Choosing between what we call backpacking tents (models with dedicated poles) and ultralight tents, (those that pitch with trekking poles or have extremely lightweight materials) comes down to maximizing your comfort. If a tent spends more time on your back than you do inside of it, you will be more comfortable with an ultralight shelter. If you spend more time inside a tent than you do carrying it, you'll be more comfortable with a larger shelter, such as a two door tent like the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2. Andrew Skurka, one of the world's most accomplished backpackers, describes the difference between camping and backpacking in a thought provoking manner here. In short, if you want one single tent for car camping and backpacking the kinds of tents in our Backpacking Tent Review will fit the bill. If you are serious about shaving weight, going "fast and light," then consider one of the minimalist shelters in our Ultralight Tents Review. Below we describe the pros and cons of both.
Types of Tents
Double-wall tents have three parts: (1) an inner tent with a waterproof floor and non-waterproof roof, (2) a waterproof outer tent (rain fly), and (3) poles. Double-wall tents come in three varieties. Self-supporting tents have poles that hold up the majority of the tent while one or more parts (such as a vestibule) need to be guyed out. Tunnel tents have one or more hoop shaped poles and rely entirely on guylines for support. Tunnel tents generally have a higher space-to-weight ratio than self-supporting tents. Freestanding tents stand up entirely by themselves and don't need to be guyed out in order to stand up. Freestanding tents are best for winter use or for basecamping in rocky areas above-treeline where setup space is very limited. Most double-wall tents are extremely easy to pitch, offer complete protection from the elements, and are very comfortable. Unfortunately, they're the heaviest type of tent; the average of the 14 two-person double-wall tents tested here is 96 ounces, or three pounds per person.
Types of Double Wall Tents
Wild and crazy pole structures are the latest fashion in double-wall tent design. Most major manufacturers partner with DAC, a Korean aluminum firm, for help with tent pole designs and/or to supply tent poles. The myriad of double-wall tent designs can be distilled into four categories based on the location of the tent's door. Two-door tents like the NEMO Galaxi 2 provide each person with their own entrance and own vestibule, which is very comfortable and great for car camping or remote basecamps. Most two-door tents, including the REI Half Dome 2 Plus, have two poles that cross corner-to-corner (for support) while a third half-length pole runs perpendicular to the length of the tent and increases interior volume.
Front-entrance tents generally have simpler pole designs that save weight; The Big Agnes Fly Creek HV has the most common Y-shape pole design, where the entrance is between the top two points of the Y. We find this pole set up to be the weakest in high cross winds. Some double-wall tents have a single side entrance design that uses the same or similar pole structure as two door tents, but eliminates one door, thereby saving weight and cost but decreasing comfort as one person has to crawl over the other to get out. As mentioned above, tunnel tents like the Anjan GT 2 have two or more poles that bend into a half circle and lie parallel.
Of these three types, side entrance tents are the least expensive and least comfortable; front entrance tents are the lightest; two entrance tents are the heaviest, most comfortable, and most expensive; and tunnel tents offer a great amount of comfort and strength for their weight.
Tarp tents are single walled shelters with built-in floor and bug netting. They're faster to set up, up to half as light as double-wall tents, offer complete protection from the elements, but are prone to interior moisture accumulation and are the least adaptable type of tent (all of the parts are attached). Tarp tents pitch with dedicated poles, trekking poles, or a combination of the two. Tarp tents lie half way between "backpacking tents" and "ultralight shelters"; for many people they may be a logical first step towards going light.
Here we call any shelter that does not come with dedicated, flexible poles an ultralight shelter. Below we describe the pros and cons of various types of shelters and their accessories.
The tarp is the lightest, most adaptable, and most condensation-resistant type of shelter. Although there are dozens of types of tarps available, the A-frame arguably offers the greatest performance for lightweight backpacking for most people in most conditions. The catenary curve (the droop of fabric between its supports) is the crucial element that sets the A-frame apart from flat tarps (a flat, waterproof material with guy cords attached) and poncho tarps (you wear it and sleep in it). The catenary curve eliminates gravity-caused sagging and creates a very taut pitch with smooth and stiff walls that shed wind very well. You get a tighter pitch with less tension and less effort.
Like lightweight double-wall tents, A-frame tarps are usually wider at the head than the foot. They have two open ends so it's important to find sheltered campsites during high winds and driving rain. The A-frame's open ends are both an advantage and disadvantage. If unprotected, the shelter is unsuitable for use in very exposed, high wind conditions. Yet the open ends also allow the tarp to be pitched in many different ways: high up off the ground, over a picnic table, to cover a lean-to opening, or you can use them as a ground cloth when the weather is nice. Modular inserts and beaks (vestibules) can bolster the storm resistance of A-frame tarps. Although we didn't evaluate shelters on their ability to convey a wilderness experience, our testers find tarps to be the most satisfying type of shelter to sleep in. A-frames can be pitched with trekking poles, paddles, and dedicated aluminum or carbon fiber sectional poles (sold separately).
Cuben fiber flat tarps can be set up as A-frame shelters as well and are the most adaptable type of ultralight shelter. Tarps are the safest type of shelter in serious exposed three-season storms because they can be pitched very close to the ground and trekking poles are much stronger than dedicated pre-tensioned poles.
Pyramids, or Mids, are arguably the strongest and most weather resistant type of tents. They pitch with one or two poles (trekking poles, paddles, or dedicated sectional poles), are enclosed on all sides, have steep walls that shed wind and snow, and offer excellent weather protection. Mids are the top choice for serious wilderness expeditions in foul conditions, yet - like any four season tent - they can also be used in three-season conditions.
Mids are limited to one pitching configuration, are heavier and more prone to condensation than most tarps, but they offer the greatest weather protection and added privacy over an A-frame tarp. For example, mountaineers often use mids for group cook tents. Most mids are available with model specific modular components, which can make them more versatile.
Backpacking tent floors and flies are made from, in increasing order of performance: coated polyester, coated nylon, and cuben fiber. Nylon is generally stronger and more abrasion resistant than polyester. Both materials require a coating to become waterproof. A fabric's denier (D) is a rough indicator of its weight per square area. The lightest tent fabrics are 10D, most tent floors are made of 40-70D, and expedition duffel bags are made of 1,000D. We list the floor and fly fabric and coating in the specifications table for each tent.
Polyurethane (PU) coated fabrics
PU is the coating of choice for all budget tents because it is the cheapest way to achieve a waterproof fabric with reasonable durability in cold and wet conditions. Unfortunately, the PU coatings found on less expensive tents are susceptible to hydrolysis (chemical breakup), which eventually destroys the waterproof coating. The wetter and warmer the conditions (the tropics are worst) the sooner hydrolysis takes place - the fabric becomes sticky and the PU may flake off when dried. The best mountaineering tents and some tarp inserts have PU formulations with polyether, which makes them highly resistant to hydrolysis.
Silicone elastomer coated nylons are used on all high-quality backpacking and mountaineering tents. SilNylon is highly water repellent, elastic, and UV and temperature stable. SilNylon is considerably stronger, lighter, and more durable than PU coated fabrics. It's also much more slippery than PU, which makes it an ideal choice for winter applications because snow slides off easier. Silicone is widely regarded as the best coating for nylon fabrics used for pack tents. The Hilleberg Anjan 2 GT uses silicone treated nylon fabrics.
Unfortunately, for the budget conscious consumer, silicone is more expensive than PU and coating a fabric with it takes longer than coating a fabric with PU; it's markedly more expensive. Furthermore, it's difficult to stick things to SilNylon, which means that the seams on silicone coated fabrics can't be factory taped. Thus, most "good quality" tents from major manufacturers use nylon that's coated with silicone on the outside and PU on the inside (the PU is then seam taped). The Big Agnes Copper Spur and Flycreek models, and MSR Hubba Hubba have this coating combination.
Double-sided silicone coated fabrics are lighter, stronger, and more durable than PU/silicone combinations. They're usually sewn in a way that provides good water resistance along the seams, but hand sealing with a liquid sealant, such as McNett SilNet, yields seams with the greatest water resistance, and can also increase the strength of the seam. All but two of the sixteen double wall tents tested here have Sil/PU combination or just PU fabrics. The two exceptions are the models from Hilleberg. Seven of the eight non-cuben fiber tarp shelters tested use double-sided SilNylon. One drawback to double sided SilNylon tents is that they can't be repaired with adhesive tapes, such as duct tape or Tenacious tape. They must be sew-patched or bonded with silicone, which takes longer than adhesive tapes.
Cuben fiber, or non-woven Dyneema (NWD) is the lightest, strongest, and most durable waterproof material currently used in the outdoor industry. Cuben fiber laminates unidirectional tapes of in-line plasma treated Dyneema fibers spread to mono-filament level mylar films with titanium UV protection. In other words, Dyneema threads (50-70% lighter and 400%+ stronger than Kevlar and 1,500% stronger than steel per unit weight) are sandwiched between tough UV-resistant Mylar. Unlike SilNylon, cuben fiber doesn't stretch, which means that you don't need to retighten a tent's guylines as frequently. Cuben fiber can be repaired quickly with adhesive tape, and doesn't absorb water (your tent won't get heavier). It weighs less than half as much as most SilNylons and is translucent, which means you can see the stars through it. Cuben fiber is arguably the best waterproof material for lightweight backpacking shelters. It's most commonly available from cottage industry companies but major manufacturers, such as Sierra Designs and Easton, are starting to use it.
Although many consider cuben fiber to be a miracle fabric, it does have several drawbacks. The most significant is its price: it's roughly four times as expensive as SilNylon!! Since cuben fiber doesn't stretch, it can be harder to pitch a shelter because you can't force it tight in sub-optimal pitching conditions. (SilNylon and PU coated nylon can be stretched into shape.) It's also less heat resistant than nylon (requires more care when cooking inside the tent) and isn't as slippery as SilNylon (less ideal for winter conditions). Because it doesn't stretch, cuben fiber is more prone to puncture than SilNylon, but if it does puncture (highly unlikely while backpacking) it's so strong that it's unlikely to tear. These drawbacks are largely trivial for three-season hiking and climbing, where campsites are abundant and snow infrequent. For many people, choosing between SilNylon and cuben fiber will come down to weight versus cost.
Most of the poles included with the tents we tested are of good quality. Some are lighter and stiffer than others, but no poles are "bad." On average, higher quality tents come with higher quality poles. Most of the models tested here use aluminum from either Easton or DAC. We believe that a tent's pole design and fabrics matter much more than the type of pole used. One important thing about poles, however, is the length of the sections. The longer the sections the harder they are to pack inside small spaces. We list the number, material, and diameter of poles in our specifications. We noticed that poles that use a hubbed design like the REI Half Dome 2 Plus' weak points are at the cheap plastic hubs and poles seem to break right at those points. This makes them incredibly difficult to repair with the included pole splint since the splint's diameter is too large to fit into the plastic hub.
Do You Hike with Trekking Poles?
We highly recommend trekking poles for backpacking. See our 10 Reasons for Trekking Poles article. Among other reasons, they provide extremely strong and reliable support for a tent that adds zero weight to your pack. See our Trekking Pole Review for the best trekking poles. In general, trekking poles are significantly stronger than pre-tensioned poles that come with double-wall tents; they're much safer in serious storms because they don't break. Tents with dedicated poles are best for circumstances when you aren't already carrying something to support your tent, such as when bicycle touring, kayaking, or car-camping.
Stakes and Guylines
Much to our testers' disappointment, very few tents come with an adequate amount of guyline, and most tents ship with low-quality line. Companies do better at sending reasonable quality stakes, but only Hilleberg and Big Agnes include one stake for every guy point on their tents. In order to properly pitch a tent, you'll likely need to get more guyline and/or more stakes. Most tarp shelters don't include stakes and only a few model tested come with quality guyline. Good stakes and cord can save several ounces and increase the longevity of your tent (we've found that most accidental damage occurs when a guy cord comes undone, breaks, or a stake pulls out). We recommend MSR Carbon Core Tent Stakes or Easton Nano Tent Stakes for high load guy points.
Many thru-hikers use rocks, sticks, and convenient vegetation instead of stakes, but –depending on the conditions- our testers usually carry 4-6 stakes, which can make pitching a tent significantly faster. For guy cord, we like Kelty TripTease LightLine used with MSR CamRing Cord Tensioners.
The Follies of Fast-Pitching with a Footprint
Although manufacturers tout their tents' fast-pitch weight (using an optional footprint with poles and a rain fly) we don't believe this type of shelter is viable for backpacking in wind or rain. Compared to floorless tents, fast-pitching has two significant limitations: (1) it's much weaker, and (2) it's much less weather resistant. Most double-wall tents have a specific inner tent that supports the pole structure and has a 4-8" waterproof walls that protects against splashback and horizontally blown rain. Footprints are cut to match the inner tent's floor dimensions, so if fast-pitching a tent in the rain, we've found that water almost always lands on the footprint, creeps inward, and gets us wet. Grommets in the footprint provide the support for the poles, so you can't fast-pitch without a footprint or roll the footprint back from the dripping rain. Furthermore, since most outer tents attach to the poles from the outside with velcro, fast pitching is inherently weak, and made weaker by the fact that many outer tents have no means to connect to the poles— they may only clip the footprint—and, therefore, guying the outer tent out is completely useless. For these reasons we don't believe that fast-pitching a tent is viable for serious backpacking. It's largely just a marketing gimmick.
However, the Hilleberg Anjan and MSR Hubba Hubba NX are dedicated pole-supported tents in our review finalists that can be used without their inner tents in significant rain or wind and can be pitched in a floor-less configuration. We like this floor-less configuration because it is stronger than the typical "fast-pitch" and does not require purchasing a separate footprint.
Comparing Tents and Ultralight Shelters
Double-wall tents provide excellent protection from all of the elements but they aren't as strong or as durable as ultralight shelters. Many tents try to be both spacious and lightweight, which results in a huge reduction in static strength. Many three-season tents are not built to withstand serious storms or be pitched above treeline or in exposed areas; those that generally weigh at least 60 ounces.
How much comfort we need and want varies highly based on our experience camping, how much time we plan to spend in our shelter and what we believe to be an acceptable level of protection from the elements. If a "wilderness experience" is an objective, ultralight shelters offer a much greater connection to nature.
When used with the right combination of accessories (bivy, insert, head net, etc.) shelters offer lots of comfort, though these accessories add complication and weight. Nonetheless, on average our testers find double-wall tents to be more comfortable than shelters. They more easily provide comfort and protection.
Durability and Versatility
What we require from a tent varies with location and weather conditions. One night we might need protection from vertically falling rain. Another night it might be windy without rain. And another night the skies may be clear with no wind, all we need is bug protection. Tents that can adapt to varying conditions, or be used in locations that don't permit a perfect pitch, can save time, money, and energy. Most double-wall tents are not adaptable. They must pitch in the same configuration every time. Shelters offer much greater adaptability. Flat tarps are the most adaptable followed by versatile tarps like the MLD Trailstar, A-frame tarps, and mids.
Weight and Packed Size
Ultralight shelters are much lighter and more compact than tents. The difference is tremendous. Shelters are much more portable.
Ease of Set-Up
Typically double wall tents are much easier to set up than an ultralight shelter. Usually, these shelters are not free-standing and require complicated guy line systems and using trekking poles.
Tent Use and Care Tips
Fabric coatings break down faster if tents are stored wet, are subject to lots of abrasion, or are made with ultralight (ultra thin) construction. Dry a tent off before storing it and fold and roll it up with the poles inside every time. Folding and rolling a tent or shelter is more compact and more durable than stuffing it randomly into a sack or a backpack.
Always guy out all lines. Add extra cord if needed and make mid-level guylines at least 6' long. It can be useful to add extra cord to vestibule and ground level guy loops. Add big rocks or logs on top of stakes, or substitute rocks, logs, or vegetation for stakes. If it's storming hard it's often worth waking up at regular intervals to check guyline tension and staking. If you're in a weaker tent in a bad storm, you can sit up and support the walls with your hands to prevent the poles from breaking. In terribly high winds that you don't think your tent can handle, it's best to take it down and wrap yourself in the rainfly.
We believe that everyone should know and follow the Leave No Trace Principles when they are in the backcountry. When choosing a site to camp, plan ahead and look at a map a few hours before you plan to stop for the night. Identify possible sites that will follow LNT principles and are:
- Off-trail: this shows respect for other users by giving people space, it also reduces impact on sites right beside the trail
- Flat: These areas on the map may already have established campsites, especially if they are near water
- Somewhere breezy (if it's buggy)
- Not in the bottom of a valley, where the air will be colder and dew and frost greater
- Not near animal paths or prime habitat
- Away from hazards like flooding, rock fall, and avalanches
- Away from water - don't contaminate everyone's water source!
Consider other ways topography will influence environmental conditions. Will a long valley become a wind tunnel? Where will precipitation flow to and accumulate?
On a micro level, choose a site that is:
- On dry ground, because wet ground is colder and increases condensation in your tent
- On durable surfaces such as granite slabs, duff, or gravel.
- At least 200 feet from water
- Near or under an object, like a rock, tree or bushes, that will act as a windbreak
- Slightly convex or has drainage so in case of a rain storm your tent will not end up in a puddle