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Backpacking tent buying guide

tent-200x148.jpg“Most people think of a tent as a place for staying out of the rain,” says Eagle Scout John Mead, president outdoor gear retailer Adventure 16. ” The truth is all the natural elements are important to guard against. You want a tent that will keep out wind, snow, sun and flying and crawling critters, too. And a tent is a nice place for privacy.”

With so many things to consider we decided to ask Mead, an award-winning tent designer, to give us the inside scoop on buying a backpacking tent.

DESIGN: Tents come in many shapes like domes, tunnels and wedges. Some are freestanding, meaning they can stand on their own without stakes. Others require guy lines and stakes for set-up.

Dome tents are popular because they are freestanding and roomy, but they tend to be heavier than other designs. Wedges are usually lightweight but less roomy. Tunnels provide good space for their weight and are generally better in bad weather.

“Shape is most important if you’re camping in high wind, heavy rain or snowy conditions,” Mead says.

A good rule: The more poles a tent uses, the sturdier it will be.

Finally, some tent designs are easier to set up than others. Those with pole sleeves, hub-style poles and quick clips will be simplest to pitch.

SPACE AND WEIGHT: The best way to tell if a tent has enough room is to lie down inside. Solo tents usually have 15 to 25 square feet of space. For two- and three-person tents, add an extra 10 to 15 square feet per person. Some tents also have a vestibule that gives you extra space for storing backpacks, boots, even your dog.

“When backpacking, I always recommend taking a tent that can be shared with someone,” he says. “That way you can also share the weight. One Scout carries the tent body while the other carries the pole and rain fly.”

Aim for a tent that weighs no more than three to four pounds per person.

PRICE: “The biggest mistake people make when tent shopping is not matching the tent up with their needs,” Mead says. “Why buy a $500 tent if a $100 model will work just fine for what you’re doing?”

The price difference is usually noticeable in the quality and durability. In general the higher the price tag, the lighter-weight and more durable the tent and its poles will be.

BREATHABILITY: Airflow inside your tent is the key to comfortable sleeping. If you’re camping in hot conditions look for a tent with lots of mesh panels. For rainy conditions, make sure there’s plenty of space between the rain fly and the tent. Without proper airflow, you’ll roast inside.

Even if a tent is freestanding, Mead says it’s essential to stake it out properly. That way you’ll have enough airflow and avoid pesky leaks and condensation on the inside of your tent.

THREE-SEASON VS. FOUR-SEASON: Most tents are designed for three-season use, meaning they’ll work for everything except winter conditions. Four-season tents are sturdier and designed for camping in snow, but Mead says they are often heavier and less breathable.

TRY BEFORE YOU BUY: “Make sure you set the tent up in the store and crawl inside,” he says. “Most stores don’t set up all their tents because of space limitations. But insist on setting it up before you buy it. If they won’t let you, go to another store.”

Pitching it in the store will give you a better idea of how easy it is to set up. You can also make sure that no parts are missing.

27 Comments on Backpacking tent buying guide

  1. I have a Serria Designs Clip 3 which I used for about 10 years. They don’t make this tent anymore, but they still make the Clip 2. The tent is very light weight (less than 5 lbs ) and very water proof. Our crew used three of these tents when we went to philmont. They were alot bettter than the a frame tents philmont provided.

  2. dear penguin boy the coleman sundome should be a good 2 person tent for 50$ does any body know if a swissgear eiger hiker is any good or any of the marmots?

    • Colemans are allowed but disscouraged due to the weight. Marmots are good quality tents however again weight is an issue. SwissGears (eiger hikers) tend too be less durable and tear, which can be life threatening at Philmont if smellables are in the tent or if the tent is used at high elevations.

  3. mountain hardwear makes the best tents ever i think anyting but a mountain hardwear is junk. i personly use a 4 seson muntain hardwear and wheighs 7 lb and thats light compared to the tents my troop uses by a lot. and it is very large inside compared to others . and its 2 person. the lightest mountain hardwear tent 2 person is 2 1/2 lb. mountain hardwear is the best lighest roomyist and most advanced tents in my opinion.

  4. the info was very useful. im doing a trail in new mexico next summer and i need to find supplies.

  5. Penguinboy // April 22, 2009 at 4:11 pm // Reply

    I am going to Philmont next summer and our scout master said that we should bring our own freestanding tent instead of the one that they give you. Do any of you know of any freestanding tent under $200 that would support two people and survive the wear of Philmont?

    • Any tent will survive Philmont. I’ve been there 3 times, and all the tents I used (not Philtents, heavily discourage using) have not recieved a single scratch, that is, if you take care of it. REI halfdome 2, REI quarterdome 2, and ALPS Mountaineering Comet 1.5. It is illegal at Philmont for youth (not adults) to be alone in a tent except if there is an odd number of scouts, in which case crew leaders will choose who gets their own tent

  6. Penguinboy // April 7, 2009 at 10:35 am // Reply

    Yeah, I brought the Kings Peak No Limits tent on a backpacking trip and it was great, its aluminum poles still folded up even though they were frozen. Just a thought, it takes a little time to set up by yourself but it still is great for the price, size, and weight.

  7. My scouts use Tyvek or lowes home wrap for ground cloths, we pooled our money and bought 1 roll for 98.00, we then got a grommet kit and some small diameter bungee cord. we used the method above to trace our footprint, make sure you cut the footprint smaller than your tent base. fold the corners over and stick a grommet there, use the bungee to make a loop from the grommet hole to your tent stake, what you end up with is a ground cover that is taught under your tent, and they can be reused forever, they can be washed, but air dry. They can also be decorated however you want. great project for any age scouts. also make sure to put the emblem side to the ground and the clean side up. These type ground cloths weigh ounces. Happy scouting

  8. A great article! Regarding the Kings Peak No Limits tent; I took it backpacking in the Colorado Rockies. I picked one up on sale, and the second was purchased at full price. Be advised, you MUST drive stakes for it to function. A great tent for a great price.

  9. One more thing about the No Limits Kings Peak tent. Buy a 10×10 tarp and spread it out. Set up tent on tarp, without rain fly on and trace outline of the tent with a permanent marker. Take down tent and cut out the tent shape. Using duct tape seal edges of cut tarp to stop unraveling… Instant footprint, helps keep tent bottom clean and also stops rain from soaking underside of tent with rain fly on. Happy Camping!!!

  10. I AGREE with the No Limits tent. VERY TECHNICAL tent without the high price.

  11. I bought a Kings Peak No Limits tent and it works pretty good. It only weighs 5 pounds and it is made for 2 people! It only cost $60 at Academy Sports. I went on a camping trip where we had a torrent of rain and some people had to get a towel to wipe up the water, while only about 30 very small drops got into my tent and I will tell you, it was raining hard! The only problem is that it is not a free standing tent, so if like 4 of your stakes come out it might fall on you.

  12. good info, but could you give us a list of tents

  13. thanks for the info. my tent is okay…for 3 people. now i know what to look for when i get my solo tent

  14. thanks for that info for our trip to Minasota,and for tips about tents!!!

  15. That is useful. I have been planning on getting a tent.

  16. Good info! This will come in handy during our hiking tripto Mt. Kathadin!!

  17. Old Scout 1960 era // April 19, 2008 at 8:16 pm // Reply

    Some bad news and a remedy:

    Here in the Minneapolis- St. Paul, Minnesota area TWO troops have had their tents stolen from locked Troops’ trailers in the last year. One Troop may have had to cancel this weekends camping trip.


    Back in the 1950-60s many Troops had large Troop numbers, Patrol emblems and home towns painted on the canvas of their tents.This kind of Jamboree Decorated tent would be quit a surprise to anyone who steals a scout tent and would cause many questions from other campers and park rangers.

    Perhaps “Boys’ Life” should reprint the past articles on tent painting. It would be fun to see the Fox Patrol in tents decorated with Fox Tracks, or a “Mutual of Omaha” style Indian in war bonnet for a patrol with an Indian name.

  18. i love camping

  19. thank you for the advice. i am going on a backpacking trip in 3 weeks and on a 50 miler this summer. I will be sure to us your advice when i buy a tent.

  20. i like your advice to try before you buy. i went camping a week ago and had a 10$ tent and it worked nicly, and it was 20 degreese outside!

  21. avidadventurer // January 26, 2008 at 9:04 pm // Reply

    This is a good and helpful article. I would like to say I have a Big Agnes Sarvis which is a very roomy, lightweight, one man tent that I would recommend to anyone. My only pet peeve is that it does not have very good ventilation unless there is wind. Last I saw it was selling for $350. Any tent brand can usually be purchased cheaper online, so my advice would be go to a store, try it out, and find a good deal online, never buy a tent without trying it, like the article says.

  22. I just got a tent for christmas and my parents used these tips and they got me the perfect tent

    thanks boys life!

  23. Good information, but when make an expensive purchase I recommend asking your local outdoor suppliers before making any purchase. I would recommend contacting REI in through Email; there costumer serves is first class and they know what they’re talking about.

  24. Thanks for the good info,need to print this one out for reference when looking to buy a tent.

  25. this is awesome!

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