When backpacking, all your gear is important, but one could argue that your backpacking tent is the most critical. We won’t claim that outright because we know each piece plays a significant role in allowing you to confidently explore the backcountry (which is one reason we are proud gearheads). Finding that unique combination of gear that is perfectly tuned to our specific adventures is what it’s all about. That said, in the unpredictable—and often unforgiving—backcountry, the value of a good shelter can’t be overstated.
Whether you are looking to upgrade your current backpacking tent or picking up your first, it’s a big decision. There’s a lot of factors, features and technology that go into each tent. Below we break down the critical aspects of backpacking shelters and contextualize them to help you make an informed decision.
We also have a useful feature on our website to help you find your tent. With that tool and the info in this piece, you will be squared away to make the right decision.
Step 1: Be Honest with Yourself
The question of choosing the best backpacking tent really means choosing the right tent for you.
Think about how and where you will use your tent most. Will you be throwing down weekenders relatively close to home with lesser trail miles? Will you be thru-hiking for several months and need the lightest pack possible? Are you a desert dweller, backpacking in a hot and dry climate? Are you a winter warrior in need of warmth and protection from volatile winter conditions?
We understand that nobody’s adventure calendar is homogeneous. It’s likely that the best backpacking tent for you needs to be versatile and perform well in a variety of settings and conditions. Don’t worry, there are quiver killers. Still, by studiously understanding the features and technologies of a tent, you can better match them to your style. That means safer and more confident exploration.
Step 2: Assessing the Key Features of a Backpacking Tent
These are the key features of a backpacking tent. We’ll start with a set of questions to get your mind thinking about them, why they matter, how they fit together, then break each down in more detail.
- Weight & Packed Size: How many ounces will you be carrying? How much money are you spending per ounce? How will it fit in or on your pack with all your other gear?
- Capacity: How many sleepers will be joining you in the tent?
- Seasonality & Warmth: Three-season or four-season? Put another way, how breathable is the tent?
- Livable Space: How much internal space do you have to sleep, store gear, wait out foul weather—you know, live?
- Structure Type: Freestanding, semi-freestanding or non-freestanding? Double-wall or single-wall?
- Materials: What are the poles made out of? What fabrics are used, how heavy are they, and how durable are they?
Weight & Packed Size
Backpacking tents are lightweight by necessity. But within this categorization of light, they come in a range of weights. Let’s just say the range is Light to Ultralight. When assessing the weight of a backpacking tent, you’ll encounter two primary listed weight metrics: Minimum Weight and Packaged Weight.
Minimum weight refers to just the bare essentials: rainfly, body and the poles. It is an informative spec when looked at in context. However, if you were to purchase a FreeLite™ 2 for example, it’s unlikely that its listed minimum weight of 2 lbs 8 oz is what you’d be putting in your pack. The actual weight would be closer to the Packaged Weight.
Packaged Weight is the total of all the components that come in the package. In addition to the rainfly, canopy and poles, the stakes, stuff sacks and instructions are factored in. Some tents, like our Elixir Series, come with a footprint; many do not. If you intend to carry a footprint, be sure to add its weight to the packaged weight for a more accurate number.
Cost per Ounce
When buying a tent, perhaps the very first info you compare between models is the price. Always go back to Step 1. Be honest about how much weight you are willing to carry. Be honest about how much you are willing to spend to carry less. Generally, the lighter tents become the pricier they get. Lighter materials that still stand up to the rigors of the backcountry are more expensive. Chances are based on your target weight and your budget, you’ll find a model that balances them quite well.
Weight is only one metric that affects your pack. The other key metric is the Packed Size.
Packed Size gives you a relative idea of how much space the tent will take up in or on your backpack. Again, be sure to account for any potential add-ons like a footprint when analyzing this number. Tents are one of the bulkiest items that you carry into the backcountry. A common strategy for making them easier to carry is splitting up the components between group members. You take the fly and the poles, and your partner takes the stakes and the canopy—or something like that.
Backpacking tents generally come in 1- to 4-person models. The numbers in tent names denote their capacity. For example, the Zoic™ 3 is a 3-person tent.
WTo determine which size is best for you, go back to Step 1: Be honest with yourself! If you expect significant solo use out of a tent, then a 1-person tent is a strong idea. They are lighter, more compact and still suited to withstand plenty of use.
Alternatively, a common tent strategy is to size up by one (a 2-person tent for solo endeavors, or a 3-person for a couple). Some people like having that extra livable space for what is usually a small weight penalty. Having room to store gear and get organized can mean a lot when you’re living off what you can carry in a pack. We find this strategy is most common with groups of two. When you can distribute the weight of a 3-person tent between two people, the extra ounces seem well worth it when you have ample room to get situated, organized and well-rested.
Of course, more room in a tent means that’s more space to heat up if the temperatures drop. Which brings us to tent Seasonality and Warmth.
Seasonality & Warmth
Most of our backpacking tents are 3-season tents, but we do make solid 4-season options as well. On the whole, when you type “backpacking tent” into your search engine, you’ll see 3-season tents. They are lighter and more versatile. In most places, a 3-season tent is going to be more useful in the shoulder seasons—spring and fall—than a 4-season tent.
The reason comes down to breathability. Let’s take a look at another example:
The Access 2 is our ski-touring tent, but its weight and compact design make it an excellent option for cold-weather backpacking and snowshoeing. With a packaged weight of 4 lbs 1 oz (1.86 kg), it is lighter than our super-livable Zoic 2, which has a packaged weight of 4 lbs 13 oz (2.19 kg). While the Zoic is designed as a spacious backpacking tent that does very well as a frontcountry tent, it would still do better in non-winter conditions than the Access, despite its weight. It has more mesh in its body which gives it superior ventilation.
4-season tents are designed to trap heat inside and keep snow and cold air out. This means they have less mesh and ventilation features. The unavoidable consequence of their design means that more condensation accumulates on the tent walls overnight. Moreover, a tent that is too warm makes it harder to achieve thermal efficiency as you sleep.
Our companions at Therm-a-Rest® frequently discuss thermal efficiency as it pertains to building sleep systems, but it is a worthy consideration when selecting a backpacking tent as well. Achieving thermal efficiency is being just the right temperature.
A Zoic ventilates well and will stay cool in the warm temperatures, but so will a tent from the Hubba Hubba series. The Hubba series tent weighs less, meaning you get the performance while carrying less weight. More efficient, right? Maybe, maybe not. The Hubba series tent costs more. For many backpackers, a less expensive Zoic will accomplish exactly what they need it to, maintain the right temperature overnight, and do so for less money. There isn’t one correct pathway to thermal efficiency. It all depends on what you, as a backpacker, value in tent performance and what features you need.
Living Space & Features
A key question when choosing a backpacking tent is, “how livable is the tent?” Of course, the scale of livability is subjective, and the answer will depend on what you need to be comfortable.
In order to cut weight, backpacking tents give up a lot of internal space compared to frontcountry models. Key metrics to look at are tent volume, floor area, vestibule area and interior peak height. Analyzing these specs will give you a spatial understanding of a tent.
If possible, it’s a good idea to set up a tent before you purchase it. Lay inside it, get a feel for what it might be like to live in it. Get a sense of your storage area and available gear pockets. Check the zipper action on the doors and vestibule. Ease of use is a big part of assessing livability.
Structure type refers to whether or not a tent is freestanding, semi-freestanding or non-freestanding. It also refers to whether or not the tent is double-wall or single-wall. Here’s a rundown of definitions and which MSR backpacking tents are in each category.
Freestanding: The poles alone support the structure of the tent. It doesn’t need any guy lines or staked out tension to achieve its pitch. That said, staking out a freestanding tent and adding support with guy lines is always a good idea for the best quality pitch.
Semi-Freestanding: Relies on the pole structure and staked out tension points or guy lines to achieve its pitch.
Non-Freestanding: Requires staked out tension points to achieve its pitch. Often uses accessory poles or hiking/skiing poles to add verticality and create shape along with the tension.
Double-wall: Double-wall tents have a rainfly and a body. There are two walls between you and the outside. Double-wall tents are commonly freestanding because the comprehensive pole structure gives the rainfly support, tension and shape.
Special Note: As the name suggests the Thru-Hiker Mesh House Series are essentially tent bodies, though they are sold without a rainfly. They pair with the Thru-Hiker 70 Wing and 100 Wing Shelters for weather protection. Used together they would be a double-wall system, however they can be used independently of one another as ultralight options which is why we classify the Thru-Hiker Mesh House series, the 70 Wing and the 100 Wing Shelters as single-wall.
Single-wall: Single-wall tents use a single layer of protection between you and the outside. Single wall tents are typically not-freestanding. Also, many 4-season tents are single-wall. Two reasons for this: 1) they are not as good at ventilating because they can’t match the amount of mesh that a tent design achieves with a tent body, but they are able to trap heat well. 2) single-wall designs save weight by eliminating the tent body. 4-season tents are heavier due to the higher denier materials typically used for warmth and resistance to foul weather.
In this section we will overview key points regarding tent fabrics and poles. Being knowledgeable of tent materials gives you a more nuanced perspective on weight, packability and durability.
As we state in our in-depth tent fabrics blog, understanding tent fabrics is central to choosing the best backpacking tent. Tents are built mostly of fabrics after all. Head to that blog for an in-depth look at tent fabrics. Here, we will go over two key aspects when it comes to comparing fabrics of different tent models: denier and waterproof coating.
Let’s dive in with an example:
With a minimum weight of 3 lb 8 oz (1.60 kg), our bestselling Hubba Hubba™ NX 2 occupies the grey area between light and ultralight. At 1 lb 13 oz (0.84 kg), the ultralight Carbon Reflex™ 2 offers the protection and livability of a semi-freestanding 2-person tent at the weight of a tarp. Let’s take a look at the differences in fabrics:
Hubba Hubba™ NX 2: Rainfly-20D ripstop nylon, Floor-30D ripstop nylon, 15D nylon micromesh
Carbon Reflex 2: Rainfly-7D ripstop nylon, Floor-15D ripstop nylon, Mesh-10D polyester micro-mesh
The “D” stands for denier. Denier indicates the thickness of the fibers in the tent fabric. It’s a unit of density based on the length and weight of a yarn or fiber. A single strand of silk is considered 1 denier. The denser ripstop nylon of the Hubba Hubba NX 2 is heavier. Importantly, it is also more durable. Very often, choosing a backpacking tent based on its weight and bulk is also choosing it based on its expected durability.
The fabrics are a key feature that make the Hubba Hubba NX 2 super-versatile and one of the best all-around tents on the market. It’s designed to stand up to the three-season elements and the rigors of backpacking season after season. The Carbon Reflex 2 is for those looking to trim as many ounces as possible, pack small and move quickly through the backcountry. It still provides ample protection from the elements, but it’s an ultralight specialist tent and the fabrics reflect that.
Comparing the fabrics of these two tents provides a good framework for understanding the spectrum of backpacking tents. When shopping for backpacking tents—especially online—it’s a lot of looking at specs. In this format, it can be a difficult to become attuned with the subtleties that make each model unique, or, more importantly, make certain models more right for what you need. Following the Minumum Weight, Packaged Weight and Packed Size with denier information allows a much more tactile evaluation a webpage.
Denier also provides insight into the cost of a tent. Advanced fabrics cost more. Which is why ultralight specialist tents will typically be more expensive than heavier backpacking tents. The 7D ripstop nylon of the Carbon Reflex 2 is simply more expensive to manufacture. It’s important to know that if you were to purchase a Carbon Reflex 2, you would be paying more for a lesser expected usable lifespan than if you purchased a Hubba Hubba NX 2. We don’t want to sound like a broken record, but again, always go back to Step 1.
A tent’s waterproofing is achieved in two ways: coating the rainfly and sealing the seams. Not all waterproof coatings are the same and not all seams are sealed the same way. When selecting a backpacking tent, understanding what goes into its waterproofness will provide a more accurate perspective on its performance.
Waterproof tent coatings are a layer of polyurethane or silicone applied to the fabrics. Essentially, the tents fabrics are laid flat and sent through a long conveyor belt while the coating is sprayed on. When checking out tent specs you will see the coating rated by a number.
Example: The fabric specs on the Front Range™ 4 Person Ultralight Tarp Shelter is listed as 20D ripstop nylon 1200mm Xtreme Shield™ polyurethane & silicone.
But what does that “1200mm” mean? If you don’t already know, it can be easy to assume this is a measurement of the coating’s thickness, similar to denier. However, its actually a way to measure its water resistance.
Briefly explained, the coatings are tested by pressing a water column against the fabric until three drops pass through. It’s called a hydrostatic head test. 1200mm—in the case of the Front Range 4—means the fabric can withstand 1200mm of water on top of it before it leaks.
A higher rating can withstand more water pressure, but that doesn’t mean higher waterproof ratings are universally better. To achieve higher ratings, more coating has to be applied. Thicker coatings are heavier; thicker coatings also make a fabric stiffer, impacting their overall size and packability. Thicker coatings do, however, increase a tent’s durability and abrasion resistance. Which is why tent floors typically have a thicker coating than the rainfly.
One critical thing to understand is that the coatings adhere better to thicker fabrics. That is to say, the coatings last longer on higher denier tents.
One common issue across the backpacking tent industry is the breaking down of a tent’s waterproof coating. The combination of time, moisture, heat and humidity cause the coating to chemically breakdown, become sticky, and render a tent not waterproof and unusable. This natural process is called hydrolysis.
Loosely speaking, the coating on a tent with a higher denier (such as an Elixir 2, rainfly: 68D ripstop polyester 1500mm Polyurethane) will last longer than a lighter tent (such as the FreeLite 2, rainfly: 15D ripstop nylon 1200mm Xtreme Shield polyurethane & silicone). But there are a lot of factors that affect this dynamic.
For one, we spent years diligently researching and developing our Xtreme Shield™ coating. It’s specially formulated on the molecular level to be more resistant to heat and humidity. This allows lighter tents with lower denier fabric to last longer and avoid premature hydrolysis.
Another aspect affecting the longevity of a tent’s coating is how the tent is cared for. Storing a tent wet, or damp at all, will increase the chance of coating breakdown. Always make sure your tent is dry before storing it. Additionally, when possible, store your tent loose and in a manner that allows it to breathe (much like a sleeping bag storage stuff sack).
Xtreme Shield also marked a rethinking about how we seal our seams. On many backpacking tents, you will find the seams taped. Seam taping works quite well keeping the water out. That said, it suffers from the same potential longevity issues as the coatings. Seam tape tends to flake and lose its efficacy in the same manner as the coatings do with hydrolysis.
The Xtreme Shield seam strategy improves longevity and durability by borrowing and updating from the tried and true backpacking tents of the past. Rather than taping the seams, we use a precise lap-felled stitching with a poly-cotton blend thread. When exposed to water, the thread will absorb it, expand and seal off the seam. As an extra measure we apply a seam-sealant to each tent off the line. The application of a seam sealant is something that anybody can do on their own to maintain the performance of their tent. This will ensure a much longer usable lifetime than relying on the efficacy of a tent’s seam tape.
Step 3: Choosing a Backpacking Tent
With a solid understanding of the key features of backpacking tents, and how they affect performance, it becomes easier to analyze feature lists, scan spec sheets and understand the differences between tent models.
The following is our lineup of backpacking tents, excerpted from The Ultimate Guide to MSR Tents.
Hubba Hubba™ NX 1, 2, 3
If you have room for just one tent in your busy life (or condo), and you like to do it all, the Hubba Hubba NX should be at the top of your list. Our Hubba Series of tents are legendary for their all-round performance, taking on everything from high-mileage backpacks to car camping adventures. They feature the added versatility of a fabric canopy for more privacy and added warmth in shoulder-season conditions, a setup-friendly, freestanding design and tougher fabrics that will handle the frequent use typical for a tent so versatile. If you love this tent and need even more room, add a Gear Shed for a giant boost in covered space for added gear.
Zoic™ 1, 2, 3, 4
Zoic tents build on the FreeLite’s well-ventilated, warm-weather design with added space and more durability. Available to accommodate up to four people, the Zoic tents have full mesh canopies for maximum airflow and bug protection with spacious floor plans built to accommodate larger mattresses. Robust, 70D nylon floors are the toughest available in our backpacking tents and offer reliable and lasting protection for heavy users and unpredictable kids. (Always use a footprint!) Of course, they’re still comfortably in the “pack-friendly” zone for weight and are ideal for summer pursuits deep in the backcountry too.
FreeLite™ 1, 2, 3
If the Carbon Reflex tents seem a bit too specialized for you, but you like the idea of a small, ultralight tent, check out the still-ultralight FreeLite Series. Composite Easton® Syclone™ poles and slightly tougher fabrics add durability while still keeping things ultralight. The Freelite tents also feature extra room inside, plus added vestibule space so you can make the most of it when waiting out a summer storm or escaping a cloud of mosquitoes.
Carbon Reflex™ 1, 2, 3
The Carbon Reflex Series of tents are built for trips where weight, packability and protection are all top priorities. They’re ideal for long backpacks, maximizing pannier space on your bike or even an ultralight alpine basecamp below treeline. Full mesh canopies and ultralight fabrics reduce weight, as do the finest Easton® carbon fiber poles and their non-freestanding design. These tents pack down incredibly small too, saving valuable space where you need it. Otherwise, a full feature set, including two doors (Carbon Reflex 2 & 3), full coverage rainflies and roomy vestibules will make it hard to remember just how light it was on the walk in.
Elixir™ 1, 2, 3, 4
Are shorter backpacks with more creature comforts your thing? Maybe you’d rather sacrifice some weight savings for the added durability and space needed for spending a lot of time in your tent. The Elixir tents deliver just that with a little more of everything: space, protection and durability. The Elixirs are built with the same reliable 70D nylon floors as the Zoic tents, while a fabric canopy adds warmth and privacy with just enough mesh for great ventilation and visibility when not using the rainfly. Just like the Hubba Hubba tents, the Gear Shed works with the Elixr 1, 2 and 3 tents, adding nearly 27 square feet of added vestibule coverage for gear, bikes and more.
Access™ 1, 2, 3
The Access tents strike a critical balance between weather protection and lightweight packability for high mileage ski tours, snowshoeing and weekend winter camping. While still plenty robust for high winds and snow loads, their intended use is ratcheted back slightly to camping in relatively protected areas at or below treeline. This focused design intention allowed us to shave some weight, keeping your pack lighter so you can enjoy turns with a full pack a bit more. Limited mesh in the tent canopy retains warmth inside and works with a vented fly to maintain excellent ventilation.
Thru-Hiker Mesh House 1, 2, 3
Weighing as little as 10 oz., the Thru-Hiker Mesh House Series add essential bug protection for thru-hikers committed to using ultralight tarps for weather protection. Aside from the zipper, there’s zero hardware and they pitch with trekking poles to save even more weight. A bathtub floor keeps out mud and moisture and there’s enough internal space for comfortable living months at a time. Of course, the sun doesn’t shine every day, so pair a Thu-Hiker Mesh House with a Thru-Hiker Wing for minimalist, overhead protection when the skies don’t cooperate with your plans.
Thru-Hiker Wing 70/100
Protection for four at just over a pound? That’s what the Thru-Hiker Wings provide, packing ultra-small and ultralight for anyone committed to small packs, low weight and big trail days. Gossamer 20D nylon features our finest XtremeShield™ coating for maximum weatherproof reliability and they pitch with just a pair of trekking poles to keep things simple. Alternatively, pair them with a Thru-Hiker Mesh House 2 or 3 to create minimalist protection from rain, wind and bugs on the AT, PCT, CDT or whatever “T” you’re dreaming of.
Rendezvous Sunshield 120 & 200
The most asked questions where you see our sun and weather-shielding Rendezvous™ Sun Shield tarps deployed is, “Where’d you get that?” Their relatively giant size seems anything but minimalist, but they become essential basecamp tools for anyone that has one, serving-up protection that can be viewed as minimalist or decadent. It just depends on how you use them.
At just 3lb 4oz, the 120 makes a minimalist, backcountry-friendly refuge for up to four. Alternately, bring it along to simply provide a covered cooking area or sunshade on a short backpack you’ll be getting decadent vibes all day long.
The 200 easily covers a full-size picnic table with it 200 square feet of protection and is minimalist only relative to the enormous coverage it provides. At 6 pounds, its lightweight fabric packs efficiently in car, van or river boat and is just what you need to protect you and a small army of friends from sun and rain, anywhere you like.
Each features a polyurethane and silicone-coated nylon fabric for reliable protection and comes with two poles for set-up. You can even add more poles to increase the standing-height area or create any number of configurations that suit your needs. And a pro tip: follow the simple directions for a much faster set-up.
Even for gearheads, shopping for gear can be dizzying, especially in the tent category. With so many worthy options, it can feel a little ridiculous to sift through the specs, the photos, the marketing materials and the hype to arrive at the tent model that is best for you. We hope that this information gives you the honest framework you need to pick the gear that will serve you best on your adventures. As always, let us know if you have any questions.