught in an October snow storm in a tent designed for hot and humid conditions. ​

For your camping comfort, you may want to pay attention to some of the little features in a tent. Check for multiple sewn-in storage pockets, inside hang loops and reinforcements at stress points. Then ask yourself if you would like one or two external vestibules. Having extra storage space in a tent vestibule for your pack, dirty boots and other gear (which keeps them out of the sleeping area but protected from the weather and secure from passersby) can be an important feature in a tent. ​


At RuggedOutdoors we make sure to sell tents from the world’s top manufacturers, such as The North Face, Marmot, Mountain Hardwear, MSR and others. Most come with several year or lifetime guarantees against defects in manufacturing and materials. For the warranty on a specific tents, please check the details of our listings or reach out to our Customer Service team for more information. We are always here to help!​

Post originally published May 2018.