Ruby Bayan
is a freelance writer who enjoys sharing her simple joys. She used to be an avid backpacker.

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Choosing a Tent
by Ruby Bayan

'Solo Tent' by Ray Deza History has it that the tent was invented in 1862 by Edward Whymper; he designed an 11-kilo four-man shelter made of canvas. Whymper’s A-shaped tent, which was supposed to be light, quick to set-up, and can withstand the ravages of a storm, became the standard for more than a hundred years.

In the mid-70s, with the appearance flexible fiberglass poles and hoops, tent designers became creative and went past the A-frame structure into tunnel and dome architectures that offered more headroom and better use of the floor area.

Eventually, the canvas was replaced by lightweight, weatherproof fabrics, and the fiberglass poles replaced by the much lighter aluminum alloy. Through innovative designs and durable, featherweight materials, the tent evolved into many different styles, addressing various types of weather conditions and user preferences and requirements.

As a backpacker of the 21st century, you now have literally hundreds of outdoor shelter options, and will most likely find a specific model for your specialized needs, whether you’re exploring frozen, torrid, drenched, high altitude, or bug-infested settings. You also have countless choices on what shape and size suits your taste, or your tent-mates’.


In choosing the tent that will become an integral part of your essential backpacking equipment, your first consideration should be the time of year and dominant climate of the particular area your are exploring. The tent should give you the best possible protection from Mother Nature’s elements. Here are the different types of shelters to consider:

  • Summer Tent. A summer-only, dry-weather tent is light and breezy because it’s predominantly netting or screen mesh material. The flysheet will protect you from the sun or a sudden downpour; however, the tent will fail to provide warmth if a chill comes down in the middle of the night.

  • Convertible Tent. Sometimes referred to as an all-season tent, a convertible tent is usually equipped with double flaps that serve as “doors” and “windows”. A fabric outer flap can be zipped up to keep rain, wind, and cold out, or tied open to let the air in and allow stargazing while the screen/netting inner flap remains zipped up to keep the bugs out. The flysheet is an essential feature of the convertible tent because it helps protect the main structure from wind, rain, and snow. Some convertible tents are tagged as three-season tents because they’re not designed to handle heavy snow and their flysheets do not offer the full coverage that all-season versions provide.

  • High Altitude Tent. A mountaineering or high altitude tent is constructed with the harshest weather conditions in mind. Able to withstand the four seasons, its fabric is sturdier (also heavier) and its pole assembly rigged for maximum strength. Of course, it’s also the most expensive.
Special Features

Aside from the weather conditions of your backpacking destination, consider the other “important” features you want in a tent -- like size, shape, color, weight, durability, sleeping comfort (people who can sleep on their backs like mummies require less floor area than those who sleep on their sides with knees bent), head- and elbow room (do you want to be able to sit or stand up inside the tent?), and ease of set-up (do you want a tent that practically sets itself up?).

Here are different types of tents with their own special features:

  1. Modified A-Frame Tent. The traditional A-frame tent used canvas and two staked poles to prop up the ends of the ridged structure; the sloping walls had a tendency to sag and flap, catching rainwater and limiting headroom. The modern and modified version uses lightweight nylon fabric, and hoops instead of poles, to afford stability and a roomier interior.

  2. Dome Tent. Currently the most popular tent style, and with models for diverse weather conditions, the dome is especially preferred for its spacious interior. The basic dome tent can also be set up in a flash by crossing two flexible poles, locking them onto the grommets at the four corners of the flooring, and clipping the body to the poles. Domes are now available in different geometric shapes and sizes, giving you the versatility to bring your gear inside the tent, or invite more tent-mates.

  3. Freestanding Tent. Many modified A-frame and dome tents are designed to be freestanding, meaning they can be set up as structures that you can conveniently lift and relocate without having to dismantle. They are, however, adequately equipped so that you can easily tie guy lines and stake them onto the ground to keep them from flying away or rolling off.
Always remember that your tent will be your shelter and sanctuary in the open country. Choose one that will give you the most protection and the highest level of comfort. You may have to invest a little on the features that fit your discriminating taste but because your life may depend on your choice of gear, it’s best to settle for nothing but the best.

Suggested Reading:

The Whole Backpacker's Catalog, Edwin J. C. Sobey John Vigor; Format: Paperback, 210pp.; ISBN: 0070595992; Publisher: Ragged Mountain Press; Pub. Date: October 1998

Camping's Top Secrets: A Lexicon of Camping Tips Only the Experts Know, Cliff Jacobson; Format: Paperback, 2nd ed., 288pp.; ISBN: 0762703911; Publisher: Globe Pequot Press; Pub. Date: September 1998

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Hiking, Camping, and the Great Outdoors, Michael Mouland; Format: Paperback, 2nd ed., 361pp.; ISBN: 0028631862; Publisher: Macmillan General Reference; Pub. Date: September 1999

Related Tutorial:
How to Pitch a Tent


Introduction to Backpacking

A first guide and set of tutorials on preparedness, presence of mind, and delight in memorable escapades in the great outdoors.
[First published as an online course at Suite101 University.]

Fitness Exercises
Outdoor Survival Basics

Choosing Equipment:
Choosing a Backpack
Choosing a Sleeping Bag
Choosing a Tent
Choosing Hiking Boots

Gearing Up:
What to Wear
How to Pack a Backpack
How to Pack Food

Campsite Management:
How to Choose a Campsite
How to Pitch a Tent

Emergency Situations:

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