This post is part of the Backpacking Gear for Beginners course.
Other options are a hammock with a tarp over it, or just a tarp over a sleeping bag and mat. Most people start with a tent.
Tents give you lots of protection from the weather, bugs and small animals.
A shelter is also part of the 10 Essentials that you should have with you at all times. It doesn’t have to be a full blown tent but a small emergency tarp or bivy works when you’re day-hiking. When you’re backpacking, you already have a tent or hammock!
Why do you need a tent?
Sleeping in the woods requires some sort of shelter. You have a choice here.
Tents are one of the heaviest things in your pack. Try to get as light as you can afford. Like all outdoor gear, lighter usually means more expensive. A bigger size also means heavier. Nice 2-person tents can be found between 2 and 4 pounds.
Some tents can use trekking poles for some of the poles and leave the dedicated tent poles at home. This is usually a bit more work to set up but will save some weight.
How many people?
Tents are built for how many people they can hold. Many backpacking tents are 1-, 2- or 3-person. Check the floor measurements of the tents you’re looking at and see how large it is. They won’t be huge. Often just the size of 2 sleeping mats. Sometimes the 2-person tents feel more like a 1.5 person tent.
How many doors?
Some 2-person tents have 1 door, some have 2. 2 is nice for getting into and out and having 2 vestibules, the covered area outside the tent door. 2 doors will make a tent slightly heavier but is more convenient to use.
Can you split up the parts?
Most tents come in 3 parts: mesh body, waterproof fly, poles and pegs. Usually you can split these up between the people sleeping in the tent to even out the weight. Put the body and the fly into separate bags if you want, or all in its own compression sack to squish smaller.
You could also share the weight of other things. One person carries the tent, the other the cooking gear. Distribute the weight of shared gear as much as possible.