Backpacking Tents Part 3: Important Features
Let's talk about a few common, important features and design considerations for backpacking tents. These things will have a big influence on how roomy a tent can be while remaining relatively lightweight.
Vestibule: A "vestibule" is an extension of the rainfly that goes out beyond the doorway and down to ground level. Most backpacking tents have one, but not all. They're extremely handy. It allows you to store your pack and gear out of the rain, without taking up room in the tent. In really bad weather, you can cook on your stove in the vestibule (if it's large enough!). That way you don't have to worry about carbon-monoxide fumes in an enclosed tent. You can often get by with less internal floor space if you have a good-sized vestibule (or two, if two doors).
Structure: Most backpacking tents these days are "freestanding", meaning no stakes are required for setup. Non-freestanding tents often have less poles, so they're lighter. Some people argue for non-freestanding because in order to hold shape and deflect strong wind, you need stakes for freestanding tents too. However, in my experience, at least half the time, the soil is too rocky for stakes to get solidly in the ground. Staking can be a big pain. A freestanding tent also helps if you're tired or lacking time (i.e., arriving at your campsite late ... this happens more often than not). Just insert poles, throw in your gear, and ignore the slightly loose walls.
Materials: Virtually all backpacking tent poles are made of aluminum and shock-corded together. Older or cheaply-made tents use fiberglass poles (avoid). Another modern standard is the fabric: nylon or some form of polyester taffeta (Ripstop included). We could discuss these technical details for pages but it's not needed. If you buy from a quality manufacturer (see next page), you'll have no worries about material or workmanship.
But we do need to discuss one aspect of materials: double-wall or single-wall construction. The traditional backpacking tent has a double-wall, meaning a breathable inner tent, surrounded by an outer waterproof "fly" (rainfly). This combination works very well. You can't go wrong with it. After the invention of waterproof-breathable fabrics like Gore-Tex, single-wall tents came into being. These are more lightweight and generally more expensive. If not designed properly, single-wall backpacking tents can have more condensation problems. Incidentally, single-wall NON-breathable tents are also available, but they require carefully engineered ventilation systems to help counteract condensation on the inside of the tent. A tip: In catalog or online listings, single-wall tents can often be quickly identified because they only have one picture instead of two (one for the tent body only, one for the tent with rainfly on).
What about a "footprint?" Tent footprints are made for your particular tent model or floor shape. You place it beneath your tent to minimize wear and tear and possible ground moisture seepage. I think a better choice is to cut a footprint from a sheet of clear painter's plastic. It's cheaper, lighter, easily replaceable, and of course guaranteed absolutely waterproof.
Common Design Flaws: Unless you're only camping in fair weather, avoid backpacking tent designs that have broad or flat-like areas on top without pole support. Even if water runs off at first, prolonged rain and snow will eventually weigh down the fabric, creating a pool on the ceiling. Not good. It's surprising how many designs overlook this. That's why the X-pole design (see Conclusion) is so good. Or a design with a dominant center lengthwise pole. Without a strong slope starting from the apex, the tent will need extra poles for good watershed.
Another often overlooked flaw: the doorway. Doors that slope back over the tent floor without adequate overhead rainfly protection aren't good; they let rain pour in. To help solve this problem, some designs move the door into a more upright position, which is great. For the rainfly, some models have a small awning over the doorway, but I think a better solution is large vestibule.
Finally, don't purchase a backpacking tent at Wal-Mart or and army-navy store or the like. You can't go wrong with stores like Backcountry.com or REI.
Next: Backpacking Tents Part 4: Capacity and Weight
Part 1: Backpacking Tents Intro | Part 2: Intended Use | Part 3: Important Features | Part 4: Capacity and Weight | Part 5: Conclusion