The weight of your backpacking tent is a big part of your overall load, so tent designers work hard to keep weight low. Your biggest tradeoffs to cut weight are having less space, fewer features and less durability over the long haul. If you choose carefully, though, you should be able to find a lightweight tent that feels reasonably roomy and comfortable to you.
While heavy-duty materials make a tent more durable, ultralight tents can be surprisingly sturdy. If you want a premium ultralight tent, you'll pay more for ultralight-yet-strong materials. Also, the term "ultralight" is used liberally by brands—if every ounce matters, then check specs carefully when you shop.
Key Tent Specs
- Minimum trail weight: This is the weight of the tent body, rainfly and poles only—the bare essentials. You will probably pack more tent-related gear (e.g., stakes, footprint), but this is the best spec for comparison. (Note that some ultralight shelters are designed to function without the need for a separate rainfly or tent poles, so their minimum trail weights will reflect only the essential components that come with those tents.)
- Packaged weight: This is the weight of all the components you get with a purchase: body, rainfly, poles, stakes, stuff sack pole sack, instructions and more. The weight you'll carry on the trail will be somewhere between this and the minimum weight.
- Packed size: The amount of space the tent takes up in a pack also relates to how easy a tent is to carry. You can reduce this space by splitting up components—have your partner take the poles and rainfly, for example, while you carry the tent body. You can also save a few extra ounces when you do this by leaving the tent storage bag at home.
Most backpacking tents have a double-wall design that includes a main tent body (also known as the canopy) plus an exterior rainfly. If you're a hiker who focuses on saving every possible ounce, you have additional options.
Fly/footprint option: Many double-wall tents have an ultralight setup option, where the footprint (sold separately), poles and rainfly can be pitched together without the main tent canopy.
Tarp shelters: This catchall category includes ultralight rainflys that shield you from rain and snow, but not bugs or damp ground.
Hammock tents: This is a type of hammock that, at a minimum, also includes a tarp-like rainfly and bug netting.
Bivy sacks: Short for bivouac sack, this is a waterproof, breathable barrier for your sleeping bag.
Bug shelters: Most bug shelters consist of netting and some poles, but no floor. More elaborate models are tents where the entire canopy is made out of bug netting.