How to Choose a Summer Backpacking Tent
There are lots of factors that go into choosing a summer backpacking tent. Some factors are very easy to compare objectively, while others are a lot more subjective. There are three main considerations when choosing lightweight gear: weight, price and durability. In the store, we like to joke that you only get to pick two of the three. In reality, there are several more considerations that go into purchasing a tent. Hopefully, this blog post gives you an idea of the key areas we look at when we are choosing tents.
For ultralight hikers, this is the most important consideration. If you spend the majority of your day hiking, you are also spending the majority of your time carrying your tent. For this reason, people who are going long distances and hiking all day tend to prioritize this factor. Unfortunately, when you prioritize the weight of your gear, you often loose out on other factors, as discussed below.
Durability and Storm Worthiness:
While these are technically two separate factors, they are so dependent on each other that we discuss them together. A tent that cannot handle high winds or repeated nights on a rocky surface without breaking, is a tent that will eventually stop keeping you dry and warm. If you are camping on a glacier, for multiple days in a very remote area, or in an area known for its weather and wind, a tent that can easily handle whatever weather you throw at it is vital. You might consider the design of the tent (and how easy it is to fix in the field), the type and denier of the tent material – the thicker the material, the higher the denier (and durability), and how well you can tie it down in a storm. For those that want to use a tent as a base camp and stay set up for multiple nights, those that like to camp in areas where wind and weather is more of a concern, or those who are harder on their gear; durability and storm worthiness may become the most important factor. Unfortunately designing a tent is often a zero-sum game, and gaining durability and storm-worthiness means losing out on weight or cost. Ultimately, some people are okay with the risk of a less durable tent as it allows them to carry something much lighter. If this is a decision you are making, take care to ensure that gear is used gently and choose campsites that are less exposed (not out in the open and vulnerable to the elements).
Some people are taller than others, and some are broader than others. When someone comes into the store looking for a tent and they are taller than 6’0, they usually have a very specific concern: they are looking for a tent they can sleep in without touching the ends. Other people come in knowing that they will be camping with a friend they don’t want to be too friendly with, or perhaps they are sharing a tent with a dog. How much living space there is in a tent is a very critical component of how much you love (or hate) spending time in your tent. There are three important factors – the first is the size of the footprint (how long and wide the tent is), the second is the height of the tent. These are fairly easy to understand components of living space, but the shape of the tent is the third critical factor. If a tent slopes up gently, and comes to a peak in the center of the tent, it is likely both more storm-worthy and lighter than a tent whose sides come up more vertically and has a flatter roof. However, that first tent will have very little headroom, which makes things like sitting up and getting in and out of the tent significantly more difficult. If you plan on spending time in your tent, whether playing cards or waiting out a storm; vertical walls make that experience much more comfortable. Another consideration is your personal ability to deal with claustrophobia. Some people don’t care that their tent is low or close to their face when they sleep. For others, that is a one-way ticket to going crazy. If you are someone who feels claustrophobic in a small tent, living space may be your biggest consideration.
Ease of set up:
Some tents are significantly easier to put up than others, especially in inclement weather. A freestanding tent is usually easy to set up, and especially easy to move if you decide you don’t like where you put it the first time. If your tent is partially freestanding or not freestanding (it requires the tension from stakes in the ground to stay up), it is often a more complicated tent to pitch. A non-freestanding tent is usually lighter, but if you are new to hiking or plan on pitching your tent after dark, an easy to set up tent makes setting up camp both faster, and less of a hassle.
The main difference between summer and winter tents comes down to two main things. A winter tent can handle a load of snow (aka they don’t have a flat top), and they have less ventilation. The lack of ventilation means that the tent is a little bit warmer, and handles the cold wind better. In the summer, a tent without enough ventilation gets hot and muggy in the mornings, which makes it hard to sleep. As well, ventilation helps to keep the condensation in a tent to a minimum. Without adequate air flow, all of the warm air we breath out at night condenses on the outer rain fly, which means packing up a wet tent in the morning. You can avoid this by using a tent with mesh sides, and a well-placed vent or two. The downside of well-ventilated tents is that they tend to be much colder in the winter.
At the end of the day, the tent that you choose needs to be right for you; and that includes your budget. Unfortunately, the downside of a lot of very well-designed tents is the high cost that comes along with them. We do our best to find gear that offers the best value for our customers, but at the end of the day; deciding what you are willing to pay for a particular feature is an important discussion to have when choosing a tent.
In this guide, we discuss mainly double walled shelters, as this is what most people are looking for in a backpacking tent. If you want to consider a single walled shelter, considering the ventilation and ease of set up is vital. Single wall shelters are generally more complicated to set up (as they are usually not free standing). As well, because they do not have the mesh inner to hold the outer fly away from your living space, condensation will have a much higher impact on how you use the tent, and how dry you stay all night.
Hopefully by now it is clear that there is not one perfect tent for everyone. The type of trips you take, the places in which you camp, how carefully you treat your gear, and the people that plan on using the tent all dictate the type of tent you will need. Choosing a shelter is a balancing act, and it can be overwhelming when you are looking at so many choices. If you are considering a tent, please come by and spend some time talking with some of our experienced staff; and looking at tents in person. Sometimes it takes setting up and sitting in a tent to decide that you love it.