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How to Choose Your Perfect Camping Tent
Tents, Tarps, Bivy Sacks, and Hammocks

last updated on: 04/07/2017
How to Choose Your Perfect Camping Tent

Your home away from home. A tent is the quintessential camping item that everyone thinks of first, and with good reason. By keeping the bugs out, water off, and increasing privacy, your shelter provides both a physical and mental space for you in the outdoor world. Because shelters are so important there are an incredible amount of features, designs, and options to supply you with a home that fulfills all of your needs.

Types of Tents

Backpacking Tents Ultralight Tents Recreational Tents Expedition Tents

backpacking tents

backpacking tents
  • Capacity: 1 - 3 People
  • Packed Weight: 3 - 5.5 Pounds
  • Seasons: 3
  • Floor Area: 24 - 45 Square Feet
  • Vestibule Area: 0 - 18 Square Feet
  • Peak Height: 38 - 45 Inches
  • Best Uses: Backpacking

Backpacking tents are the most versatile in the sense that they are not too heavy, not terribly expensive, fairly durable, and usually house two to three people. These shelters are at home car camping, on the trail, or even in some mild wintery environments. Because of their construction, nearly all backpacking tents are classified as three season.

From there it gets more challenging. Backpacking tents probably have the most options when it comes to design preferences, features, materials, and capacity. If you decide a backpacking tent is what you are looking for then it becomes a matter of eliminating tents to find the perfect match.

ultralight tents

ultralight tents
  • Capacity: 1 - 3 People
  • Packed Weight: 1.5 - 3 Pounds
  • Seasons: 3
  • Floor Area: 25 - 45 Square Feet
  • Vestibule Area: 0 - 10 Square Feet
  • Peak Height: 35 - 40 Inches
  • Best Uses: Ultralight Backpacking

Though similar to backpacking tents, ultralight tents are a fairly recent development. The crucial difference between these two designs is that ultralight tents use lighter weight materials at the expense of durability. These tents really start pushing the boundaries of what classifies a comfortable two person tent in their attempt to eliminate any possible excess material. Ultralight tents are more expensive due to their more intricate construction and use of fancier materials.

A ultralight tent is a good choice for someone who knows they will be in the backcountry a lot, and is looking for ways to shave every possible ounce off of their load.

recreational tents

recreational tents
  • Capacity: 2 - 4 People
  • Packed Weight: 8 - 12 Pounds
  • Seasons: 3
  • Floor Area: 55 - 80 Square Feet
  • Vestibule Area: 0 - 36 Square Feet
  • Peak Height: 54 - 70 Inches
  • Best Uses: Car Camping

On the other side of backpacking tents is the recreational tent. Though these shelters house two to four people, are constructed in similar methods, and are equally if not more durable, recreational tents differ dramatically from their backpacking brethren.

A recreational tent is intended for use car camping, with maybe an occasional backcountry foray. These tents save money by using heavier materials for the tent body, rainfly, and poles. Many times the construction isn't as high quality, meaning the lifespan of the shelter will be shorter. Commonly this is first seen with small leaks in the floor or a broken zipper. However, recreational tents offer a bigger floor area and peak height which makes them much more livable spaces.

Recreational tents are a great choice for a car camper who wants to save a few bucks and still get a decent shelter (and isn't concerned about weight).

expedition tents

expedition tents
  • Capacity: 2 - 3 People
  • Packed Weight: 4 - 6 Pounds
  • Seasons: 4
  • Floor Area: 30 - 35 Square Feet
  • Vestibule Area: 8 - 20 Square Feet
  • Peak Height: 40 - 44 Inches
  • Best Uses: Mountaineering, Winter Camping

An expedition tent is a beefier version of a backpacking tent. These tents use heavier materials, extra poles, and bonus guylines to withstand the strong winds and heavy snow loads that come with winter camping. A large vestibule is often used for cooking and gear storage.

These tents are constructed with either single or double walls. Single walls can be nice for the weight and space savings, but decreases overall comfort.

Mountaineers, alpinists, and touring snowshoers/skiers will all want to look at choosing a four-season tent.

family tents

family tents
  • Capacity: 5+ People
  • Packed Weight: 15 - 40 Pounds
  • Seasons: 3
  • Floor Area: 80 - 120 Square Feet
  • Vestibule Area: 0 - 40 Square Feet
  • Peak Height: 70 - 82 Inches
  • Best Uses: Family Car Camping

Family tents are anything that sleeps over four or five people. These family sized shelters are heavy and can be a challenge to set up. They provide incredible amenities such as standing room, separate sleeping areas, excellent ventilation, and of course TONS of space. A family tent is a great choice for a big family or groups that want to bring more of the comforts of home, such as blow up air mattresses, cots, furniture, etc with them.

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bivy sacks

bivy sacks
  • Capacity: 1 Person
  • Packed Weight: 0.75 - 2 Pounds
  • Seasons: 3 - 4
  • Floor Area: 8 - 12 Square Feet
  • Vestibule Area: N/A
  • Peak Height: 0 - 18 Inches
  • Best Uses: Ultralight, Emergency Shelter, Alpine Climbing

Bivouak, shortened to bivy, is essentially a waterproof sack for your sleeping bag. This is the most minimal shelter you can have which fully encloses you while sleeping. The most simple bivy is a waterproof shell, but fancier options are available. Some come outfitted with one pole to create more headspace. Others have both a mesh net and waterproof enclosure for ventilation and bug protection.

A bivy is a great option for one person who is looking for a super light, low bulk shelter. Often seen with ultralight backpackers or alpinists.

tarp tents

tarp tents
  • Capacity: 2 - 4 People
  • Packed Weight: 1 - 1.5 Pounds
  • Seasons: 3 - 4
  • Floor Area: 40 - 50 Square Feet
  • Vestibule Area: N/A
  • Peak Height: Various
  • Best Uses: Ultralight Backpacking

Tarps provide a light, low bulk way to keep the water off. Often these shelters are rigged up with nearby trees or propped up using tall items such as oars or paddles. Tarps come in a variety of sizes and can sleep between one and eight people. Setting up a tarp correctly is truly an art, but the most basic methods are fairly simple.

Some tarps come with additional bug netting that can be added on for bug protection, though the floors are always open.

Tarps are a great option for lightweight backpacking, or to use with groups for sleeping and cooking.


  • Capacity: 1 - 2 People
  • Packed Weight: 1.5 - 3 Pounds
  • Seasons: 3
  • Floor Area: N/A
  • Vestibule Area: N/A
  • Peak Height: N/A
  • Best Uses: Ultralight Trekking, Bike Touring, Relaxing

Hammocks are a classic sleeping option that take the place of a sleeping pad more than a shelter. If you are travelling somewhere where the weather is consistently sunny, and there is an abundance of trees, then a hammock might serve you well. However, the need for support, the lack of rain and bug protection, and a rather uncomfortable posture makes hammock living somewhat limited.

Some models exist with a built in fly, but unless you are dead set on not carrying a sleeping pad, you will have the challenges of support and comfort.

How to Find the Best Tent For You

Before We Start Capacity Usage

before we start

before we start

Different parts of choosing a tent inform other decisions, so you will see repeated information throughout the next sections.

It is important to break down each specific component, because a two person ultralight backpacking tent for $350 dollars is very different from a two person recreational tent for $150. (Even though they are both three season tents, with similar footprints, and capacities.)

The number of camping shelter options available is borderline ridiculous, so it really becomes a game of elimination when trying to find a shelter suitable for you.

Throughout the following pages we will break things down as simply as possible and suggest how you can eliminate from the massive stock of shelter option out there.


# People Hammock Bivy Solo Tent Tarp Tent 2 Person Tent 4 Person Tent 6 Person Tent
1 1 / 2.00 1 / 1.50 1 / 3.00 1 / 1.50 1 / 4.75 1 / 10.0 1 / 30.0
2 2 / 2.00 2 / 1.50 2 / 3.00 1 / 0.75 1 / 2.37 1 / 5.00 1 / 15.0
3 3 / 2.00 3 / 1.50 3 / 3.00 2 / 1.50 2 / 3.16 1 / 3.33 1 / 10.0
4 4 / 2.00 4 / 1.50 4 / 3.00 2 / 0.75 2 / 2.37 1 / 2.50 1 / 7.50
5 5 / 2.00 5 / 1.50 5 / 3.00 3 / 0.90 3 / 2.85 2 / 4.00 1 / 6.00
6 6 / 2.00 6 / 1.50 6 / 3.00 3 / 0.75 3 / 2.37 2 / 3.33 1 / 5.00
7 7 / 2.00 7 / 1.50 7 / 3.00 4 / 0.86 4 / 2.71 2 / 2.85 2 / 8.57
8 8 / 2.00 8 / 1.50 8 / 3.00 4 / 0.75 4 / 2.37 2 / 2.50 2 / 7.50
# People Hammock Bivy Solo Tent Tarp Tent
1 1 / 2.00 1 / 1.50 1 / 3.00 1 / 1.50
2 2 / 2.00 2 / 1.50 2 / 3.00 1 / 0.75
3 3 / 2.00 3 / 1.50 3 / 3.00 2 / 1.50
4 4 / 2.00 4 / 1.50 4 / 3.00 2 / 0.75
5 5 / 2.00 5 / 1.50 5 / 3.00 3 / 0.90
6 6 / 2.00 6 / 1.50 6 / 3.00 3 / 0.75
7 7 / 2.00 7 / 1.50 7 / 3.00 4 / 0.86
8 8 / 2.00 8 / 1.50 8 / 3.00 4 / 0.75
# People 2 Person Tent 4 Person Tent 6 Person Tent
1 1 / 4.75 1 / 10.0 1 / 30.0
2 1 / 2.37 1 / 5.00 1 / 15.0
3 2 / 3.16 1 / 3.33 1 / 10.0
4 2 / 2.37 1 / 2.50 1 / 7.50
5 3 / 2.85 2 / 4.00 1 / 6.00
6 3 / 2.37 2 / 3.33 1 / 5.00
7 4 / 2.71 2 / 2.85 2 / 8.57
8 4 / 2.37 2 / 2.50 2 / 7.50
1st number is person count / 2nd number is weight per person
** Orange indicates best weight to person ratios **

How many people do you want to accommodate?

Solo camping can be very nice, but unless you are using a bivy or hammock, it will add a significant amount of weight and bulk per person.

Most people want a tent that sleeps between two and four people. When you share a tent, you also share the weight. For instance, an eight pound - four person tent comes out to only two pounds per person, whereas a solo tent is generally around four pounds. Sharing saves you two pounds and significant pack space.

Disadvantages for a larger tent include; harder to locate a flat and obstacle-free tent zone, usually more difficult to pitch, and the weight savings is lost when you don't have three friends to travel with.

Families may want to consider a tent that can sleep more than five. For car campers this is a great option because it keeps everyone together and reduces the number of shelters necessary to purchase and setup.

1) Decide on the most likely number of people your tent needs to sleep and eliminate the other options.


Type of Shelter The Good The Bad
Ultralight Light and Compact Expensive
Backpacking Versatile and Fairly Light Not Specialized
Recreational Cheap and Roomy Heavy
Expedition Durable and Protective Expensive

Ultralight, backpacking, recreational, and expedition tents are all very different, so deciding how you are going to use your tent is the next step.

Ultralight means you are trying to shave any extra ounces off your back. Ultralight shelters have a shorter lifespan, and super light, and are more expensive. But they do the job well; they are light... super light... Ultra light...

Backpacking tents are fairly light, durable, and roomy. These are great all-around tents for backpacking, car camping, paddling, and even some winter camping situations.

Recreational tents are heavier, but they are super roomy, cheap, and hold up fairly well. For the most part these tents are only used for car camping, where weight isn't an issue. However some can be used for backpacking trips. Family-sized tents fall into this category as well.

Expedition tents, also known as four-season tents, are used for cold environments when you might be spending large amounts of time inside your tent and need protection from wind and snow. Expedition tents are super expensive and fairly heavy, and so are only used for those specific conditions.

2) Decide how this shelter will primarily be used and eliminate the other options.

materials vs weight vs cost

materials vs weight vs cost

Weight, materials, and cost are all closely tied to each other, and so we must look at them as a complete package.

Cheaper shelters, such as recreational and family tents, use simple, heavy materials at a low cost. Ultralight, expedition, and bivvies use high-end materials, sometimes very thin, and always very costly. Backpacking tents can trend both directions, but the cost is largely determined by what materials are used, and those materials largely determine the final weight.

Lets start by looking at what material options are available...

Polyurethane Coated Polyester

PU Polyester

Cheap but Heavy
Found on Recreational, Family, and lower-end Backpacking Tents

Silicone Coated Nylon

SilNylong or Sil/PU Nylon

Strong, Light, Durable, and Expensive
Found on Backpacking, Expedition, and Ultralight Tents

In a shelter there are an array of fabric options as well as a few poles materials to consider.


Polyurethane Coated Polyester (PU Polyester): The cheapest and heaviest option. The polyester material is durable but the waterproof coating will eventually wear off and flake. This material is found on most cheap tents, often in the recreational, family, and low end backpacking varieties.

Silicone Coated Nylon (SilNylon or Sil/PU Nylon): Nylon is inherently stronger, lighter, and more durable than PU polyester. This material is found in most backpacking, expedition, and ultralight tents.


The standard for poles is some sort of aluminum blend. Fiberglass is found in cheaper models but is prone to splintering after repeated use of excessive wind loads.

Don't worry too much about poles, manufactures don't pair cheap poles with a expensive tent, and vise versa.

High Denier (80D)

Durable and Heavy

Low Denier (20D)

Less Durable and Light

Fabrics are measured by their denier (D). An ultralight tent uses as low as 10D, whereas a more typical weight is around 70D. The higher the number, the more durability the fabric and higher the weight.

Cost Footprint Weight Materials Durability
REI Half Dome 2 $189 31.8 Square Feet 5 Pounds 10 Ounces 40D - 75D Ripstop Nylon/Taffeta Excellent
REI Quarter Dome 2 $299 28.7 Square Feet 3 Pounds 9 Ounces 15D - 30D Ripstop Nylon Good
REI Half Dome 2 REI Quarter Dome 2
Cost $189 $299
Footpring 31.8 sq ft 28.7 sq ft
Weight 5 lbs 10 oz 3 lbs 9 oz
Materials 40 - 75D Taffeta PU 15 - 30D Ripstop Nylon
Durability Excellent Good

Okay, so now that you understand some fabric types and how to measure weight, lets put it all together and add in the cost element.

Lets compare two excellent REI 2 person backpacking tents; the REI Half Dome 2, and the REI Quarter Dome 2 Plus.

Both tents are roughly the same design, same height, and fairly similar size. The Half Dome uses primarily PU coated polyester while the Quarter Dome has a Sil/PU Nylon blend. The result?

The Half Dome weighs 5 pounds 10 ounces, the Quarter Dome only 3 pounds 9 ounces.

BUT... The Quarter Dome also costs $110 more. So it's up to you to decide how much the weight savings and added durability is worth.

3) Decide on a budget: how important is weight and durability? Eliminate the other options.


Double vs Single Wall

At this point you should know how big your shelter needs to be, what type of shelter you want, and have established a budget for weight and materials. The list of options should be getting fairly short. Lets take a look at different designs to eliminate things further.

Most tents use a double wall construction, meaning there is a largely mesh tent body and a separate rain fly. This construction provides two layers of element protection, but adds weight. The alternative is a single wall tent which combines the tent body and fly into one piece. This method saves a lot of weight while still providing good protection but is less versatile and tends to build up moisture.

Peak Height and Floor Area

Other design elements to consider are; peak height, floor dimensions, and tent body shape.

Peak Height refers to how much head room there is at the highest point in the tent. A bigger number means better livability but be wary of this number because often it only applies to a small portion in the middle of the tent. Some tents form trapezoidal shapes which increase peak height where you would sit up and have a lower height around the feet for weight savings.

Floor Dimensions determine how much elbow and head room you have while laying down. Tall people (six feet or more) should pay attention to this. 86' x 54' is a fairly average size for a two person backpacking tent.

Tent Body Shape refers to the footprint design of the shelter. Most tents are a rectangular shape which provides even space allocation for people and gear. Diamond and trapezoidal shapes can also be found which, if setup properly, can maximize head space and provide more gear storage options.

4) Determine if you want to save weight with a single wall construction, and check peak height and floor dimensions. Eliminate other options.



Finally there are features, including vestibules, footprint, stakes, and guyline cord.

Vestibules are extensions of the rain fly which provide room for gear storage outside of the main tent body, but still inside the rain fly. A vestibule is a great place for cooking (if done safely), and low weight storage. Backpacking and expedition tents often have at least one vestibule.

A footprint is a custom cut piece of fabric to protect the bottom of the tent. Though not necessary, a footprint can help extend the lifetime of the tent when set up on rocky or abrasive terrain.

Stakes usually accompany a tent. However it is a good idea to purchase a few extra because very few tents come with enough to adequately guy out a tent in harsh conditions. It's also wise to learn how to set up a tent using nearby trees and rocks to help minimize how many stakes need to be used.

Guyline cord is another essential piece of gear that rarely comes with a shelter. This chord is essential for setting up with trees and rocks, extending staking locations, and securing the fly. Lawson Outdoor Equipment makes a nice 3/32" cord called GloWire which we highly recommend.

5) Decide on any added features to outfit your shelter appropriately.

Final Thoughts

Congratulations on making it this far! Choosing a tent is one of the hardest outdoor purchases to make, but taking the time to thoroughly assess your needs and pick the right option will pay off big time in the field. With good care a tent can easily last ten years or more.

If you have any questions feel free to leave a comment below.

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