Backpacking tents: how to choose the best one on a budget!

blue hiking tent light on a beautifull night

A backpacking tent is arguably the most important piece of gear you don’t want to skimp on. I will show you what to look for while choosing your NOT final
resting place after an enjoyable day of hiking in nature without breaking the bank.

Ok, now that we’ve got the bad pun out of the way, let’s begin! A backpacking tent should be light, waterproof, well ventilated and able to withstand a storm. Sounds simple enough right, lets continue!

Don’t all tents do that” you might ask?

No, they try but some fail miserably. There are appealing cheap options that will leave you soaking wet and shivering. After such a night there might also be a lot of blessings upon the tents creators. Wishing them an indefinite vacation in whatever hell they believe in coupled with regular pitchfork massages, but I digress.

To avoid such experiences we will look at several affordable backpacking tent examples that will keep you dry and comfortable. But before that, we must see what exactly makes a good backpacking tent.

Do you need a 3 season or a 4 season tent? Single or double walled? Freestanding or supported? How to repair a ripped tent? What is the alternative to wearing a protection cup while you sleep next to a tentmate who accidentally knees you while reaching for the door? All this and more – keep on reading!

 

3 season vs 4 season backpacking tent

hiking tent on the trail, early morning

Let’s get this out of the way first. There is a good reason for having 3 season and 4 season tents. A three season tent is better ventilated and lighter. Some of them can be used in mild winter conditions but the tents might not take too well to snow piling on top of them.

This is where a 4 season tent comes in. They are warmer and perfectly fitted to withstand what winter can throw at them. The downside is more weight and a higher price tag.
For general use a 3 season double wall tent is perfect- easy on the pocket and back.

4 season tent in the snowy mountains

Single or double wall tent

Backpacking tents can have one or two walls. The double wall tents are more versatile. Single wall tents are usually lighter with water protection built in which causes more condensation in the tent.

When you’re out and about it’s always good to be prepared. Having versatile hiking gear allows you to addapt more easily to the environment. Start with a double wall backpacking tent.

What exactly are the benefits of a double wall backpacking tent you might ask?

The first wall is the tent mesh body hopefully with a bathtub design floor(waterproof and protecting the lower parts of the tent wall from splashes). The second wall is the rainfly(or just “fly”) and therein lies the versatility.

On warm nights you can choose to raise only the tent body for a cooler and more comfortable sleep. The fly adds weather protection and helps the tent to retain  heat on colder nights. A good rainfly also has ventilation pockets to better manage the moisture and temperature in the tent. Some ultralight backpackers may choose to take only the rainfly reducing the weight of the tent even more. But that does not keep the bugs out, so a good bug repellent is a must!

Types of tents

Aside from the number of walls, backpacking tents can be freestanding, semi-freestanding and supported.

freestanding backpacking tent backpacking 3 season tent with raincover

Freestanding tents – have a pole structure that does not require you to use ropes(guylines) attached to stakes in the ground. They are easy to set up on almost any surface, easy to move once set up. They are the tent of choice when camping in a rocky or sandy terrain where you can’t hammer a pole to the ground to raise another tent system.

supported backpacking tent

Semi-freestanding tents – they have some support structure but require guylines to raise it up properly. They are a bit lighter than the freestanding tents because of that, but with modern materials that difference can be minimal. The set up takes longer than the freestanding tents.

Supported tents – they are the lightest, still require you to carry support poles which usually are your hiking poles, guylines, and all that jazz. They take the longest time to set up. Supported tents are usually the choice of light backpackers.

Reflective guy lines – make sure your tent comes with guy lines that are reflective. That makes them easier to spot before you trip over! If they are just plain you can tie a reflective ribbon or tape to get the job done.

Pick the right tent for the right job! A freestanding tent would be easier to put up in rocky or sandy terrain. A supported tent might save you some weight if you are going on a long backpacking trip and every ounce counts.

Backpacking tent size and weight

When looking to buy a backpacking tent you have to take into consideration the shape and weight of it. If you are claustrophobic then I’d go with a dome-shaped tent rather then a pyramid one.  

1 person backpacking tent with sleeping bag

One person tent with sleeping bag examples.

 

2 person backpacking tent with sleeping bags

Two person tent with sleeping bag examples.

A one-person backpacking tent is a very small place to be in. People opt in for a 2 person tent even when they are alone just for that reason. If you want 2 people in one tent then you pick a 3 person tent.

If you were out on a long trip the weight saving of going with a one person tent could be a smart choice. Bear in mind a one person backpacking tent rarely has space for your gear. A person gets 25 inches in width and 80 inches in length. If you’re backpacking with a dog then go for a 90-inch length.

Head space is important, you will hear the term peak hight and that is essentially the tallest place in your tent, but the shape of the walls also plays a very important factor. Pyramid shaped tents can feel cramped because of that even if they have the same volume as a domed shaped tent.

When it comes to tent weight there are three terms – packed weight, trail weight, fast pitch.

Packed weight includes everything – the rainfly, poles, guylines, stakes, stuffing bag/package.

Trail weight is seen as what you take with you if you don’t take the stakes, poles ( if you think you can use existing sticks or branches instead in the intended campsite.) foregoing the fly and stuffing bag if you are just putting the tent in your backpack instead of securing it outside the backpack.

Fastpitch or in other words – the weight of the rainfly, footprint, poles, and stakes.

More often than not you will carry the packed weight out on the trail. This is simply because you need everything that your backpacking tent has to offer. Some ultralight and super ultralight backpackers choose to take only the rainfly (if the tent allows to be pitched like that), minimum amount of stakes and no footprint to save some extra weight. Once you get into the hiking world you will form your own views on what parts of the tent you should take. When starting out – take everything, as you use the tent you will see what you need and what is just dead weight!

How much should a backpacking tent weigh?

You want to aim at 2.5-3 pounds per person. One person tents might reach 4 pounds but their 2 person versions are not much heavier than that.

All this can be very confusing going from manufacturer to manufacturer because they often times use different terminology or put a different meaning on to the same term. What you should be considering is the packed weight because that is what you will be bringing almost all of the time. Manufacturers split the weight of the fly, stakes, poles, footprint and leave you scratching your head. You can and you should ask them about the packed weight of all the components if they haven’t specifically listed that information.

Moisture

When we exhale we release moisture in to the air! Depending on the humidity and temperature in the tent an average person can release 150-300 mililiters of water in to the air during the night. Now put two people sleeping in one tent and you have close to half a liter of water vapour breathed out. That’s crazy! For this reason you need good ventilation to let the acumulated moisture out.

Vestibules and tent Doors

hiking gear under tent vestibules

Hiking gear stored under the vestibules.

Vestibule– it’s not a commonly used word, basically, it’s a sheltered porch on the side of your tent. This is where you put your backpack and shoes. Not all vestibules are large enough to fit all your hicking boots and backpack. Bear that in mind when choosing a tent.

Choose a tent that has two vestibules if you’re going to be two people in the tent so there’s room for all your gear. A big vestibule is always welcome but be aware that it adds extra weight.

Doors – you want a door per person. No, actually – you need it. Waking up in the middle of the night because a knee has found it’s way to your family jewels, while your tent buddy was passing you over to get to the bathroom is not a pleasant experience. Ouch! So if it has to be a one door tent with two people in it, let them have the door side and be very mindful when you pass them over to reach the door. Otherwise get a protection cup just in case … I’m joking, I’m joking… or am I!

Footprint – it used to be a given for every tent to have a separate sturdy footprint to put directly on the ground and protect the underside of your tent. These days manufacturers forego that practice with the excuse that they’ve integrated the sturdy footprint in the tent and call it a bathtub design(waterproof encasing the lower part of the tent walls – like a bathtub).

While the materials might be stronger it’s better to carry a piece of cut tarp or nylon to lessen the wear and tear on the tent. Keep in mind that the footprint has to be an inch or so smaller than the tent to avoid it guiding water towards the tent. The piece of tarp also can double as a seat cover during a short break while you’re still on the trail. Do not leave your footprint at home to save an ounce or two. It’s a lot easier to replace a 10-30$ footprint than a 300$ tent with a damaged floor.

Tent Materials – there’s a lot of types of materials used in different price brackets. You can find cheap ones at higher prices and better once at lower prices so watch out.

Denier – one can hardly keep up with the new technology and fabrics that keep coming out. One thing stays constant thou – Denier or D. Indicating how much of the thread has gone into the fabric. The higher the number, the stronger the fabric of that particular type. Judging the durability of different fabrics by the D metric is not a good idea because of the different qualities of the materials. 

Hydrostatic head – HH, in short, is a measurement of waterproofing. The higher the number of the hydrostatic head, the more water pressure the material can resist before water can pass through it.

Apart from the UK which calls a material with HH rating of 800 – waterproof. Everywhere else that definition is for a 1000 rating materials
The floor of the tent usually has a higher rating than the walls because we apply a lot of pressure by standing on it.

So what hydrostatic head rating does your tent have to be?

 

Most tents start at 1500 rating for regular rainy weather. Add stong wind and a bit heavier downpour and you will need more HH.
Anything between 2000-3000 should cover UK weather which is marvelously horrible. Get a tent in that bracket and you’ll be good throughout the seasons.

Poles and stakes

The poles you might keep but the stakes almost surely will need to replace on most tents. The poles can come with specific colors corresponding to the corners of the tent so you know where each one goes if there is a specific pattern(colour coding).

backpacking tent poles
Poles are your supporting structure so you need them to be strong and flexible. Dependable name brands are DAC and Easton, granted I’m not saying those are the only reliable once but these are what you will mostly find on a good backpacking tent. Good poles are made of aluminum which is a lightweight strong material. There are carbon fiber poles but let’s not break the bank before we have all our gear sorted. Stay away from fiberglass poles at all costs. They are heavy and break easily. Stick with 7000 series aluminum poles.

backpacking tent stakes
Stakes – no matter the style of tent you will have those. These can come in 6000 or the slightly stronger 7000 series aluminum. Usually, the manufacturer gives you six and that should be enough in mild wind conditions. When things get quite windy or you find yourself in the middle of a nice storm with water and wind to boot then you will need a lot more stakes to stabilize the tent. People often get a nice set of aftermarket stakes right away because the tent provided once tend to bend.

How to repair a ripped tent

A pointy branch, sharp rock or a misplaced hiking pole can cause a rip in our backpacking tent. While out in the field you need to fix it. Thankfully the fix is easy, all you need to do is carry any of the mentioned items which come with different ups and downs.

  • Duct tape – a temporary fix with multiple uses. Repair the tear properly when you get back home.
  • Tenacious Tape – permanent fix with multiple uses. The surface around the rip has to be cleaned and dry. It also has to be flat so there are no air pockets when you tape the damaged part. After you’ve applied the tape the ripped part will be even stronger than the rest of the tent.
  • Seamgrip – it’s a special glue that can even be used to patch up a ripped boot sole … use duct tape on the outside of the rip to create a surface for the glue to cover the rip. Wait 8-12 hours, then remove the tape and glue the outside as well.

You can use it to repair small holes where patching up with Tenacious tape would be wasteful.

As a rule of thumb I always carry duct tape in my backpack, the thing has so many practical uses that it’s ridiculous. The tenacious tape has a very specific use and I keep it at home for the permanent fixing part. I will, however, bring a tube of seam grip with me on the trail.

Affordable Backpacking Tent Choices

The higher you go in price of a backpacking tent the materials get lighter the durability and strength also go down to a point. It is important to find the balance between weight and durability.
Now I said I’m going to recommend a few reliable backpacking tent choices in reasonable price ranges. I’m a man of my word so here they are :

TETON Sports Mountain Ultra Tent 1,2,3,4 person tent 

Packed weight
1 person – 5 lbs
2 person – 6.2 lbs
3 person – 8.2 lbs
double wall, 3 season tent
3000mm PU Rainfly
Provided footprint

This can be your one-stop shop for 1, 2 and 3 person tent. All 3 come with a big enough vestibule for your backpack and hiking boots. It even comes with a provided footprint. The stakes are heavy and robust. You could lighten the load by replacing them with aftermarket stakes. The ventilation on the rainfly is not ideal but with some duct tape and a stick as a DIY kickstand to pry them a bit more will fix the issue. The 2 and 3 person variant comes with 2 doors which is a nice touch. I will admit it is a bit on the heavy side, but for the price, this is a tough offer to beat. It even comes with a limited lifetime warranty so check it out!

View at Amazon

 

Mountainsmith Morrison 2 Tent

Packed weight
2 person – 5.5 lbs
double wall, 3 season tent
No provided footprint
2000mm PU Rainfly

Currently, this is the value proposition in this lineup. If you didn’t like the yellow TETON, you might like this green Morrison 2. The tent has color-coded poles and rainfly edge straps to easily show which goes where. It has two doors and two vestibules. The poles are 7075 series aluminum which is welcome in this budget. The lack of a footprint is a bit disappointing. You can easily remedy that by carrying a piece of tarp or thick nylon. I don’t like the stakes very much because of their small hooks. You will have to put them at a very low angle and high tension so they don’t accidentally unhook. It is a bit lighter than the TETON and again I’d get aftermarket stakes for peace of mind.

View at Amazon

 

MSR Hubba Hubba nx 2

Packed weight
3 lbs 13 oz
2 wall, 3 season
Footprint not Included

This is the tent you upgrade to! Even the name makes me smile. It reminds me of the hubba bubba gum I was crazy about as a kid. Although it is a 2 person tent, it is quite roomy and can actually fit 2 people. So that makes it a great choice for solo and duo backpacking. All the hooking and attachment points are very sturdy and well thought out.

It has two doors, two well thought out vestibules to let air circulation in. I’m not gonna lie, this is one of my favorite tents.  One of the lightest in its class without sacrificing durability and probably the main reason for its higher price. Previous models had some moisture issues. MSR fixed everything with this model. They added huge ventilation pockets on the rain fly and that well thought out vestibule design to let airflow in I was talking about. The bottom of the tent, of course, has a bathtub design. Sadly the footprint is sold separately.

You can choose to go with a piece of tarp/nylon like we talked previously and it will work. But, If you’re going to fork out the money for this tent, I’d also buy the footprint so I can have a matching set.

View at Amazon

 

Conclusion

I think by now you know what my choice would be if I was in your shoes… cough* leather hiking boots. Well certainly the MSR Hubba Hubba nx 2 is great in all aspects, but it costs more than double the other two backpacking tents.

It might seem an unfair comparison and it is.

I simply want to show what you can get when you go up a little in price. Mind you the MSR is nowhere near the top price range but it hits that sweet price to performance ratio. Its lightweight, practical features and the smart hooking and latching make it a very good backpacking tent. As a starting out backpacker, you should not be so concerned about the weight of your gear. That is going to go down eventually as you upgrade.

The Teton and Morrison still provide a great value and leave money to spare on other lightweight backpacking gear. All these tents are solid picks for any backpacker. Let me know in the comments below what are your favourite tents and what most do you like about them!

Happy hiking!

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