Our recent post convinced you that you need a water filter when backpacking, but you’re not so sure whether you should bring a tent. Perhaps you’re only camping for a brief while or you think a bivy sack will suffice. Do you need a tent while backpacking?
You certainly need some form of protection for overnight backpacking trips, be that a tent, a bivy sack, a yurt, or a travel trailer. Without anything, you’ll be exposed to the weather and insects, not to mention the potentially dangerous local wildlife.
In this guide, we’ll talk about why you should bring a tent when backpacking. We’ll also tell you how to buy a tent and how to set it up. There’s lots of great information to come, so let’s get started.
Why You Need a Tent When Backpacking
Your backpack has only got so much space, and that means traveling as lightly as possible. Although tents themselves don’t take up too much room, all the poles, tie-downs, and ropes can hog precious backpack space.
For day-trip camping, you shouldn’t need a tent. You might want a hammock for relaxing in the sunlight for a few hours, but since you’re not staying overnight, a tent is redundant.
Once you get into overnight backpacking trips and multi-day adventures, a tent or some other form of protection is a must for the following reasons.
Safeguards You from the Sun
The sun is wonderful. It provides warmth and can boost our mood since it’s a natural source of vitamin D. Too much of a good thing can become a bad thing though, and that applies to the sun as well.
On the first day of your backpacking trip, when you’re all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you’ll appreciate the sunlight. By day two or three, if you’re sunburnt and tired, you’ll want to stay away from the sun. A tent allows you to do just that.
However, to truly protect you from the sun’s penetrating UV rays, you must ensure the tent is UV-resistant. Don’t worry, as we’ll talk later about the features your ideal tent should have.
Protects You from the Elements
Although it would be great if every day that you were backpacking was perfect and sunny, it’s not realistic to expect that. It’s going to get windy at points, and it might be overcast and rainy as well.
When the weather turns bad, it’s a good chance to try out your waterproof jacket, but why get yourself wet if you don’t have to? Your tent will keep you dry (if it’s waterproof or water-resistant, that is). Plus, you can listen to the rain pitter-patter on the fabric roof, which ought to lull you off to dreamland.
Keeps You Out of Sight from Insects and Wild Animals
If you’re still thinking that perhaps you can forego a tent or other protection when backpacking, what about all the creatures that call the area home?
Pesky insects will flit and flutter all over you. At the very least, you could be bitten, which will leave you with a red, swollen, itchy bump. What if you’re allergic to a species of insect? Then your reaction could be much more serious and potentially life-threatening.
Non-allergic bug bites are nothing to sleep on either. Many species of insects can spread diseases, especially fleas, ticks, flies, and mosquitoes. From West Nile to Zika, malaria, and Lyme disease, these illnesses can make you very ill and even be deadly.
When you’re exposed to the elements, you’re also an easy snack for wildlife in the area. If where you’re camping has bears, wolves, mountain lions, and other ferocious creatures, you shouldn’t chance it.
That’s not to say that a tent is an impenetrable fortress; of course, it isn’t. When a wild animal can’t see you though, that makes it harder to attack you.
Shelter Options to Consider
Tents are not the be-all, end-all of outdoor camping options. Let’s explore some other types of tents as well as shelter options that might be more up your alley.
A bivouac sack or bivy sack is like a big sleeping bag that entirely encloses your body. A headspace opening gives you plenty of room to breathe and to see. Bivy sacks feature zippers throughout too.
The average bivy sack has two fabric layers or tiers. The first tier is the top tier, and it’s lightweight and waterproof or water-resistant. The most frequent material for the top bivy sack layer is ripstop nylon. Gore-Tex laminate treatment is common too.
The bottom layer is waterproof as well, usually through the addition of urethane. The double-grade nylon base of the bottom layer is designed for durability.
How do you avoid overheating in a bivy sack? The inclusion of Gore-Tex can collect water vapor and sweat and then pass it through the fabric, creating a type of ventilation.
As great as bivy sacks are, you must keep some considerations in mind. For one, if you’re backpacking in a group, you’d each need your own bivy sack, as there’s not enough room to share.
Second, if you’re claustrophobic, a bivy sack might feel a little too encompassing.
Makeshift tarps or tarpaulins such as rain tarps are not all that different from tents. You’d erect most tarps using a series of poles and maybe some ropes.
The average tarp materials include polyethylene (a type of plastic) or polyester (canvas) with a coating of polyurethane for durability. Flat tarps are the norm, but shaped tarps with catenary cuts for curved edges are another popular option, especially among backpackers.
One benefit of a shaped tarp is that its flaps don’t move as much, which means less noise for you throughout the night as the wind blows. Shaped tarps are also less likely to sag than a flat tarp when rainwater accumulates on the surface.
Tarps are usually not as advanced as tents, and they often don’t offer as much protection either. For a short overnight backpacking expedition or for daytime protection from the rain, a tarpaulin is great. For a weeklong camping trip, you’re much better off with a tent.
If you read our post on camping hammocks, then you know how some double as beds. The ones that don’t are still ultra-plush for a daytime nap.
Frequently produced of lightweight yet durable materials such as olefin with multiple layers or liners, camping hammocks traditionally are waterproof or water-resistant as well.
Some hammocks even have a retractable mosquito net so that as you doze the afternoon away in the sun, you don’t have to worry about being bitten.
We should note that a hammock is not an overnight camping solution, even less so than a tarp is. For daytime relaxation though, a hammock is great.
You also must have two relatively adjacent trees to set up your hammock, and in some areas, those can be hard to find.
For those who like to camp in luxury, a yurt is another option. Yurts are a type of rounded, portable tent that traditionally features felt or hides throughout.
If you wanted, you could build a yurt from scratch, but that would be no small undertaking. Backpackers might consider renting a yurt for the duration of their trip.
Yurts are spacious, and if there’s electricity where you’re camping, you might be able to enjoy power so you can have more of the creature comforts of home when backpacking. Rather than sleep in a tent or a hammock, you could roll out a cot or even a mattress. Yurts sometimes even have outhouses attached.
A yurt doesn’t come cheap and often costs around $15,000 to own. Plus, the more amenities you have, the less portable your yurt is.
If you spend more of your time backpacking than you do at home, then it might be worthwhile to consider investing in a travel trailer or RV. When we say invest, by the way, we mean it. The average price of a travel trailer is $11,000 to $35,000 while an RV starts at $35,000 and can cost up to $300,000 and over.
You’d need a ginormous budget for these vehicles. The plusses though might outweigh the minuses. An RV is like a small house on wheels, and that’s true of some large, luxe travel trailers as well. You can enjoy amenities like electricity, a full-sized bed, a couch and other furniture, a kitchen, and sometimes a bathroom with a shower and toilet.
Need a Tent? What to Look for When Buying a Tent
You weighed your options from the above and decided that a tent is fine for you when backpacking. Here are some must-haves to look for when buying a tent.
Setting up any tent becomes easy the more you do it, but you don’t want to struggle for hours the first few times you erect your new tent. You only have so many hours of daylight on your side, so you can’t waste it.
Some tents are easier to set up than others. Perhaps they come partially assembled or have spring-up parts. The ropes might not require any advanced techniques to tie, which also saves you time.
If you’re a solo backpacker, then you need a tent for only one person. Maybe you decide to buy a two-person tent for if you ever have company, but nothing bigger. Backpackers who travel in groups will want a tent with a capacity for four or more people.
Keep in mind that the larger your tent, the more expensive it will be. The tent will also weigh more than a tent for one or two people.
Speaking of a tent’s weight, that’s a huge consideration as you narrow your options.
A tent’s weight includes the poles, rainfly, pole sack, stuff sack, stakes, and footprint. This weight is known as the tent’s packaged weight and it’s different from the tent’s minimum trail weight. That weight encompasses only the poles, rainfly, and tent body.
You might carry your tent for hours at a time on your back as you stake out the next place to camp. If the packaged weight is too heavy for you, then keep searching for a more lightweight tent. They are out there!
Whether you live in your tent only for a few weeks of the year or months at a time, plenty of factors can increase just how livable your tent is.
The shape of the walls can make a tent feel open and roomy or more constricted. Steep wall angles, especially those that get narrower towards the ceiling, will weigh less but not be as spacious as you’re looking for.
The peak height of the tent is another important consideration. The peak height is the total height of the tent. This will determine whether you can walk freely or if you’ll scrape your head on the fabric ceiling each time you stand up.
The floor dimensions can also make a tent more livable or less so. Look at the width and length measurements of the tent in stores or online. Some of the measurements will be in half-inch increments to accommodate for the imperfect square or rectangular floor of a tent.
As we touched on earlier, without UV resistance, the sun’s rays can penetrate through the material of your tent and reach you. Many tents will feature UV-resistant fabric or a coating that increases the tent’s durability.
Water Resistance or Waterproofing
You should never buy a tent unless it’s at least water-resistant. You will get caught in wet weather sooner than later, and without water resistance, your tent will get soaked through, and so will you and all your stuff (which is bad news if you brought electronics like a tablet or smartphone).
Water resistance is not as good as waterproofing. A water-resistant tent has a coating on the fabric that will wear away over time. Waterproof tent fabrics are woven that way and never lose their waterproof abilities.
Do you like to go backpacking during the off-season? Then double-check that yours is an extended-season tent. You might opt for a three-season tent, which is recommended for autumn, spring, and summer camping.
If you don’t mind setting up shop in a forest in the middle of winter, then yours should be a four-season tent. These tents will have a more expansive rainfly, strategic mesh to limit the cold from getting in, and a domed roof so snow can slide right off.
How to Set up a Tent
Once you buy your tent, how in the world do you set it up? Although assembly will vary by tent, these general instructions should help.
Gather Your Supplies
You don’t need a lot to erect a tent. You must have the tent itself, the footprint (which is the floor of a tent), stakes, and a rubber mallet.
Select a Spot for the Tent
With your supplies ready, it’s time to choose where you’ll camp for the night (or for the next several nights). The area where your tent will go should be completely flat and level. If you’re camping with others, you need a bigger expanse of land that’s level so you can set up your tents together.
The area where your tent will go might not be in perfect shape, and that’s okay. Collect all debris such as stones, pinecones, and sticks and remove them.
Before you go any further, take a few minutes to decide if you’d rather your tent be oriented forward or backward from where you came. The best way to decide what your tent orientation should be is to use the direction of the wind as your guide. You want your tent to work with the wind, not against it.
Place Your Tent Footprint and Begin Staking
Place your tent footprint on the area you’ve chosen for your tent. Don’t rest on your laurels yet though, as now it’s time to stake your tent. You’ll need a second person to help you pull the base of the tent over the footprint.
Then stake the opposite corners of the tent using your rubber mallet. To drive a stake, the stake should always be straight. The hook of the stake should be outward towards you. Keep hitting the stake with the mallet until the whole thing is firmly in the ground.
Set up the Poles
Now it’s time to pull the tent poles out. Unfold them by removing the bungee cord (if your tent poles use a bungee cord) and then click the pieces into place.
The main poles–which are usually the longest ones–should insert into the tent’s outside sleeves. Depending on the tent style, the main poles might crisscross over the roof.
For any remaining poles such as support poles or cross-poles, follow the instructions above. Your tent will begin standing on its own.
Add Clips or Fasteners
Your tent might have clips and/or fasteners for extra security. If so, then add these now.
Place the Rainfly
Next, you want to place the rainfly over the tent. You can drape it unless yours uses a pole. Then you want to insert the rainfly pole like you did all the other poles. Secure with clips and/or fasteners.
Now go enjoy your tent. You’ve earned it!
A tent or a similar form of shelter such as a bivy sack is highly recommended for backpackers who are always adventuring in the great outdoors. You can stay safe and dry with a tent and enjoy more security.
With the information in this guide, you’re ready to go backpacking with a tent in tow. Have fun out there!