Story and photos by Lisa Holmes
The right tent can make or break a camping trip. No tent is perfect, of course, but with the right tent and enough knowledge, you can ensure a great night’s sleep. Here are tips to overcome the most common challenges you’re likely to face while backpacking or camping.
It’s too heavy
A tent is one of the “big four” gear items (along with a backpack, sleeping bag and pad) that make up the base weight of your pack. For backpackers who want to cut weight—to travel more miles or to simply make the trip easier on your body—upgrading your tent can save a lot of weight. If you’re shopping for a lighter tent, it’s first important to understand the way tent weights are measured.
Backpacking tents often have a trail weight and a packaged weight. The trail weight includes the tent body, rainfly and poles. Packaged weight also includes tent stakes, stuff sacks and anything else that comes with the tent. The weight you actually carry will vary based on the parts of the tent you choose to take on each trip. Double-walled tents, for example, can often be set up in a variety of ways. If it’s going to be wet but not buggy, you could consider bringing the footprint and the rainfly, saving the weight of the tent body. On the other hand, if you’re certain of dry weather but expect bugs, you could leave the rainfly behind.
Single-walled tents can be advantageous to those wanting to cut down on pack weight—although they do present other challenges.
The material you choose can also make a big difference. Most tents are made of nylon or polyester fabric with waterproof coatings. Silnylon is a material with silicone embedded in the nylon, making it stronger, lighter and more waterproof than coated fabrics. Dyneema fabric (formerly called cuben fiber) is by far the lightest fabric currently available, and it’s completely waterproof. It’s also the most expensive and currently not in use by major tent manufacturers. However, there are cottage-industry gear manufacturers making ultralight tents with Dyneema fabric.
Tent alternatives, such as tarps or bivies, are another way to cut weight. A tarp is floorless and set up using guy lines and/or poles. They are very light but require skill to pitch properly and won’t keep out bugs. Bivys act as a slipcover over a sleeping bag. Due to their small size, they can feel claustrophobic and don’t provide storage for gear. (Bivys are often used as emergency shelters.)
If you’re trying to cut every gram, also consider the packed size of your tent, which will be listed on the tent specs. Tents that pack smaller could allow you to carry a smaller and lighter backpack. You can also shave a bit of weight by making your own footprint, using a material such as Polycro or Tyvek.
Finally, remember that if you’re backpacking with a companion, you can split the pieces of the tent between you.
In general, a lightweight backpacking tent should weigh about 2.5 pounds per person, with ultralight tents closer to 1.5 pounds per person.
It’s too cramped
Tents are sold in one-, two- or more person sizes, although there is no industry standard for these designations. To determine the overall roominess of a tent, look at the square footage, height, length and width. Tents with vertical walls will be roomier than those with sloping walls. Also consider the size of the vestibules for gear, which frees up space inside. If you need extra space to spread out or to store gear, consider sizing up. Some solo backpackers prefer two-person tents. Couples might want to consider a three-person tent, especially if bringing a dog.
For taller people, pay attention to the tent length and height to make sure there’s space to keep a sleeping bag from touching the ends when lying down and enough head space for sitting up.
The placement of the entry to a tent can also impact the ease of use and how cramped a tent feels. Some of the lightest tents use a single front entry, but side-entry tents are easier to enter and exit. In a two- or three-person tent, having two doors means you won’t have to crawl over your tent mate and you’ll have the space of an additional vestibule for gear or wet times.
Add-on options can also cut down clutter and make a tent feel roomier. Look for pockets for storing smaller items, such as a headlamp or glasses. Tents with multiple loops on the ceiling can make use of a gear loft to keep lightweight gear off the floor.
It’s too wet
In a tent, there are two ways you’re likely to end up wet. The first is from rain or snow from the outside. The second is from condensation from the inside. Selecting the right tent and site will help you avoid both.
Double-wall tents usually provide great protection against wetness. The separate inner and outer layers keep out rain while also allowing condensation to escape. For extra protection from rain and wind, look for a rainfly that extends lower to the ground and a bathtub-style floor that extends a few inches up the wall.
Seams on the floor of a tent need to be sealed to prevent water from seeping in. If you use a footprint, be certain that it is slightly smaller than the tent, to prevent water from pooling under the tent.
If your tent used to keep you dry but doesn’t anymore, it might be a problem with the coating on the rainfly. The majority of tents available are made of nylon or polyester fabric with a polyurethane waterproof coating on the inside of the rainfly and a coating on the outside to repel rain. These coatings can wear off over time, due to sun exposure and abrasion, and may need to be reapplied. Products such as Nikwax can help.
Condensation buildup is common with single-wall tents, although careful site selection and setup can help alleviate this problem. Condensation forms when warm air meets cool air. Therefore, a tent is more prone to condensation when the air outside of the tent is cooler than the inside. Pitching your tent under trees can keep the air around your tent warmer. Also, trees tend to collect moisture from the air, which can help to prevent
condensation on your tent. Another strategy is to pitch your tent so a breeze can flow through the space, moving moist air out.
Proper ventilation in a tent will also help avoid condensation. If your tent has vents, make sure they are open. Look for tents with multiple ways to vent, with strategic placement of the vents for cross-ventilation. Additionally, tents with two doors will allow air to flow through the space when the vestibules are opened.
It’s too cold
First off, to stay warm, make sure you’ve done everything you can to stay dry. Also be careful with your site selection. Camp in areas away from the water and out of the wind. Cold air collects in low spots, so set up camp on higher ground, especially avoiding narrow canyons or rivers. If you get cold easily, look for tents with less mesh and rainflies that provide more coverage. Also, don’t go too big. A larger tent is harder to warm up with your body heat. If you’re backpacking in the winter, consider a four-season tent. The sturdy construction will stand up to wind and snow, and with more fabric coverage and less mesh, you’ll stay warmer.
It’s too expensive
With tents, like most gear, you get what you pay for. That said, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a tent. If you want a tent for both car camping and backpacking, consider going slightly larger. You’ll compromise on weight and size, but it can save you from buying two tents. Also consider used tents for sale online.
Where to purchase
Outdoor retailers typically carry double-wall, three-season tents by manufacturers such as Big Agnes, North Face, Kelty, Marmot, MSR, Nemo and Sierra Designs. In addition, some retailers like REI offer their own brand of tents for backpacking and car camping.
Also consider purchasing gear from one of the smaller cottageindustry companies such as Tarptent, Zpacks, Six Moon Designs, Hyperlite Mountain Gear or Gossamer Gear. These companies focus on ultralight gear and offer single-wall and double-wall tents, many of which are made in the United States. While you may be able to find products from these companies at smaller local retailers, most of these products will need to be purchased directly from the companies that make them.