A lightweight tent will protect you from the elements and allow you to get a good night’s sleep. Some hardcore backpackers use a hammock made especially for sleeping (something I've been meaning to try for awhile now), or a few hardcore backpackers prefer basically a tarp or what’s called a bivvy sack.
If you’re new to backpacking, I suggest borrowing or renting a tent to gauge your preferences before you shell out the money for a new tent. Or, if you’re just going out for a night or two to see if you even like backpacking, just bring whatever you’ve already got.
What to look for
When you are ready to purchase a tent, it’s helpful to keep two things in mind: The weather and your priorities (i.e. size, weight and cost). Other factors might include how easy it is to set up, and possibly any bells and whistles you might want (tent lights, anyone?).
For purely weight reasons, you’ll want a tent that is specific to backpacking — they are lighter than regular "car camping" tents and come in sizes based on the number of people they can hold. Manufacturers tend to name their tents with a number (i.e. the Nemo Kunai 2P or the Alps Zephr 3).
Personally, I use a Eureka! Solitaire when I’m backpacking by myself or an ALPS Mountaineering Meramac 3 when I’m sharing a tent with someone else.
*Important: With a backpacking tent usually you can count on the tent holding only as many people as it says — often the manufacturers don’t leave room for gear. Thus the reason I have a three person tent is so that me, my husband and our gear (and often a dog) can sleep comfortably within its walls.
It's best to try out the tent in person by visiting stores that physically have the tents you’re interested in buying. That being said, both of my tents I bought sight unseen from the internet, but since the reviews were so good, I figured I was pretty safe from a regrettable purchase.
How much should it weigh?
A good rule of thumb is to keep the weight to less than three pounds per person — and anything less than that is fantastic, though keep in mind that your lower-weight tents are going to be noticeably less roomy. With a solo tent, it’s good to keep the weight to 2-3 pounds. Two people tents are usually around 3-5 pounds (but can go as high as 6 and as low a 1 pound).
How much should I pay?
You can get away with paying around $100 for a good two-person tent, or upwards of $2,000 (it turns out that roughing it is an expensive hobby). The bigger the pricetag, the lower the weight and the more bells and whistles the tent will have (generally speaking).
How tough should my tent be?
Most backpackers, especially those who only go once or twice a year, only need a three season tent which will be sufficient keep you warm and dry from spring until fall. Of course there are various options depending on the climate where you’re traveling — for instance, it’s nice to have a rainfly you can remove to look up at the stars if you’re camping someplace dry.
NOTE: Some people think they need to waterproof their new tent with special sprays — be forewarned, it’s not necessary and may even damage your tent. In order to keep you dry, your tent needs to have some breathability, otherwise the condensation gets trapped inside and that equals misery. Some people like to waterproof the seams of their tents, especially if the tent is getting worn, but for most new tents it’s not necessary.
Do I need a footprint?
A footprint is a ground cloth that’s custom cut to the size of your tent. It’s supposed to protect your floor from rips and tears. My personal opinion? Leave ‘em at home. They just add extra weight, and most tents are plenty durable if you pick the right spot to set them up.
TIP: ALWAYS PRACTICE SETTING UP YOUR TENT AT HOME BEFORE YOU HEAD OUT. Even if you’ve had the tent for awhile and used it several times, make sure you set it up, air it out and check to see if there are any holes or missing tent poles or stakes. I once went out on a three day backpacking trip missing a tent pole, and it poured rain. It worked just well enough to keep me basically dry, but I was pretty much pinned to the ground the entire night, and I had to closely watch the roof so that the water didn’t pool too much.
How to pack your tent in your backpack
It's likely that your tent is going to be, from a volume standpoint, one of the biggest items in your pack. Every backpack is different, and you'll have to do some experimenting to find out all the different pockets, straps and options you have with your pack, but basically you have two options as to where you can store your tent: either inside or outside your pack.
If you place it outside your pack, you'll have easy access to it in case of bad weather, but you'll also leave it open to snags and tears (this is rare, but it does happen). If you do have room in your backpack, you can compress the tent as much as possible — a lot of people use stuff sacks to protect and help compress the tent down, which can really help make more room in your pack for things like food — and then place it near the middle of the pack. Try to place it where it will be closer to your body, where it's more firm and closer to your center of mass. You can either roll up the fly and footprint (if you have them) inside your tent, or store them separately outside.
Strap your tent poles to the outside, either vertically near your water bottle or horizontally at the top or bottom of your pack. This will keep them from puncturing your tent or sleeping bag.
How to find the best spot to pitch your tent
Other tent tips:
If you choose well, your tent will serve you well for many years, and you'll come to have a certain affection for it. It kept you dry, was your home base for some exciting adventures. What other tips or questions do you have for tent buying? Leave them in the comments and we'll do our best to answer them.
Jill Hinton Wolfe