This is a multi-post series on backpacking shelter systems. Start with the Introduction or skip to:
- Six questions to ask before buying a tent, tarp, or hammock
- Modular Tent: Gear list & discussion
- Tarp & Bivy: Gear list & discussion
- Hammock: Gear list & discussion
- If cost were no object: My go-to shelter systems, gone ultralight
- Stakes & Guylines: My top picks
What is a backpacking tent? I’ll define it as a full-sided, fixed-shaped, and holistically designed portable shelter that protects its occupants from precipitation, wind, groundwater, and insects. A few models do not fulfill this entire description, but it generally works.
Tents grossly outsell tarps, hammocks, and bivy sacks. This is partly due to deeply embedded mindsets (“I am going backpacking, so I need a tent.”), but also because tents make for good backpacking shelters. They:
- Offer robust protection against all environmental factors;
- Can be used in nearly all locations and seasons;
- Set up and break down easily;
- Sleep soloists and multi-person groups; and,
- Require little learning, relative to tarps and hammocks.
With one exception, my recommendation to backpackers looking for an all-purpose shelter is to buy a tent. The exception: If you will regularly camp in high-use forested zones like the Appalachian Trail, consider a hammock.
Most tents have a double-wall design, whereby a waterproof rain fly is secured over an inner tent with a waterproof floor and bug mesh upper. But some are single-wall, where the fly, bug netting, and floor are sewn together. (Mountaineering tents are also single-wall, but the upper is made of waterproof-breathable fabric.)
My modular double-wall tent system
What exact tent do I use? Let me share and explain my choice:
- Critical = A must-have, no exceptions
- Suggested = A valuable addition, few reasons not to bring
- Optional = Not critical, but worth consideration
- Depends = Contingent on trip objectives, conditions, and/or other selections
- Unnecessary = Unlikely to need and/or can be improvised
Those who regularly read this blog will not be surprised that I use the Sierra Designs High Route Tent 1FL. After all, I designed it from scratch with SD’s technical help. The six characteristics I love most:
- Storm-worthy. I will use it in moderate winter weather (e.g. forested camps, no blizzards) or less.
- Modular. The fly and inner tent can be used together or independently, or mixed-and-matched with other components like ground sheets and bivies, so that its configuration can be tailored precisely to the trip conditions.
- Intuitive and versatile pitch. It goes up quickly with little fuss. It can be pitched low, or a few inches off the ground for additional space. The doors can be closed, opened, or porched, even when it’s snowing or raining.
- Generously sized. It is a palace for one, due to its dimensions and shape. Unlike ultralight/ultra-small shelters, it will remain comfortable in inclement weather. It can fit two snugly.
- Pole positions. The poles do not block entryways or break up the sleeping area, and they help to reinforce the vertical side doors.
- Lightweight. The “minimum weight” of my modified version weighs just 2 lbs 2.7 oz (985 grams) for the fly, inner tent, and guylines. I more often use it in fly/footprint mode, at 1 lb 7.7 oz with a space blanket.
The High Route Tent is just about perfect for me. For other users, not so much. Let’s look at some of the alternatives.
Double-wall mids and inserts
Prior to the High Route Tent, my go-to shelter system for challenging and varied conditions was a pyramid-shaped tarp and matching bug insert. This combination is also a very solid choice for a one-shelter quiver.
A few examples:
- Black Diamond Mega Light + Mega Bug Tent (4P)
- Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid + InnerNet (soloist)
- My Trail Company Pyramid 3 Shelter (2P)
- Seek Outside Lil’ Bug Out Shelter + Cougar Nest (2+P)
Mids are true four-season shelters. Snow cascades down their sloped walls, and wind struggles to take hold of their angular profiles. Unlike 4-season mountaineering tents, mids are light enough for 3-season trips. In fact, assuming the same footprint size and fabrics, a mid will be lighter than the High Route Tent because it has less surface area (and interior volume).
Because they are so lightweight, capable, and sleek-looking, mids are very sexy. But most backpackers will never push a mid to its limits, and I question whether the tradeoffs are worthwhile. Ultimately, I decided to sacrifice some storm-worthiness in exchange for a shelter that:
- Keeps its poles out of the sleeping area and entryways;
- Can be ventilated in a storm (by opening its doors partially or completely) without exposing the inside to falling precip; and,
- Maximizes interior space with vertical or steeply angled walls.
As mentioned earlier, a single-wall tent has a sewn-together fly, floor, and bug netting. It’s a simpler system, and also lighter than a comparable double-wall tent because redundant materials can be eliminated.
Single-wall tents work best for those who always need or want full-service protections. If I were tent-shopping for Amanda for a Colorado Trail thru-hike, I would look hard at this category. She’s happier and she sleeps better when she’s fully enclosed, even when it’s not warranted by the conditions. I know that many people feel this way, and I don’t argue with it.
Examples of single-wall tents:
- Big Agnes Scout UL (2P)
- MSR FlyLite (2P)
- Sierra Designs Flash, Flashlight & Tentsegrity (1P, 2P, 3P)
- Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo and Lunar Duo (1P & 2P)
- Tarptent ProTrail and MoTrail (1P & 2P)
- ZPacks Hexamid and Duplex (1P & 2P)
Single-wall tents are not modular. Therefore, components cannot be mixed-and-matched in order to tailor the configuration for varied conditions. You may or may not see this as a problem.
In my case, a single-wall tent would be ideal only for 6 to 8 weeks per year, during the peak bug seasons. For the rest of the 3-seasons, I would be annoyed at the restrictive nature of the bug netting, and have to carry unwarranted weight. During the winter, I would be unable to use the tent at all, because the floor would prevent me from digging into the snowpack and using the fly more like a roof.
The other issue with single-wall tents is condensation management. When the temperature of the rain fly drops below the dew point (due to ambient temperature or radiant heat loss), condensation will collect on its inside. In a single-wall tent, you are likely to contact this surface, wetting your clothing or sleeping bag.
This makes single-wall tents a difficult sell for humid environments like the eastern woodlands and Pacific Northwest. No surprise, single-wall tents first gained traction among thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, the aridity on which makes condensation a rare concern.
A double-wall tent is not necessarily more condensation-resistant. (This depends on ventilation, which is a function of the shelter’s design and pitch.) But at least in a double-wall tent the inner body acts as a barrier between the occupants and the condensation on the fly.
Double-wall freestanding tents
Nearly all of the aforementioned shelters are non-freestanding. Most are supported with trekking poles or stout shafts, and must be staked out to achieve proper pitch and tension.
Understandably, you may be deterred by this design. You may:
- Not use trekking poles (the wisdom of which is irrelevant for now);
- Wish to avoid the extra fuss; or,
- Camp regularly in deep sand or snow, which exacerbate this fuss factor.
The solution is a freestanding or semi-freestanding double-wall tent, which offers a fast and nearly foolproof pitch. Stakes are still necessary for achieving textbook tension and ventilation, but the shelter’s structural integrity depends mostly on the custom pole set.
Freestanding and semi-freestanding double-wall tents also have very efficient geometries, i.e. they maximize interior space relative to their surface area, often featuring vertical walls and dome ceilings.
Examples of double-wall tents:
- Big Agnes Fly Creek HV 1 and Fly Creek HV 2 (1P & 2P)
- MSR Hubba NX 1 and Hubba Hubba NX 2 (1P & 2P)
- REI Quarter Dome 1 and Quarter Dome 2 (1P & 2P)
- Sierra Designs Light Year 1 and Clip Flashlight 2 (1P & 2P)
Naturally, double-wall freestanding and semi-freestanding tents are not without tradeoffs. One is added weight, due to the custom pole set. The pole set on the Sierra Designs Light Year adds 9 ounces, for example, plus a few more ounces of related clips, buckles, grommets, and sleeves. Poles can be made of ultralight aluminum and carbon, but that quickly gets expensive. The Big Agnes Fly Creek 1 Platinum, for example, costs $500!
Because free-standing and semi-freestanding tents have relatively efficient geometries, fewer materials can be used to achieve the same amount of livable space relative to non-freestanding tents. But the weight penalty of the pole set cannot be completely offset.
Some freestanding and semi-freestanding tents are modular, i.e. their fly and inner tent body can be used independently, as well as together. Read deeply for this detail — it’s a mixed bag. Be aware, too, that this modularity normally requires the purchase of a separate custom footprint with matching connection points. This will be an added $50-ish expense.
My final criticism of free-standing double-wall tents was leveled earlier, too: the occupant must decide whether they want ventilation or protection from precipitation. These tents always offer ventilation at the base of the fly. But in calm, humid, and rainy conditions this will often be inadequate. For additional ventilation, normally a door must be opened, but doing so exposes the vestibule or the interior tent to the elements. Unfortunately, double-wall tents have the worst ventilation when it is needed most. There are a few exceptions to this design flaw, but they are not the norm.
What tent did you ultimately purchase, and why? If you are in the market, share your top selections and I’ll offer my thoughts.
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