Small, light backpacking tents are what most people use for shelter when they’re out backpacking. There are other options like hammocks and tarps but they require a little bit more experience and we don’t recommend you start there.
A backpacking tent is small, light and easy to set up. They can hold 1 to 4 people and usually are a mesh body covered with a waterproof fly.
On this page
How to Buy a Backpacking Tent
The size of your backpacking tent will be your biggest decision. Is it a 1-person, just for yourself? Is it a 2-person for yourself and maybe 1 other? Or is it bigger for the whole family, maybe a 3- or 4-person?
Most people opt for a 2-person. The size is great for 2 people or nice and spacious for 1. Many tent pads and camping spots fit a 2- or 1-person tent well. The pieces divide up in half easy. The tent body can go into one persons tent and the tent poles and fly can go into another.
Size and weight are closely linked with backpacking tents. A 2 person tent is going to weigh more than a 1 person. A 3 person tent is going to weigh more than a 2 person.
There are certainly exceptions to this as the price gets higher and the fabrics get thinner and thinner. A more expensive 2- or 3-person tent with very thin, lightweight fabric can weigh less than a 1-person tent made from thicker, heavier materials.
Buy as light a tent as you can afford. It’s a large piece of gear in your pack and can weigh 4 or 5 pounds or more.
Even cheap tents are quite durable. The thicker the fabric the more durable it is. That said, you still have to be quite careful with tents. The mesh and fly are thin can tear easily. A waterproof fly with a hole in it isn’t waterproof any more.
Putting down a tarp or ground sheet (often called a footprint) protects the bottom of your tent from sharp sticks and rocks. It’s easier to replace a small tarp or piece of plastic under your tent than a whole tent body. As with everything else, it is something more to carry carry in your pack.
Non-Tent Shelter Options
Tents are usually the easiest to start with for backpacking but there are other options. Hammocks and tarps are 2 other ways to stay dry and warm when backpacking.
Backpacking hammocks aren’t your normal backyard hammock on a stand but the idea is the same. A very thin, light piece of fabric is hung between 2 trees. A bug net and tarp usually sit on top to keep you out of the bugs and rain. The ground doesn’t have to be smooth or flat under the hammock but there needs to be trees or rocks to attach either end of the hammock to.
Some people love sleeping in hammocks and some people hate it. It’s a good thing to test out at home before going on a week-long backpacking trip. With no poles to hold up the hammock, they often pack down smaller and lighter than backpacking tents do. Keep in mind they’ll always be 1-person.
If you’re comfortable, pitching a tarp above you to protect you from the elements is all you need to sleep outside. There are many different shapes of tarps from regular rectangles to tent-shaped shells. Tarps usually require some way to pitch them and hold them up, with either trekking poles holding up either end or a rope from one tree to another. Tying edges and corners to trees or tent pegs will hold everything taught.
Bathtub floor – The waterproof floor that comes up about 6 inches from the ground. Keeps water out if you end up in a puddle in the middle of the night.
Fly – A tent fly is the waterproof fabric that goes overtop of the mesh body. Not all tents are 2 layers like this but most for backpacking are.
Footprint – A small nylon tarp that fits to the bottom of your tent and protects it from sharp sticks and rocks.
No-see-um Mesh – The very fine mesh built into the bodies of tents. Keeps out bugs like no-see-ums and mosquitos.
Gear Attic – An optional small hanging shelf in the top of some tents.
Other Backpacking Gear
You’ll need more than just a tent to head out backpacking. Here are buying guides to all the other gear you need for backpacking.