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New to backpacking? Kept seeing the words “freestanding tents” but never really knew what that meant? Interested in an easy to set up tent with great ventilation?
Freestanding tents offer superior ventilation (making them a life-saver in hot or humid conditions), and they are easy to set up. (and move to a new spot if your original campsite was lousy)
The included tent poles of freestanding tents provide the structure and shape of the tent. Meaning you do not have to have it staked down for it to hold its shape. Does that mean you do not need tent stakes? (more on that in just a bit)
It sounds like you are describing a perfect tent, why would anyone choose to purchase a non-freestanding tent? (whatever that is)
Freestanding tents vs non-freestanding tents
When you’re picking out a new tent to purchase, you hop online and start scrolling through pages and pages of choices. Most of the features are fairly self-explanatory, but you keep noticing that a lot of them are labeled “freestanding.”
What does that even mean? Does that mean there are non-freestanding tents, and what are those?
Freestanding tents are able to maintain their shape and structure without being staked out. They use tent poles to keep their shape.
Most tents that you are thinking about right now are freestanding. Most camping and backpacking tents are freestanding.
An important note is that just because they do not need to be staked out to maintain shape, does not mean that you shouldn’t stake them out. Because you definitely should.
Imagine getting to your camping spot, overlooking a beautiful lake with a nice mild breeze. After you have the tent set up, you head over the hills in the distance to check out the view from the top.
As you crest the top of the highest hill, you notice something blowing in the wind. (did someone bring a kite into the backcountry?) Only to glance down at where your tent was set up, to see that it is no longer there.
Just because it can maintain its shape, does not mean it will stay on the ground. You still have to stake it down to the ground for that to happen.
Non-freestanding tents (sometimes considered a trekking pole tent) do not come with tent poles, and require the tension from being staked out to hold its shape.
This style of tent requires you to prop it up with trekking poles. (or premade poles if you do not carry trekking poles)
They have grown in popularity in recent years, as more folks are searching for lightweight backpacking tents. They offer a great option for those that prioritize weight savings, without sacrificing quality and features.
You do have to stake them out and have trekking poles to prop it up, so the set-up can be a bit more difficult. (until you get used to it) If you do not usually use trekking poles, many manufacturers offer fixed-length poles that you can use in place of trekking poles.
Site selection and proper setup are more important with a non-freestanding tent. With a freestanding tent, you can have the tent poles in place and just move the tent to the ideal spot before staking it to the ground. A non-freestanding tent does not have that ability.
If you make a poor site selection, you will have to unstake the tent and start all over at the new site. It doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but think about having to move spots because where you set up puddles water and it is starting to downpour. I have had this happen, and it was the last time I would just casually set up at the first spot I see without thinking.
Differences between freestanding and non-freestanding tents
The significant differences between the two styles of tents come down to:
There is a wide range when it comes to factors like price, materials, and durability. Because of this range, it makes it highly subjective as to whether a freestanding tent or a non-freestanding tent has an advantage.
If you are new to camping or backpacking, a free-standing tent is going to be the route to go.
As I mentioned earlier in the article, freestanding tents utilize tent poles to hold their shape and can be set up without stakes. This makes them easier to set up at first. (plus a little bit more forgiving)
Non-freestanding tents require you to stake out the edges and pop in trekking poles (or premade poles) to give them their shape/structure. You also have to take the whole thing apart if you need to move it. It took me quite a few attempts to get good at setting it up, and even more to consistently get a great pitch.
Since non-freestanding tents do not have a rain fly nor tent poles, they are lighter than freestanding tents. Making them the easy choice for those looking for ultralight tents and those that prioritize weight savings.
When it comes to camping, weight is not that big of a factor. (you are just setting up right near your car after all) But a 1-2 pound savings when backpacking can be huge! Making the weight savings of non-freestanding tents more applicable and appealing to backpackers.
Plus, being able to use trekking poles to set up your tent gives you more multi-use pieces of equipment. A great alternative to carrying around tent poles all day just so you can use them to set up your tent.
The ventilation is better on freestanding tents, so if you plan to camp in hot or humid conditions, it is the choice.
Since freestanding tents are double wall tents, (they have the inner tent and a separate rainfly) the inner tent wall is commonly mesh with a waterproof material for the rainfly. The mesh provides more airflow to keep it cooler and less likely for condensation to build up.
Non-freestanding tents are single wall tents. (meaning there is just one layer between you and the outside) This eliminates the inner mesh layer; meaning that the waterproof layer is all that is left. Waterproofing comes at the cost of breathability.
Benefits of a freestanding tent
The main benefits of a freestanding tent are:
Easier set up
Another upside to freestanding tents is that they are more common, so you will have a wider range of products to choose from.
The better ventilation of a freestanding tent comes into play most during the summer months and if you are set up near water. The heat of the summer makes ventilation a huge plus. And the humidity near water means a damp sleeping bag without adequate ventilation.
The setup ease is more of a factor early on. Regardless of the tent, you will get better at pitching it the more times you do it. Though, if you had never set up a tent before, you would have a much easier time getting a freestanding tent set up well compared to a non-freestanding tent.
Downsides of a freestanding tent
The main downside of a freestanding tent, compared to a non-freestanding option, is the weight/packability.
With tent poles and a separate rainfly, the freestanding tent is heavier and will take up more space in your pack. It may seem insignificant that a tent weighs 1 pound heavier than another. (I mean who would even notice the weight difference?) But, when you are 35 miles into a 50-mile backpacking loop and there is a 3,000-foot climb in front of you, you would do almost anything to shed any amount of weight from your pack.
Another factor to consider as a downside for freestanding tents is the set up in inclement weather. Since freestanding tents have a rainfly, (that serves as the outer layer and weather protection) if you find yourself having to set up in the rain there is a good chance the inside of your tent will get wet.
The single wall of the non-freestanding tent serves as the rainfly, so you can set it up without getting the inside wet. (even in the rain)
A freestanding tent is a tent that uses poles to provide its shape, and it can stand on its own without being staked out.
Yes, poles are what allow a freestanding tent to “freely stand” without being staked into the ground.
Yes, you still need to stake a freestanding tent. Without doing so, the tent will blow around in the wind and may get blown away if not weighed down.
When staked out, freestanding tents hold up just fine in windy conditions.
A lot of backpacking tents are freestanding; their easy set-up and good ventilation make them a great choice for backpacking.
If you recently got into backpacking, odds are you did not put much thought into whether you purchased a freestanding tent or a non-freestanding tent.
At first, it does not really have a huge impact on your experience. Plus, it is most likely that you got a freestanding tent. (which is what I recommend to newer backpackers anyway)
As you gain experience and start to find what you prefer in a tent, you may explore other tent options. At this point, you will have a better understanding of the features of a tent and what you are looking for.
Will you stick with the easy setup of freestanding tents? Will you explore non-freestanding tents to save yourself some weight and pack space?
I prefer a non-freestanding tent when backpacking and freestanding tents when car camping. I recommend exploring both options. If possible, borrow a non-freestanding tent from a friend to test out on one of your weekend backpacking adventures.
Regardless of which you choose is right for you, use it often, enjoy the great outdoors, and explore what is out there!