How to Choose the Best Ultralight Backpacking Tent for You
By Michael Lanza
An ultralight backpacking tent can shave pounds from your total pack weight. But when comparing models, the specs on them can look like a big pot of numeral soup. Besides two clear differences—ultralight tents are lighter and usually cost more—you wonder: What differentiates them from one another? I’ve tested and reviewed scores of tents of all sizes. I love the best ultralight tents, but I’ve used many that had flaws or shortcomings not immediately obvious. In this article, I’ll tell you how to find the three-season, ultralight tent that’s best for you.
Consumers of backcountry gear have grown accustomed to focusing on the weight of a product—which is smart—but not always paying adequate attention to other performance metrics. Think of your tent’s weight like it’s a prospective spouse’s feelings about starting a family: It’s a critical and potentially make-or-break factor, but it’s not the only question to ask when evaluating compatibility.
An ultralight tent is a two-sided coin: Before getting one, be certain that low weight ranks as a higher priority to you than living space, or you might be disappointed. Fans of them typically include ultralight backpackers, thru-hikers, climbers, and others who focus on the experience outside rather than inside the tent, who often spend much of each day on the move, and who don’t mind dealing with the inconveniences or quirkiness of a non-traditional tent design. Big people looking to trim pack weight may be smart to get a tent that’s not the absolute lightest, but still reasonably light while providing a bit more space (more on square footage below).
That said, there are ultralight tents and shelters that do have adequate or even abundant living space, especially non-traditional models. Floorless tents and tarps that pitch using trekking poles weigh very little while offering much more sheltered living area per ounce or gram than traditional tents. While not freestanding, when pitched and staked out properly they often stand up to strong wind as well as any heavier, three-season, freestanding tent. Some have a single-wall or hybrid single- and double-wall design (see below) and optional mesh inserts for buggy conditions. Ventilation, of course, is never a problem under a tarp.
You may want a light ground cloth, and site selection and an adequately warm bag both become more important when you’re not in an enclosed tent. But if you really want to reduce shelter weight, when bugs aren’t an issue and you don’t anticipate relentlessly wet, windy conditions, a tarp or similar minimalist shelter is unquestionably the best choice.
All of which leads to the conclusion: There are tradeoffs to reducing weight. For many backcountry travelers, though, the benefits of a lighter pack far outweigh any disadvantages of an ultralight shelter. Once someone switches to one, they don’t tend to go back to carrying heavier tents.
You don’t have to be cold at night. See my “10 Pro Tips: Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag.”
How Light Should You Go?
What is an ultralight tent? There’s no hard definition, but I would include any kind of backcountry shelter that’s under about three pounds (1.4 kg). While somewhat arbitrary, that cutoff lumps in a wide range of products, from freestanding, double-wall tents that are significantly lighter than traditional models to shelters weighing a pound or less.
I’m not suggesting you ignore all tents over three pounds; there are two-person, three-season tents weighing mere ounces over three pounds that have their merits. What matters more are your personal needs and preferences in a shelter. That will dictate the design features you want, which (along with your budget) will largely dictate the weight of the shelter you choose.
The weight of any kind of shelter (or any gear) basically depends on the type and amount of materials that go into it—a seemingly obvious fact, but one which affects everything from interior space to price. The visible differences include:
• Interior and vestibule space.
• One or two doors.
• Freestanding or requires staking.
• Double- or single-wall.
• Whether it has dedicated tent poles or pitches using trekking poles.
• Whether it has a floor and/or bug-proof mesh walls.
Time for a better backpack? See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and the best thru-hiking packs.
Freestanding Or Not?
Tarps and some tents employ your trekking poles, eliminating the substantial weight and bulk of tent poles from your pack. These models can require a little more time and possibly some practice to pitch correctly—you’ll be wise to practice first in your yard rather than during a rainstorm in the backcountry. But you’ll quickly familiarize yourself with the idiosyncrasies of one. And tent poles represent one of the single biggest chunks of weight you can remove from your pack, which is why these non-traditional shelter designs are the choice for serious ultralighters.
Besides, “freestanding” is a somewhat misleading term: While such tents do stand independent of stakes, they virtually always must be staked out, anyway, including their rainfly, to ensure that they stay put in wind and ventilate well.
But they do offer some advantages over non-freestanding models. They’re very intuitive to pitch and go up and come down quickly. They hold their shape even when you have trouble staking them thoroughly in ground that’s rocky or sandy, as is often found in desert Southwest parks like the Grand Canyon and throughout southern Utah. And when debris or sand gets inside, a freestanding tent is much easier to hold overhead with its doors open and shake everything out of it.
Double- Vs. Single-Wall Tents
Double-wall tents are the traditional design familiar to many campers, consisting of a rainfly and separate (usually detached) interior tent erected with poles and often made with mesh walls and a bathtub-style floor. Single-wall tents have solid walls instead of a separate rainfly, so they can be significantly lighter.
Double-wall tents almost universally ventilate better because air can circulate through open rainfly doors and vents and under the rainfly’s bottom edge; plus, any condensation collecting on the inside of a rainfly does not usually come in direct contact with interior mesh walls (only becoming a problem if wind presses the rainfly against the interior walls, or the condensation gets heavy enough to start dripping).
Condensation is the Achilles heel of enclosed, single-wall tents: It almost always collects on the interior walls in cooler temperatures on clear and calm or rainy nights, potentially getting sleeping bags, extra clothing, and other stuff inside wet. I have used hybrid tents that marry double- and single-wall designs to facilitate better ventilation, making condensation no more a problem than it can be in double-wall tents; but they also come closer to the weight of double-wall tents.
Will the Wind Destroy It?
If you’re typically camping in the woods, fairly protected from wind—say, on the Appalachian Trail—a minimalist pole structure, like the Y-shaped design common in ultralight tents, will hold up fine in all but rare, extreme storms. But if you’re camped at higher elevations above treeline, like you’ll find in Western mountains—think of the Teton Crest Trail, John Muir Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail, and places like Yosemite, Sequoia, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, or desert parks like Grand Canyon where most campsites are exposed—strong winds are not uncommon, and a sturdy structure becomes more important. Wind hitting the side of a tent with steep walls and minimal pole structure can squash it as effectively as someone leaning on it.
If you need a sturdier shelter, the choices break down to either a freestanding tent with more pole structure—making it a little heavier, unless it sacrifices interior space—or a non-freestanding tent that pitches with trekking poles and relies on low-angle walls and staking and guying for its stability. While they often demand more time and attentiveness to pitch, the best non-freestanding shelters are impressively strong, very light, and actually have good space, which is why they’re popular with ultralighters and thru-hikers.
Square Footage Deciphered
Besides being lighter than (for lack of a better term) standard-weight tents, ultralight models are often smaller. Floor area square footage becomes the default metric for comparing them, but those numbers can appear to vary only slightly. Plus, a two-dimensional measure of floor area gives you no idea how much headroom there is, which greatly affects how spacious the tent feels—whether you can sit up at both ends or only one end, for instance. As I suggest in my “5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent,” getting inside it before buying is the best way to know whether you find the living space adequate.
Smaller adults—or a parent with a young child—need less space than bigger people, of course. But in general, two average-size people will find a two-person tent with 28 square feet of space very snug—expect to bump one another and for two standard-size sleeping pads to fill the available floor space. Bump up to 30 square feet or more and, while not capacious, the increase in space is noticeable, making the tent much more livable.
In one-person tents, look at 19 to 20 square feet of floor space as a threshold: Less than that can feel tight for average-size people.
A vestibule with eight to nine square feet of area provides enough room for storing boots and a mid-size backpack without having to climb over them when coming and going; smaller than that and your empty pack might fit under your feet inside the tent, or it’s staying outside. Keep in mind when buying that one door and vestibule in a two-person tent likely means keeping packs outside at night.
Be comfortable on your hikes. See my review of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For the Backcountry.”
One-, Two-, Three-, Or Four-Person?
By having less interior space and being so much lighter, ultralight tents have blurred traditional definitions of people capacity. I’m five feet, eight inches and 160 pounds, and I’ve been in plenty of ultralight two-person tents in which my partner and I elbowed and bumped each other constantly—including while trying to sleep. Besides thinking hard about how much space you need, you might recalibrate your notion of what “two-person” and “three-person” means.
While some ultralight two-person tents are snug for two, the three-person version of the same model can feel spacious for two while still weighing significantly less than many traditional two-person tents. As a result, that three-person tent becomes one you can use with one partner when you’d like a little extra space in a shelter whose per-person weight remains fairly low, as well as for a trio on a trip where you’re willing to sacrifice living space for per-person weight reduction. It can also offer an ideal space-to-weight balance for a couple backpacking with one young child.
Many solo tents, while more snug, are not appreciably lighter than the lightest two-person models, and some are actually heavier. That’s mostly because they have nearly as much pole and zipper weight and the primary difference is just a bit less fabric, which doesn’t weigh much, anyway. In certain circumstances, like calm, cold nights, they may collect condensation inside more easily because having only one door reduces ventilation; and then you have close walls that are wet. When hiking solo, I’ve often preferred taking an ultralight two-person tent.
For the same reason that solo tents don’t deliver much weight savings—because fabric doesn’t weigh much—four-person ultralight tents can offer impressively low weight and bulk per-person. The tradeoff is that instead of two people share close quarters, you have four people moving around. Personally, I found an ultralight, four-person tent most advantageous when our two kids were little—we wanted our family together in one tent when backpacking, and the kids didn’t occupy much space. As they got bigger, we switched to using two ultralight, two-person tents, which also made sense because there were times when just two of us went out backpacking.
Accessorize wisely. See my “Review: 21 Essential Backpacking Gear Accessories.”
Whoa, That’s Expensive!
There’s no getting around the fact that more-expensive materials and specialized design and construction (some of which takes place in the U.S., where labor costs are higher) drive up the price of ultralight shelters. Lighter fabrics and zippers are also less durable than tents constructed with heavier materials, requiring a little more care in handling them.
Is it worth it? Only you can place a value on reducing your total pack weight. But as with a pack and boots, a tent becomes a very personalized choice that depends on factors like your space needs, the type of trips you take, and the climate where you go.
See my stories “Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun,”
and “5 Tips For Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear.”
What’s Best For You?
As I’ve basically laid out above, choosing any kind of backcountry shelter, and particularly an ultralight one, requires asking yourself a few questions:
• How high a priority is low weight to you?
• How much space do you need?
• Do you usually backpack in buggy seasons or wet and windy conditions?
• Will this be your only tent or an alternative shelter to use in circumstances appropriate for it?
In the final analysis, if your goal is as light a backpack as possible, nothing gets you closer to that goal than your choice of a shelter. Find the lightest one that still serves your essential needs.
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NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all my gear reviews at The Big Outside.
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