How to Choose a Tent + the Best Tents for Backpacking

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How to Choose a Tent + the Best Tents for Backpacking

A good tent should be lightweight, durable, weather-proof, and a cinch to set up, and all these factors can make it difficult to narrow down your choices….especially when you have to factor in the price tag.

In this blog post, I share some of the most important factors to consider when shopping for a new tent and recommendations for some of the best tents for backpacking so you can get ready for summer.

— Factors to Consider when Shopping for a Lightweight Backpacking Tent —

  Weight: When searching for a tent, this is the first factor I consider, and most backpacking tents weigh somewhere between 1-4 pounds. The lighter the tent, the more comfortable you are going to be when you are carrying it on your back. That said, there is often a trade-off between weight and durability. Ultralight tents require more care when setting them up and storing them when you get home. Ultralight tents also come with a heftier price tag. When comparing tents, you’ll typically see two different weight specs. The minimum trail weight is the weight of the tent, fly, and poles only. But you’ll probably also need stakes, a stuff sack, and maybe a footprint to protect the bottom of the tent. The packaged weight spec includes all of these the other goodies that come with the tent.

 Capacity / Interior Space: Who and how many people will you be sharing your tent with? And how tall are you? Many of the 2-man tents (especially the ultralight options) are very tight for two people. If you plan to mostly camp with your significant other and are ok cuddling, then one of the smaller 2-man tents could be ok. On the other hand, if you are super tall or tend to share your tent with friends who you don’t want to spoon, you might want something a little more spacious (or perhaps even consider a lightweight 3-man tent). Things to pay attention to are the floor space, whether or not the tent has a tapered design (one side is wider than the other), and whether there is enough headspace for you to sit up and hang out if you get stuck inside due to bad weather.

 Number of Doors: Two doors will make getting in and out of the tent way more comfortable when you are camping with someone else. It means you won’t have to crawl over each other and you will also have your own separate vestibule to store your stuff which helps you stay more organized. (A vestibule is the area outside of the tent door underneath the tent fly).

 Seasonal Rating: A majority of backpackers will be fine with a 3-season tent which are designed to breathe well in moderate weather conditions (including heavy rain and light snow) during spring, summer, and fall. If you plan on camping in heavy snow or in extreme, exposed conditions, you may need a 4-season tent. Four-season tents have less mesh and retain heat better, but the lack of ventilation can make them feel a bit stuffy.

 Wall Construction: Most of the popular backpacking tents are double-walled – which means they come with the actual tent as your shelter and a separate rain fly that you attach to the outside of the tent for weather protection. Double-walled tents ventilate better and experience less condensation due to airflow.  A single-walled tent is weatherproof all around without the need for a fly, and that often helps shave off some weight. Single-walled tents also typically have no windows and no mesh. This means that condensation can be a problem in wet conditions. Single-walled tents are best in cold, dry conditions (like the southern Utah desert in early spring).

 Free-standing vs Tarp-Style: A free-standing tent is one that comes with poles that support it. They are quick and easy to set up and can be pitched almost anywhere, which is why this style is more popular. A tarp-style tent is one that you set up using your trekking poles for support and by tying guy lines to trees, rocks, etc to get it taut. Tarp-style tents are lighter since they don’t have poles tend to appeal to experienced long-distance hikers.

 

— The Best Backpacking Tents —

For 2-person, free-standing backpacking tents, these are some of the best options available. The tents are listed in order of their packaged weight, and the tents featured are the some of the lightest for the given floor space.

BEARFOOT TIP: The packaged weight includes everything that the tent comes with, including stakes, stuff sacks, guy lines, and the instruction manual. You can shed a few ounces by swapping out the stakes for lighter ones, like these titanium tent stakes.

NEMO Hornet 2p Tent

The Best Tents for Backpacking: NEMO hornet 2p tentPackaged weight: 2 lbs, 5 oz
Interior height: 40″
Floor size: 85” x 51” (head) x 43” (feet)

Compare Prices: REI
Optional Footprint Sold Separately: REI

The NEMO Hornet is a great ultralight tent for a solo hiker or two folks that don’t mind a tight squeeze. While you’ll have to get cozy, this ultralight tent does have a few features that make it more comfortable for two people compared to other comparably sized lightweight tents. First, many tents in this weight class only have one door, but the Hornet 2p has a two door system. When sharing this small space with another person, having a door on each side makes it so much easier to get in and out (I know because the single door is the biggest problem I have with my Mountain Hardwear Super Mega UL2 – which is similar in size).  The material on the NEMO Hornet is quite thin, so the optional footprint is recommended to protect it from wear and tear.

Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 2 Tent

The Best Tents for Backpacking: Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 2 TentPackaged weight: 3 lb, 2 oz
Floor size: 90” x 52” (head) x 42” (feet)
Height: 42″

Compare Prices: Campsaver / REI
Optional Footprint Sold Separately: REI

The Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 2 Tent is one of the most popular lightweight tents on the market and is a good choice for long distance hikers. Ultralight tents often cut ounces by sacrificing space, but with the near vertical walls, this Big Agnes tent remains quite livable. While your feet may be a bit cramped with the tapered foot, it still has two doors and ample head space. The downside of this tent is that the mesh is very thin and can tear easily if you aren’t careful.

For a less expensive but similar tent, check out the REI Quarter Dome 2 Plus Tent.

NEMO Equipment Dagger 2P Tent

The Best Tents for Backpacking: NEMO Equipment Dagger 2P Tent

Packaged weight: 3 lbs, 12 oz
Floor size: 90” x 50”
Interior height: 42″

Compare Prices: Moosejaw / REI
Optional Footprint Sold Separately: REI

The NEMO Dagger 2p tent is one of the roomier tents in its weight range. A non-tapered design, 42″ of head space, and tall, wide walls make this a great option for 2 friends who want to share the weight.  The vestibule also stakes out in two places giving you plenty of room to store gear, while still having a path to crawl in and out of the tent.

MSR Hubba Hubba NX Tent

The Best Tents for Backpacking: MSR Hubba Hubba NX Tent

Packaged Weight: 3 lbs, 13 oz
Floor size: 84” long x 50” wide
Interior height: 39″

Compare Prices: REI / Moosejaw
Optional Footprint Sold Separately: REI

The MSR Hubba Hubba Tent has been around for over 10 years, and this year’s new model is a great compromise between durability and weight. It has a non-tapered design so you have just as much room on both ends of the tent, and the Hubba Hubba is very similar in size, space, and weight to the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Sky 2 Tent down below. It also comes with a compression sack, making it super packable. Other features include rainfly vents which help reduce condensation, and the rainfly can be partially rolled up for extra air flow even while it’s raining. Poles are on a hub system

Mountain Hardwear Ghost Sky 2 Tent

The Best Tents for Backpacking: Mountain Hardwear Ghost Sky 2p Packaged weight: 4 lbs, 1 oz
Interior height: 39″
Floor size: 87” x 49”

Compare Prices: BackcountryMountain Hardwear
Optional Footprint Sold Separately: Backcountry / Mountain Hardwear

The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Sky 2 is the new version of Mountain Hardware’s Skyledge tent which I took with me on the John Muir Trail. That tent has taken a good beating, and it still sets up as if it was new.  It’s slightly heavier than some of the other backpacking tents on this list, but if you tend to be hard on your gear, this tent should last you for a very long time. It’s non-tapered design means that you have ample room around your head and feet, and it’s a cinch to set up.

GOT QUESTIONS ABOUT HOW TO CHOOSE A TENT? LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW, TWEET ME, OR WRITE ME A POST ON FACEBOOK
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Disclosure: The links in this post are affiliate links which means if you make a purchase, I receive a tiny bit of compensation at no added cost to you. Any purchases you make help keep this blog going…so thanks for all of your support! If you ever have any questions about any of the products featured on my site, please email me. Thanks! Kristen

There are 10 comments on this post.

About the author

Hi! I'm Kristen....blogger, hiker, sunset-watcher, and dance floor shredder. I feel most alive in the outdoors and created this website to help you enjoy the best that the West has to offer.

10 Comments on “How to Choose a Tent + the Best Tents for Backpacking

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  1. I’ve owned the same Hubba Hubba for about as long as they’ve been around. Nothing but high praise for it. I really like the large overhead mesh of the roof, and the fact that with a footprint, the rainfly alone can be set-up. I’ve used it 99% of the time solo, and use the left over space inside for my own gear. If I were to head out with a guest for any length of time, I’d upgrade to the Mutha Hubba.

    What no teepees or tarps?

    I personally prefer a teepee and woodstove to just about anything for space to weight and comfort. Also with a woodstove there is no need to carry propane cans and camp stoves. And no eating freeze dried yuk either! You have the option to slow cook food on the woodstove. My teepee that sleeps five weighs 6 pounds including the woodstove. My 3 man teepee tarp and woodstove weigh 4 pounds total. Also I have used them in pretty extreme conditions – I live on Kodiak Island, Alaska and it rains all the time. I also once did a 10 day sojourn in the Brooks Range. Anyway floorless shelters and woodstoves are the way to go if it is really wet and raw.

    But for when the mosquitoes are really bad I do like the enclosed environment of my Nemo veda 2P!

    Patrick

      Hey Patrick – agree that tarps can save a bit of weight…maybe that’s something I’ll cover in another blog post. Thanks for the tips! Kristen

    I too am taking my brand new Mountain Hardware Skyledge on the JMT this year. A big thanks to the guys at MH for replacing my old tent when it started to delaminate. I definitely store it differently now – loosely folded in a spare room. Used the old one on the Thorsbourne Trail on Hinchinbrook Is. in both beautiful weather and tropical downpour. Never missed a beat.

      Cool! I love my Skyledge and glad to hear that MHW’s customer service has been helpful. Have fun out there this summer!

    I have been rereading your blog as I get ready to have my first real backpacking adventure. A friend wants to take us to the Wind River range in Wyo. I was thinking something more like Coyote Gulch. What do you suggest as a first time backpacking adventure? I really love reading your adventures and learning from your blog.

      I actually haven’t done either, but I’ve heard amazing things about both. I’m sure you’ll have a blast no matter where you go! Just pick a trail that isn’t too tough for your first time and make sure you try your boots out before you embark on your hike. And makes sure to come back and tell me how it goes!

    Hi I really want to begin backpacking but I don’t really know where to begin in choosing gear. Plus I have been look in to tents but I was wondering if you had a four seasons list?

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