Backpacking Tents - Buying Your Perfect Backpacking Tent

What you need to know to buy

© Andy Hiltz

I am just going to buy a tent for spring-break, and I thought, "Maybe there's some useful stuff on the WWW." Thank's for setting up this gr8 advice page! Christian University of Washington, Seattle

I suppose I should call this section "shelters", because that's really what we're talking about here. A "tent" is nothing more than a shelter you carry in the backcountry to protect you from the elements. This is a key point, since the decision you make concerning what shelter you buy should be based on specifically what kind of elements you want to protect yourself from. Sad that many go in search of tents without this basic premise in mind, and end up buying too little, or too much for their purposes. To look at it in another way, if you intend to hike the Appalachian Trail in the summer, you don't need to carry a bombproof North Face Mountain-24 designed to take high winds and snow loading. Conversely, if you intend to head into the Rockies in the winter, you may want something more than a plastic tube tent. There are an extraordinary range of tents available on the market, and lots of good designs. I'll provide you with some general guidelines to follow that will help you pick the best tent for your purposes. It's all a matter of conditions and comfort. What you ultimately carry into the backcountry for your shelter will depend on the conditions you need protection from, and the degree of comfort you desire once you set up camp. If you hike solely during the summer months, then virtually any moderate quality tent will do just fine. If you're a three season hiker, you might consider a shelter that has a bit more comfort and room inside for those rainy early spring or late fall days when dressing inside the tent in the morning, or spending the evening inside before bed, is preferable. If you're a four season hiker, snow loading, access, and high winds are a consideration, and more care must be taken in selecting a shelter that will protect you from the harsher elements of the winter months. A good shelter at a minimum will keep you dry and comfortable in rainy weather and keep the bugs out during the summer months. Those are the main objectives. Sometimes, a basic design will work just fine. If you're headed for more extreme conditions, you'll need something a little more than "basic". But first, a little "tent history" to let you know where we were, and how we got where we are now: A Short Tent History...... Back in the 1950's, it could be a challenge locating light, strong, and well-designed backpacking tent. Shoppers had simple choices available - military surplus, or a handful of "camping equipment" companies that made heavy, dark cotton canvas tents. These shelters were typically small, cramped, A-frame affairs with wooden poles. The canvas material was covered with a paraffin wax coating which helped repel rain. But like any wax surface coating, sooner or later, the "waterproof" finish would come off. Then the leaks would start - a slow, steady drip inside the tent. Canvas tents work on the theory of surface tension. If a "sheen" of water builds up on the outside of the fabric, new water falling on the tent will be carried down the sides on the outside surface of the tent by gravity. On the inside, while the canvas walls will be damp, the rain will not soak all the way through. A nice theory, as long as you don't "break" that surface tension by poking the tent with a finger, or shoving a pack against the side of the tent. Paraffin coatings help, but at the expense of turning your backcountry shelter into a smelly place to spend the night. To make matters worse, canvas can deteriorate rapidly through "wet rot" and mildew. This was pretty much the only choice you had in the way of a tent material in the 1950's. Cotton fabric of one sort or another was the "fabric of choice", going all the way back to the Revolutionary War. Confederate General Lee confers with General Stonewall"Jackson during a snowy November meeting in Fredericksburg, Virginia (1862). The tent material of " choice during the American Civi War - cotton. (© Lang Graphics, Delafield, WI, from the painting " trategy in the Snow"by historical artist Mort Kunstler.) S

Then two things happened that changed the design of tents forever - nylon, and the "back to nature movement" of the late 1960's. Nylon made it possible to create a shelter that was strong and light. Further, nylon could be treated with a urethane rubber coating that was much more durable and longer-lasting than paraffin. But since the market for tents made out of nylon was small, there wasn't much of a drive to create shelters using this new and exotic material - until the 1960's. Suddenly, millions of young people created an overnight demand for outdoor equipment, either to camp out at rallies, or experience "Mother Nature" on her own terms in the wild backcountry. With this huge, new market for outdoor equipment came competition and design improvements. Suddenly, tents were not only made out of better materials, but also better designs. Then things went a step further........ In the late 1970's, The North Face (TNF) came out with a revolutionary backpacking tent that changed the face of tent design forever - the geodesic dome. Geodesic domes, based on Buckminster Fuller's theory of intersecting triangles, were not new. Some architects had already been experimenting with "Bucky's" design, because it enabled a large amount of space to be enclosed with a minimum of material in an extremely strong design. For example, the "radomes", or radar domes you see protecting sensitive electronic equipment today is based on the geodesic design. The utility of applying this design to backpacking tents was obvious. Using design concepts borrowed from Shelter Systems, The North Face came out with the first geodesic backpacking tent design - the Oval Intention. Two new models quickly followed - the Vector Equilibrium 2-person 3-pole and 2-person 4-pole designs, or VE-23 and VE-24. For strength, interior volume enclosed, and weight, nothing could match the geodesic tents. For a number of years, TNF retained exclusive design rights to the design, and sold thousands. When TNF's rights lapsed, other manufacturers started to create copies, and a number of design "clones" started to appear on the market. Today, out-and-out copies of the original Oval Intention (Walrus) and VE-24 design (REI Geodome and Eureka Wind River) as well as countless variations on the geodesic design principle are prominent in virtually every manufacturer's tent line. This is terrific design concept for a tent subjected to harsh conditions, and where comfort and interior space is a goal. One of the many clones"of the original North Face VE-24 design - the REI Geodome. "

But, I'm getting ahead of myself here. You may not NEED such a shelter for your purposes. How do you choose? Let's go back to where we started, and look at conditions and comfort. What are your expected backcountry conditions?

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Solo shelters also have a small footprint.Backpacking Tents . backcountry . There are other decisions you'll want to make as you decide on your "ideal" shelter. What exactly IS a "three-season" tent? By far. then only basic "summer" shelter is needed. but if you want something more than a tube tent and don't want to go the few extra bucks for a solo shelter. You almost have to put the netting up to your nose to see the openings in the netting material. For those who really want to cut weight to a minimum and who are less concerned with bugs. I would have preferred a solid upper body. which is a design employing non-geodesic pole hoops at evenly spaced locations along the tent. Liberal use of mosquito netting provides good ventilation. others may not consider this a disadvantage and may place a higher premium on staying cool and comfortable during the warmer months. Since weight is a primary consideration on a long distance hike a "tube tent".until they start biting. Sierras. By running a line through the "tube" and tying each end to trees. A three-season tent may be a stronger A. summer and fall.html Backpackers can be divided into three seasonal categories. where the mountains aren't terribly high. through-hikers typically stay in backcountry "huts" or "shelters" that have been constructed at evenly spaced distances along the length of the trail. they can also weigh more . It's a decision you'll have to make for yourself. or possibly four-season tent might be in but of course. which is a simple piece of tubular plastic. well made A-frame"tent at an economical price. the Hilleberg design is a favorite. If you live in the West and intend to camp in campgrounds at lower elevations. Normally. These tents are always all-nylon. they have the advantage of being very light. For four-season camping in all areas.) These designs typically have less netting than other tent designs and can be warmer in the summer. waterproof "sack" you can put your sleeping bag inside of. but dressing in the full force of the elements in the winter months can be an exhilarating experience. You can also use your solo shelter during the spring and fall. expedition groups seem to favor the geodesic designs of The North Face. and the possibility of significant snowfall. the solo shelter I carry in the winter has netting over the upper half of the tent. one-person tent. One example of a "olo"shelter. These models are also often only "water repellant". those pesky little biting gnats that you rarely see . This inexpensive "emergency" shelter is quite popular with "through-hikers" who hike the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast of the U. the upper body of the tent may be all netting to allow maximum air flow during the summer months. (NOTE: Cooking inside a closed tent is not recommended due to the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning. and you backpack exclusively in the summer. or Rockies where severe weather conditions can be expected at higher elevations. Some may not want to use a tent with netting covering the upper half of the tent during the chillier spring and fall months.circular openings in the side of the tent that allow you to enter and exit without opening the entire front of the tent to the elements. enclosed area covered by the rain fly at the font of the tent) or snow tunnels . This is a general rule of thumb. s " . a four-season tent is recommended. In some models.a small. but felt the design was superior for winter use. and winter tent gets a little fuzzy in this category because there are so many design variations. this is an option. and all seasons of the year. To round out our concept of "conditions". Use the following as a guide: If you live on the East Coast of the U. then a three season tent is desirable. not "water-proof". A-frame style nylon tent with a waterproof fly and no-see-um netting will serve your purposes perfectly well as a summer tent. No-see-um netting is an extremely fine mesh. the vast majority of tents on the market are "three season" models. we also need to think about your geographic location as well. I've known people to use them year-round. you'd be better off with a sheet of plastic. summer and fall in the West. the Eureka Gossamer" weighing in at 2lbs 14oz. It's not chipped in stone. In Europe.S. " . summer and fall in the east. A bivy bag typically has a zipper at the top to completely close the sack in the event of poor weather conditions. Since the temperatures are typically warm during much of a through-hike along the Appalachian Trail. (About the only thing these tents are good for is as a back yard play tent for the kids. On the other hand.Buying Your Perfect Backpacking Tent http://www.S. Summer only. or a geodesic dome style tent. and a second mosquito net opening to keep the bugs out. Occasionally. but you may be dressing outside the tent. The goal is to provide a more rigid shelter capable of withstanding some wind-loading and possibly light snow loading. then you'll need a three-season tent. then a three-season. and a A waterproof rainfly covers the tent during rainy weather. In the backcountry. is used as a back-up shelter. A waterproof fly is a urethane-coated nylon "sheet" that is typically suspended as a second layer over the tent body. If you backpack in the spring. A more expensive "minimalist" route is to consider a "solo" shelter .) One of the most frequently seen tents in the U.patc. due to it's ability to shed snow. The line between what constitutes a summer tent. E 2 of 4 2/23/2011 8:20 PM . three-season tent. What exactly IS a "Summer" tent? A simple. If you backpack in the spring. Personally.S. This " xpedition-25"will stand up to the worst weather mother nature can dish out. which is why large portions of the upper half of some three-season tents are made of this netting. " Here and there you can find some nice. these huts may be full. At least plastic is waterproof. a plastic "tube tent" is always an option.frame design (such as the ever popular Eureka "Timberline" tent). Some models may also incorporate equipment vestibules (a small. small tunnels of material with mosquito netting on the end to provide a small degree of venting while cooking inside the tent. If you live in the West and intend to backpack in the Cascades. No-see-um netting is designed to keep out no-see-ums. which is simple breathable. Don't be fooled by the "cheapie" nylon tent models mass-produced in Taiwan that look like they have a waterproof rain fly "permanently attached" and which don't have no-see-um netting. basic A-frame style tents which are assembled with poles and staked out with guy-lines and tent stakes. which can increase your alternatives when trying to locate a comfortable flat spot to pitch your tent. and you backpack exclusively in the summer. so that's what I use. A tube tent can provide basic protection from the elements during the warmer months of the year with a minimum of weight. a basic.S. then only basic "summer" shelter is needed. While not affording the interior height of standard two-person models. Another alternative is a "bivy bag".the Eureka Timberline" A simple. What exactly IS a "four-season" tent? A four-season tent is designed to withstand harsh winter conditions. Many U. with no upper body netting.usually on the order of 8 to 15 pounds. They'll work just fine during the summer months and will provide you with a dry. Because four-season tents are sometimes made from heavier tent and pole material. condensation on the inside of the non-breathable plastic is not generally a major problem. A few select models may even have "cook vents".S. spring. waterproof shelter is possible. The Walrus " rch-Rival"is an example of a three-season tent slanted more towards the summer months. No-see-um netting does a good job of restricting air flow through a tent due to its fine mesh. I've received mixed reviews on bivy sacks. The geodesic dome design seems to prevail in four-season tents in the U. bug-free environment in which to sleep. requiring the hiker to stay outdoors. wind. no protection from bugs. A plastic tarp can be used in the same manner. Water can be kept out of the tube tent by pulling the bottom of the tube inside the sleeping area.

with aluminum being the material of choice. the fabric is drawn taut between the poles and the design is much more rigid. a basic A-frame design has poles at each end.eyed after a sleepless night. and from 18 to 22 stakes to batten down for a major blow. If the pole is completely smooth when it is assembled. check the rigidity and think about the conditions you intend to use the tent in. only to discover that two had been pulled out of the ground. Trying to feed loose poles into a tent sleeve can be a frustrating experience. thicknesses. a Swedish friend of mine posed this question directly to Bo Hilleberg. or from 7 to 11 for a major blow at altitude. the 3 of 4 2/23/2011 8:20 PM . the exact opposite was the case. it will slide easily through the sleeve to the other side. There's a basic questions you can ask to determine how well a tent will perform in harsh conditions . The Pyramid shuddered against the wind and started to flap noisily. They were both fully exposed to the weather. Since winter provides the greatest test for a tent design. free-standing pole system can only get stronger with guying and staking. I won't attempt to go into the virtues of one type of aluminum over another. or are tent stakes required to raise the shelter? Tents that "stand on their own" without the need for additional staking are stronger than other designs. exposed elevations of the Wind River Range. Care must be exercised to ensure that you don't step on the poles when you're setting up the tent. You should also pay close attention to the reinforcement around the pole-to-pole connections. The wind rose to a howl. Mr.where it is clipped to the poles. this material will flap and billow in the wind. and the amount of "unsupported" material between the poles. A "clip" connection does this only at one point . and the tent was supported by two. I brought my new North Face VE-24. The typcial "winter" hoop style Hilleberg tent requires a minimum of 7 stakes to assemble the structure. All night long.Buying Your Perfect Backpacking Tent http://www. Further. light shelter that will perform well under harsh winter conditions. especially when the wind is blowing hard. and not provide a desirable level of rigidity. (This is not true of dome designs where all poles cross at one point . and a constant wind blew through the valley. or clips? A tent with pole sleeves is a more rigid design than a tent with clips. The Hilleberg tent designs are highly regarded in Europe. In severely windy conditions. or soil in deep woods can make it difficult to get the stakes in deep enough to be of value. If it does not appear to be strong. In the Eastern U. A pole sleeve supports the tent material and distributes stress over its entire length.S. as is getting them out the following day. in inclement weather. a "sleeve" design can be more challenging to set up. with the disadvantage of requiring a large number of stakes to guy the structure out and provide a taut pitch. stress is more evenly distributed over the entire tent frame opposed to a single pole.fiberglass and aluminum. However. attempting to find "dead weights" to tie a non-free standing tent to can be a challenge. And in geodesic designs where the poles overlap each other around the sides of the tent. and the wind had really given it a beating. or too soft if there is a significant amount of snow on the ground. We had no problem with the wind and slept well. They can also be too flexible in some cases. with a large area of unsupported material between the poles. the ground may be too frozen to drive in stakes at all. You need to decide if the poles used will provide the tent with the amount of rigidity you think you need for the conditions. and some are connected together with stretchy "shock cord" (nylon fabric covering multiple strips of stretchy rubber). That's going to have to be a subjective decision on your part. There are two factors that go into creating a rigid design: the poles. On the other hand. The amount of unsupported material between the poles was incredible . Why should this be a concern? Let me go back to a trip I took into the Wind River Range in 1980. Hilleberg agreed that the more crossings you have between the poles of a geodesic. In the VE-24. these stakes can even be pulled out of the ground. a North Face free-standing geodesic tent requires none. If your tent uses pole sleeves. poles can support the weight of snow much better than unsupported nylon tent material. The fly also typically has additional areas that can be pulled out and staked to create a completely rigid shelter. hoop style. concept. Is the tent "free-standing". At the higher. a geodesic dome design typically has much less unsupported material between the poles. So much for basic design considerations. Hoop tent designs provide good interior volume and lower weight. Since we had travelled into the Titcolm basin above tree line. There are a variety of aluminum poles in use in tent designs .us/hiking/gear/tents. where snow can be an occasional event but frozen ground a certainty. configurations. There were five in our group. all eight corners of the tent had to be staked out to give the shelter shape.Backpacking Tents . our friends rose bleary. As a result. In windy conditions. this is not a consideration. a large weather front moved into the region just as we were settling down to sleep. Solid fiberglass poles can be heavier than their aluminum counterparts. flat. It should be noted that TNF and Sierra Designs no longer manufacture either design. even when it's staked out. Does the top of the tent have a peaked roof. Wherever there is unsupported material. That night. the tent will be vulnerable to snow and wind loading. you'll also want to look at pole connections. Shock-corded poles are desirable. Unfortunately.patc. the poles could crack and fail at the pole connections. The stucture looks similar to a "quonset hut" when assembled. Let's look at specific features: Poles There are two major pole materials . Loamy or sandy soil is not beneficial to keeping stakes in the ground. the wind blew. He personally had not been able to discern any real difference in practice. Depending on how the manufacturer has configured the poles in the design. Frequently. or must it be staked out? Tents designed to stand up to a "real blow" will typically have the ends of the rain fly attached to the ends of the poles. and the other three brought a Sierra Designs " yramid" The Pyramid was an interesting design P . Is the fly attached to the tent frame. This shelter had lots of headroom. If you're considering a tent with fiberglass poles. there were no unexposed areas to pitch the tents. A "clip" design can be assembled easier and faster. Does the tent use pole "sleeves". I'll concentrate on things you should consider as you search for a strong. To illustrate this point. the Pyramid would be a very good tent. The next morning. the more prone a tent will be to snow loading. large areas of unsupported material may exist. and a majority of the Sierra Design tent line is now geodesic. sloping surface? Remember that the flatter the roof. and other considerations had made him keep with a traditional hoop rigid is the tent when it is assembled? A rigid shelter will always perform well in windy or snowy conditions because it will shed snow and wind better than other designs. and the top of the tent. Stakes can always be pulled out of the ground during a blow. and additional stress can cause them to pull out if the tent becomes wet and heavy due to snow or ice. Some manufacturers prefer fiberglass due to its lower cost and flexibility.from the rigid aluminum poles of the Eureka Timberline to the flexible aluminum of TNF geodesic tents. If you don't intend to take your tent out in heavy snow. But he insisted that this was in theory only. All poles are made in different lengths. requiring you to go out in the very conditions you hoped to protect yourself from to restake the material. Some poles are loose. Due to the variety of tent designs on the market today.on the order of three square yards. it was the wrong design for the conditions. The shelter was only partially assembled. " As for the structural strength of a geodesic vs.) Keep in mind that geodesic designs vary. On the other hand. The tent floor was octagonal. In a sheltered environment at lower elevations. Rocky ground.html Design and Construction Considerations The shape of a tent and it's pole configuration can greatly affect how your shelter performs in the backcountry. During the winter months. One of the inhabitants got out to reposition the stakes. and two tents. If it has raised reinforcements at each pole-to-pole connection. long segmented poles which suspended the tent over 6 feet in height at the center peak. In comparison. This Helags"model has two entrances and is suitable for four-season use. you'll probably see some of these design considerations in three-season and summer tents designs. Also keep in mind that fiberglass is a brittle material. or a large. the more stable it should be. many Europeans swear by the non-free-standing Swedish Hilleberg tent design which employs poles curved in a hoop at evenly spaced locations along the tent. the dead weights are frozen to the ground too! A strong. There was quite a bit of ribbing about this over morning breakfast.

ALWAYS air out your tent when you get it home. 4 of 4 2/23/2011 8:20 PM . this is not really a problem.Buying Your Perfect Backpacking Tent http://www. the coated material starts to get sticky. but quality IS quality after all. Typically. due to "improper care". Want to see eight stitches per inch? Check the zipper sewn into your favorite pair of Levi jeans . you might want to consider how important the quality of the coating is to your tent investment.. What about the waterproof coatings themselves?? The vast majority of backpacking tents have a urethane coating sprayed on the material to make it "waterproof". or the nylon is simply going to break down from ultraviolet exposure. just make the material "sticky". If you end up using your tent regularly.. Both will probably work fine in your tent. 95% humidity).A nice addition.Backpacking Tents . not on the sales floor of your favoirte outdoor shop :-) Anything less than 10 to 12 stiches per inch is good for backyard play only. polymer unzipping won't affect the waterproofing properties of the material. However.. where the polymer chain in the urethane starts to "unzip" when subjected to certain temperature and moisture conditions. How can you tell if the tent you're looking at in the store has a polyester urethane coating? Unfortunately. This can lead to mildew if the tent is not unpacked and aired Other Considerations Comfort . The polyester type is subject to "reversion". Even if it didn't rain on your trip. high humidity conditions (95 degrees.there are actually two generic types of urethane used on backpacking tents: Polyether-based and Polyester-based. which might have gotten wet in the rain). or dampness from the ground was absorbed by the tent material.. there is no way to make that determination . there are no cures for tent flys. there's something more you do need to know .it's eight stiches per inch. it's likely that dew.If you're a comfort camper like me. On the other hand. Coated Waterproof Bottom Good quality backpacking tents will have a waterproof bottom.patc. remember this. If you only use your tent once or twice a year. since it takes a lot of exposure under hot and humid conditions to bring on the polymer unzipping.a spot that typically receives stress. it will likely give you many years of good service.. in lieu of one or two cursory passes with the sewing machine. like instrument panels in the dashboards of airplane cockpits. Fly coverage over the door . but uses less material in the tent design. In some cases. Other manufacturers have been known to design their tents so seams are raised off the ground a short distance.. Equipment Vestibule . If the weather is bad. the only solution is to buy a new rain fly.. and your own personal levels of comfort.html reinforcements can "catch" on the sleeve as the pole is being slid through to the other side. a tent that does not have a rainfly that protects the open front of the tent can make this profound act of laziness impractical. About the only thing I can say about tent care is to be certain to haul it out of your pack as soon as you get home so it can dry out. the seam-sealer is going to come out of the seams. As usual. You can email me at jhiltz@cox. And Finally. For most backpackers. if you go out every other weekend in hot and humid conditions over a number of years.. Lower quality tents may have eight. this means your rainfly may need to be "peeled apart" once you pull it out of its storage sack. but not bring it into the tent (such as your backpacking stove. especially if you want to get some equipment out of the weather. you're probably just going to have to replace the fly. If I've overlooked something. Reinforcement at Stress Points You can get a quick idea of how much attention a manufacturer has paid to this important construction element by looking at one of the four corners of the tent . and none have worked. reversion can occur when the material is subjected to regular high heat. I like to cook outside the front door of my tent in the morning while I enjoy the warmth of my sleeping bag. from resealing the seams to recoating the Just something to keep in mind. For backpackers. Sooner or later.A-frame or dome? An A-frame has very little headroom. and minimize the need for seams at the ground level. Hand "Hand" refers to the feeling of the material. Stitching Good quality backpacking tents will have 10 to 12 stitches per inch. The point where the pull-out loop is located should be stitched over in a solid fashion. Either the urethane coating is going to eventually wear off the fly. (It is recommend that you check this at home. As a basic guide. I have tried many different techniques to "fix" this problem.) While the military has figured out a way to encapsulate equipment that is potted in place. in the winter.short of calling the company that makes the tent and asking someone who knows the answer. nylon that is "crinkly" is of lower quality than nylon that is soft to the touch. I hope this information helps you choose a tent that's well suited to the conditions you intend to use it in. A "dome"-style tent will allow you to move around inside your tent. In any case. If the stickiness actually develops and becomes unappealing to you. As a general rule. It can also lead to a rapid voiding of your "lifetime" warranty. The less expensive backpacking tents are more likely to have the polyester urethane coating. which is undesirable. and can be quite spacious in inclement weather. please let me know and I'll see about including it in the write up. the basic rule of thumb applies: "You get what you pay for". For most occasional backpackers. that's about all you need to know. Some manufacturers fashion the material into a "tub" that follows up the sides of the tent a short distance for protection against rain splatter. (The military learned this lesson in Vietnam in the late 1960's and early 1970's when polyurethane in airplane instrument panels deteriorated so fast that a pilot's boots could be stuck to the floor when he returned from a mission. for those who regularly head into the backcountry and often use their tent in warm and humid conditions. this can add up to a lighter tent. When the polymer chain starts to unzip. sooner or later it's going to start to leak.