Shopping for a tent is like shopping for a new car. First you’ve got to decide what you’re going to use it for. An ultralight shelter makes sense if you’ve got a bunch of multi-day backpacking trips on the docket. But if you almost always pitch it next to a picnic table, those cramped quarters make it about as practical as a Mini would be for a rancher. For car camping, roominess and ease of use are most important. How much a tent weighs and how small it packs down are critical features for backcountry travelers. Next, think capacity. Unlike cars, many tents come in multiple sizes. And while they’re getting roomier, we still like to go one person bigger than we think we need—for minimal weight gain, you’ll appreciate the space. Finally, splurge on options. Big vestibules, interior pockets, gear lofts, and other handy extras are worth it.
Big Agnes Rattlesnake SL3 MtnGlo
Boasting all the user-friendly features we look for in a lightweight backpacking tent—easy color-coded setup, roomy vestibules, and convenient storage pockets—the Rattlesnake was a tester favorite right off the bat. Read the full Gear of the Year review here.
NEMO Dagger 2P
Best For: All kinds of lightweight missions.
The Test: We handed the Dagger ($400) to a sea-kayaking guide headed out on a six-week climbing, backpacking, and paddling trip from British Columbia to Baja. He gushed with praise every time he returned to civilization. From Coronado National Forest: “Tons of space, especially in length. We could stuff gear at the head and feet.” “Quick to set up and take down,” he wrote from the Grand Canyon. “Held up great in the wind in the Sea of Cortez.” And finally, “The vestibules are huge. On the Green River, it was a breeze to put our big drybags and boots on one side and still get out.”
The Verdict: Remarkable weight-to-livability ratio. Nearly won Gear of the Year. 3.3 lbs; nemoequipment.com
Mountain Hardwear Shifter 2
Best For: Backpackers on a budget.
The Test: This tent ($199) is all about value and simplicity. It takes less than five minutes to set up the two-pole dome, casting plenty of room for two. Burly fabrics and an almost to-the-ground shape-shifting fly stood up to 30-mile-per-hour winds with barely a flutter. And while the weight won’t win you any bragging rights, it won’t break your back, either. Our only beef: while the two vestibules are plenty roomy, the doors are a bit small. Still, “It’s the tent I’ll be using right up until it snows,” says a smitten mountaineer. “It’s nearly perfect.”
The Verdict: No carbon-fiber stakes or fancy fabrics, just a solid tent and a screaming deal. 4.9 lbs; mountainhardwear.com
Brooks-Range Mountaineering Tension 30
Best For: When weight is critical.
The Test: On first inspection, the freestanding, sub-three-pound Tension 30 ($420) seemed to sacrifice too much at the altar of ultralightness: it’s just big enough for two guys, with one vestibule and almost transparent fabrics. Yet in the field, it didn’t feel cramped or fragile. “It’s the small stuff that makes the difference,” said one tester. The single carbon center pole uses two aluminum cross poles and a cord-tension system to create lots of elbow room and sturdiness, and all the stress points are reinforced. The single vestibule is low-slung, but it’s larger than you’d think and easily stows two big packs, two pairs of boots, and more.
The Verdict: A few more guy-out points would be nice. As is, it’s impressively weatherproof and livable for an ultralight. 2.7 lbs; brooks-range.com
Marmot Force 2P
Best For: Wilderness backpacking, especially with your sweetie.
The Test: If I want my wife to come backpacking, I carry the tent. With the three-pound Force 2P ($389), that’s no hardship. It packs down smaller than a summer sleeping bag and weighs less than half as much as a winter tent. Two doors with roomy vestibules create harmony. Interior square footage is just enough, but the pole structure props the head and foot walls beyond vertical for a more expansive feel. The result: plenty of room for two to sit up and play cards.
The Verdict: The footprint would be snug for a couple of big dudes, but it slips into tiny campsites that few other two-vestibule tents can. 3 lbs; marmot.com
Mountainsmith Mountain Dome 3
Best For: A one-and-only tent.
The Test: The three-pole dome looks like it would be confusing to set up. It’s not. Mountainsmith color-coded everything, so even during our first trip with the tent, as we raced nightfall and combated 20-mile-per-hour winds, the Dome 3 ($270) was (ahem) a breeze to erect. Inside there’s tons of room for three, handy pockets for headlamps and books, and enough headroom that a five-footer could dress almost standing up. The storm howled all night, but with plenty of guy-outs we never saw a drop of water, and the poly-ripstop walls kept the wind at bay.
The Verdict: Versatile. We wouldn’t be shy about taking this for mellow winter camping, car camping, canoe tripping, backpacking... you get the picture. 6.5 lbs; mountainsmith.com
Coleman Longs Peak Fast Pitch 4P Dome
Best For: Car camping.
The Test: In a word—easy. Easy living, with lots of room for four, storage pockets, and a big door. Easy on the wallet ($110). And, as the name indicates, especially easy to set up. Permanently attached at the apex of the tent, the four half-poles slip into a huge junction box and then snap into large connection points at the corners. It’s one of the simplest setups we’ve seen—a couple of ten-year-olds had it up in minutes. Sure, it’s a bit heavy, and there’s no vestibule, but it delivers on its most critical function. And thanks to a partial fly over the top, highly water-resistant walls, and a reinforced floor, it kept everybody dry during a downpour.
The Verdict: Proof you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to go camping. 9.7 lbs; coleman.com