Good backpacking tents gets expensive quickly, and for good reason. The high-quality products save you weight, and they'll perform better and last longer in the field.
The takeaway? It's worth shelling out some extra dough for a tent that will serve you well in the backcountry. (Just say no to anything Walmart stocks.) But you don't have to break the bank either. We found $250 to be the price at which manufacturers start producing really good tents.
I called on expedition kayak photographer Darin McQuoid to review tents around his home in Three Rivers, California. He submitted them to his "outdoor shower" test, and ranked the products based on their features, performance, and usability. Here are the results:
Big Agnes Lone Spring 2
Best for: Minimalists
Big Agnes created this tent ($230) with only one door to lower the price. This can be a bit frustrating when camping with two people, but thankfully the zipper works well enough you can open it with one hand—thus minimizing the annoyance of having the inside sleeper crawl over you when he has to pee in the middle of the night.
One of the coolest things about this tent is that you can use it as an ultralight setup, says McQuoid. The fly has mosquito netting over the vents, and combined with the tent's footprint, you have a setup that weighs just over three pounds. (While many tents list ultralight options, they usually don't offer any protection from mosquitos.)
Weight: 4 lbs 15oz Floor Area: 34 sq ft Head Height: 42" Length: 90"
Best for: Variable Weather
Out of the five tents he tested, the TN2 ($250) was McQuoid's favorite because of its smart design details. It was easy to set up thanks to poles that click into the corners of the tent, rather than slide into grommets. The fly was also very easy to use—McQuoid could roll it back and secure it when he wanted to see the stars, or unroll it when the rain started. This makes the TN2 ideal for camping in variable weather.
Unlike most tents, the TN2 looks more like a large textbook than an oversize burrito when disassembled, making it easy to pack. Take note: the mosquito netting did have a tendency to catch on the stuff sack's Velcro, so be careful when you're putting it away.
Weight: 4 lbs 9oz Floor Area: 27.5 sq ft Head Height: 42" Length: 86"
MSR Elixir 2
Best for: Beginners
Of all the tents we tested, the Elixir 2 ($250) was the easiest to set up thanks to its color-coded rainfly and quick-release clips. That said, the Elixir had one of the trickiest doors to work with—we had to use two hands every time to open or close it. The tent also doesn't come with guy lines, ropes used to secure the tent and keep its walls taut. While guy lines aren't expensive to buy separately, they are essential for rain-fly venting.
Weight: 5 lbs 13oz. Floor Area: 29 square feet. Head Height: 40" Length: 84"
Mountain Hardwear Optic 2.5
Best for: Car camping
Yes, this is the heaviest tent on this list ($240), but it also has the most square footage. It's 48 inches high and almost eight feet long. It's also a true three-season tent because of the walls' thickness and the sturdy fly design, which held up well in strong winds.
The Optic 2.5 comes with two large, easy-to-use doors that are well situated on the side and bottom of the tent. Throw this tent into your trunk, and you'll have a setup that will accommodate a large air mattress when you get to camp.
Weight: 6 lbs 3oz Floor Area: 37 sq ft Head Height: 48" Length: 92 inches
Sierra Designs Lightning 2
Best for: Intense Rain
Yes, it's $10 over the $250 cap, but we just couldn't leave this brilliantly designed, unconventional tent ($260) off the list. In fact, McQuoid calls it “one of the most creative tent” designs he's ever seen. The Lightning 2s fly is integrated into the tent's body, creating an interior vestibule that allows you to get in and out of the tent without touching the exterior and getting showed by raindrops.
The Lightning 2 also has vestibules specifically designed to store gear, and the built-in rain fly keeps the interior of the tent dry while you're setting it up during a downpour. "If I were going to Chile during the rainy season, this would be the tent I'd bring," says McQuoid. That said, if you're camping primarily in the desert, we recommend going with a tent that has a removable rain fly—it will breath better in the heat.
Weight: 4 lbs. 5oz Floor Area: 29.9 sq ft Head Height: 42.5" Length: 86"
Next Up: The Best Bang-for-Your-Buck Backpacking Tents