Whether you’re preparing for a one-week or six-month thru-hike, picking the right tent is a big decision. Not only is this likely to be one of the most expensive pieces of gear that you purchase, but it is also going to be your home away from home for the duration. Sure, being outside and experiencing nature all day is great and all, but when you’re tired of the wind, bugs, and trees, the right tent will feel like a cozy sanctuary — safe and comfortable — amid the glorious wildness of the trail.
There are a lot of tents out there to choose from, but which one is the right tent? The answer will depend on a lot of factors, and it is worth considering your needs, wants, and hiking style before jumping on the ultralightest tent available. Here’s everything you need to know to choose a tent for thru-hiking.
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Shelter vs. Tent
Shelter or tent. Shelter or tent. What’s the difference? I’m not sure that there is a consensus on the internet or among the outdoor community at large about how to differentiate between these two, almost interchangeable terms, so let’s make something up.
In the backpacking sense, “shelter” is an umbrella term for a structure that protects one from the elements (no, umbrellas don’t count). This includes a flat tarp pitched with trekking poles on the most basic end of the spectrum, which stands in sharp contrast to the permanent wooden structures that dot the Appalachian Trail and reside on the other side of the definition. Funnily enough, the latter are even called “shelters.”
Somewhere in between lies the humble tent. Nope, that trekking pole tarp isn’t a tent, but add some doors and a floor, and I think we’re there. This is kind of arbitrary, but tents are a subclass of shelter, a la blueberry vs. huckleberry, and for the purpose of this article, let’s agree that at their most basic, tents must be fully enclosed (i.e. floor, door(s), canopy). So if you’re interested in tarps, then maybe this piece isn’t for you — what’s there to know anyway?
So whether structure is provided by trekking poles and guylines, or dedicated tent poles, we’re talking about tents here. Fully enclosed, fully protected. However, to confuse things just enough to keep this spicy, the terms ‘shelter’ and ‘tent’ will be used interchangeably throughout this guide. Synonyms are the best.
READ NEXT — The Best Thru-Hiking Tents
Anatomy of a Tent
Now that we can all agree on what it actually takes to be a tent, let’s break it down further. What are all these flaps and zippers called, and what do they do?
Rain fly: This is the main waterproof layer and forms the outside, or canopy, of the tent. In double-wall shelters, the rain fly, aka flysheet, usually exists separately from the structure of the tent so you can omit it when the weather is nice. In single-wall shelters, the flysheet is always deployed.
Vestibule: This is like your tent’s garage or mud room. The vestibule usually sits in front of the inner door(s), and is a great place to store your nasty shoes or bulky backpack at night. Another zipper or closure system in the flysheet opens and closes the vestibule to the outside world. In a double-wall tent, the vestibule is the area that is outside the inner tent, but covered by the flysheet. There’s no floor and this area is sometimes more exposed to the elements. Single-wall tents often have vestibules too, but it will be an extension of the flysheet and attached to the internal tent structure. Another way to look at it, the vestibule is covered by the waterproof flysheet, but it isn’t enclosed by bug mesh.
Guy lines: These are cords that help provide structure to the tent and/or anchor it to the ground. Running between the tent stakes and specific attachment points on the tent, they provide stability in inclement weather. They are also essential structural components for non-freestanding tents, which often require 4-10 stake points to function. Sometimes these are long, like 8 feet. Sometimes they are short, like 8 inches. However, either with knots or line locks, they are adjustable.
Guyout loops: These are the attachment points for the guy lines on the tent. A tent usually comes with more guyout loops than guy lines, and additional lines can be added as needed, though this is likely unnecessary.
Bathtub floor: Most tents include a bathtub floor, which is a waterproof groundsheet that provides protection from detritus, bugs, and water. In order to provide splash and wind protection, the floor also includes a raised rim around the perimeter, which forms a protective bowl — or bathtub.
Footprint: A separate groundsheet, sometimes used in order to protect the tent’s built-in floor. Non-essential.
Double-wall: We’ll get into this more later, but a double-wall tent has two layers of fabric, separated by a couple inches of air. The main purpose of the inner layer, or inner tent, is to keep the living area free of bugs and dirt. The outer layer, or the aforementioned flysheet, is there to provide privacy and protection from the elements.
Choose a Tent for Thru-Hiking Step-by-Step
Purchasing a tent is a big deal and can be a huge investment. If you’re preparing for a long thru-hike, then you’ll be spending a lot of time with it, so it’s worth a little effort to get it right. Let’s break it down into seven easy steps.
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Step 0: Consider Your Trip
Step 1: Choose Your Size
Step 2: Determine Your Price Point
Step 3: Freestanding or Trekking Pole?
Step 4: Single or Double-Wall?
Step 5: Choose a Material
Step 6: Choose Your Features
Step 7: Don’t Forget the Stakes
Step 0: Consider Your Trip
Where do you want to go? What kind of trip do you have in mind? Having a firm idea of how you’ll use your tent will help you narrow down the functions and features that are important to you. If you’re planning a thru-hike of the PCT, then you might prioritize going lightweight above spaciousness. During a thru-hike, time spent inside your tent will be minimal, so being a bit cramped won’t be bothersome. However, if you’re taking a more leisurely and comfortable approach to the backcountry, or if you expect to encounter extended periods of inclement weather, then you might appreciate a tent with less coffin-like dimensions.
Speaking of weather, most three-season shelters will hold up equally well in all but the worst conditions, as in they’ll keep you alive, but some are better suited than others to handle sideways rain and high wind. If you’ll be spending a lot of time camping above treeline, then look for a tent with strong materials and copious guyout loops.
Another thing to consider is terrain. If you expect to spend a lot of nights on snow, sand, or rock, then it might be difficult to use stakes properly — maybe choose a freestanding shelter instead of one that relies on trekking poles and guy line tension. If you’ll be camping in dense woods, I’m looking at you Appalachian Trail, then the dimensions of the tent footprint can make a big difference when you’re trying to tuck it between the trees.
Even if you don’t have a specific trip in mind, thinking about these questions can help narrow the crowded field of tents on the market today. Where might you want to explore? If you stay local, what will you find? And if you still don’t have a clue, then don’t worry. Most three-season tents can go just about anywhere.
Sidenote — 3-season vs. 4-season: For most trips during spring, summer, and fall, you can get by with a standard three-season tent — that’s pretty much all of them. These offer an optimized mix of weight, protection, and liveability. Four-season tents, on the other hand, are designed to survive harsh winter conditions. Think high winds and heavy snow loads.
These are designed with stronger materials and more robust pole structures so that they will stay intact at 26,000ft on Everest, or at the South Pole during winter, where a catastrophic failure could easily spell disaster or death for the inhabitants. They are like portable bomb shelters in comparison to three-season tents.
Step 1: Choose Your Size
Do you want a one or two-person tent? Maybe you want to go big and get a three-person tent. If you’re hiking alone, a one-person tent is a great option. They’re lightweight, pack small, sometimes easier to set up alone, and can nestle into tight spots. However, that doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to get a tent large enough for two. In fact, often times two-person shelters weigh just a few ounces more than their one-person equivalents, yet provide way more room. The flip-side is that they require more space to pitch, which can limit campsite selection.
Still, it is not uncommon for solo hikers to carry a two-person tent. This arrangement is both comfortable and versatile, providing space to spread out when the weather is bad and your gear is wet. It also gives the option to bring a friend along on a future trip, potentially saving you money in the long run. Just don’t bring a two-person tent solely for the hope of developing an on-trail romance. Trust me, the extra ounces ain’t worth the disappointment, and a one-person tent won’t hold you back if something’s going to happen.
Hiking couples might find traditional two-person tents to be quite cramped. And if they’re both rocking wide sleeping pads (usually 25” wide versus 20” regular), then many tents will struggle to accommodate them. Whether you’re solo or coupled up, it’s worth comparing tent dimensions. While some two-person shelters will be spacious for two, others are better suited for solo use or for an especially friendly pair.
Our picks for the best tents by capacity:
Step 2: Determine Your Price Point
The price for a three-season backpacking tent can vary drastically from around $200 all the way up to almost $1,000. The biggest difference-maker will be the tent fabric, with classic nylon being much cheaper than Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF). If you want DCF then expect to pay at least $500 for a fully-featured tent, single-person tent, and don’t be surprised to spend much more than that.
The good news is that even if you are on a tight budget, there’s an awesome tent for you. While budget, freestanding shelters tend to be quite heavy, there are a number of highly-regarded trekking pole shelters that are not only some of the cheapest available, but are also some of the best.
If you are interested in a lightweight freestanding or semi-freestanding tent, then expect to spend around $400-500.
Our picks for the best tents by price:
Step 3: Freestanding or Trekking Pole
Generally speaking, tents can be broken down into two types based on how they are supported. The old-school classic is either freestanding or semi-freestanding, which means that with the help of foldable poles, the tent can stand up without supporting guylines.
The other option is non-freestanding, which does require guylines and stakes to remain upright. This latter category is often referred to as ‘trekking pole shelters’ because these tents usually rely on trekking poles, rather than dedicated tent poles, to function as the rigid structural components.
Trekking pole tents are usually much lighter, which is the primary reason they are so popular. The reasoning is that if you’re hiking with trekking poles anyway, why not put them to work at camp? This saves the weight and extra bulk of carrying poles for the sole purpose of pitching a tent. While this reduction can be significant, it comes at a cost that is sometimes too significant to justify.
The main downside of trekking pole and non-freestanding shelters is their tall learning curve and low ease of use. Using a complex web of guylines, stakes, and trekking poles, it can be time-consuming and frustrating to pitch these tents well. And sometimes it’s darn near impossible. Users are highly reliant on the ground being amenable to stake placement, and campsite dimensional restrictions can make it difficult to balance tension across the tent.
A poor pitch can result in reduced stormworthiness, reduced liveability, and sky-high levels of frustration. At best it takes a lot of practice and good conditions to pitch a trekking pole tent in 5 minutes. At worst, you might spend 20 minutes in the pouring rain only to admit that it ain’t gonna work and you need to find a new campsite.
If you want something that just works with minimal fussing, then look for a freestanding or semi-freestanding shelter. You will still probably need to pound in 2-4 stakes to give the vestibules and footbox structure, but tent poles will give the tent shape easily, every time. No matter the terrain, you can assemble the poles, attach the tent fabric, then plop it down wherever looks flattest. With this style of tent, your pitch will be almost the same every night. No need to adjust guyline placement to dodge a rock or tree stump.
Furthermore, you will be less reliant on terrain. The tendency for the ground to accept and hold stakes is less important, and freestanding tents generally have a smaller footprint than their trekking-pole counterparts, which rely on a wide-reaching array of guylines and stakes that extend far beyond the true footprint of the tent itself.
True freestanding tends do exist, but they are rare. Most tents in this category are actually semi-freestanding, which still benefit from the easy setup and pole structure, but do still require a couple of stakes to reach their full dimensions.
So what kind of weight difference are we talking about? Well, the lightest two-person freestanding tents weigh roughly 32 ounces, while there are several trekking pole shelters that weigh less than 20 ounces.
Our picks for the best tents by support style:
Step 4: Single or Double-Wall
Another way that ultralight shelters shed weight is by eliminating a whole fabric layer versus more traditional double-wall style tents. However, this is not a clear-cut improvement, and both styles have their benefits and drawbacks.
Double-wall tents have a separate waterproof flysheet that protects the inner tent from precipitation, wind, and sun exposure. The inner tent consists of the bathtub floor and some sort of lightweight upper fabric. Often, this material is mostly, or entirely bug mesh, which vents well, keeps bugs out, and lets you ogle the views from bed.
This inner living area is generally suspended by the pole structure, whether it’s freestanding or non-freestanding. This is the first wall. The second wall is the flysheet, which drapes on top of the poles and extends to within a few inches of the ground on all sides of the tent to provide storm protection.
A single-wall design, on the other hand, combines the flysheet with the inner tent. It is equivalent to sewing bug mesh walls and a floor to the waterproof flysheet. With a double-wall design, there is an air gap of a few inches between the inner living area and flysheet. With a single-wall design, there is no gap.
As you might have guessed, the main benefit of a single-wall tent is that it is lighter by virtue of cutting out a significant section inner tent fabric. This style is also arguably easier to set up and take down as there are fewer awkwardly large sheets of fabric to orient and maneuver.
Benefits of Double-Wall Life
The advantage of double-wall tents is their versatility and moisture management. On clear nights with lots of bugs, pitching just the inner tent can be a great way to enjoy the nice weather and views without bugs getting up in your biz. A single-wall tent will always block the views, even on nights when there is zero risk of rain.
Finally, single-wall shelters are notorious for accumulating condensation on the inside of the flysheet. Because there is no air barrier between the camper and that moisture, it’s easy to contact that damp surface and get wet. Think damp sleeping bag footbox, a common issue in all but the dryest climates. And while double-wall tents still suffer from interior condensation, that minor gap provides a physical and psychological barrier.
Step 5: Choose a Material
Depending on your previous answers, you might find yourself limited in your choices when deciding between tent fabrics. For instance, if you are set on a freestanding tent, then your DCF options will be limited to less than a handful, and none of them will be double-wall. But let’s get into the three most common options and break down what makes each great and what makes each garbage. Spoiler alert: there is no perfect tent material.
This is the most common tent fabric and has been around in some shape or form for decades. It is a nylon weave treated with a silicone waterproof finish. There are other waterproof coatings out there as well (PU, PE, PEU, etc.), but you’ll need a material science degree to care about the differences. The woven structure is reasonably puncture-resistant, mostly waterproof when coated, and comes in a variety of weaves, weights, and correspondingly varied durability.
There are some extremely lightweight tents made with silnylon in addition to those cavernous, multi-room car camping party tents. These backpacking-specific tents are usually made with 10-30 denier fabrics, which offer a good balance of low weight and durability. Silnylon is cheap and everywhere. Chances are you’ve seen many tents made from this stuff.
One of the big downsides is that the nylon absorbs water and expands when wet. This increases drying times and can contribute to a heavier carry after a damp night. It also results in a saggy tent, even if it is originally pitched as tight as a drum. Finally, even in its lightest form, silnylon is heavier than the equivalently strong DCF.
The Good: Cheap, reasonably lightweight, generally puncture/abrasion resistant, packable.
The Bad: Absorbs water, sags when wet, not the lightest, waterproof coating can degrade with time, improper storage, and UV exposure.
Silpoly is pretty much the same thing as silnylon — just trade out the nylon yarn for polyester. While this is relatively new to the tent market, it picks up where silnylon left off and adds some property improvements. As another woven fabric, it shares the resistance to punctures and abrasion, which will vary depending on the material thickness and weave. The waterproof coatings are the same as those of silnylon, and are pretty much completely waterproof, at least when new.
Where silpoly shines versus silnylon, is its improved UV resistance and lack of water absorbtion. The latter is significant because a tent made with silpoly will dry faster, weigh less when wet, and not sag when compared with a comparable tent made with silnylon. These are real, tangible improvements and explain the recent shift from silnylon to silpoly in the outdoor gear market.
As it is with silnylon, lightweight tents are usually constructed with 10-30D fabric weights.
The Good: Less water absorption and better UV resistance than silnylon, cheap, reasonably lightweight, generally puncture/abrasion resistant, packable.
The Bad: Not the lightest, waterproof coating can degrade with time, improper storage, and UV exposure.
This laminate was originally developed for high-performance boat sails and is extremely lightweight for its strength. Super strong Dyneema fibers are sandwiched between two layers of mylar, which is 100% waterproof when new and thus eliminates the need for an additional waterproof coating. This makes it possible to construct an incredibly strong tent for a remarkably low weight. Even the lightest silnylon/silpoly fabrics typically weigh more than the standard 0.55oz/sqryd DCF used in tent canopies.
But DCF is far from perfect, despite becoming the de facto tent material for anyone with an unlimited budget. Not only does it cost significantly more than silnylon or silpoly, but it is also difficult to work with and has so far remained confined to the cottage gear industry, further contributing to the higher pricetag.
And while it is 100% waterproof when new, it is common for a DCF tent to develop pinhole leaks between Dyneema fibers. For this reason, it is unreasonable to expect a DCF shelter to survive a full 2,000+ mile thru-hike without losing a noticeable amount of wet weather performance. Still, even pinholed DCF doesn’t absorb water, so it does not sag, dries quickly, and remains lightweight even after a drenching night.
Other downsides include relative bulkiness when packed, transparency that limits privacy, and limited resistance to punctures and abrasion. The last can be mitigated by using heavier 1.0oz/sqryd DCF on the floor and other high-wear areas.
Fortunately, when a DCF tent does develop a puncture, it is extremely easy to repair. Patch large and small holes with DCF tape, which forms a strong and permanent repair — no sewing required.
While there are significant drawbacks to DCF, most are minor and the associated weight reduction is both significant and enticing. Price is probably the largest factor keeping it off most gear lists
The Good: Easy repairs, no water absorption, no sag, strong, lightweight, fully waterproof when new.
The Bad: Expensive, bulky when packed, poor puncture/abrasion resistance, limited lifespan even taking good care, transparent.
UltraTNT is a brand-new material developed specifically for tarps and tents. It utilizes the same Dynema/mylar combination as DCF, but a different manufacturing process reduces cost. The result is a fabric that falls in between DCF and silpoly in terms of price and weight.
It is still unclear whether nor not UltraTNT will revolutionize the lightweight tent market, but it is an intriguing option. However, for now,UltraTNT tent options are limited.
Step 6: Choose Your Features
Aside from a tent’s overall dimensions, there are a few features that can have huge impacts on liveability and are worthy of consideration.
Unless we’re talking about a circus tent, most shelters have either one or two doors. Usually, these include an inner door as well as a floorless vestibule.
And not all doors are created equal. Certain zipper closures are easier to use than others, and the poles of trekking pole shelters are often in the way of the opening, requiring minor gymnastics to dodge. This might seem like a small inconvenience, but it is consistently cited as a major downside of even the most popular tents.
One-door design: Many single-person tents have one door on one side of the living area, but it’s not uncommon for there to be a door on both sides. A one-door configuration is great for a solo hiker, but some complain about only having a view in one direction.
Two-door design: Most two-person tents, and some one-person tents, have a door on both sides. This is great in that it allows each user to enter and exit without climbing over the other. It also provides separate vestibule storage for gear and shoes.
Single door at the head: Some 1-, 2-, or even 3-person tents have just a single door at the head of the tent. This saves weight by eliminating zippers and extra vestibule fabric, but this design is less user-friendly.
For the most part, all lightweight backpacking tents that are worth considering for a thru-hike do not offer a ton of headroom. Tent heights range from 39-60 inches on the spec sheet, but this is misleading and no tent will feel airy.
On the lower end of the height range sit the (semi)freestanding tents. With domed interiors, the peak height is an accurate representation of the useable airspace. Counterintuitively, these also tend to offer the most shoulder room because the curved poles hold the tent fabric away from the living area.
Trekking pole shelters boast taller peak heights, but most of this is inaccessible because they form a narrow peak. It is only several inches below this peak that there is actually enough space to stick your dome, and the steeply sloping walls also limit shoulder space. So don’t be fooled by the bigger number. Freestanding tents tend to have more liveable space.
Most tents are fully enclosed and therefore provide protection from bugs of both the crawling and buzzing varieties. Some double-wall shelters can pitch using just the poles and flysheet, which saves weight in exchange for losing this bug protection. Others still have inner bug mesh, but no floor. Even with doorless tarps, it is possible to suspend a separate mosquito net to handle buggy conditions. So if you hate bugs, you are covered no matter which tent you choose. Whew, finally an easy one!
Many tents have one or more internal pockets for storing small items. These can either be on the wall or sewn into the ceiling, which can be great for illuminating your living space with your headlamp.
Step 7: Don’t Forget the Stakes
Tent stakes are most likely essential for a properly stormproof pitch regardless of which tent you carry. Even freestanding tents likely require at least two stakes for the vestibules on nice days, and trekking pole shelters might require up to 12 to secure on a windy day.
Even if your tent comes with stakes, it’s worth considering the terrain where you’ll be using them. A stake’s holding power varies greatly with its shape, so if you know that you’ll be camping on loose ground, then plan accordingly by bringing some burly stakes. Alternatively, if you know that the ground will be solid, then you might get away with the lightest stakes available.
However, for long trips, it’s best to carry a variety of shapes and sizes so that you can securely pitch your tent no matter what the trail throws at you. This is especially important if you go with a non-freestanding shelter. If your stakes don’t hold, then you can always wrap yourself in your tent like a burrito, but that is really not fun.
One last point on stakes: there is no standard for including or not including stakes with a new tent. This is something to factor in when comparing price and weight specs between different shelter models. On one hand, it’s nice to choose your favorite stakes by purchasing them separately or using some that you already have. On the other, a tent’s weight can be misleading if it doesn’t include stake weight, especially if it requires 10+ to stand upright. Be vigilant and don’t be fooled.
Tent stake materials
Titanium: This is a lightweight and durable option that generally comes with a higher price tag versus aluminum. It is available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, though it is most commonly used in shepherd hooks and V-stakes.
Aluminum: Common, ligtweight, and cheap, aluminum is the standard choice for affordable and durable tent stakes. This metal is not strong enough to be practical for the smallest stake shapes such as shepherd hooks, but aluminum V-stakes, Y-stakes, and nail stakes are some of the lightest, most durable, and most affordable options available, while offering good bend resistance and holding power.
Steel: This metal is super duper strong, but also way too heavy for most backpackers. Steel stakes are commonly used for securing large shade tents at farmers markets, but almost never make it into the backcountry.
Carbon fiber: Lightweight, yet expensive and not very durable, carbon fiber stakes are pretty extreme. This material can only be found in nail-style stakes, and is probably best used in ground devoid of rocks.
Tent stake shapes
Shepherd hook (~0.2oz): These are the lightest stakes and are almost always made with titanium. They’re popular because they weigh next to nothing and pack small, but they have limited holding power in loose mediums and can bend easily when forced into hard or rocky ground. These are best used as supplementary stakes for tents that require 10 or more to pitch. Carry 4-8 of these with a trekking pole shelter during a thru-hike.
V-stake (~0.4oz): With a cross-section shaped like the letter V, these are sturdy and have decent holding power. However, the thickness of the material and acuteness of the angle will ultimately determine the bending resistance, and not all V-stakes are created equal. Thin titanium stakes might be lighter, but they tend to bend more easily when compared with slightly thicker aluminum stakes.
Y-stakes (~0.5oz): With a three-pronged cross-section (like the Mercedes logo), Y-stakes are super strong and have great holding power, even in loose soil. These tend to be the heaviest stakes, but it is worth it to keep a few of them around. You can bash on them with a rock without fear of bending them, and they will stick in that ground like your life depends on it.
Nail stake (~0.3oz): Shaped like big nails, these stakes are durable, bend-resistant, and have good holding power. To increase all three of these properties, the bigger the better, and nail stakes come in many different sizes.
How many stakes do you need?
Don’t forget your stakes, and bring enough! Check your tent specs before you head out, but expect to carry at least 6 stakes if you have a (semi)freestanding tent (one for each corner, and two for the vestibules).
Non-freestanding tents are usually more complicated and therefore require more stakes to stay standing, so don’t be surprised to bring as many as 12 if conditions are windy. That said, most of the time you’ll be able to get away with much fewer. But with titanium shepherd hooks both cheap and lightweight, there’s no reason not to bring a full quiver.
This is a contentious topic and opinions run the gamut. The answer is, “it depends.” Some tent floors are made with weeny 7D silnylon, while others are heavy-duty DCF. Some manufacturers such as Zpacks aren’t afraid to say that their tents probably don’t need an additional footprint, but others sell tailor-made footprints for each tent model.
Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference and risk tolerance. If you’re spending $500 on a silnylon tent with a 7D floor, then maybe the extra weight and cost is worth it to protect your investment. If you bought an $800, easily repairable DCF tent with a burly 1.0oz/sqryd floor, then you might not need any extra protection. And as always, think about the terrain you expect to encounter. Soft dirt or sand won’t pose much of a risk to your floor, but rocky ground and sharp sticks can act like knives if you don’t carefully clear your campsite before pitching.
Finally, if you definitely want a footprint, there are DIY options that will save you money and weight. Tyvek is a popular material, as is polycro. The former is extremely durable, but tough to pack and a little heavier. Polycro is closer to plastic cling wrap, so don’t expect great durability or protection.