I’ll always remember our first backpacking tent – a lightweight but cheaply made tent from Big 5 that we bought a few days before our first backpacking trip.
While it did its job at giving us a place to sleep, it was pretty lousy at it – it leaked, it was fragile, it was cramped, and it collected condensation all night long.
But we’re pretty frugal and always try to make the most out of cheap gear so we thought, ‘How much better can a good backpacking tent really be?‘ As it turns out, a lot better!
It’s been years since we moved on from that first backpacking tent and along the way we’ve had a chance to test many different tents of all forms and sizes. And as we’ve learned, good backpacking tents blend the best of high-performance materials with thoughtful design to create roomy yet lightweight tents that can easily withstand the elements.
Whether you’re new to backpacking or just need to upgrade your gear, here are our recommendations for choosing your next backpacking tent.
The complete guide on best light & ultralight backpacking tents:
What To Look For In A Tent
There are endless options to choose from when it comes to tents. Just a quick look on REI’s website alone shows 615 different tents for sale. So how do you choose?
Here is a list of things to look for in a backpacking tent:
Freestanding vs Semifreestanding vs Nonfreestanding
Freestanding tents are nice in that they don’t need to be completely staked out to stay up. However, this is a bit misleading since every tent will need to be staked out to keep it from collapsing in bad weather or to use the vestibules.
Nonfreestanding tents will either need to be completely staked out to stay standing, and some might even need to use a hiking pole or two to provide the structure.
Semifreestanding tents are somewhere in the middle.
Double-walled vs single-walled
Double-walled tents have an inner tent made of a mesh upper and a water-resistant floor and are then covered by an outer rain fly. Since they essentially have two walls, they tend to be slightly heavier than single-walled tents.
Doubled walled tents have much better airflow so they won’t trap condensation inside and their gap between the mesh and outer rain fly allow the little condensation that does build to flow towards the outside, not inside. Single-walled tents tend to get everything inside pretty wet.
Lastly, double-walled tents can be used without the rainfly on clear nights, leaving you with an unmatched view of the stars above.
Single or double entry
Single-entry tents will have one door at the head of the tent, whereas double-entry tents will have a door on each side. The double doors allow two people to easily move in and out of the tent without disturbing the other person and also make things like changing much easier. Also, double-entry tents usually have two vestibules, one on each side, to store two people’s gear out of the elements and within arm’s reach.
Aluminum vs carbon fiber vs composite poles
Aluminum is the most widely used material when it comes to poles because it’s cheap, lightweight, and durable. It also tends to bend more than snap, which is great because it’s less likely to leave you without shelter in the middle of a storm.
Carbon fiber poles are much lighter than aluminum but are much more fragile and much more expensive. These poles need to be handled carefully during setup to avoid damage, and they have a tendency to snap instead of bending so they’re not ideal for camping in extreme weather conditions.
Composites can vary greatly but companies like MSR claim that their composite poles are stronger and lighter than aluminum while being similarly priced.
While weight doesn’t really matter when you’re doing car camping, it’s one of the main considerations when choosing a backpacking tent. Of course, the goal is to go as light as possible, but as a general rule you’ll want to stay under 5 pounds if you’ll be dividing the weight between two people, or under 3.5 pounds if there’s a potential that you might go solo often. Tents that are heavier than this are usually made of thicker, heavier materials that don’t compress and will not only weigh you down but also take up a lot of valuable room in your pack.
Taking all those factors into consideration, here are our top choices for backpacking tents:
Best Overall Backpacking Tent
MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2
We love our MSR Hubba Hubba tent and it’s our go-to tent whenever we’re unsure of what Mother Nature will throw our way. It’s pretty lightweight, ultra-reliable against any weather conditions, and super tough which is great for us since we’re hard on our gear.
The MSR Hubba Hubba NX2 has a very stable, free-standing structure made of durable composite materials which can bend way more than normal carbon or aluminum poles without breaking or losing its shape. This is the tent we chose to bring along on our trip to Patagonia because it’s the only tent we trusted to deal with those famous Patagonia winds.
And it’s not just us. A quick look through MSR’s Instagram account and you’ll see how their tents are constantly being put to the test in the toughest conditions all around the world.
Setting it up is pretty quick and easy. The entire pole system is connected and is not directional so we don’t have to try to figure out which way it goes – it’s very straightforward. This really helps when we’re trying to set up in the dark, in the rain, or worse, when there are a million mosquitoes or horseflies trying to eat us alive. While it’s possible to set up solo, it’s much easier to set up with a partner.
It can be set up without a rain cover which is actually our favorite feature – The Hubba Hubba looks awesome when it’s set up without the rain fly. The contrasting red and white looks even better in person than it does in pictures which is pretty hard to believe after looking at some of the pictures people take of this tent.
Inside, it’s pretty roomy and has pockets everywhere so we don’t have to struggle to find our flashlight or cell phone in the middle of the night. It’s pretty tall for a backpacking tent which is great for changing or even cooking when it’s pouring outside. Like any other backpacking tent, it’s pretty narrow to save weight but we’re used to this and actually prefer it since it lets us set up the tent in smaller spaces.
When set up with the rainfly, it has big vestibules on both sides of the tent which is nice to keep our hiking gear close to us and out of the rain.
Even though it’s a freestanding tent, it still needs to be staked down to the ground to stretch it out to its full size and create the vestibules. If we don’t fully stake it down, it tends to pull together at the center and makes it shorter and less stable. In order to stretch it out and create the side vestibules, we have to use 6 tent stakes, the same as our ultralight tent. But this is true of all freestanding tents, not just this one.
MSR’s Hubba Hubba has been around for many years and is probably the all-time most popular and most loved tent out there for all the same reasons we love it. And it definitely helps to know that if anything ever does go wrong, MSR has a great reputation for having some of the best customer support in the industry.
At just over 3.5 pounds, it’s probably the heaviest tent we’d consider as a backpacking tent but it’s a compromise we’re willing to make to know that no matter what, we’ll have a safe and comfortable place to sleep at the end of a long hiking day. Since we often hike together, it’s easy to split the load into two for a very manageable weight. If you hike by yourself often, then I would instead choose an ultralight tent that will be just as easily carried by one person.
Unfortunately, all this tent greatness does come at a price. It usually sells for around $450 which is about the same price as many of ultralight tents. The good news is that the MSR Hubba line of tents, especially the Hubba Hubba NX2, retain their value unlike any other tent out there – these tents keep about 80% of their value even after a decade or more of use.
If we could only buy one tent to fill all our needs, the MSR Hubba Hubba NX2 is the one.
- Trail Weight: 3.7 lbs
- Floor Area: 84” x 50”
- Vestibules: 8.75 + 8.75 ft2
- Height: 39”
- Poles: Freestanding, composite
Best Ultralight Backpacking Tent
MSR Carbon Reflex 2
Our favorite ultralight tent is the MSR Carbon Reflex 2. Yes, another MSR tent, and no, we’re not being paid for this.
We love this tent because it’s extremely easy to set up, is surprisingly roomy inside, and is the lightest tent we’ve ever used.
The MSR Carbon Reflex 2 weighs just under 2 pounds so it’s the tent we use every time we’re going on a longer hiking trip when shedding any weight possible will help make the hike faster and more enjoyable. This is especially true of any hike that has a large elevation gain and any extra weight we carry really gets our legs burning.
But it’s not just the weight of the tent that we love. What we really like about the MSR Carbon Reflex 2 is the pole structure that it uses.
It uses a single, long carbon fiber pole that goes the long way and attaches to the tent with unmatched simplicity, and a short carbon fiber pole across the top that stretches the tent sideways and makes the walls virtually vertical.
At 50” across throughout, it has a roomy and square floor space that’s actually bigger than any of the other ultralight tents. In fact, it’s the only ultralight tent and one of the only backpacking tents in general that has a square floor space instead of tapering out toward the feet which makes this tent a great alternative for hikers with pets.
The MSR Carbon Reflex 2 is not a freestanding tent – it’s technically not even a semi-freestanding tent – because it needs to be staked down at the corners to work. And if using it with the rainfly, it needs a minimum of 6 tent stakes to stretch out the sides and create the vestibules.
And while we used to think that using a nonfreestanding tent was a drawback compared to freestanding tents, it really isn’t any different since they all need to be staked down anyway to work properly. In fact, the super simple pole setup allows me to consistently set up this tent in half the time of any freestanding tent.
Nowadays, the only reason we carry our freestanding MSR Hubba Hubba NX2 instead of the Carbon Reflex 2 is if we think the weather will be especially nasty or unpredictable like in Patagonia, where the freestanding tent structure provides more resistance to very strong winds, snow, and rain. Not to say that the CR2 isn’t weatherproof or it can’t withstand high winds – it can and it has – it’s just that the thicker and more robust materials used in the HH2 just give us that extra feeling of confidence.
While the Carbon Reflex is a great tent, it does have a few drawbacks that come with being so lightweight.
The tent height is a bit low compared to other tents. It’s 2-3 inches lower than most other tents but still tall enough to sit up, move around, change clothes, and even cook inside during bad weather. But when paired with a rain flap that sits at the top of the entrance, getting in and out of the tent is a bit difficult. We basically have to crawl in and out of this tent, something that takes some getting used to.
The other potential negative of this tent is the relative fragility of the tent poles. Carbon fiber is notorious for being easier to snap than aluminum, as it tends to snap in half instead of bending like normal aluminum poles. MSR claims that most carbon fiber pole failures happen during setup since people tend to let them snap together instead of gently sliding them into each other. Since we know about this, we try to gently slide them together so hopefully, we can avoid breaking the poles.
While we really love this tent, there are a few other ultralight competitors that are worth checking out. The Nemo Hornet Elite 2 is a quality semi-freestanding tent with similar weight and price to the CR2 that comes in a great yellow color, although the green Nemo Hornet 2P is a much better deal and can often be found on sale at about half the price while weighing only a few ounces more.
Big Agnes also has a few tents that are worth considering like the Tiger Wall UL2 which is cheaper than the Carbon Reflex 2 but with a noticeable weight penalty.
Overall, we really love our MSR Carbon Reflex 2 tent and hope that with careful care during setup, we can continue to use this tent for a long time to come.
- Trail Weight: 2.0 lbs
- Floor Area: 84” x 50”
- Vestibules: 7 + 7 ft2
- Height: 34”
- Poles: Non freestanding, carbon fiber
Best Inexpensive Backpacking Tent
Naturehike Cloud-Up 2 Person (20D)
Naturehike’s Cloud-Up 2-Person tent (20D) is easily the best deal when it comes to light backpacking tents.
Currently selling for $165 on Amazon and weighing only 2.8 pounds, this tent is an amazing bargain compared to any other backpacking tent on the market.
There are a few other tents or tarps on the market for under $200 but none are traditional tents, often requiring trekking poles to keep up. Since we often hike without trekking poles, we don’t like having a tent that requires them to create the tent structure.
The Naturehike Cloud-Up 2 tent is a free-standing tent made out of surprisingly nice materials. I was very surprised the first time we got the tent, expecting it to look or feel cheap or to find areas where Naturehike cut some corners. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t find any area where this tent looks or feels inferior to any of the more expensive offerings from larger and more established brands.
The tent stuff sack itself looks very similar to the stuff sack that comes with the Big Agnes tents, all of which cost at least double what this tent costs. In fact, this tent was made somewhat famous because the first version of it seemed like an exact copy of the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2.
The second and current iteration of this tent is freestanding, comes in several colors and sizes, and doesn’t seem to cheap out anywhere. But while there are various colors and versions to choose from, there is one specific combination we chose that you should choose too and that would be the white/grey 20D version.
The white/grey 20D version of the CloudUp is the lightest combination of this tent by a good margin. The white/grey version with a red floor is about 7 ounces lighter than the other colors, and the 20D version is about a pound lighter than the cheaper 210T version of the tent. Unfortunately, if you’re buying this tent on Amazon, the listing is now very confusing and they’ve mixed up 210T and 20D throughout the description. As of right now, only the 20D version of the 2-person tent is sold in white/grey so that’s the best way to know that you’re getting the right one.
The Cloud-up itself is very nicely made with a very sturdy aluminum pole frame that stretches out the tent to its full size, even without being staked to the ground. The entire pole structure is connected together with 2 T’s where the legs come together, making it easy to set up but you do have to pay attention because it’s easy to set up backward like we did on our first try.
We try to stake this tent out whenever we can for stability and to use the vestibule, but this tent is actually ok with just a few tent stakes so it’s a great tent for when the ground is really rocky or hard and we can’t get all the tent stakes in.
Another great thing about the Naturehike Cloud-Up is that it comes with a footprint, something that is essential for keeping any tent floor from tearing but never comes standard with any of the more expensive tents.
This tent also packs up really small, much smaller than our MSR Hubba Hubba and noticeably lighter, but not as small or light as our MSR Carbon Reflex 2. Yet this tent costs $250 less than even the cheaper of the two MSR tents.
While the listed tent weight is 3.75 pounds, that is the weight of the colored version with the included heavy guy wires and the included but optional footprint. Without those, the white/grey Cloud-up weighs just 2 pounds 13 ounces and is a good $150 cheaper than any other comparable tent with a similar weight.
While material-wise this tent has no shortcomings, we’re not particularly fond of the shape of the tent itself. Unlike our other tents, the Cloud-up has a single entry at the head of the tent which makes it a bit harder to enter and exit the tent. It’s not a huge deal, but it also only gives us a single vestibule in the front so it barely has enough room to keep all our gear inside and out of the rain at night.
Another thing we don’t love about this tent is that the walls are pretty sloped towards the center. While it is pretty tall and roomy in the center, the sloped walls make it hard for two people to sit up, move around, or change at the same time.
All-in-all, it is very similar in shape to our first backpacking tent which we successfully used for years with our large dog, just a much, much nicer version. The Naturehike Cloud-Up is a great tent for anyone looking to upgrade to a very lightweight tent at a reasonable price or someone new to backpacking who wants to test the waters without investing a ton of money.
The best place to buy this tent is on Amazon although some people have bought this tent on AliExpress for a bit cheaper but with a much longer delivery time. We prefer to buy from Amazon since it’s a trusted marketplace with fast delivery and easy 30-day returns.
When people who are new to backpacking or are on a tight budget ask us what tent we recommend, it’s always the Naturehike Cloud-Up 2. It’s easy to set up, made of durable and very sturdy materials, very lightweight and compact, and of course, very cheap for what you get.
- Trail Weight: 2.8 lbs
- Floor Area: 83” x 49”
- Height: 39”
- Poles: Freestanding, aluminum
Modern backpacking tents are much lighter and more durable than their old counterparts.
If you’re struggling with an old, heavy tent or looking to get your first backpacking tent, there are some great options out there to choose from.
Our overall top pick, the MSR Hubba Hubba NX2, is a proven backpacking tent that is strong enough to withstand the elements in the harshest places on Earth. It’s our tent of choice when we’re uncertain about what mother nature might throw our way.
Our ultralight pick, the MSR Carbon Reflex 2, is the lightest tent we’ve ever used and a tent we love for its simplicity. If you’re counting ounces, this is the tent to buy.
Our bargain pick, the Naturehike Cloud-Up 2, is a surprisingly nice lightweight backpacking tent at less than half the price of any of its competitors. If you’re looking for a great deal, look no further.
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2 thoughts on “3 Best Light & Ultralight Tents For Backpacking”
This is super helpful! I’m currently planning a year long trip to South America in which I plan to complete multiple treks across the continent. I’ve no doubt the weather and Patagonia will be the most extreme weather test for my tent! In your article you discuss Patagonia for the first two tents, would you consider talking the Naturehike there, or would the wind be too much? Thank you!
The Naturehike Cloud-Up is a great tent. It has a great build quality and uses high-end materials so it should do really well, even in the Patagonia winds. For the price, I don’t think there’s any other tent out there that’s even remotely close to being worthy of taking on a trip around South America.