Updated September 1, 2023: Included more details, improved headings, verified recommendations.
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!
This list was created based on our experience hiking, camping and backpacking in the Southwest and Grand Canyon. So we have the frame of reference in mind. If you are hiking in other climates, be sure to make sure you’re prepared for the elements you’re facing. That being said, the Southwest has periods of extreme heat and extreme cold, so most of this are ready for all conditions, except for a rainy, soggy, Florida swamp.
Top features to look for in any backpacking tent
- 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 that 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.
Popular Types of Tents and Designs
There are many tent designs to choose from, and again, each has its 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.
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 that 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.
- 4 person, 60 square foot lightweight tent ideal for group or family camping; includes seam taped, full coverage weatherproof rain fly
- Catenary cut fly and tent body to increase air flow, keeping occupants cooler and drier
- Color coded "easy pitch" poles and clips for quick and easy setup
- Zone pre bend construction creates vertical walls for roomier interior; front double door for easy entry and exit
- One D shaped door, one vestibule
- Two door / Two vestibule layout
- Two person layout
- Three season, free standing tent
- Tent fly ventilation windows
- Bathtub floor construction
- Backpack-friendly compact folding poles, Gearloft loops, Color coded clip and fly attachment.Wall material: 68D Polyester, 40D No-See-Um Mesh,Floor...
- Roll top cube carry bag, Easy set up, Free standing, Fabric/mesh tent walls
- Kelty hug clip, Easy entry D door, Internal storage pockets, Fully seam taped construction
- Seasons: 3, Number of doors: 1, Number of vestibules: 1, Number of poles: 2, Capacity: 2
- Floor area: 30.5 ft² / 2.83 m², Vestibule area: 10 ft² / .93 m².Wall material: 68D Polyester, 40D No-See-Um Mesh,Floor material: 68D Nylon, 1800...
Semi-Geodesic Dome Tents
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.
- Unique pole geometry maximizes space and provides 40 in (102 cm) of headroom
- Tent body mesh and solid fabric panels provide the best combination of ventilation, warmth, and privacy
- Tent can be set up with just the rainfly and included footprint, providing a fast and light setup
- Freestanding system features color coded poles, clips, webbing, and vestibules for fast and easy setup
- Supremely livable design includes large vestibules, built-in gear lofts, and glow-in the dark zipper pulls
- THE ADVENTURER’S DREAM - The Dragonfly strikes the perfect balance of lightweight packability and livable comfort in a backpacking tent; Generous...
- LIGHTWEIGHT & LIVABLE - The 2P model’s dual trapezoidal vestibules provides loads of space for dry gear storage with roll-back points for easy...
- WEATHERTIGHT & RUGGED - Integrated 20D Nylon tub provides an ultralight, waterproof floor; Premium 15D Nylon Ripstop fly is coated in a durable...
- PERKS & DETAILS - Protected strut vents release humidity during storms; Color-coded anodized poles and matched webbing for an intuitive set up; White...
There are many different makes 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.
- Travel light with the Eureka! Solitaire AL three-season solo tent, the perfect choice for weight-conscious backpackers.
- The tent's simple two-pole tunnel design sets up in seconds after a long day of hiking or climbing.
- Outlast any storm with the rugged, durable 7000 Series aluminum frame.
- An integrated full-coverage fly can be rolled back for stargazing in clear weather.
- The fly and floor are made of 68D 185T polyester taffeta with a 1, 500-millimeter coating for weatherproof protection.
Ridge or A-Frame Tents
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.
- The Timberline 3 season, 2 person backpacking tent helps you stay comfortable and dry in spring, summer, and fall.
- With shock-corded eaves to increase stability and absorb wind stress, the Timberline is perfect for camping near the tree line.
- Hooded front and rear flies and a rear window help maximize air flow and protect you from the elements.
- The freestanding 5-pole A-frame sets up in minutes, with shock-corded poles, clips, junction tubes, and ring-and-pin assemblies.
- Two mesh gear pockets; loops for clothes line flashlight, and optional gear loft
- Ultralight minimum weight of just 14 oz (0.41 kg) when using trekking poles for setup
- Micromesh canopy provides maximum ventilation and keeps bugs out
- Xtreme Shield polyurethane coating on the floor provides reliable and long lasting protection
- Pair with a compatible MSR Thru-Hiker 70 Wing or 100 Wing (sold separately) for additional protection from the elements
- Floor plan accommodates 2 large camping pads and gear
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.
- Lightweight, breathable bivy shelter for high-alpine camping
- Measuring 88-inch length and 36-inch width, its compact design fits in small nooks and crannies too small for a tent
- Weatherproof, yet breathable fabric with Xtreme Shield waterproof coating lasts up to 3 times longer than standard coatings
- Packs down to 8-inch length with 4-inch width and 4-inch height in the included stuff sack
- Weighs 12 ounces with a minimum weight of 10 ounces; manufacturer’s 3-year limited warranty
- Designed to fit our Backcountry Bed and sleeping pad
- Large U-shaped opening to make getting in and out easy
- Mesh window panel for ventilation in good weather
- Waterproof/breathable top fabric for increased comfort
- Guy line loop to increase peak height of bivy for increased comfort
Tarps and Tarp Tents
You’re getting into buschcraft now!
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.
- Versatile trekking pole shelter that comrpesses to slightly larger than a bottle
- Offset poles and vertical walls create a tarp palace
- Simple, intuitive, fast pitch
- Oversized volume for more livable space
Stake or tie down your gear and especially the tents. I always chuckled watching the tents rolling around the campgrounds in the wind because they were not secured. Dome tents are especially prone to rolling away from camp. When I recommend staking or tying down a tent, I don’t mean halfheartedly either. Use rocks the size of which you will have to truly grunt to pick up. Seriously! Most stakes are worthless in the Canyon; don’t even bother with the aluminum freebies that come with tents. Leave them at home since they will be wasted weight. Get yourself some serious tent stakes, and even then you’ll need to bring some line for tying to rocks in those areas you simply can’t drive a stake.
- 6-pack of lightweight, durable, and versatile camping and backpacking tent stakes that stay put
- Three-sided Y-beam design offers superior penetration and holding power in a variety of soil types
- Notch at top for securing guy lines; attached reflective pull loop allows for easy removal
- Constructed from 7000-series aluminum; stakes are lightweight, yet rugged
- Includes six individual tent stakes; each tent stake weighs 0.46 ounces, and measures 7.5 inches long
- 7075 AVIATION ALUMINUM ALLOY - More durable than similar stakes which are made of 6000 series aluminum alloy, and you won't have to worry about the...
- HIGH VISIBILITY & PERFECT LENGTH - In racing red, these hook stakes WILL NOT BE LOST in the long grass; 7 inch each, Easy on backpack but long enough...
- ULTRALIGHT TENT STAKES - With a weighing in at just 0.53oz / 15g, these lightweight tent spikes add strength and security without the weight.
- 600D OXFORD FABRIC POUCH - Break camp and keep the stakes in it their own carrying pouch.
- FULL MONEY BACK GUARANTEE - If for whatever reason you are not 100% absolutely happy with your product, return for and a full refund will be provided...
Last update on 2024-02-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API