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Backpacking Tent Types

Backpacking tent types reflect the weather and field conditions you will face when relying upon this portable shelter.

Manufacturers thus invest time, and spend a lot of money, to design backpacking tents that will satisfy the real world needs of their customers - you, in this case.

Think of everything Mother Nature can throw at you during a backpacking trip (even an overnighter):

  • extreme winds,
  • torrential downpours,
  • big dumps of wet snow,
  • baking hot conditions under relentless UV rays,
  • massive assaults by insects,
  • cold damp mornings.

It ain't always pretty (or safe) out there!

And just in case you want to cut to the chase,

here's the tent I carry on my backcountry trips.

So the good news is that it's relatively easy to find the right backpacking tent type to meet your safety and comfort needs.

Followed immediately by the bad news...

Sometimes tent suppliers don't get it right.

Their array of backpacking tent types can be supremely misleading and poorly designed.

My best piece of tent buying advice?

Don't look at price first.

Look at your options first, and then buy the highest quality tent you can afford!

You will not regret following this piece of advice if you think of this piece of backpacking equipment as an investment in your comfort and safety.

So here I am, to give you even more advice to kick around before you get overly enthusiastic and plunk your money down for a tent which you will regret bitterly when Mother Nature shows her true colors.

Which she will, given enough time. It's just her nature, right?

Backpacking tent types are designed to meet Mother Nature's challenges.

Backpacking Tent Types

Backpacking tent types should all include high quality essential features. Read about those "must haves" here.

Assuming that you've done your background reading and understand the basic components of every tent, let's forge ahead and look at tent designs from two angles: size, and structure.

First we translate those 2 angles into gear speak:

  • "two person" -vs- "three person" tents, and
  • "free standing" -vs- staked (non free standing).

These words will form the basis for understanding your choices in backpacking tent types.

Be sure you pay attention to this!

What the manufacturer claims about the size of the tent can be VERY misleading. (Perhaps not on purpose, who knows?)

You can whip out a tape measure and verify that the bottom of the tent (the floor footprint) measures exactly as advertised.

But is all of that space useable?

And if you can use it, is it comfortable?

For instance, if a tent is advertised as a "two person" tent (it used to be "two man" but has thankfully changed to include women), test it!


When you're in the gear store, go to the tent department and ask for 2 inflated air mattresses (ThermaRest or the like), 2 sleeping bags, 2 pairs of boots, and a salesperson to play the other person in the "two person" equation.

Be sure to pick a pleasant looking salesperson, because some of them do not like crawling into tents with strangers. Imagine that!

Drag all of the stuff and people into the tent, and perform a few basic "comfort tests", such as:

  • Can you both sleep in your preferred sleep positions without bumping each other? Don't be shy about asking the salesperson which position s/he prefers - it's all in the name of science, right?
  • If weather conditions were to become extreme, could you fit all of your gear into the tent? If the answer is yes, how comfortable would it be to stay this way for 24 hours?
  • NOTE: To test this, you might have to ask for 2 backpacks to be delivered to the tent door during your little simulation. This may begin to test the patience of the salesperson. Sometimes you have to run imaginary comfort tests. I'm trusting you to use your best judgement (and not mention my name).
    P.S. If you meet the love of your life during this tent simulation, I definitely want to hear about it.

I'll bet it won't take you very long to determine whether the advertised "two person" tent really is or is not!

Backpacking tent types: designs

Tent designs run along certain standard contours, which limits the scope of backpacking tent types and makes your job of selecting one somewhat easier.

When I started backpacking in my teens (in the 1970's, and yes, there were pterodactyls flying around), I had a canvas pup tent (A-frame). I adored it because it represented freedom and adventure.

But I was certainly happy to witness all of the modifications tent manufacturers have made over the decades.

Today, expect to see tents which are shaped like hoops, domes, and wedges, rather than pup tents.

A few words about each design will give you some features to think about as you're comparing backpacking tent types.

Hoop Tents

Hoop tents have flexible poles which allow the tent material to be shaped into curved walls, rather than an A frame. Expect a bigger volume than ground surface with these backpacking tent types.

They can be quite roomy, giving plenty of head space (although I'm short, so I can't speak for taller hikers).

Don't expect these tents to come in large sizes - a one person or at most two person hoop tent could be expected to perform well.

I know for a fact how strong these tents can be in bad weather conditions, given the right tent poles (strong, flexible, but not prone to snapping) and attention to proper staking.

It might become necessary to orient the tent differently if wind conditions are severe, so the tent does not have to "fight" the wind. Try to anticipate wind direction before you crawl into the tent for the night.

Dome Tents

Dome tents have several (usually at least 3, but possibly more) poles which intersect to form intersecting hoops. You can predict that more poles add up to more strength, and this is true.

However, the more moving pieces involved in setting up a tent, the harder it will be.

And more poles mean more weight. Be forewarned.

Which is not to say that a dome tent will be difficult to set up. In fact, they can go up in a matter of a few minutes under experienced hands.

The sloped contours allow moisture (liquid or solid) to be shed easily, making them a good choice in less than arid regions.

And there's plenty of head room - at least in the middle! You can learn to seek the middle, can't you?

Wedge Shaped Tents

One more tent design to consider as we round out our discussion of backpacking tent types: wedge shaped tents.

Because these tents require the least amount of materials to prove a roomy interior, they are lightweight.

From personal experience, I can also attest to the fact that a wedge shaped tent will withstand a fair amount of wind and rain but will require careful staking.

And they are easy to set up, provided you've done it at least once before.

Other Variables to Consider

There are other variables at play here.

One of them is the dimensions of the tent floor. Expect some geometry words here: hexagonal, rectangular...

Mostly, don't expect straight forward rectangular floors.

The tent manufacturers are trying to maximize space while minimizing weight, a very worthy goal, so they play around with dimensions and wind up with areas on the sides of the tent floor for gear storage.

Note that your sleeping pad/mattress will most likely be rectangular (although newer designs are more tapered). So be sure it fits, along with however many other people/dogs with their pads you expect to bring into the tent.

And a few special words to tall backpackers:
You will not be happy with the tent until you physically crawl inside of it and stretch all the way out on the floor.

Tents are designed for average height people. If you are above average, expect cramped quarters or buy a tent with an extra person factored in.

Free Standing Tents

Now let's tackle what "free standing tent" implies in our discussion of backpacking tent types.

Back in the "olden times", you started setting up a tent by laying it out on the ground and figuring out which end to put up first.

You methodically worked to get the poles in the right places, had someone help you hoist it into the air, and then staked out each wall of the tent before it was stable and standing.

Today's tents are mostly "free standing", meaning that they support their own weight once the poles are inserted and you've hoisted the ceiling and walls into the air.

You might need to stake the tent, but can do so at your leisure (unless a stiff breeze is blowing, at which time you will see the wisdom of immediate staking).

A nice feature of a free standing tent is the ability to move the tent easily (once all of your gear is out of it).

Say your first night at base camp left you lying awake because your head was lower than your feet (you did think of turning your mattress around, right?), or because a huge tree root came out of nowhere and snaked beneath your sleeping bag.

Just remove the stakes, grasp the free standing tent by a pole, and MOVE it. I'm still somewhat amazed by the ease of this maneuver, being the old timer that I am.

Another reason to appreciate free standing tents is how easy it is to clean them out each morning. Once the gear and people are gone, unzip one of the doors, hoist the tent over your head, and dump out all of the grit and debris.

This will extend the life of the tent floor, and it makes me feel so STRONG when I do it.
A word of caution: I once had a Winnie the Pooh moment when I was lifted off the ground by the tent, due to an unexpected burst of exuberant wind over a ridge top. WooHoo!

Tent Types Conclusion

So let's sum up.

If in doubt regarding which backpacking tent types will suit your backpacking needs, over-buy.

By that, I mean imagine the most extreme situation you are likely to face, and be sure your tent can handle that PLUS something worse.

If you plan to backpack exclusively during warm dry seasons, you can purchase a tent which doesn't have to stand up to much. That's a cheap and satisfying purchase, all things considered, and it shortens the learning curve on backpacking tent types. You can even leave the fly at home!

But realistically, do you actually expect perfect conditions every trip?

I know budget is always a consideration, but my advice is to save money on other hiking gear and buy the best tent you can afford.

And take scrupulously good care of your investment!

It's not only a safe haven from weather and bugs, it becomes a psychological safety valve when you're far from home for many nights in a row.

And for solo hikers, it's that comfort + safety equation which guarantees a great trip.

Here's the deal...

I've given you lots to think about. But I want to leave you with another viewpoint which I feel is fairly balanced in its discussion of backpacking tent types.

It's written from the perspective of a gear supplier, REI, but it's not trying to push any particular type of tent.

I've been an REI  member since the early 1970's and have been satisfied over the years with the advice they have given me, either in person or via their website.

Plus, this information covers some details you don't want to miss.

This backpacking tent is lightweight yet roomy.

Didn't find what you were looking for? Use the blue TOP button

on the right to jet back up to the search box.

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