What Are the Different Types of Backpacking Tents?
February 20, 2024
In this post, we'll take a look at:
Curious about about the various types of backpacking tents? If so, stick around.
With various tent choices available, such as freestanding tents, non-freestanding (also called trekking pole) tents, and semi-freestanding (also called hybrid) tents, selecting the right tent type for your adventures becomes super important.
In this post, we’ll examine these three types of backpacking tents, aiming to assist you in finding the perfect tent for your needs.
The Three Types of Backpacking Tents
1. Freestanding Tents
Freestanding tents utilize an internal pole structure to achieve their intended dome shape and pitch. This distinguishes them from non-freestanding shelters that require external guying out and tension from stakes or trekking poles.
When it comes to camping gear, freestanding tents are the rock stars of versatility. You can move them around without them falling apart, even after you set them up.
Most freestanding backpacking tents utilize aluminum poles to balance strength and lightweight. Premium ultralight models even incorporate carbon fiber poles.
Freestanding Tent Pros:
Weather Protection: Freestanding tents excel in foul weather for two reasons:
Stable pole structure: Fixed poles are more wind and rain-resistant than trekking pole-supported designs, maintaining stability even if fabric or guylines fail.
Double-wall design: These tents often have an inner mesh tent and waterproof outer rainfly, offering redundancy against moisture seepage.
Ventilation: If you choose a double-walled freestanding tent, you will also enjoy superior airflow and ventilation, minimizing condensation.
Interior Space: Freestanding tents provide spacious and comfortable interiors with tall ceilings, steep walls, roomy footprints, and vestibules for gear storage. This extra space is crucial during extended tent-bound periods in harsh weather.
Ease of Setup: Freestanding tents are beginner-friendly, as they set up quickly, don’t require precise site selection, and can be moved after pitching.
Durability: Durability in freestanding tents relies on materials and craftsmanship, not staking. They can also be field-repaired for broken poles, a feature absent in non-freestanding trekking pole-supported tents.
Freestanding Tent Cons:
Heavier: The extra poles and fabric required for freestanding tents adds weight compared to trekking-pole supported shelters. But weight gaps are closing quickly with premium materials.
Bulkier: Freestanding tents are often bulkier when packed down since the poles don’t collapse and the body/fly take up space. But compression sacks help minimize packed size.
Expensive: Most freestanding tents carry a price premium over non-freestanding options. Manufacturing the needed poles is part of this added cost.
2. Non-Freestanding (Trekking Pole) Tents
Non-freestanding tents rely on external guying out with tensioned trekking poles and/or tent stakes to achieve a pyramid like structure. Without these anchors in place, the tent fabric just forms a pile on the ground.
To cut weight, most non-freestanding tents utilize a single-wall design rather than having a separate rainfly and inner tent body. This greatly simplifies the architecture and construction. Some non-freestanding tents are even floorless.
When set up properly with good site selection, non-freestanding tents can withstand substantial wind and weather almost as reliably as freestanding models.
Non-Freestanding Tent Pros:
Ultralight Weight: Non-freestanding shelters, using trekking poles or foldable poles for support, offer significant weight savings compared to freestanding tents. Advanced materials like DCF allow these tents to weigh just over one pound (>450 grams) while maintaining strength and weather protection
Compact Packed Size: Non-freestanding tents not only reduces weight but also allows for a more compact pack size. Collapsible poles enable easy fitting into small compression sacks and tight pack spaces, reducing overall carry weight and bulk.
Non-Freestanding Tent Cons:
Space Constraints: To cut weight, non-freestanding tents sacrifice living space. Carefully assess the dimensions and stated capacity to make sure you’ll have sufficient room.
Ventilation and Condensation: Moisture management is tougher with single-wall designs. Carry an extra cloth to wipe the tent down in the mornings.
Fragile Materials: Advanced fabrics like DCF provide remarkable strength-to-weight ratios at the cost of fragility and cost. Handle carefully.
Difficult to Set Up: Staking non-freestanding tents requires practice. Adjust your approach over time, and watch YouTube for helpful tips. To start, we recommend you watch this video or check out our post on this topic.
3. Semi-Freestanding (Hybrid) Tents
Semi-freestanding tents blend traits of freestanding and non-freestanding models, often adopting a tunnel shape:
They use dedicated poles but still require staking to achieve full pitch.
Fly must be guyed out for full coverage even if the tent stands up alone.
Often can be single walled (meaning ultralight).
Weather protection and ventilation performance also fall in the middle.
Semi-Freestanding Tent Pros:
Lightweight: Clever pole use lets semi-freestanding tents stay light. You can find excellent semi-freestanding tents weighing around the 3-pound mark.
Liveability: The clever pole designs also maintain interior space without sacrificing it (mostly width-wise), unlike non-freestanding tents.
Semi-Freestanding Tent Cons:
Some Condensation: Condensation management still takes some effort.
Pack Size: Packed size is larger compared to non-freestanding options.
Durability: Complex pole systems leave more potential failure points.
Comparing the Three Types of Backpacking Tents
Now that we’ve covered individual designs, let’s directly compare freestanding, non-freestanding, and semi-freestanding (hybrid) tents across key categories:
Best Weather Protection: Freestanding tents are the most stormworthy, thanks to robust poles and double-wall builds. Non-freestanding tents are more vulnerable to collapse if stakes pull out.
Best Ventilation: Freestanding tents excel with mesh inners and removable flies for adjustable airflow. Non-freestanding single-wall tents struggle most with interior moisture.
Best Weight and Packed Size: Non-freestanding shelters are vastly lighter and smaller when packed down. Freestanding tents weight and bulk suffers from extra poles and fabrics.
Best interior Space and Comfort: Freestanding and semi-freestanding tents provide spacious living areas due to their poles and larger dimensions. Most non-freestanding tents prioritize weight over comfort.
Easiest to Setup: Freestanding tents win for simplicity with their standalone structures. Staking matters more for non-freestanding and hybrid options.
Most Durable: Tent durability depends more on specific materials and construction quality rather than the tent type itself.
How to Choose the Right Tent for Backpacking?
With an understanding of the strengths of freestanding, non-freestanding and semi-freestanding tents, how do you select the right tent type?
Here are 5 key questions to ask yourself:
Is lightweight or overall comfort more important?
What are the expected weather conditions?
Does fast and simple setup matter?
Is your trip more about stopping or moving?
Do you sleep warm and want maximum ventilation?
In our view, the three types of backpacking tents in this post offer something for everyone:
If you’re all about going ultralight and meticulously counting every ounce, you should consider switching to a non-freestanding tent. Or save even more weight by opting for a bivy, hammock or a tarp.
On the other hand, if weight isn’t your top concern, and you’re aiming for the best camping experience in all seasons, a 3-season or a sturdier 4-season freestanding tent is a good choice.
If you’re somewhere in between, for instance, you don’t want to carry trekking poles but can’t fit a full-sized freestanding tent in your backpack, then a semi-freestanding option is a good compromise.
Choosing the right tent for your adventure can be a bit daunting, given the hundreds of options out there, each with its own style and design.
However, by understanding the main distinctions between different types of backpacking tents, you can narrow down your choices to find the one that balances weight, weather protection, interior space, and durability to meet your specific needs.
We hope this guide has made it easier for you to find the perfect shelter for your adventures ahead, and we wish you the best in your future outdoor endeavors
Looking for an ultralight tent? For the most ultralight options among all types of backpacking tents, take a look at our TOP 5 guides.
What are the three types of backpacking tents?
There are three types of backpacking tents: freestanding, non-freestanding (also known as trekking pole tents), and semi-freestanding (hybrid) tents. Each type offers something for different preferences. If you prioritize going ultralight, a non-freestanding tent is ideal. For those more concerned about a comfortable camping experience and less about weight, a freestanding tent is a good choice. If you’re somewhere in between, preferring not to carry trekking poles but unable to fit a full-sized freestanding tent, a semi-freestanding option serves as a practical compromise.
Are freestanding tents worth it?
Picking a freestanding tent can be a smart move for people who love the outdoors and want a versatile and easy-to-set-up shelter. Even though they’re a bit heavier, about 30% more than non-freestanding ones, freestanding tents are popular because they’re stable and can be set up on different types of ground. They also give you a roomy and comfy inside with high ceilings and steep walls, which is great for longer trips or if the weather gets tricky.
What is the difference between freestanding and semi-freestanding tents?
The key contrast between freestanding and semi-freestanding (hybrid) tents is their setup. Freestanding tents can stand independently, providing most of the usable space without requiring stakes for support. On the other hand, semi-freestanding tents can stand on their own to some extent but need stakes both for added support and to create a comfortable living space.