expert advice / alpine trekking


With your tent arguably the most important (and possibly the most expensive) piece of gear you’ll have, choosing the right one is a big decision. It could make the difference between a comfortable backcountry night under the stars and one you’d rather not repeat – or worse! It’s your home away from home, your shelter from the elements, and a place where you can rest and recover. It’s even a piece of emergency kit in some cases.

1. What is a backpacking tent?

A backpacking tent is a tent that is designed to be carried in a backpack – unsurprisingly – and tends to be used for longer hiking journeys with overnight stays in campsites or out in the backcountry. It’s a very different set of circumstances to car camping, for instance, which places fewer constraints on the weight or bulkiness of your gear.

2. What to consider when choosing the right backpacking tent

Backpacking tents are often used on a self-supported journey, where you will be carrying it, and everything else you need, on your back. So it’s worth taking time to carefully consider which is the right tent for you. Backpacking tents tend to be much lighter and smaller than campsite tents but will be able to withstand harsher weather conditions.

Size/ capacity

How many people will it need to accommodate? The larger the tent the heavier it will be. Consider how much gear you’ll have with you as this can easily add up to the equivalent of another ‘person’s’ worth of space inside the tent. For example, a 4-person tent might be the right choice for two people and two large backpacks. If you’re taller than average, or you want more interior space or gear storage, make sure you look at and compare the exact tent dimensions.


The durability of a tent will depend on the materials and craftsmanship used to make it. This in turn will have an influence on the weight and price of a tent.

The strongest tent will be the one with the sturdiest poles and most durable fabric. However, seeing as saving weight is a determining factor, when backpacking, you might consider opting for high quality materials in a lightweight package. This will be compact and light enough to carry over long distances, yet stable and storm-proof to stand up to stormy weather. A tent that’s built to handle the worst conditions you expect to encounter is definitely the right idea.

Comfort/ features

How comfortable you feel in your tent, whether you’re spending a weekend away in the Dolomites, or several weeks completing one of the sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, makes a big difference overall. Modern tents tend to be much more comfort-focused, with greater headroom, more features and advances in materials that make them feel much more open and inviting. If your trip could involve having to shelter from storms for days at a time inside your tent, this is a very important consideration.

Try sitting in a tent before buying it, imagining various scenarios:

  • Do you want a vestibule to store gear or for cooking?
  • How many pockets does it have to stash your head torch, etc.?
  • What about ventilation? Is a mesh inner tent best?
  • Or a solid inner tent with vents that can be sealed if needed?
  • How many doors do you want?
  • How many sleeping bags will it really fit?
  • What about the hydrostatic head rating?

The hydrostatic head rating is an indication of the tent fabric’s waterproof performance. The higher the figure, the more waterproof the fabric. The industry standard for tent fabrics to be categorised as ‘waterproof’ is anything above 1,000 mm. This is enough for most moderate conditions and typical for 3-season camping tents. However, it probably won’t cope with heavy wind-driven rain. It’s also light enough for hiking but try to aim higher if you can.

3. What is right for you: 3-season or 4-season tent?

Tents come in season grades with the lightest being for summer and the more robust being for winter. A 3-season tent will be designed to withstand conditions in spring, summer and autumn, whereas 4-season tents will have extra weather protection and stability for winter.

If you’re heading to hot dry areas a simple mesh covering might be all that you need, to keep away the bugs as you gaze at the stars. But if you’re planning an expedition into the Arctic circle, then you’ll want a tent that keeps out snow and can stand up in gale-force winds.

4. What should be the right weight for a backpacking tent?

The less weight you carry when backpacking, the further you’ll be able to go, as a general rule. Keeping the packed weight of your backpacking tent down is therefore definitely a plus, but you’ll have to balance that with cost on the one hand, or quality – many high-quality, durable lightweight tents are expensive, and if not expensive might be of inferior quality. Try to aim for less than 3 kg per person if you can though.

5. Which tent shape to choose for backpacking?

Double-wall tents – This proven system is the easiest to pitch and offers complete protection from rain and insects. They can however be on the heavier side because of the two layers of fabric and the poles.

Designs for double-wall tents:

  • Tunnel Tent – Flexible hoop-shaped poles hold up the tent here to create a tunnel but require pegs and guy lines to stabilise them, so this is not a freestanding design. One major consideration here is therefore the underground conditions you expect to camp on. If you’re not sure you will be able to secure tent pegs (e.g. on hard, rocky ground) then you will probably want to consider a freestanding tent. Tunnel tents have higher sides, so are a great option for taller people, and have generous interior space.
  • Geodesic/ dome tents – In dome tents, the tent poles cross over each other to create a stable, freestanding structure. This makes them a good option for rocky, hard camping surfaces. It also means they can be moved even after the tent is set up. If not easy to peg into the hard grounds however, you have to make sure your tent is well anchored in other ways (slings around big rocks etc). The crossed pole design makes these tents very stable however and they can also handle the weight of snow on them better than tunnel tents.

Minimalist tents:

  • Bivouac tent – If travelling alone and going lightweight, a small, ultralight bivy tent might be the best option as it packs down small into a stuff sack and is much lighter. But for longer journeys the lack of interior space and headroom might be restrictive.
  • Hammock – Increasing in popularity, lightweight hammocks, with a tarp strung overhead or with built-in ‘roof’, a hammock is another great lightweight option for overnighting in the wilderness. But trees are a prerequisite here, so make sure the route you’re backpacking along has sufficient trees along the way.
  • Tarp and tent poles – With absolute minimalism in mind, thru-hikers might opt for a simple, single-wall structure or even a tarp that is supported only by trekking poles.


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6. Which tent material to choose?

Tents are usually made from either nylon or polyester fabric, with polyurethane (PU) or silicone coatings to make them waterproof.

  • Polyurethane coatings (PU) are very water resistant and remain flexible at low temperatures. PU coatings are applied in one layer and can weaken the fabric slightly. It is therefore often found in cheaper tents and as a groundsheet covering. It generally ages faster than high quality silicone coatings.
  • Silicone is a very durable coating that also increases the UV resistance and tensile strength. Disadvantages here are low abrasion resistance and the flaws that factory seam-sealed taping can have.
  • Polyester is heavier than nylon and lets in less light. Polyester is also not as breathable as nylon and has a lower tensile strength than nylon. The main advantage of polyester over nylon is that it won’t absorb water and therefore won’t stretch as much or expand as much as nylon.
  • Nylon has good tear resistance properties and is also relatively abrasion resistant. Some tents are made from ripstop nylon which has increased tear resistance. Nylon is also lighter than polyester. It does however absorb more moisture and can then expand when wet.
  • Dyneema® Composite Fabrics, previously known as Cuben fibre, are also increasingly being used for ultralight tents. This fabric is ultra-thin, ultra-lightweight and has a remarkable strength-to-weight ratio that makes it the strongest fibre in the world. It is also very waterproof, breathable and UV resistant. They offer substantial weight saving gains. The downside here is cost.