The Ins and Outs of Buying a Backpacking Tent

When I first started backpacking many moons ago, I knew I’d need a tent, of course, and I thought, “How hard can that be?”  Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Yes, backpacking tents were out there in the shops, but trying to figure out which one would be best for me was a process of trial and error.  Lots of error, unfortunately, for a long time. It took a lot of wasted money, and a few tents that ended up in the next garage sale for me to really figure out what I was looking for in a tent. 

Now, I am an avid hiker and camper,  and I’ve passed down the tradition to my children. So along the way I’ve learned a thing or two about what to look for in tents. So here is what I suggest to folks when they are starting out:  Buy the cheapest one you can find that seems to fit your needs or ask a friend to lend you one.

Buying a tent that works for you is not just a matter of determining where you will be camping or how much weight you want to carry, although those are certainly important decisions too.  There are a lot of other decisions to make like:

  • a backpacking model with dedicated poles vs. an ultralight shelter
  • a tarp tent vs. a double wall tent
  • which fabric – polyurethane vs. silnylon vs. cuben
  • what kind of poles and how long they should be
  • what kind of stakes and how much guyline
  • a 3- season tent vs. an extended season tent vs. a 4-season tent

See what I Mean?

I have found that, somewhere in all of this, you have to strike a balance between how much space you want, how much weight you want to carry and the price.  After that, you need to think about how hard or easy the tent is to setup and what specific features you want or need, like doors or vestibules.  Even deciding on how much space you need requires some thought, like how tall you are.

Try making some or all of the above decisions before you head to the store.  Have a pretty good idea about which tent you think is best for you.  Where can you get that information? Well, online of course. After reviewing several options, go to the store and ask to see the tent all setup, lie down in it, walk around in it.  If you can watch them setting it up, that would be a great way to find out how easy or hard it is.

Think of the people that usually go with you on your camping trip too. Will the tent be housing more than one person? This will influence the size as well as the ease of set up. Obviously, if there is more than one camper, setting up a tent will be easier.

Be sure to consider the weather where you plan to camp. For instance if you go to the Grand Canyon a lot, you may not need a four season tent, and may only want a single ply tent.

So, the bottom line is this.  You will not find the perfect tent/shelter; there will be trade-offs and you will probably buy some that don’t work for you.  But hopefully, not quite as many as I did! Remember, if this is a family thing, get a second opinion. What one family member likes may not meet the tastes of another.  And while you’re at it, you might as well get the opinion of the clerk at the sporting goods store, or take a good review of a tent into account. This may help you make a better tent buying decision.