How to Choose the Best Backpacking Tent
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. That’s why finding that unique combination of gear, perfectly tuned to our specific adventures is what it’s all about. However, 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 are picking up your first, choosing the best tent for your needs is a big decision. There are a lot of factors, features and technology that go into each tent, all with intention and purpose to best suit a specific range of conditions. 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 find the best backpacking tent for your needs.
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 fewer 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 no one’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 that can cover a wide range of uses, but by understanding the features and technologies of a tent, you can better match them to your style. And with that, you’ll enjoy safer and more confident adventures that let you focus on the fun part.
Step 2: Assessing the Key Features of a Backpacking Tent
Let’s start with a set of questions, based on the key features of a tent, to get you thinking about them, why they matter, and how they fit together, then break each down into 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? Are you a fair weather camper? How likely are high winds, snowloads, and cold temps?
- Livable Space: How much internal space do you have to sleep, store gear or wait out foul weather—you know, live?
- Structure Type: Freestanding, semi-freestanding or non-freestanding? Double-wall or single-wall? Do you need the lightest or strongest tent? Where will you pitch it?
- 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. Typically, you’d add common things like stakes, a ground cloth and guy lines to arrive at your actual trail 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 a backpacking tent becomes, the pricier it gets. Maybe carrying a few extra ounces all summer is fine if you’re on a budget.
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 FreeLite™ 3 is a 3-person tent.
To 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 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 most commonly 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 organized, well-rested or wait out a storm.
Of course, more room in a tent means there’s more space to heat up if the temperatures drop. This brings us to seasonality and warmth.
Seasonality & Warmth
Allof 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, and 4-season tents under terms like “mountaineering” and “winter” tents. 3-Season tents tend to be lighter and more versatile. In most places, a 3-season tent is going to be useful spring thru fall, while a 4-season tent has key advantages in harsher conditions and cold climates.
4-season tents are designed to keep snow and cold air out, while also being strong enough to stand up to heavy snow and high winds. This means that they are more challenging to ventilate, making internal moisture management more challenging, and they typically weigh more. Single-Wall tents like our Advance Pro™ 2 are yet another variety of 4-season tent. Rather than a fly and canopy, they have a single, solid waterproof/breathable wall. While these solve the weight problem, creating incredibly light tents that work in places little else will, it complicates ventilation. Bottom line: If you need a four season tent, you probably know it. For everyone else, a 3-season tent is far more versatile choice.
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. And remember that not all tents with the same floor dimensions are created equal. Look for tents with steep (more vertical) sidewalls that will allow you to sit close to a wall without being hunched over. All else being equal, tents that slant in aggressively rob you of valuable space that steep walls maximize with little weight difference. Also get a sense of your storage area, vestibule coverage, number of doors and available gear pockets. Check zippers for tight spots when pitched and assess how complicated the tent it is to set up. 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.
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 since you can pull it tight, get more room inside, and not worry about your tent blowing away while you’re gone.
Freestanding MSR Backpacking Tents:
Relies on the pole structure and staked out tension points or guy lines to achieve its pitch.
Semi-freestanding MSR Backcountry Tents:
Double-Wall Backpacking Tents
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.
Double-Wall MSR Backpacking Tents:
Non-Freestanding Tarp Shelters
Built to offer the lightest protection possible, tarp shelters are made with a single wall of fabric and floors typically not included. part of it. They are best in fair weather and warm temps, but the Front Range Tarp, with its great coverage and inherent strength, as just as at home in the Alaskan Range as it is in Rocky Mountain National Park in July.
MSR Tarp Shelters:
- Front Range™ 4 Person Tarp
- Thru-Hiker Mesh House Series*
- Thru-Hiker 70 Wing and 100 Wing Shelters*
- Rendezvous™ Sun Shield 120 and 200 Shelters
Special Note: *As the name suggests, the Thru-Hiker Mesh House shelters are essentially tent bodies, 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.
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 2 lb 14 oz (1.30 kg), our bestselling Hubba Hubba™ 2 occupies the grey area between light and ultralight. Let’s take a look at the fabric:
Hubba Hubba 2: Rainfly-20D ripstop nylon, Floor-20D ripstop nylon, Mesh-10D polyester
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 2 therefore is heavier and bulkier, but 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 2 super-versatile and one of the best all-around tents on the market. It’s designed to stand up to three-season elements and the rigors of backpacking season after season.
When shopping for backpacking tents—especially online—it’s a lot of looking at specs. In this format, it can be difficult to become attuned to the subtleties that make each model unique, or, more importantly, make certain models more right for what you need. Following the Minimum Weight, Packaged Weight and Packed Size with denier information allows for a much more tactile evaluation from 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.
A backpacking tent’s waterproofing is typically 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 tent’s 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 spec 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, it’s 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 column 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. This 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 DuraShield polyurethane & silicone).
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 so it can breathe (much like a sleeping bag storage stuff sack).
On many backpacking tents, you will find the seams taped. Seam taping works quite well at keeping water from penetrating stitch holes. That said, it suffers from the same potential longevity issues as the coatings. Seam tape tends to flake and lose its waterproof properties in the same way coatings do with hydrolysis.
Some of our tents feature our Xtreme Shield™ seam strategy, which 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 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 safety 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 a tent’s seam tape, and can be used effectively on tents whose seam tape has peeled away over time.
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™ 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 should be at the top of your list. Our Hubba Series 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.
FreeLite™ 1, 2, 3
If you like the idea of a small, ultralight tent, check out the ultralight FreeLite Series. DAC NFL aluminum 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.
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 reliable 70D nylon floors, 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 shelters 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 Xtreme Shield 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 question when we deploy our sun and weather-shielding Rendezvous™ Sun Shield tarps 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 3 lb 4 oz, 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 its 200 square feet of protection and is minimalist only relative to the enormous coverage it provides. At 6 lb, its lightweight fabric packs efficiently in a car, van or riverboat and is just what you need to protect you and a small army of friends from sun and rain, anywhere you like.
Each features polyurethane and silicone-coated nylon fabric for reliable protection and comes with two poles for setup. 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 setup.
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 backpacking tent that will serve you best on your adventures. As always, let us know if you have any questions.
- The Ultimate Guide to MSR Tents
- 3-Season vs. 4-Season Tent: Which is Right for You?
- Designing MSR Tents — What We Stand For
Updated. Originally Published August 24, 2021.