Best Backpacking Tent – How to Choose

Camping In The Milky Way
Camping can reveal our place in the universe.

Tents obviously come in all shapes and sizes. If you are wanting to do any series backpacking your Walmart special isn’t the right tent. This isn’t to say there aren’t affordable ways to backpack with a tent but typically you will get what you pay for. There are trade-offs when you decide to go cheaper on a tent. The best backpacking tent will be made of quality materials that maximize weight, size, strength, and durability. The trade-off for weight savings is often the internal volume in the space is tight. The best backpacking tents aren’t spacious but you backpack to spend time in the wilderness. A tent, more so than almost any other piece of backpacking gear, must be able to withstand all that mother nature can throw at it.

Classification and Rating

Best Backpacking Gear
It is hard to imagine that this is what we have the potential of packing into our backpacks.

We classify tents as essential backpacking gear but also give it and the associated items a rating. Obviously you need some form of shelter to go backpacking so it is an essential piece of gear. Our A-F rating is to help newcomers to backpacking know where to best spend their budget. The best backpacking tent, if cleaned and maintained well, will last for many years. Check out our best backpacking gear post to see how we rank and rate all the gear in one place.

Best Backpacking Tent

  • Classification: Essential Gear
  • A-Rating: Spend the money for a quality product that is durable, well-designed, and saves weight.

Tent vs. Hammock

One of the first things to ask yourself about a camping shelter is, do you prefer a tent or a hammock? Some will choose to have both. We are nomads so space is at a premium. We have chosen a tent for the simple fact that hammocks aren’t useable everywhere. Some places don’t have trees and many parks don’t allow hammocks because they can damage the trees.

3-Season vs. 4-Season

Applebee Campground
If you are camping in a place like this (Bugaboo Provincial Park) you might need a 4-season tent.

Backpacking tents essentially come in two styles, 3-season and 4-season. The 3-season tent is designed to be lightweight and strong but not especially warm. A 4-season tent will be designed with a primary focus on warmth. There are 4-season tents that are light enough to backpack with but on a whole, they are heavier and tend to be more expensive than a quality 3-season tent. The best backpacking tent for most situations will be a 3-season tent. These tents are often designed to shelter users from almost every type of weather including cold and snowy conditions, but a quality sleeping bag and sleeping pad will be needed. If you intend to camp in below-freezing temperatures on a regular basis, a 4-season tent should be chosen.

Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2

The best backpacking tent in the Petrified Forest
Our Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 on a large salt flat in the Petrified Forest National Park.

The Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 has been our workhorse for more than 5 years. It is an amazing lightweight 3-season tent. For having a predominately mesh sided construction the material magically holds in heat surprisingly well. I really do not understand how it works. We have camped in sub-freezing temperatures which aren’t ideal for a 3-season tent, but with a quality sleeping bag, we have stayed warm in this tent. The UL in the title stands for ultra-light, and at 3.1lbs this is one of the lightest two-person tents available. Are there lighter or cheaper options? Yes, but lighter or cheaper options will have trade-offs with either less headroom, not allowing you to sit up in the tent, or a wall-less (tarp) tent where you will be exposed to nature. I’ve had close encounters with furry creatures as well as blood-sucking insects while camping… I prefer the thin mesh to total exposure.

Copper Spur UL2 (Classic or 2019?)

Jennifer and I have the “classic” Copper Spur UL2 but in 2019 Big Agnes released an updated version that gives slightly more elbow room with a more verticle wall design that maintains nearly the same exact weight. It also has the ability to prop the fly open with trekking poles to create a sunshade, This has reduced the price of the classic by more than $100 while supplies last. While I love the look of the new design, I am prone to save the money and grab the classic but either tent would be a good choice when looking for the best backpacking tent.

Copper Spur UL1 and UL3

Big Agnes also makes a UL3 which is supposedly designed for 3 people but is often used as a 2-person tent for people with broader shoulders or those traveling with four-legged companions. They also make a UL1 tent for single backpackers. Although, with only a 7oz weight savings I think I would get the UL2 and have a bit of extra space plus the flexibility of backpacking with a friend, albeit one you are very comfortable in tight spaces with.

Maintaining a Backpacking Tent

The best backpacking tent packed.
Our Big Agnes Copper Spur packed up and ready for our next adventure in the backcountry.

Obviously, if you are spending a lot of money on the best backpacking tent you want to take care of it. This is best done by keeping the tent clean and dry. If you must pack it up wet, make sure to unpack it and dry it out as soon as possible. Less obvious, is that you should strive to never pack up your tent in the same way. Folding and creasing your tent repeatedly along the same lines wears the tent out quicker. Many people will stuff their tents into the provided bag. This more or less ensures that creases do not occur.

Tent Tarp (AKA: Footprint)

  • Classification: Necessary Gear
  • D-Rating: Save some money as the difference in name-brand products isn’t necessarily worth the cost.

One slightly annoying thing about the best backpacking tent manufacturers is that the base of the tent usually needs supplemental protection on rougher surfaces. This is usually referred to as a footprint but it is basically a glorified and overpriced tarp. You do want to get one that is designed for the approximate size of the tent you choose because anything bigger then the footprint of your tent will actually channel water and mud towards the tent when it rains.

Campsite near Buchanan Pass
Our second campsite on the first night of the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop. The 1st one was flooded while we hiked.

I have found that water being channeled under the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 isn’t a huge deal as the waterproofing around the base is good. We once set up our tent on the Pawnee-Buchanan Pass Trail in Colorado before doing a spur hike only to return to the area with the tent sitting in several inches of water. The interior of the tent was completely dry. Mud, on the other hand, is no fun to clean off when packing up so a propper sized footprint is needed. I still have a hard time paying $70 (sometimes on sale for $55) for the Big Agnes branded footprint. We found this $20 nock off on Amazon and it has worked well for us.

Camp Towel (XS)

  • Classification: Necessary Gear
  • D-Rating: Save some money as the difference in a name-brand product isn’t necessarily worth the cost.

We carry an extra small camp towel for the purpose of cleaning off our tent (especially the bottom) before packing it up. Making sure your tent is free from mud, sticks, and rocks before packing it away will ensure that it lasts for many adventures. This towel comes in handy when beach camping for cleaning off our feet and legs before climbing into the tent.

Choosing the Best Backpacking Tent

Best Backpacking Tent
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The best backpacking tent maximizes interior space, weight, & pack size by using quality light-weight materials that perform well in all weather conditions. These tents can be expensive. But if well-maintained with a proper foot-print and cleaned onsite with a camp towel, as well as stored dry, they can last for many years. This allows adventurous souls to venture into some of the most remote and beautiful areas while being sheltered from the elements.

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