Indeed, there are many, many two-person backpacking tents on the market. But if you look carefully, youll see that most of them are remarkably similar. They typically have three poles, usually two that run from corner to corner, and one that is mounted transversely to help balloon out the fly. They usually have two doors, placed either at the centerpoint of each side, or toward the head" of the tent. Materials tend to be very similar, although higher-end tents may use some of the newer alloys in the poles.
So what to look for? If I were to go out and buy a new tent tomorrow, my considerations would be, in order of importance:
Weight: Id want it to be under five pounds.
Door placement: I like two doors, toward the head of the tent.
Ease of setup: If I need the directions, its too complicated. I prefer clips to sleeves for holding up the canopy.
Size: Im of average height so all tents fit me and most of the people I hike and bike with.
Price: Within reason, which is somewhere around $300.
Based on those parameters, what would I buy? Probably Black Diamonds Firstlight (www.bdel.com), one of a new generation of single-wall tents that use coated Epic fabric to create a tent thats light (three pounds, three ounces), tough, and rainproof in all but heavy, extended downpours. It does, however, cost $300, so thats outside of your announced budget. And the Firstlight isnt for everyone. Because it lacks a fly, youre going to get wet when you open the door in the rain. And two sleepers under certain conditions are probably going to create a helluva lot of condensation.
My second choice would be Marmots Nyx (www.marmot.com), a traditional canopy-and-fly tent with lots of mesh, light and tough DAC poles, and a very reasonable trail weight of just under five pounds. Its $275, but if you move RIGHT NOW you can find it on a couple of different websites for $240. Its a good tent with state-of-the-art technologyand a little more conservative pick than the Firstlight.
In the absence of sales, and with budget a genuine constraint, then REIs Quarter Dome (www.rei.com) likely is the winner. Its light (just over four pounds), has a weather-resistant canopy-and-fly design, and uses good-quality materials. Its a tad small (28 square feet), so not ideal for big campers. But its a great buy at $209.
Check out this years more than 400 must-have gear items, including a comprehensive tents section, in the 2006 Buyers Guide.