Choosing a Lightweight Tent for Backpacking

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If you’re just getting into backpacking, it’s important to understand the basics and learn about all the options out there before purchasing your first tent.

Tent Components

Tents can be made up to 5 parts:

  • Mesh or Solid Inner
  • Solid Rainfly
  • Stakes
  • Poles
  • Footprint

The inner portion is where you go in and sleep, and has what’s called a “bathtub floor” on the bottom, and the sides are either a lightweight mesh net to keep the bugs out, or a solid fabric for colder weather.

The rainfly goes on top of the inner to protect you from the weather. If it’s warm out, and not going to rain, you could sleep in just the inner mesh of your tent and not need the rainfly.

Tent stakes are placed at the corners and around the tent to hold it in place, which is very important if it’s windy out so your tent doesn’t blow away! They also may be necessary to stretch the fabric more taunt, giving your more space inside the tent.

Tent poles are used to hold up the tent or create a frame for it. These are very necessary no matter what kind of tent you choose.

The footprint goes on the very bottom in order to keep the outside tent floor clean and to help prevent punctures. It should be exactly the same size as your tent floor or a little less, otherwise if it rains water could collect on top of it, and underneath your tent. Footprints are almost always sold separately. For an ultralight backpacking hack, you can use Polycro– which is just clear window insulation film. Others use a piece of Tyvek cut to fit below the tent floor. The Tyvek is sturdier but also weighs a few ounces more.

Types of Tents

The most popular types of tents include:

  • Freestanding
  • Semi Freestanding
  • Trekking Pole Tents
  • Single Walled vs. Double Walled

Freestanding tents are held together with metal poles, that you put the frame together with. Technically if there’s no wind you don’t have to stake the tent down, although you may want to in order to prevent condensation from rolling off onto you (it can pull the rainfly away from the mesh inner some more). The nicest thing about freestanding tents is that you can set them up, and then if you don’t like where you’ve placed it you can just pick it up and move it elsewhere!

nemo dagger 2p backpacking tent, shown with and without the rainfly.
The Nemo Dagger 2p tent. Fully freestanding, you can use it with or without the fly on warm nights.

Semi freestanding tents also have a frame of metal poles, but less of them to save on weight. You will need to stake out two of the corners to fully expand it and use the tent however.

Trekking pole tents need to use your trekking poles* in order to stand up, and you need to stake them out fully. This saves weight because often you have trekking poles with you, so it makes them dual purpose! Some tents only require one poll, but most need both.

*If you don’t use trekking poles at all,  you can purchase separate lightweight poles.

The X-Mid 2p trekking pole tent. Trekking poles and the tension made with staking out the tent are what hold it up.

A sub category of tents is single walled vs. double walled. Double walled tents have your standard mesh or solid inner, and rainfly as separate pieces. In single walled tents they are combined, or sewn together, into one piece. This is most commonly seen among trekking pole tents.

Pros of double walled tents:

  • Less chance of *condensation splashing on you if you touch the side of the tent.
  • Ability to remove the rainfly completely for warm nights.
  • Ability to store the rainfly separately from the inner. This can be advantageous if it rains and you are able to remove the inner completely, being dry underneath the fly, and store it in your bag. The rainfly which is wet, you can then store in an outside pocket of your backpack separately.

Pros of single walled tents:

  • Weighs less.
  • Less pieces to mess with and easier set up.

*Condensation is an issue in any tent, but is worse to deal with in single walled tents because you can easily accidentally brush up against one of the solid walls where it collects. It will collect on double walled tends as well, but there is a layer of mesh in between it and you, which will hopefully help you and your gear from getting wet if that happens.

Most people that have single walled tents bring a small cloth with them to wipe down the inside of the tent in the morning.

Tent Size

For just yourself, you’ll need a lightweight 1 or 2 person(1P or 2P) tent for backpacking. If you’re at all claustrophobic or like a little room to put your stuff inside and spread out, get a 2p tent. Plus you’ll have extra space if you can convince your significant other to come along or have a pet 🙂

The 1p’s are quite small inside. Basically their floor dimensions are only slightly wider than the width of your sleeping pad, with usually some extra length at the top and bottom. The pros to them are that they are lighter weight, and have a smaller ground footprint so can fit in tighter locations.

For two people, get a 2p or even a 3p tent for extra space. The 2p tent for two people can be a bit too close for comfort, unless you’re a couple!

Inside the Nemo Dagger 2p. It’s nice and roomy for 1 person. With 2 people the sleeping pads would be butted up side by side with no room to spare. Being a freestanding tent, it has excellent head room.
Inside the X-Mid 2p. It has the same width as the Nemo Dagger shown above. This is what it looks like with 2 sleep systems inside. There’s also a little less head room on the one side of this tent, a downside to most non-freestanding tents.

Purchasing a Tent

So with all that information, what type of tent should you buy? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • How much weight are you ok with carrying? – Single walled trekking pole tents are the lightest.
  • Are you carrying trekking poles anyway? – Trekking pole tents will save you some extra weight.
  • What kind of weather will you be in? – If backpacking in the winter, or cold weather, get a double wall with solid inner. If in a damp, humid climate, you may prefer a double walled tent because too much condensation could be an issue.
  • Do you want the flexibility to move your tent around? – Get a free or semi-freestanding.
  • Do you want the maximum amount of space inside, with lots of headroom and aren’t that worried about extra weight? – Get a freestanding tent.
  • Do you think finding enough ground space for a tent is an issue? – Get a 1p, or a freestanding/semi free standing 2p could also work and fit in more narrow spots.

Equipment I use: I have a Nemo Dagger 2P, which is a traditional freestanding tent. It weights a total of 4.3lbs with the footprint and included stakes. Not too bad if my husband comes along and we split the weight, but a bit too heavy for just myself. Because of that, I also purchased a Durston X-Mid 2P trekking pole tent. With a piece of polycro as a footprint, it comes in at 2.7lbs. The X-Mid Pro version is even lighter at just 1.5lbs, although it’s more than double the price.

Popular Lightweight backpacking tents to consider include:

**Don’t forget, Footprints are sold separately. You can use a piece of Polycro or Tyvek as a cheap alternative.

There are tons of other tents out there. This is just a list of a few popular ones. Do you have a favorite tent you use and would like to tell others about? Post in the comments below!

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