By the time you're serious enough about backpacking to invest in a high-end tent, you probably have some pretty firm ideas about what you do and don't like. Because of that, there are several great tents in this category that can make a compelling case for your hard-won dollars, each catering to different aspects of the backpacker's mentality. No matter which tent you buy, most backpackers immediately upgrade the stakes, usually to something like the MSR Groundhog Stakes (Est. $20 for 6). Check the included guylines, too, to see whether you have enough cordage to use all the tie-out points.
After careful consideration, we did select one tent as the all-around best performer for most backpackers: The MSR Hubba Hubba NX (Est. $390), which comes in one-, two-, three- and four-person versions. This tent has received a lot of love from expert reviewers over the years, and in 2014 the two-person version won a coveted "Gear of the Year" award from Outside magazine.
Key elements that make the Hubba Hubba NX stand out from the competition include how easy it is to pitch; the near-vertical sidewalls that maximize usable space; relatively sturdy fabric, given its ultralight design (3 pounds, 13 ounces for a two-person tent); and D-shaped doors that reviewers say minimize the amount of dirt you track into the tent. Users also like the non-tapered floor space -- which makes it easy to be sure your sleeping pad will fit -- and they love the perfectly placed mesh panels and roll-back rainfly for stargazing. Reviewers with OutdoorGearLab.com are also excited to see a fast-pitch option that doesn't require a footprint, although they're a little concerned about how it'll hold up to the wind.
All that mesh, paired with cross-ventilation in the rainfly, means you won't get much condensation inside the tent. Users do warn that the Hubba Hubba NX can be a little drafty in chilly temperatures -- this isn't a four-season tent by any means -- and they also say that if you're six feet or taller, you might feel a little cramped in the 29 square feet of floor area. Storing your gear in the small vestibule outside the door(s) helps, as does purchasing an optional gear loft, although the 39-inch peak height in the two-person tent doesn't leave much room to spare. The larger versions are a little taller.
Both users and experts have high praise for this tent's performance in the field. One user reports discovering his tent floating in a two-inch puddle of water after a torrential rainstorm, but the inside was still completely dry. There is one notable exception: The Hubba Hubba's guy points are located low down on the fly, which leaves expert testers and users alike concerned about instability and broken poles in high winds. The three-person Hubba Hubba tent was redesigned for 2016 with additional, higher guy points on the fly; we hope to see the same in the other tent sizes soon. In the meanwhile, careful site selection and staking will help your tent cope with high winds.
If you're shopping specifically for a two-person backpacking tent, our top pick is the Big Agnes Rattlesnake SL2 MtnGlo (Est. $350), which also comes in one-, three- and four-person sizes. The Rattlesnake has the near-vertical sidewalls and easy pitching that we expect from lightweight Big Agnes backpacking tents, and a good vestibule design that funnels water away from the tent door. But it's really the MtnGlo feature -- a string of flexible LED lights built into the tent seams -- that makes this tent stand out and earns it a "Gear of the Year" award from Outside and an "Editor's Choice" pick from Backpacker magazine, both in 2015.
The LED lights add only a couple of ounces to the tent's weight (4 pounds, 2 ounces, total), and even users who think the feature is gimmicky at first end up loving it. They say it's good for everything from reading to finding gear or lighting your way for a late-night pit stop. Although nobody mentions it, we also think they'd come in handy for finding your tent if you come back late from a day hike. Oh, and it's just plain neat, too: "We loved the romantic ambiance," said one tester for Backpacker magazine, who took the tent on her honeymoon. The lights last for about 90 hours of continuous use on three AAA batteries, or can be run off any USB battery pack.
The Rattlesnake SL2 has a reasonable peak height of 40 inches. Testers with Backpacker say the all-mesh walls and two vents in the rainfly kept it condensation-free, even on chilly nights in the Sierras. The interior floor space is 27 square feet -- enough for two people over 6 feet tall, users say, as long as you don't mind sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder and storing your gear in the vestibule outside each door.
You might also consider carrying the three-person Big Agnes Rattlesnake SL3 as a two-person tent. This kind of upsizing is common practice for backpackers who want a little personal space or extra room for gear; and, while the three-person tent weighs about five pounds including guy lines and stakes, that's not much weight to split between two people in exchange for the extra space.
Our pick for the best four-person shelter is another Big Agnes tent, the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL4 (Est. $390). (It's also available in one-, two- and three-person models.) This tent is, in all sizes, a perennial favorite of backpackers who want an ultralight shelter that's still reasonably sturdy, spacious and freestanding.
With that said, keep in mind that the people capacity of a tent is more of a suggestion than a rule, especially with backpacking tents. Although you can squeeze four sleeping pads into this tent's 57 square feet of floor space, many backpackers would prefer to limit the crowd to three -- in this or any other four-person tent -- so everyone has a little more room to stretch out or the option of using a wider-than-usual sleeping pad. An optional gear loft helps optimize your use of space by storing some gear overhead, and the peak height of 50 inches is enough to let most hikers sit up straight in the center of the tent.
The Copper Spur UL4 weighs just 5 pound, 5 ounces, plus a few more ounces for guy lines and stakes. That's almost nothing, once you divide the tent components between three or four people. Reviewers all agree that the near-vertical side walls, dual doors and two vestibules -- each of which has room for a pair of boots and a medium pack -- make the interior of this tent more livable than the competition. "It's light enough to disappear in your pack, but roomy enough to wait out a prolonged storm without going stir crazy," writes one of the reviewers with CleverHiker.com.
There is some disagreement about just how well this tent stands up to high winds: Some users say that's the one thing it doesn't handle with aplomb, while the experts at OutdoorGearLab.com name the two-person version of this tent a "Top Pick" and feel that the low-profile leading end, guy points and pole configuration make it a good bet for standing up to strong winds. They do agree with users on one other point, though: You have to be careful how you treat this tent's thin fabric. On the upside, Big Agnes tents are backed by a 100 percent guarantee, and customers say Big Agnes is great about honoring its warranty.
All of the tents just mentioned easily cost $350 for a single-person tent. And to a certain degree, with high-end backpacking tents, you do get what you pay for. But there are a few tents that stand out for being both excellent and affordable, and the REI Half Dome 2 (Est. $200) is one of the best. It won a 2010 Editor's Choice Gold Award from Backpacker magazine and has been a continuous favorite ever since for first-time backpackers or people on a budget. A longer, wider and slightly heavier "Plus" version also snags a "Best Buy" award from the editors at OutdoorGearLab.com.
Reviewers with Switchback Travel love the REI Half Dome 2 for its combination of value and spaciousness, helped out by the steep sidewalls that create more livable space: The two-person version weighs just 4 pounds, 9 ounces, plus stakes and guy lines, has a peak height of 40 inches, and 31.8 square feet of floor space -- enough room for two six-foot-tall people, users say. Four vents in the rainfly offer great ventilation, and reviewers love the way the fly rolls back for stargazing and even more venting.
Testers with Backpacker.com say the Half Dome 2's fabric stands up well to kids, dogs and abrasive campsites, although the consensus is that the Half Dome won't cut it as well as a high-end tent in true howling winds and savage weather. But for most users in most conditions, it's plenty of tent at a great price.
So far, every backpacking tent we've discussed has two Achilles heels: High winds and cold temperatures. If you find yourself backpacking in areas that are prone to either of these, we recommend the Hilleberg Anjan 2 (Est. $645). It wins an Editor's Choice award from the very picky testers at OutdoorGearLab.com; they say that if they could only buy one tent for all three-season trips, including backpacking, car camping and bicycle touring, the Anjan 2 would be it, thanks to its unmatched durability and weather resistance.
Hilleberg doesn't actually market this as a tent for cold temperatures; they produce serious mountaineering tents for those conditions. Most reviewers, however, say this tent can take any summer storm you might wander into and, like all Hilleberg tents, it's been tested against a wind machine and is built with remarkably strong, tear-resistant Kerlon fabric. They don't skimp on space, either: The tent has a 39-inch peak height and 30.1 square feet of inner floor area at a remarkable weight of 3 pounds, 8 ounces, or 4 pounds with stuff sacks and stakes.
One huge, distinctive plus for any Hilleberg tent is that their poles go on the outside of the rainfly, so you can have the tent body under cover -- and completely dry -- throughout the pitching process. On the downside, this is also the only backpacking tent we've covered that is not freestanding; it'll only stand up if you stake out the ends. That's easy to manage with a little practice, but the stakes and guy lines do make for a large footprint that sometimes require a little extra creativity, depending on the terrain. The outer fly can also be pitched as a sturdy, floorless tarp shelter.
The Anjan 2 is the only tent in this report with a single door on the end. It also has one large vestibule -- 14 square feet -- instead of two smaller vestibules. That's plenty of room to stack large backpacks, smaller packs and shoes, all under cover.