Backpacking tent vs. camping tent: which is right for you

Table of Contents

Aren’t all tents camping tents?

No, there is actually a bit of difference between a backpacking tent versus a camping tent. And having the right one goes a long way to making sure you have the best experience.

I have stayed in everything from a 1-person tent to an 8-person tent, and can definitively say that choosing the right tent has the ability to make or break your trip.

So whether you are just heading to your local campground or on an international backpacking trip, make sure you have the right tent selected.

differences between backpacking and camping tents

Differences between backpacking and camping

Backpacking and camping are sometimes used interchangeably, and in some ways, they are the same. You use a sleep outdoors, use a sleeping bag, etc.

There are a few key differences between the two activities, though, and tent selection is one of those differences. You could easily camp with a backpacking tent, but backpacking with a camping tent would not be so enjoyable.

Backpacking

Backpacking involves carrying your gear in a backpack and hiking to your camping spot. This could range from a 4-month long thru-hike or a 5-mile out-and-back trail to a lake.

Basically, if you are staying the night outdoors and you have to carry your gear multiple miles to your camping spot, that is considered backpacking.

backpacking versus camping

Camping

Camping, or car camping, involves staying outdoors, but you are able to set up camp in the vicinity of your car. Generally, this is done in a campground setting, but it does not necessarily have to.

Essentially, as long as you are not carrying your gear a long distance away from where you park, it is considered camping.

Differences between backpacking tents and camping tents

The differences between the activities of backpacking and camping are somewhat semantical. But the differences between the tents for each activity are rather big.

It is worth noting that you can use a backpacking tent in any camping situation, but a camping tent is only useable for camping. (you would not want to haul around a full-sized camping tent on your back)

Backpacking

I would describe backpacking tents in three words:

  • Lightweight

  • Packable

  • Versatile

Backpacking tents are meant to be packed and carried in a backpack, so they need to be lighter-weight and packable.

Backpacking tents range from 1-3 person set-ups and range in weight from 1-5 pounds. (there are some 4-person “backpacking tents”, but they are generally considerably heavier than 3-person tents, 7-10+ pounds)

tent differences

Unlike traditional camping tents, backpacking ones are incredibly versatile. I have used mine on car camping trips, single-night trips, and multi-night backpacking trips.

Another distinguishing characteristic of backpacking tents is their simplified tent poles. They often use fewer poles compared to traditional camping tents. (sometimes it is just a single piece) This makes them more simple to set up and easier to store in your pack.

Camping

Compared to backpacking tents, traditional camping tents have more room, weigh more, and usually have more features.

Since they don’t have to be carried for miles, these tents don’t have to prioritize weight and packability. Additionally, this allows manufacturers to use more durable materials.

I like having separate backpacking and camping tents. Yes, backpacking tents are versatile and can be used in any camping scenario, but I prefer the extra room and features when car camping. Plus, having a tent I can stand up in makes for a better camping experience.

Another factor worth considering is that most backpacking tents are three-season tents. Meaning they are good for spring, summer, and fall. So if you do a lot of winter camping, you will have more options with a traditional camping tent.

camping tent set up

Factors to consider when deciding between a backpacking or camping tent

Ideally, you will have a separate tent for overnight backpacking trips and traditional camping trips. But, if you only want to have one, there are some things you need to consider before purchasing.

Usage

How you plan to use your tent is the biggest consideration. As I have mentioned, camping tents don’t really work well for backpacking. They are generally pretty heavy and do not pack down as small as backpacking tents.

If you do both activities and you don’t want to haul around a heavy, bulky tent all day, a backpacking tent is the way to go, no question.

choosing a camping or backpacking tent

Also, if you do any winter camping, your selection of backpacking tents will be rather limited. They tend to be heavy and expensive, so I would suggest steering clear of them unless you are adamant about doing some hardcore winter backpacking.

Price

After usage, price is the next big consideration for most hikers.

Tents can range in price from $100-$1000+.

If you backpack once a year, it probably doesn’t make sense to drop $500 on a tent. Alternatively, if you do a camping trip twice a month, it makes more sense to invest in one with features and incredible durability.

I have used everything from a tent I purchased at Walmart for $60 to ultralight tents that cost close to $400.

Ultimately, I generally believe in the principle of “you get what you pay for”, so you definitely want to think about what your budget is and your usage before purchasing a new tent.

Capacity

You will see tents listed as 1-person, 2-person, etc.

As a rule of thumb, these capacity ratings are for how many people could technically sleep in the tent. It doesn’t mean that it will be comfortable and roomy for that many people.

picture from camping trip

If you are all about saving weight, you could get by with the capacity rating. But, if you prefer to have a more spacious, comfortable experience, I suggest doubling the tent’s capacity. (I.e., a 2-person tent for a single person)

I have backpacked with a 1-person tent and 2-person tents, and honestly, the little bit of extra weight is worth it. It is much more relaxing and pleasant to have a roomy tent to climb into at the end of the day. Plus, having the extra room to store some gear inside your tent is a huge plus.

Materials

The materials used for tents are very similar to those used for hiking packs.

The most common materials used for tents you will see are:

  • Nylon (particularly silnylon and ripstop nylon)

  • Polyester

  • High-tech synthetic materials (commonly DCF)

As it pertains to tents, find a tent with a material that aligns with what you prioritize. (I.e., price, durability, lightweight, etc.)

common materials for tents

For example, if you value cost savings, dropping $500 for an ultralight, DCF tent doesn’t make sense. Something like a polyester or nylon tent is going to be more in line with what you want.

Footprint size

The dimensions of the bottom of your tent or the dimensions of the groundsheet/tent footprint are considered the footprint size.

Footprint size comes more into play in backpacking. Usually, car camping involves a designated, large camping spot.

But when backpacking, you may not be able to find a nice open space to pitch your tent. And when you have to pitch your tent between a couple of trees and a boulder, the footprint size comes into play much more importantly.

Generally speaking, a larger tent equals a larger footprint, makes sense right?

I recommend double-checking the size of the footprint before purchasing a backpacking tent. I have set up camp places where a little larger tent would have made it impossible to fit.

Weight

Backpacking tents tend to be lighter than camping tents, which makes sense.

One thing of note is that a backpacking tent will usually have two different weights listed: minimum trail weight and packaged weight.

Minimum weight versus packaged weight

Minimum trail weight refers to the weight of only the items needed to set up the tent. Generally, this is just the tent, poles, and rainfly.

Packaged weight is the total weight of all the components included with the tent. This includes the tent, poles, rainfly, stakes, stuff sacks, etc.

When comparing the weight of tents, I recommend comparing the minimum trail weight. There usually is less than a 1-pound difference between the two, but minimum trail weight more closely resembles what you will actually be carrying.

Additionally, you may already have stakes and you may not use a stuff sack, so the packaged weight does not always reflect what the set-up will weigh for you.

FAQ

For a one-person tent, 1-3 pounds is ideal, a two-person tent should be 1-4 pounds, and a three-person tent or larger should be under 5 pounds. My philosophy is the lighter the better, as long it fits within your budget and doesn’t compromise durability or a feature that you need.

Camping tents are made for comfort and durability, and are not to be carried in backpacking. A backpacking tent is meant to be lightweight, packable, and versatile.

No, you can use a backpacking tent for both activities. But, I recommend having one for each because having a roomy, durable tent is much nicer for camping compared to a one-person backpacking tent.

Conclusion

Whether backpacking or camping, you end up spending quite a bit amount of time in your tent. (Plus, when backpacking you are carrying it even when not using it)

So having the right tent for your activity is important. You don’t want to haul around a 10-pound tent on your back for a weekend in the mountains. Likewise, a weeklong stay in a campground in a one-person tent can become a bit uncomfortable.

Things like tent size, floor space, and usage are the main factors to consider when deciding between a backpacking and a camping tent.

Whichever ends up fitting your needs, don’t wait too long to get out there a put it to good use!

tent set up during backpacking trip

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