A version of this story appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Uncommon Path. Take the long way home with the year’s best backpacking tents. These eight dependable shelters prove that you don’t need to sacrifice quality in order to create the perfect backcountry living space. Our 15 member-testers spent last summer and fall evaluating […]
A version of this story appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Uncommon Path.
Take the long way home with the year’s best backpacking tents. These eight dependable shelters prove that you don’t need to sacrifice quality in order to create the perfect backcountry living space.
Our 15 member-testers spent last summer and fall evaluating the best backpacking tents sold at REI. (Read more about the process here.) They hiked to remote deserts, wind-whipped summits and far-flung alpine lakes, considering everything from a tent’s aerodynamics to how neatly it stows into its stuff sack. After a couple seasons of tough love, they reported back. We’ve distilled their feedback into this guide.
Whether you’re backpacking with your family, a partner, your pup or by yourself, you’re sure to find a shelter that suits you. We’ve also named the best value, most comfortable, best vestibule, best weather protection and lightest tents in our test.
Best Backpacking Tent for Families
Test Results: Bigger tents come in bigger packages—a real bummer if you’re planning on shouldering your shelter for a backcountry adventure. So rub your eyes and look again: This four-person tent tips the scales at just 5 pounds, 11 ounces (or less than a pound and a half per person if you share).
For a barely there tent like this, you might expect confined quarters or a lack of features, but the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL4 is a remarkably comfortable backcountry hangout. It has a whopping 57 square feet of floor space—plenty of room for a family of four to spread out after a day of hiking—and high-volume architecture with steep walls and a 50-inch peak height. Dual vestibules are 14 square feet each and positioned on either side for easier entry and exit. And a new zipper now allows you to prop up the fly over trekking poles to create a veranda (pictured).
Even durability isn’t a trade-off. Our testers returned the Copper Spur from a month in Washington’s Cascades with nary a snag, even after camping in the barnacle-like alpine zones. Buy here.
Best Backpacking Tent for Small Groups
Test Results: A backpacking tent, among other things, needs to be reliable. That’s why we love the NEMO Dagger 2, the most consistent performer in our round-robin. For example, our tester was camped out near Washington’s Mount Rainier when the skies unloaded a nightlong downpour. “Not a drop snuck in,” he recalls. “I hardly woke up.” Credit the design of the Dagger 2 for its supreme weather protection: It has very few seams (failure points where water can creep inside) and a tall, bathtub-style floor to keep sleepers dry. The fly also fastens over the body more snugly than most, preventing sagging and loose edges.
The floor space is plenty big for two, and double trapezoidal vestibules are deep enough that each camper can store their gear without impeding their door. A couple of our testers deemed the Dagger 2 large enough for hanging out away from the skeeters on a particularly buggy night in North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park; because the roof mesh is black, you can ditch the fly on clear nights and pick out constellations. Overhead light pockets and gear pockets on each corner maximize storage space if you’re tent-bound. Buy here.
Other capacities: Three-person
Best Backpacking Tent for Solo Campers
Test Results: Whether you prefer hiking alone or sleeping alone, you owe it to yourself to invest in a quality tent built for one. For such occasions, we like our very own Quarter Dome SL 1, a single-person shelter that checks every box.
One of the lightest tents in our test, the REI Co-op Quarter Dome SL 1 can easily find a home in a backpacker’s trail kit, but it’s surprisingly spacious, offering up more floor area than each sleeper typically scores in a group tent. One of our taller testers even deemed it perfect for his epic solo mission through California’s Ansel Adams Wilderness. Good forecast ahead? You can leave the tent body at home and pitch the Quarter Dome SL 1 with just the fly, poles and footprint ($44.95, sold separately), a setup that weighs just a pound and a half.
But just because it’s designed for the trail doesn’t mean you can’t use it car camping. “An essential purchase for any introvert,” proclaims one editor. “There’s enough room for me to change, stretch and generally savor blessed alone time on group trips.” Buy here.
Other capacities: Two-person
Best Value Backpacking Tent
Test Results: A brand-new pair of performance backpacking boots cost more than this tent—not bad for backcountry digs. On a trip to the Wind River Range, our testers lauded the REI Co-op Half Dome 2 Plus’ ample space and plethora of pockets, all without realizing it was the most budget-friendly shelter in our test. The trade-off for the value is weight (the Half Dome 2 Plus is about a pound and a half heavier than the NEMO Dagger 2), though our testers still deemed it big-mile-ready, especially when divided between packs.
The livability is top-notch: A generous, rectangular floor plan and steep sidewalls left enough room for two adult hikers and a small dog to wait out a squall in general comfort. A dozen pockets line the sides and ceiling of the tent body, so the Half Dome 2 Plus feels especially spacious when sleepers can get their gear and tchotchkes off the floor and out of the way. The shelter has four vents at the crown to keep condensation (and frost) to a minimum, plus plenty of guy-outs to keep rain and gusts a nonissue. Buy here.
Test Results: Being cooped up in a tent with three kids for a full day while 2 inches of rain fall outside the nylon would make many backpackers throw in the towel. But our Midwest tester survived (and dare we say “sur-thrived”), crediting the ultracomfortable Marmot Limelight 4P. The spacious floorplan and 54-inch peak height provided enough room for coloring and “bouncing around like maniacs,” while large vestibules and well-placed pockets kept unnecessary gear organized and out of the way. You pay for the spaciousness in weight, though, as the Limelight 4P is nearly 3 pounds heavier than the other four-person shelter in our roundup, the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL4. But for folks unwilling to drop that much money on a tent, the Limelight, which comes with a footprint, is a great alternative if you can split it among packs. Buy here.
Test Results: When a chance evening shower turns into an epic all-night affair, the MSR Hubba Tour 2’s massive front vesti is the hero you need. On a wet night in Colorado’s Mount Evans Wilderness, our testers fit two packs in the covered, 25-foot area and still had enough room to prepare dinner and play cards before crawling into bed. (The external pole structure of the tent means you can set it up without drenching the inside.) After the night downpours, our testers unzipped the fly and wide front door to get air circulating fast, drying everything out before a hike up Mount Bierstadt. Tip from our duo: On nicer nights, take advantage of the venting at the head and foot of the tent body, cracking open both doors to eliminate condensation. Buy here.
Test Results: Thinking of pushing your tent into winter use? The REI Co-op Arete ASL 2 is a three-season tent that can pinch-hit in four seasons. When one pair of testers took it into Washington’s remote Picket Range, 30mph winds hardly ruffled their roomy mountain chalet, thanks to a beefy pole structure (two cross poles and two brow poles create a sturdy dome) and guy-out points at every intersection. Nice touch: The stake-out points can accommodate skis, ice axes or ski poles, if you’re camping in snow. The same bombproof architecture led a pair of co-op editors to declare the Arete “earthquake-ready” after a magnitude-4.6 shaker barely stirred our sleepers (“that was an eventful camping trip,” one said after the fact). Inside the Arete, adjustable vents keep condensation to a minimum, and a large window on the top of the tent body keeps airflow churning (and becomes a giant skylight in good weather). Buy here.
Other capacities: None
Test Results: When one tester attempted the Wyoming Wind River Range’s High Route, a superlight, ultrapackable tent like the Big Agnes Scout was exactly the kind of shelter she needed to move fast. Featuring a single-wall design that relies on two trekking poles, this tent packs down to the size of a Nalgene—small enough to disappear into the bottom of your pack. (One tester fit hers in the brain of her pack, while another snugged it into his pack’s bottle holster.) The floor area is certainly small, but there’s enough room for most solitary activities like reading, stretching or even side-sleeping. There’s a learning curve to erecting nonfreestanding tents like this, but with a little practice, our tester got it up taut enough to shrug off intense alpine rain and 40mph gusts. Buy here.
Other capacities: None
Unlike with car-camping tents, when you’re planning to shoulder your tent, weight matters. That means that finding the right backpacking tent for you is an exercise in juggling how much features, size, seasonality and livability matter to you because every one of those things adds ounces to the equation. (Just remember this old thru-hiking adage: Ounces make pounds, and pounds make pain.)
The tents in this roundup are all capable backpacking tents, but finding the right one means identifying what’s most important to you when it comes to sleep experience, features and end use. Consider these factors to pick the best shelter for you.
First: How many people do you expect to share your sleeping space with? The number in the name of the tent is the brand’s honest assessment of how many sleepers can fit, shoulder to shoulder. Keep in mind that backpacking tents are cozier than their car-camping brethren, so if you max out the capacity, expect snug quarters. If you want extra space, consider going a little larger (say, buying a three-person shelter for two sleepers).
Capacity of each tent in this guide:
That said, many tents come in different capacities, which we’ve listed in the specs within each review.
Second: Pay attention to the specified floor space and peak height to get an idea of how comfortable the tent will feel. Sixteen square feet per person is average; less than that might feel a bit cramped, more may feel spacious. If you’re moving fast or only planning to sleep in your tent, tight quarters may not matter. But if weather is going to sideline you inside your tent or you’re planning on using your tent to basecamp, perhaps more livability will serve you best.
Capacity and livability come at the expense of weight and packability, so be realistic.
Features enhance your living experience, but add weight (and cost). Still, some may be worth it for you. Consider how many doors and vestibules you want; do you want each sleeper to have their own entry and gear closet? How big do you want those vestibules? Just big enough for packs or big enough to hang out in?
Think about weather protection. Features like tall, bathtub-style floors, ceiling vents and windows, and guy-out points are great if you plan to camp in wet, windy or exposed areas. If you’re only planning on backpacking in milder climes, pick a tent with black mesh, which provides the best stargazing when sleeping without the fly.
Most backpacking tents are classified as three-season (designed for spring, summer and fall) or four-season (designed for winter). Most users only need a three-season tent; four-season tents, while more durable and more livable, tend to be heavier than three-season shelters. That can make them worth it for alpine and winter adventures but overkill for summer trips. Every tent in this lineup is a three-season tent, with the exception of the REI Co-op Arete ASL 2, which is something like a 3.5-season tent: great for weather, not expeditions.
In the summer and fall of 2019, we sent roughly a dozen testers into the field to try out the best backpacking tents sold at REI. After a couple seasons of hard use, we asked each tester to grade every tent on its weight and packability, spaciousness and comfort, weather protection, durability, features and price. The scores listed here are the averages.
All said and done, the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL4, NEMO Dagger 2, REI Co-op Quarter Dome SL 1 and REI Co-op Half Dome 2 Plus scored high in all categories. The Marmot Limelight 4P, MSR Hubba Tour 2, REI Co-op Arete ASL 2 and Big Agnes Scout Platinum 1 scored high in most categories, carving out respectable niches for specific users.
Finally, a big shout out and thank you to our squadron of testers who spent nights away from home and in less-than-ideal weather to help us evaluate the tents you see here (and the ones that didn’t make the cut).