Hiker Tent – Which One?

There is nothing better at the end of the day after being on the trail in the wind, bugs and/or rain and climbing into your hiker tent and getting “away” from all of that. That is what tents are designed to do. They are a better protector from the elements than tarps. Although, tarps have tents beat on weight and cost.

Construction

Single Wall vs. Double Wall: These are the two basic models of hiker tent construction. A double walled tent has, just like the name states, two walls. The main tent structure and then a rain fly that fits over the top of the main tent. The inner wall is made of a breathable material to let the condensation out, while the outer wall is waterproof to provide protection from the rain and elements. When setting up this tent, an air chamber is formed between the inner and outer wall creating an insulation area. A single wall tent can be made of waterproof material with ventilation areas built in or it can be made of a waterproof / breathable material. A single wall tent will normally be lighter than a double wall. One draw back of a single wall tent is that condensation can form on the inside of the ones that are made of the non-breathable material.

Your Fly is Open

Another variation in the tent is the rain fly. There are basically two different types: A full rain fly that provides more protection and comes to the ground or a partial (awning) style rain fly that offers less protection from wind and rain. The awning style will have better air flow or ventilation. If you are only going to use the tent in milder climatic conditions, then a partial rain fly may be adequate. Personally, I think that the full rain fly is more versatile. It can provide you with extra storage area in a “vestibule”. It can be adapted to different weather conditions and it still has better air circulation than a single walled tent.

With all of the styles of tents available, what are some ways to narrow down your selections? In order to narrow down the field of contenders, ask yourself the following questions:

Mine is Bigger than Yours

Decide how many people will be sleeping in the hiker tent or that are in your group. This can be an easy number to come up with, but your group may change in size from one hike to the next. Know that a two person tent is just that, two people and no gear. If you are sleeping solo and you want to store your gear as well, get a two person tent.

What Do You Mean It’s Snowing, It’s June

Decide what season(s) you are going to be using the tent.

  • Summer Only: Get a Summer tent. These are normally a double walled tent. The inner tent can be mostly mosquito netting. Because the inner part is netting, it can be a very light weight tent or can be a partial rain fly.
  • Three Season: These tents are heavier than Summer tents and do provide more protection from the elements, but they will not hold up during a heavy snow. These are designed to be used in multiple weather conditions and have A better rain fly that comes to the ground.
  • All Season (Convertible): These tents can be used anytime during the year, but are not designed for harsh winter environments.
  • Winter/Mountaineering: The heaviest of the hiker tent types because of the extra strong poles, they provide ample support during snow. They can take on the harshest winter weather.

Is weight really a concern? Is this tent for car-camping or is it for the back country? If you are going to always hike with it, then it pays to get a lighter weight backpacking tent.

Tent Pole Structure: Poles are what hold the shape of the tent. Common materials are aluminum, fiberglass or carbon fiber. They can be attached to the tent body in different ways:

  • Clips: These tents have clips that the poles connect to. Because of this type of design, there is a great amount of space between the inner and outer walls creating a nice air pocket. Also, these tents can be on the lighter side.
  • Clips and Sleeves: To set up these tents, you slide the poles through the sleeves (which are normally at places that are hard to reach) and then clip in the areas easier to reach. These do have good ventilation and the tents are easy to set up.
  • Sleeves: These are going to be a very strong type of setup. There are sleeves along the entire length of the tent that the poles slip into. The sleeves disperse the strain along it’s entire length. These types of tents are also extremely easy to set up, but they can be more weighty.


Styles:

Dome, Umbrella or Arch: A lot of headroom. These shed rain and wind well. Very easy to setup.
A-Frame style: Not as much headroom as the types above. This is the style that most people think of when you say “tent”. This is the style that I grew up with and what I used as a Boy Scout.

Hoop Tents: These tend to be a bit lighter and are easy to set up. Hoop tents do not do well in high winds, they tend to “rock and roll”. Because of their light weight, they are a good hiker tent selection.

Stakes: Have the right stakes for the right ground. Thin aluminum stakes will not stand up to rocky or hard soil. Try lightweight steel or titanium. These will prove to be much better than the cheap aluminum stakes that come with some tents. Soft soil or sand will need stakes with a larger footprint, try wider, plastic stakes.

Options “Where are the cup holders?”: Modern tents have many options that can be beneficial to your specific needs:

  • Internal storage pockets: Great place to keep track of those important items.
  • Steep Wall Construction: This can increase interior space, help ventilation and repel rain better.
  • Internal Gear Loops: Yes, another great way to hang things. You can also use these to tie a string across the inside of the tent to hang clothes or other items to dry.
  • Separate Rooms: Okay, if you are getting a tent for the family car-camping trip, and you love this type of camping, then investing in a tent with multiple rooms may be the way to go. This will provide great separation from your kids when you have had enough. The extra rooms can be used for storage or changing areas. Privacy is the key with these type tents. Unfortunately, they won’t keep out the noise if you snore.
  • One-Piece floors: This can aid in moisture control.
  • Vestibules: These can be helpful to take off part of your gear or your boots before entering the tent.

Suggestions/thoughts:

A note about freestanding and non-freestanding tents: A freestanding hiker tent can be fully set up and will retain it’s shape without any stakes or guylines. A non-freestanding tent needs guylines and stakes. You can select either, but my preference is no matter which one you choose, stake it and use guylines. Especially if you are going to leave the campsite or if there is any wind at all.

A lightweight tarp or ground cloth underneath your tent can help protect it. Some people must always have a ground cover under their tent while others never have one. It is personal preference, but it is cheaper and easier to replace a plastic tarp than to try and fix a hole in the bottom of a tent.

The Campsite: Find a level (non-depressed) area that is higher than the area surrounding it. You want it level, so you don’t roll down the hill in the middle of the night. You want it non-depressed, in case it rains, guess where the rain will collect? Higher ground will shed water as well. Make sure it is an area that you can stake your “kite”, I mean tent. I think you get the idea. If you are setting up your hiker tent in a grassy area, remember that if it stays there for more than one day, the grass will start to turn yellow and could die. Stakes and guylines can also damage the ground or trees. Try to find an area that has already been used and “Leave No Trace”.

Instructions, We Don’t Need No Stinking Instructions: Before heading out with your tent, set it up at home. Maybe break it down and set it up again. Make it a game and time yourself to see how quickly you can do it. Then turn out the lights (do this late at night so it’s dark) and set it up again. The point is that you may be setting up your tent in the dark, in a rain storm or in the dark, during a rain storm. Know how to set up your tent!

It “Seams” Like Your Tent is Leaking: Tents come from the factory with some measure of waterproofing. The seams of the tent are not going to be sealed. Purchase some sealant (like Kenyon Seam Seal). Set up your best backpacking tent and seal all of the seams. This is just a little added protection.

Look for tents with reinforced or double stitched seams. This is especially true at the seams, corners, rings and zippers. In addition, they should have heavy duty zippers.

Color (But honey, I like the pretty pink one): Seriously, the color may make a difference in your decision. If you are going to be hiking mostly in the summer with little cover, a lighter color would be beneficial. It won’t absorb that solar energy as much and keep you cooler. Winter month hiking? A darker color to absorb that nice heat from the sun would work well. Another factor with color is the amount of light it will let into the tent. If you choose a dark colored hiker tent, when you get in, it may feel like a cave.

A spare pole or pole splint is always nice to bring along.

Cooking: Never cook in a tent! Never! It’s not because you might burn down the tent, it is because of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

If there is a wind and the possibility of rain, set up your tent so the “door” is not facing the oncoming wind.

Lastly, Cost: In most cases, the more expensive best backpacking tents have fabrics that are stronger, sturdier poles and heavy duty stitching. With all of these features it means they are going to last a long time. But, if you are in a mild climate, only hike occasionally and never during rough weather, a cheaper tent may be the way to go. On the other hand, a cheaply made, inexpensive hiker tent will not last long at all. If you don’t see yourself hiking in extreme conditions, it is probably better to stay in a mid-price range.

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