Summary: Shelter is important for more reasons than just rain and snow. Consider where you will be most often taking your trips, what the conditions will generally be, and buy the tent that will fit your needs most often. A free-standing tent is wonderful, but since wind is very often a given in the desert southwest, securing the tent is necessary anyway. You can lose many ounces, if not pounds, by getting a tent that requires staking (which you will do anyway). Also keep in mind that you can usually rent a good tent for off-season or colder hikes. You don’t NEED to get a tent for all situations—and you won’t find one.

A good tent provides shelter from rain and snow and can provide respite from wind and insects. They are also good for privacy when camping in group situations. On the other hand, a poor tent provides a false sense of security and can actually put you and your hiking partner(s) in harm’s way if the weather turns dangerous. So if you are going to carry a tent, make sure it is worth its weight! I personally do not go on any trip without at least a bivy (see below). I have had too many trips with unexpected weather making shelter a VERY nice thing to have!
Features to look for in any backpacking tent are:

  • Elastic shock-corded poles. Poles are the long, segmented rods used for the structural support of the tent body. Look for strength and lightweight material, one of the best being made of Easton 7075 tempered aluminum. Most of the leading tent makers use Easton poles.
  • Ease of pitching or setting up. The most impressive-looking tent will become a huge nuisance if it takes a rocket scientist to figure it out. Look for tents that require minimum staking or a freestanding design. Also be sure to set it up at home first. Waiting until you use it the first time in the backcountry could be a big mistake, especially if you get caught in a storm! My favorite tents come equipped with a clip system for holding the poles rather than sleeves. One reason this is so nice is because I can stake the tent out first, and then clip in the poles. This is especially helpful for a solo hiker trying to raise a tent in the wind.
  • A waterproof rainfly that covers most of the tent body. Many of the fair-weather (cheap) tents have a tiny rainfly that looks like an umbrella covering the top of the tent. It will be as useful as an umbrella in a drenching downpour. Most rainstorms are not simply raindrops falling gently from the sky; they’re in cahoots with the wind and hit you from the side with a vengeance!
  • An uncoated tent body to allow condensation to escape. Good ventilation is also improved with screens made of bug-proof netting. Remember, sometimes you’ll want shelter from bugs, not just rain!
  • Lightweight but comfortably roomy. The length of your planned trips will help determine which tent will be best for you. One of the most common mistakes novices make in choosing a tent is to get one that is too large and heavy. You don’t need a tent that you can stand in, but it is nice to have one that you can sit up in. A tent with a low profile will be much more stable in bad weather than one that stands high and vulnerable to strong winds.
  • A vestibule. This is an extension of the rainfly that provides protection similar to a covered porch on a house. It allows you to store some of your gear, such as smelly boots, outside but protected from the elements. It also protects the inside of the tent while entering and exiting during storms.

There are many tent designs to choose from, and again, each has their strengths and weaknesses. Below is a general list of the types of tents available and some of their important features. North Face, Sierra Designs, Kelty, REI, Eureka, and Mountain Hardware are just a few of the brand names you can look for when shopping for good backpacking tents. Leave the cheaper discount store tents for the kids to use in the backyard. At least if the weather turns bad, they can run into the house! Follow the links to see examples of each style of tent, as well as some of their pros and cons.

  • Dome—Probably the most common tent design you will find today. There are many variations to choose from, but beware—all dome tents are not created equal! Dome tents have flexible poles which cross over the top of the tent, making them self-supporting. This means that you do not have to stake the tent to make it stand; however, I recommend that you always stake a tent to prevent the wind from blowing it away. Generally speaking, a dome tent has at least two poles that cross over the top with the ends attaching in each corner of the tent. A four-season tent will have four poles or more, allowing it to withstand heavy snow and wind. For most backpackers, a good three-season tent (spring, summer, and fall) with two to three poles will provide reliable shelter. Unfortunately, the sturdier the tent, the more it weighs, so you must compromise somewhere. The best features of the dome tent are stability, ample headroom, freestanding, and a roomy interior. Stick with lower profile tents which provide more stability in wind.
  • Semi-Geodesic Dome—These tents are lighter variations on the dome tent. By making a tent that has good headroom and slopes down towards the feet, semi-geodesic tents cut out much extra weight while still retaining much of the stability. After all, how much room do your feet need? An excellent choice for two people traveling together.
  • Tunnel—There are many different makers and models of the tunnel tent. These tents tend to be even lighter than the semi-geodesic dome, but they are not freestanding. Most designs offer enough headroom to sit up and then slope down towards the feet. Because the poles do not have to cross over the entire tent, but only side to side, the poles are shorter. This helps cut down on the weight of the tent. Usually a tunnel tent has two poles, one at each end. Do not let the fact that you have to stake the tent deter you from purchasing this style. I recommend that you always stake a tent out so it doesn’t blow away anyway. The lighter weight usually makes this an excellent choice, especially for solo hikers.
  • Ridge or A-Frame—This is the classic style from many years back. You know this style; it’s the pup tent from your childhood. Don’t let “tradition” lock you into getting this type of tent. This style was the only one available some years back because flexible poles had not yet been developed. One of the most annoying features of the ridge style was the pole that was blocking the entrance of the tent. You had to stake it out tautly, and if it was raining, you had to constantly get out in the rain and re-stake it because the nylon would stretch when it got wet, causing the tent to sag in the middle. There have been some major improvements on the design with the addition of a pole added to the ridgeline and A-shaped poles at each end to free the entrance, but the lack of headroom for more than one person still can be a challenge.
  • Bivouac (Bivy) Bags—When you want to go the lightest weight possible but still want reliable shelter, the bivy might be the perfect thing for you. A bivy is simply a sleeping bag cover that closes up against the weather, protecting you inside. They can be quite claustrophobic if you get caught in a storm, but they do provide shelter. A bivy usually weighs less than two pounds and is made with a waterproof-breathable material on the top and a waterproof, more durable coated-nylon on the bottom. I use a bivy when I’m expecting good weather but want shelter “just-in-case.” A perfect example of the pros and cons of this design became very clear when I was on a solo, ten-day hike in the desert during the early spring. The weather looked like it was going to be great, but of course it can change in ten days. And it did! I ended up stuck in the bivy for over sixteen straight hours! I was stuck inside with the rain beating down so hard that the noise kept me awake all night. But it did provide the shelter I had brought it for.
  • Tarps and Tarp Tents —I see many people hike with tarps. They are lightweight, but their usefulness for protection against bad weather is questionable. Usually rain is accompanied by wind, causing the rain to come at you from the side. If you manage to roll yourself up inside and keep the exposed ends away from the direction of the rain, the wind can still flap the ends around until you think you will go crazy. As a ranger, I “rescued” many a hiker by offering the use of cheap tents left behind by other hikers. It’s pretty bad when a cheap tent seems like salvation! With that said, there are some viable options out there that offer an ideal combination of lightweight, low cost, and decent protection.

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