In Tents Research: Picking a Backpacking Tent

Ever noticed how hermit crabs fit snugly in their shells? If you are carrying your home with you, you don’t want to be lugging around something too big. Same applies for backpacking tents!

There are a lot of factors to be taken into account when tent shopping. It can seem easy to just get a one-size-fits-most tent for any and all options imaginable, but there are tons of factors that impact what tent is best for each scenario–camping or backpacking? What season/climate? What all will be inside of the tent? As I hunt for a good 1-person backpacking tent, I realized how overwhelming it can be, so I put together some tips for those looking to buy a tent.

Do I Even Need a Tent?

That is the first question you should ask yourself, for several reasons Many people find it easier to backpack using hammocks. They are certainly more likely to weigh less, and there are tons of accessories you can get like bug nets to offer more comfort and protection. I’m still tent all the way, as I’d hate to rely on a hammock and show up to find no good trees to attach to, but many people love them. If you do decide you’d prefer a tent, but aren’t sure about purchasing or can’t swing it financially, you can also rent one from places like REI and Ascent Outdoors (admittedly I am unsure of rental policies during COVID).

Weight Vs. Space

Once you decide if you do want a tent, the next questions are where and who/what. Where will the tent be going? If the longest distance the tent is going to be carried is from the trunk to a campground space 12 feet away, you basically have all the freedom in the world in terms of size. I like having a nice, roomy tent for drive-up places after a disastrous night involving someone passed out diagonally in a 2-person backpacking tent I was expected to also fit in to. Tents like this can be found cheap and easily, with varying features. However, if you are going to be hiking seven miles before you set up the tent, a tent that weighs eight pounds will be ridiculous to bring, hence why lightweight but compact backpacking tents are great. Regardless if car camping or backpacking, knowing how much space you need to accommodate is important. Will it be just you, or a friend/significant other? What about dog(s)? Do you want to keep your pack inside the tent or not? If using a car camping tent, generally the counts of people is a good measure, so bringing a three-person tent for three people, and so on. If you only have a big tent, it’s not an issue at all! However, backpacking tents really skimp on space to save weight. A two-person tent is a pinch for me and the six-foot-two boyfriendo. For this reason, many people like to add one-person to their count (so a couple might want to buy a 3-person tent), especially if bringing a dog or wanting to have extras inside the tent, as it is usually a negligible weight difference or cost between a 2p and a 3p. Some companies do make a “plus” version of their tent, so a 2+ will likely be roomier than a typical regular 2 person. With COVID likely not ending any time soon, I thought a 1-person tent might be a prudent purchase if more trips with friends occur. The two I am torn between weigh a pound less than our current 2p tent!


Even in summer months, your tent might not be dry! Take dew and condensation into account.

A look at REI’s website shows tents in a two-season (which two?!), three-season, or four-season variety. Three-season camping items like tents and sleeping bags means it can typically be warm enough to be used spring-summer-fall but not winter, while four-season is warmer and can be used even in snowy conditions (but is typically heavier and more expensive).

All Shapes and Sizes

Two doors means more versatility when setting up in a small space.

Once you’ve made your selections and narrowed down what size and season, the choices can still seem endless and overwhelming, particularly if purchasing a tent for backpacking. I like to take into account things like number of doors (you only need one if backpacking solo, but not having to climb over people to get out to pee in the middle of the night is priceless) and windows or ventilation. If you want that quintessential ‘gram of your feet sticking out of your tent in the morning light, door placement matters too! I also prefer to look separately at floor dimensions or floor area and height (I need to be able to at least sit up fully to change comfortably) rather than total square footage to get a more realistic picture of what it will feel like inside the tent.

The last, but likely most important, thing to consider in terms of backpacking tent is style and weight. Typically, backpacking tents come in three styles: non-freestanding, semi-freestanding, and freestanding. Depending on model, non-freestanding tents are the lightest and most expensive type of backpacking tent. This style is heavily favored by PCT and AT thru-hikers due to weighing mere ounces, but models like the Z-Pack Duplex (only 19 ounces!) can run $600. Non-freestanding tents must be propped up with a hiking pole and can’t really be moved once set up. Slightly heavier than a non-freestanding tent are semi-freestanding tents, which are a great middle ground between non-freestanding and freestanding (as the name implies). These tents have the convenience that they can be set up and then picked up to be moved but are frequently more lightweight than a fully freestanding tent. The drawback is once you have a place picked out, the tent and the rainfly pretty much have to be staked out. Staking a tent out can be a mild inconvenience in some conditions, but some ground (particularly sand or anything rocky) can be hard to get a stake to stick in. Freestanding tents are pretty much like smaller car-camping tents with more lightweight materials. They don’t have to be staked out (but it is nice to do so in windy conditions), but in many models staking out the rainfly gives you a vestibule, which can be a nice spot to store packs or have a dog sleep in if warm enough. Our tent, the REI Quarterdome 2, only needs one or two stakes hammered in for this. Of course, if it is warm and dry out a rainfly is not needed, but they can offer privacy in dry conditions.

Tent pockets are super handy for stowing small items.

I know all of the above is overwhelming to think about, so I’ll again advocate that renting tents from outdoor store (or borrowing from a friend) can be a great way to try before you buy. Once you know the purpose, size, and style, it can be a bit more fun to research from there. Some tents have extras that can make or break your deliberations. Big car camping tents can have separate ‘rooms’ or nice entry ways (I had one once that had little doors for you to stow shoes!). I love having little stash pockets in backpacking tents to put things like stuff sacks, others are set up to easily hang specially made tent lights (sold separately, of course).


The most important accessory for most backpacking tents is a footprint, which is an extra-tough ground cover to offer protection to the tent bottom from rocks. I use a simple tarp when car camping, but footprints are usually custom-cut for the specific tent they accompany to save further weight.


Who’d have thought that buying a tent would be so complicated?! What’s helped you with picking out a tent?



2 Replies to “In Tents Research: Picking a Backpacking Tent”

  1. Great advice! Also, I never knew that people went backpacking with just their hammocks lol. If you get far enough away from everything that privacy isn’t that much of a concern then sleeping in a hammock doesn’t sound too bad.

    1. It would certainly make my pack lighter!

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