What is a non-freestanding tent?

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what is a non-freestanding tent

You meet some backpackers at the local brewery after your weekend backpacking trip, and they start talking about “freestanding” and “non-freestanding tents.”

You don’t know the difference and frankly are a little embarrassed to ask, “what is a non-freestanding tent?” I mean, you have been backpacking for a couple of years.

So you just nod along and agree with what they are saying about these different types of tents.

You don’t need to be an expert in everything about backpacking, but having a general understanding of gear goes a long way in making sure you have the right gear.

Knowing what a non-freestanding tent is and when it is beneficial is a must if you want to make the most of your backpacking experience.

trekking pole shelter

What are non-freestanding tents?

Non-freestanding tents (sometimes referred to as a trekking pole tent) are tents that are held up by the tension of being staked out. They use trekking poles or fixed-length poles (often produced by the manufacturer) to prop up. Unlike freestanding tents, they do not use traditional tent poles to be held up or provide their shape.

Since they use trekking poles to be propped up, you can save some weight and pack space by utilizing your trekking poles for multiple purposes. This weight savings make non-freestanding tents attractive backpacking tents for ultralight backpackers and thru-hikers.

non-freestanding tent

Non-freestanding tents can be more difficult to get a good pitch with the first few times you use one. For this reason, I recommend setting them up once or twice before you head out into the wilderness for the first time. I set mine up in my backyard a couple of times before I ever took one on a backpacking trip.

After a few setups, you will get the gist of it and you won’t have any trouble setting it up in the field.

A major difference in the set-up is that you have to stake the tent out before it ever takes shape. With a freestanding tent, you can use the tent poles to provide shape/structure before you stake it out. This allows you to move/adjust the tent easier before staking it down.

But, with a non-freestanding tent, you have to stake it down before it takes shape. So, if you do not get a good pitch, you have to take it all down and start from scratch.

backpacking tent

Advantages of non-freestanding tents

  • Lightweight

  • Takes up less pack space

  • Fewer pieces of gear to take

One big advantage of non-freestanding tents is their weight savings. This comes from two main sources. Lightweight materials and utilizing existing gear.

Most non-freestanding tents are single-walled, meaning that they use less material. Additionally, they typically use lighter materials. In the end, you end up with a tent that is noticeably lighter than most freestanding counterparts.

These factors also mean that the tent takes up less space in your backpack. If you are using a backpack with less volume, this can be a huge advantage. Instead of having a heavy, bulky tent that you have to lug up and over a mountain, you save some space (and effort).

advantages of non-freestanding tent

Saving a pound or two may not seem like a big deal. Trust me, I thought that way for my first couple of years backpacking. But, over the course of a few days (or weeks), a pack that weighs even 1-2 pounds lighter really starts to feel nice as the miles add up.

Lastly, since you do not have to carry around tent poles (which are usually awkwardly shaped and can be inconvenient to pack), you can utilize your trekking poles for multiple purposes. I am a big fan of being able to use a piece of gear for multiple usages.

If you do not usually carry trekking poles, you can get fixed-length poles that allow you to prop your tent up instead of with trekking poles. These poles are more simple and take up less space than poles for freestanding tents.

mountain sunset

For the most part, the advantages of non-freestanding tents make them more appealing as a backpacking tent. This is why they are most popular among lightweight backpackers and thru-hikers versus traditional car camping.

Disadvantages of non-freestanding tents

  • Usually single-wall tents (more condensation)

  • Not as easy to set up at first

  • Less versatile

There is a lot to like about non-freestanding tents, but that does not mean that all is rosy and perfect. Nor does it mean that they are the right option for your adventures.

One drawback to non-freestanding tents is that they are predominately single-walled. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it does mean that condensation and ventilation will be a bigger issue. Site selection is much more important with this type of tent, meaning that you need to be adequately prepared to pick a quality site to avoid maximum condensation.

Even with a good site selected, you may still wake up with a damp sleeping bag in more humid conditions. Most freestanding tents are double-wall tents, making them more attractive if you are commonly in wet weather conditions.

backpacking tent

You also will likely need some practice setting up a non-freestanding tent to get a quality pitch. Again, not necessarily a bad thing. But, it does mean that if you are not a regular backpacker, a freestanding tent may be a better, more convenient option.

If I did one backpacking trip a year (and didn’t prioritize weight), I would use a freestanding tent. And I make that same recommendation to others.

The third big disadvantage of non-freestanding tents is that they are not as versatile as their freestanding counterpart.

freestanding camping tent

This has to do with the fact that the benefits of a non-freestanding tent are geared toward backpacking. (particularly longer trips at that) If that is not your type of thing, then there is just not as much value in having one.

Most traditional camping tents are freestanding. So, if you do mix in some camping with your backpacking, a freestanding tent is going to provide you with the most versatility. This is particularly noteworthy if you do not want to purchase multiple tents.

Differences between non-freestanding tents and freestanding tents

There are two main differences between freestanding and non-freestanding tents:

  • How they hold their shape/structure

  • Single wall vs. double wall

Shape and structure

The biggest difference between non-freestanding and freestanding tents is how they are held up/given their shape and structure.

Freestanding tents utilize poles to give them their structure. When you think of a camping tent, you are visualizing a freestanding tent. Generally speaking, the poles cross over the top of the tent (or run along the top) and clip onto the inner tent.

freestanding tent

With a non-freestanding tent, the trekking poles prop up the middle of the tent on either side. Then the shape of the tent really comes along when the tent is staked down and the guy lines are utilized.

The difference is subtle, but far from semantical. Freestanding tents can be moved around (with their structure intact) without being staked down. Nonfreestanding tents have to be completely taken down if you need to move them.

Single vs double wall

Another significant difference is that freestanding tents are generally double-walled, while most non-freestanding tents are single-wall. This is not true in 100% of cases, but is true the vast majority of the time.

Keeping with the earlier theme, a single wall tent is geared toward backpacking by emphasizing weight savings and packability. While double wall designs emphasize comfort, (ventilation and less condensation) making them more versatile for camping.

single wall vs double wall tent

FAQ

Non-freestanding tents are tents that use tent stakes and guy lines to provide their shape and structure. They rely on trekking poles instead of traditional tent poles.

Non-freestanding tents use trekking poles (or fixed-length poles) instead of the more traditional variety.

Non-freestanding tents are geared more toward backpacking, so I would not recommend purchasing one just for camping.

Non-freestanding tents thrive as backpacking tents because of their light weight and packability.

Conclusion

Non-freestanding tents offer a lightweight, packable backpacking tent for those who enjoy having a light pack.

They are not for everyone though. This type of tent sets up a little bit differently than a more traditional freestanding tent, and this takes a few attempts to get used to.

Also, if you have determined that a single-wall tent is not your cup of tea, you will have a tough time finding a non-freestanding double-walled tent.

But if you emphasize having a low baseweight on your backpacking adventures, a non-freestanding tent should be your first consideration.

Whichever side of the freestanding vs. non-freestanding tent topic you fall on, make sure to enjoy your next adventure and explore what is out there!

lake picture

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