How to Choose the Best Tent for Backpacking

How to Choose the Best Tent for Backpacking

It’s your home away from home; the shelter that protects you from the elements; the {typically} nylon walls that help you create epic outdoor memories. Your tent is one of the most important pieces of gear, but it can be ridiculously tough to know how to choose the best tent for backpacking.

For starters, the words are weird. What is a vestibule? Double wall vs. single wall; what does that mean? What matters more: weight or space? Seriously, buying your first backpacking tent can be an exercise in confusion, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are the basics to help you choose the best tent for your next backpacking trip.

How to Choose a The Best Tent for Backpacking

Double Wall vs. Single Wall

One of your first considerations when choosing a tent is whether or not you want a double or single wall. Each has its benefits but it really depends on what you are after.

For most summer backpackers, a double-wall tent {affiliate link} is going to be their best option. A double-wall tent means there are two walls: an inner tent and an outer rainfly. This is typically a three-season tent {not meant for winter conditions} and often weighs more than a single-wall. For the most part, the rainfly is completely waterproof but not breathable while the inner tent is breathable but not waterproof. The combination of both makes a complete tent. Double-wall tents tend to be more breathable than single-walls since air can flow between the two walls, providing more ventilation to the interior and thus, preventing condensation.

A single-wall tent {affiliate link} is usually the option chosen by mountaineers. Instead of the two walls, single-wall tents utilize one wall of material that is both waterproof and breathable. The upside is that these tents are lighter due to fewer materials, but they are also less breathable since there are less ventilation options. Additionally, the vestibules tend to be smaller since there is not a rainfly to create a larger protected area. Single-wall tents usually have a smaller footprint, making it easier for them to be pitched on mountain ledges.

Freestanding vs. Non-Freestanding

Most double-wall tents are freestanding. That is, they use poles to stand them up. Frequently, the poles will help create the frame and then pop into tabs on the four corners of the tent. Once pitched, backpackers can easily pick up the entire tent and move it around while the inner tent is fully constructed.

Non-freestanding is the exact opposite. Most single-wall shelters are non-freestanding which means that they use various guylines attached to stakes in order to hold the tent’s shape. If correctly pitched, freestanding tents tend to be more waterproof. Additionally, they handle better in the wind since they have less chance of becoming a kite and rolling away on a gusty day.

How to Choose the Best Tent for Backpacking

Tent Materials: Nylon vs. Polyester

For the most part, you’re going to see tents made of nylon. Nylon is lightweight and naturally water resistant, but it usually relies on mesh panels to add breathability. Nylon is also more affordable than polyester.

While you will see fewer tents made of polyester, it is still an option worth considering. Polyester is heavier than nylon but it could be argued that it is more durable. More notable, however, is how polyester performs when wet. When nylon collects condensation {like overnight}, you are likely to see it sag. This is why you will occasionally wake up to a sagging nylon rainfly that you have to re-stake. Polyester does not sag when wet. In fact, you could dump gallons of water on a polyester tent and its pitch would remain just as taut as it was when you first set it up.

Weight vs. Livability

This is the age-old question in backpacking tents: do you want less weight or more livability? For awhile, the pendulum swung towards uber ultralight; one of the lightest freestanding two-person tents on the market clocks in at just two pounds!

However, with such lightweight tents comes drawbacks. Namely, they are close quarters! Because of that, many backpackers opt to carry more weight in favor of greater living space. There is no right or wrong to this; rather, it’s a matter of preference. Personally, I always opt for greater livability for a few more pounds, but that is just me. I like having a little space to stretch out!

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If you want to learn more about tents like how to properly pitch them, what size you need, and more, consider checking out my book, Backpacking 101 {affiliate link}. I devoted an entire chapter to the topic!

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4 Comments

  • Reply Farrah December 25, 2017 at 6:24 pm

    Thanks for this post! 😀 I’m super hoping to get more backpacking in once I’m done with residency! *-*

  • Reply michael February 5, 2018 at 5:06 am

    Awesome post. I liked the tips.

  • Reply Casey March 6, 2018 at 11:32 am

    Great post. I found the information about the Nylon vs Polyester tents very helpful.

  • Reply Betty March 23, 2018 at 6:48 am

    Hey Heather, great post, this is great information… I always wanted to go backpacking, but I always wonder how people can survive on a tiny little backpack, I’m sure I would need to bring a huge ruck sack

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