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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.

66 Comments on Backpacking tent buying guide

  1. I own 5 different tents and still love the Eureka Timberline 4 Outfitter best. Great in a storm situation. I pack it with 2 vestibles for maximum room.

  2. I have a Eureka Zues 2, and I really like it. It is nice sized for one person, but could fit two. It is also a single wall tent, so if I have to set up in the rain, the inside is still bone dry.

  3. i am looking for a backpacking tent. i looked at the eureka spitfire 1 how good is it. is it good in the rain. please reply.

  4. ka bar fan // May 31, 2012 at 4:12 pm // Reply

    Get a kelty santina 4. Its lighter to cary 1 4 man tent than 4 1 man tents. You can also split the tent up to combine weight.

  5. mathteamer101 // December 7, 2011 at 7:54 pm // Reply

    If you really wanted to cut down on your pack weight, then go under a tarp. super light and super cheap.

    • Stumpknocker // January 23, 2012 at 4:46 pm // Reply

      Try a good hammock on your next camp out. Something like a Clark jungle hammock or an ENO Double nest. Light weight and much more comfy than sleeping on the ground.

  6. I need a tent any recommendations?

  7. Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // September 23, 2011 at 8:20 pm // Reply

    I use a light wight Kelty grand mesa 2 two person tent works great for me!

  8. I have the north face mess 22 tent…it’s Awsome

  9. I am considering the Eureka Spitfire 2 tent. any advice?

  10. you got to go with the Big Anges ” jackrabit2″

  11. Tenderfoot scouts // March 19, 2011 at 3:50 pm // Reply

    Has anyone tried the Sierra Designs Light Year one person tent?

  12. before you make a purchase, you should look around for a lower price. the same tent could be slightly used, but a less money.

  13. The Eureka! Apollo 2 is pretty good

  14. the Seirra designs electron rc2 is a good choice but spendy. Also the zippers get caught on the tent so when it is 1:30 in the morning and your pack is in the vestibule and you are reallllllly thirsty this can be upsetting. But the rainfly is AWESOME!!!!!!. This is a two person tent but we had to have three people in it and there was a torrential downpoor outside the rainfy held up great (we were the only patrol that did not get totaly soaked).

    LOVE THIS TENT!!!!!!!!!

  15. I bought a wenzel at a garage sale is this a good brand

  16. LifeScout1995 // September 14, 2010 at 7:38 pm // Reply

    Please Answer, Does anyone know about the No Limits Blanca Peak tent, I was looking at this tent and wondered if it was a good tent for the price.I need a durable and sturdy tent so please tell about this tent.

    • I purchased the Blanca Peak as a closeout sale item and used it this past weekend. Cold and raining whole weekend. The tent did a great job. Rainfly kept me dry and with a good sleeping bag, I did not mind the cold. Real easy set up and take down. This is a 2 person tent, but I used as 1 person and stowed me gear. I think you will like the Blanca Peak tent.

  17. lightweight gu-ru // July 13, 2010 at 5:55 pm // Reply

    Check out the MSR Hubba. May be expensive, but for the MSR quality, lightweightness, and durability. GREAT pick.

  18. Life Scout 1995 // May 10, 2010 at 11:37 am // Reply

    I was thinking of buying the no limits blanca peak tent for camping trips with my troop has anyone tried this tent and if so please reply.

    • I have the No-Limits Kings Peak. The Brand is a good brand. Very sturdy tent. Nice and light. Very well warter proofed. You will need to leave the windows open unless it is raining or really cold as they coat the inside of the fly and bottom of the tent with rubber and it won’t breath. Repels rain very well. Nice big vestibule for storing you gear under.
      Hope this helps you mak your decision.
      Camp On.
      ASM T

    • I love this tent & at 3lbs $60.. who wouldn’t! The 2-person version is lighter than the one person & can actually fit 2 people. Easy to assemble. The only downfall is that it has to be staked down.

    • I got a ‘No Limit Kings Peak’ Tent Christmas 2009. Excellect tent for price-weight-pack size. Great Tent.

  19. the most awesome guy // April 26, 2010 at 7:05 pm // Reply

    do you think i should buy tents at walmart or somewere else

    • No, I would suggest buying tents from outdoor recreation stores (REI, Cabelas, Gander Mountain, etc.). You will get 20 lbs. low quality tents for $20, but you would much rather have a tent that is durable and lightweight.

    • Patrolleader1 // September 20, 2010 at 1:31 pm // Reply

      Somewhere else walmart is unreliable and it could be a cheap tent

  20. you need a rain fly too

  21. The 1 man eureka solitaire 1s 70 dollars from campmor and its awesome

  22. I noticed nobody mentioned the Eureka Timberline. Our Troop uses them and they are pretty durable. Eureka has the Forte out now, it looks like a good tent. Our Troop has ordered a couple for testing.

  23. If you do a lot of summer backpacking, then you might think that a hammock or a bivvy sack are the way to go. Trust me, go with a tent instead! With a tent, you get more room, a floor, and you can store your gear with you, rather than leaving it sitting outside.

    • I have to disagree with you on the hammocks. I backpack out of a hammock. I sleep great and it’s light weight. Most of my gear stows in the pockets and the rest stays nice and dry under my tarp.

      • totally agree with you. Hammocks are the way to go. by the time the in the tent has stuffed his sleeping bag in the morning, my hammocks down a im ready to hit the trail (after breakfast of course).
        For anyone thinking of getting a hammock, DO IT!

  24. Life Scout 1995 says // January 17, 2010 at 10:27 am // Reply

    Here is some very important tent advise, after every camping trip you take make sure to set your tent up and let it dry completely also clean the dirt,rock particles,sand,etc…out of your tent because it will wear away your tent floor after extended use.

  25. Life Scout 1995 says // January 17, 2010 at 10:19 am // Reply

    I was planning on buying the no limits kings peak tent for my brother and I.I was wondering how does the tent stand heavy rain and cold weather.

    • no-limits king peak // July 9, 2010 at 6:26 pm // Reply

      I have this tent and I am very happy with it. It is very good in rain. I spent many rainy nights in it and never felt a drop inside because the fly is good. It covers the entire tent and reaches down all the way to the ground. It is also a good balance of lightweight and durability. For the money, this is a much better tent than I expected to get.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

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

  30. 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

  31. 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.

  32. 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

  33. 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.

  34. 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!!!

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

  36. 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.

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

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

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

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

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

  42. 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.

  43. i love camping

  44. 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.

  45. 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!

  46. 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.

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

    thanks boys life!

  48. 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.

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

  50. this is awesome!

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