When choosing a tent for camping or backpacking, consider the conditions you’re likely to encounter, the number of people you need to accommodate, and how much bulk and weight you’re willing to carry.
The body (sometimes called a canopy) is made up of the floor, walls and door. The floor is usually a heavier materials and is waterproof, while the walls are made of non-waterproof nylon or polyester with mesh panels for venting.
The fly is a fully waterproof nylon or polyester material that forms a second wall over the body and poles. It often has a vestibule, or awning, that covers the door.
Free-standing tents have a pole structure to hold up the tent, and you don’t have to stake them out to use them. They are quick to set up and can be pitched in almost any terrain.
Non-free-standing tents must be staked out to keep them upright. They are usually lighter, as they have fewer poles, but can be difficult to set up in sandy or rocky terrain where it’s hard to get a stake in the ground.
Seasons and conditions
Three-season tents are designed to offer ventilation in spring, summer and fall, and weather protection in everything but heavy snowfalls or high winds. Many three-season tents have mesh walls to reduce condensation. On hot nights, you can set them up without the fly for a bug-proof shelter. They are more airy, less expensive, and lighter than four-season tents, and their versatility makes them popular with backpackers, paddlers and cyclists.
Four-season tents are built to protect you in heavy weather. They often have full-length pole sleeves instead of clips, extra guy-points and lines to give you more staking options, and a low, curved shapes to shed wind and snow. Fabrics tend to be heavier, with thicker weatherproof coatings that make them warmer, but less ventilated and more susceptible to interior condensation. They are usually heavier and less compact than three-season options, but offer secure shelter when you’re ski touring, winter camping or on a mountaineering expedition.
Two tents with similar area will feel different depending on how the space is configured. An arch or tunnel shaped tent makes efficient use of materials and remains light to carry, but creates a close shape. A more dome-shaped structure provides room to sit and socialize and is good for basecamps or for waiting out storms. High, steep walls provide lots of usable floor space and are good for family shelters and for shedding rain, but they catch the wind and are less efficient for packing and carrying.
Some features, like having two doors, add comfort and make tents more livable. The tradeoff is usually weight. An ultralight tent will generally have minimal features, so when choosing a tent, think about the key features you’ll want and the ones you’re willing to skip so your tent will be lighter to carry.
Vestibules or awnings
Like a small front porch over one or both doors, a vestibule provides a dry area for you to store your boots and backpack. They make a tent more liveable by giving you a space to remove wet or muddy clothing before entering the tent.
Pole sleeves and clips
A sleeve that covers the length of a pole distributes force over a large area of the canopy fabric. They are also generally quite easy to operate when wearing mittens or gloves and stand up to wind well. Pole clips allow air to circulate between the canopy and the fly, and improve ventilation and keep the overall weight of a tent low.
Vents and windows
Vents are a great for any tent used in coastal or humid conditions. They can be propped open or closed depending on the weather. Windows are great for if you are stuck in your tent waiting for better weather. They are a little heavier than the fabric of the canopy, so they’re not a feature of ultra-light tents.
Not usually included with a tent, a footprint is a wise purchase that will extend the life of you tent. It adds an extra layer of waterproofing and prevents pinholes and abrasion from rough ground. Select one that is the same size as your tent floor; if it extends past the edges, it can channel water underneath.