The best tents for backpacking and lightweight camping
A huge six-berth tent is great for summer holidays with your family. Simply put it in the boot of the car and head to the campsite.
But what if you want to try something a little bit more adventurous, like a backpacking or cycle camping trip or a wild camping adventure?
As you'll be carrying all your equipment in a rucksack, or in panniers on your bike, you'll need a completely different type of tent.
For backpacking trips, the size and weight of your tent is vital. And while you might not need the sort of ultra-lightweight gear that is available, you will want to keep the weight down as much as possible, without compromising on comfort during your overnight adventures in the great outdoors.
A good lightweight tent is the most important piece of kit you will need for overnight trips, either on foot or on a bike and our backpacking experts have gathered together some of the best new lightweight backpacking tents for 2021 as well as a selection of old favourites that are still available.
Most of the tents in our round-up are two-berth and are just about big enough for two campers to share, but you might feel that a tent of that size is better for one person and if you want to share a shelter, you might want to upsize to a three-berth.
Reviews and pictures by Iain Duff
NEMO AURORA 2P
Expect to pay £280
The two-berth Aurora is a simple dome-style tent but provides a surprising amount of living space. The footprint of the tent is average sized but the near-vertical walls make it feel far more roomy inside – and the generous use of mesh in the inner tent only adds to the feeling of spaciousness.
The mesh walls also mean you have loads of ventilation, and, in fact, if you were really confident of the weather staying dry all night, you could leave the flysheet off altogether and just sleep under the inner, gazing up at the stars as you drop off to sleep. This is the UK, though, so good luck with that!
All that mesh is obviously great for camping in hot temperatures, but not so brilliant if you are pitched up in howling winds on the side of a Lake District hill. And for that reason we’d suggest this is a good two or three-season tent, but not one for winter trips.
Pitching is fairly easy, with interconnecting aluminium poles forming a freestanding frame which you clip the inner onto, before attaching the flysheet on top. But bear in mind this is an inner-first tent, so you do run the risk of everything getting wet if it’s raining.
With doors and spacious storage vestibules for backpacks and boots on both sides, the Aurora works well for two people. It weighs in at just under 2.5kg, which isn’t too bad even for one, but if there are two of you sharing, you can split the load between you.
The Aurora is also fitted with clips for Nemo’s Pawprint liner – a neat optional extra that means you can take your dog with you without worrying that he’ll damage the tent floor with his claws. Speaking of protecting the tent floor, the Aurora comes with a footprint to form a barrier with the ground below the tent.
The overhead light pockets use special light-diffusing fabric to cast an even glow throughout the tent from your torch and there are gear pockets for stashing small personal items.
Pitching time 7 minutes
Size 223.5cm x 132cm
Packed size 58cm x 18cm
MATERIALS Outer 68D polyester, hydrostatic head 1,200mm Groundsheet 68D polyester, hydrostatic head 1,200mm Poles 1 hubbed aluminium 8.5mm/7.9mm pole; 1 aluminium 8.5mm pole Pegs 8
ALPKIT AERONAUT 2
Expect to pay £199.99
It was only a matter of time before inflatable tents made their mark in lightweight camping, just as they did with family tents a decade ago.
AirBeam pioneer Vango made the first inroads with the launch of the ultralight Project Hydrogen AirBeam tent in 2020. At £600 and weighing just 600g, it was definitely one for the specialist market.
Now Alpkit has stepped up to the plate with the Aeronaut, which is more squarely aimed at the mainstream backpacker or cycle camper.
So, why go inflatable? In large tents, the big plus of inflatable poles is the ease of pitching – but in lightweight tents it’s more about the pack size and weight. The two-berth version of the Aeronaut weighs just 1.5kg but perhaps more important is the lack of long poles in the pack. This means you can squash the tent into the bag and easily squeeze it into a corner of your rucksack or cycle packs. Vital, when every millimetre and gram counts.
The Aeronaut pitches outer-first, and once you’ve fixed the inner for the first time you can leave it attached and pitch it all as one in the future, for a faster set-up. There are two valves so it can be inflated by with a foot pump, or your bike pump when bikepacking.
First time pitching we actually found getting the shape of the single air pole right quite tricky and it took a bit of fiddling around to get it in the right position to make the flysheet nice and taut. Practice makes perfect though and we found it much easier second time around.
Deflating and packing away is quick and easy, but make sure you squeeze all the air out of the tube before trying to get it in the bag.
All the materials used are light and durable – the flysheet is made from a 15D rip-stop nylon and he two short poles used to give the shape at the back end of the tent are made from alloy.
The vestibule area provides a decent storage space for gear and inside there are storage pockets for small items and a few hanging points. The door stows away neatly into a mesh pocket near the foot box.
An optional footprint adds another 225g to the total weight.
Pitching time 5 minutes
Size 250cm x 200cm
Packed size 32cm x 15 cm
MATERIALS Outer 15D silicone nylon ripstop, hydrostatic head 3,000mm Groundsheet 20D polyurethane nylon rip-stop, hydrostatic head 3,000mm Poles Air and alloy micro pole Pegs Alloy Y pegs
MSR HABITUDE 4
Expect to pay £520
For adventurous families, finding the right tent for nights away can be tricky. Until now, the options for overnight camping with kids have been limited to either a huge, heavy family tent that fills your car boot and takes ages to pitch or a tiny shelter with no living space that you have to crawl in and out of. Neither is really ideal.
Outdoor enthusiasts with kids have been crying out for something in between these two extremes, and with the Habitude from MSR, their prayers may have been answered.
This is a relatively lightweight, family-sized tent with plenty of headroom and enough space for four to relax inside if the weather is bad. It’s made using the same materials and techniques as MSR’s technical backpacking tents, so you know it should be robust enough for most weather conditions.
Weighing in at just over 6kg, it’s certainly not something you’d want to carry alone for any great distance, but it could easily be split between two adults in their backpacks.
The hubbed poles and colour-coded clips make pitching straightforward, although consulting the instructions for the first pitch would be advisable.
Also make sure you’ve got enough space around you to lay the poles out flat before you clip them to the tent. As it pitches inner first, try to make sure it’s not raining when you start or, if that’s unavoidable, get the outer flysheet on as quickly as possible.
As is the way with most tents that originate in the USA, the inner has a lot of mesh, which is great for ventilation in hot weather, but not so good on a blustery night in the Highlands. So, while it should be sturdy enough to cope with fairly unpleasant weather, bear in mind that the design might make it more suitable for spring and summer camping only.
For lightweight campers more used to cramped conditions, the amount of space will be the thing that immediately jumps out – at 1.85m, there’s plenty of headroom inside for most people to stand upright without stooping and that makes a huge difference.
We also like the large storage vestibule at the front and there’s good storage pockets inside for keeping small items safe.
As well as a family tent, the Habitude would work perfectly as a perfect group basecamp for canoe trips or mountain biking.
Pitching time 20 minutes
Size 427cm x 254cm
Packed size 58cm x 25cm
MATERIALS Outer 68D ripstop polyester, hydrostatic head 1,500mm Groundsheet 68D taffeta polyester, hydrostatic head 10,000mm Poles Aluminium
VANGO STARAV 200
Expect to pay £200
The ease of pitching, weight and size, makes the Vango Starav 200 a great entry-level tent for newcomers to backpacking or wild camping, especially at such a decent price.
For around £200, you get a simple, well-made two-man tunnel tent, which takes a few minutes to put up, and packs down easily and quickly into its bag, thanks to the oversized opening. Compression straps let you squash the bag down as much as possible to allow it to fit inside your rucksack.
As with most tunnel-shaped tents, pitching is really easy. Colour-coded short poles at the front and back, along with one large pole in the centre, create the shape. It’s this simplicity that makes it perfect for first time campers.
However, there is plenty more to the Starav 200 than meets the eye. The fact that the flysheet and inner pitch together means it’s ideal for UK weather conditions and Vango’s exclusive TBS II Tension Band System provides additional strength when the wind really picks up.
The 70D polyester flysheet, with 3,000mm hydrostatic head, is highly waterproof and durable, and the lightweight alloy poles combine strength with flexibility. The groundsheet is also strong and designed to be very waterproof.
In warmer conditions, the large, zipped ventilation panels at each end let you create a good airflow, keeping temperatures down and minimising condensation.
The side vestibule is a good-sized storage area and there are handy inner storage pockets for keeping essential items safe but easily accessible.
For a simple tent at a great price this is a hard one to beat.
Pitching time 5 minutes
Size 230cm x 95cm
Packed size 45cm x 15cm
MATERIALS Outer 70D polyester, hydrostatic head 6,000mm Groundsheet 70D polyester, hydrostatic head 6,000mm Poles PowerLite alloy
WILD COUNTRY HELM COMPACT 2
Expect to pay £276
NOTE TO READERS: The picture above is of the 2020 model of the Helm 2 – a new version of the tent is now available which has some changes, including a brighter green colour and mesh panels on the doors only.
The Helm has been a lightweight camping favourite for a few years. It ticks all the boxes for a good backpacking or wild camping shelter; a spacious, two-man dome that is quick and easy to pitch and enjoys plenty of storage space.
But when Wild Country introduced the Compact version for 2020, it went up a level or two. The shortened poles allow a much smaller pack size, measuring just 32cm by 21cm, so it’s ideal for when packing space is at a premium, say on a cycle camping trip.
Inside, there’s an impressive amount of headroom and floorspace, plus two decent sized porches for storing gear.
As you would expect from Wild Country – the same people behind Terra Nova lightweight tents – the materials and manufacturing are of an exceptionally high standard.
Putting the Helm up is straightforward, with the flysheet and inner pitching together. The alloy poles slide into sleeves to create a dome shape. And as it’s freestanding you can shift the tent easily to get it into exactly the right position, before pegging it down and guying out.
The dome style tends to provides more stability than a tunnel design, which is obviously good for camping in autumn and early winter – or any time when there could be high winds.
The mesh panels on both inner doors, combined with the external corner vents, provide plenty of ventilation in warm weather. And the space between the two outer doors and the inner tent gives you a great deal of gear storage space, as well as a sheltered spot for cooking.
The Helm Compact is easy to pack away, too, with a side opening tarp-style tent bag – simply roll the tent into the bag and pull tight.
Pitching time 5 minutes
Size 225cm x 190cm
Packed size 32cm x 21cm
MATERIALS Outer Stormex P4000, hydrostatic head 4,000mm Groundsheet Aqua Stop P5000, hydrostatic head 7,000mm Poles 8.5mm Superflex alloy Pegs 10 alloy V angle
SIERRA DESIGNS METEOR 3000
Expect to pay £250
Despite their outstanding design and obvious quality, American tents tend not to be as popular on this side of the Atlantic as they are at home. And one of the main reasons is that the needs of campers in Europe – and specifically the UK – are poles apart (excuse the pun). That’s thanks in large part to the differing weather conditions.
In a hot, dry Californian summer, an inner tent made primarily of mesh would make perfect sense for keeping cool. In the north of Scotland it would be guaranteeing you nights of shivering.
So you can understand why US outdoor specialist Sierra Designs decided to make an updated version of the popular Meteor tent range specifically created for the vagaries of the northern European climate.
That means enhanced waterproofing with an increased hydrostatic head rating on the flysheet and added wind protection, with the introduction of 15D nylon walls on the inner, instead of mesh. It’s all designed to make it more robust and better suited to camping in rougher conditions.
Another Europe-specific design feature is the green ‘earth-tone’ flysheet, chosen to blend in with the countryside for wild camping.
The tent is also free from PFCs and instead uses specifically-developed durable water repellent coating that is much kinder to the planet. Sierra Designs says the fabrics used through the Meteor 3000 now come from recycled sources as well.
With its semi-geodesic style, pitching the tent is a straightforward affair, with the inner tent clipping onto the frame and then the flysheet going over the top. Like all inner-first tents, pitching in the rain is not ideal so you need to get that flysheet attached as quickly as possible.
Two spacious vestibules provide plenty of space for gear storage and inside there are mesh pockets for keeping smaller items like phones, wallets and keys organised. Another nice feature is the fact that the flysheet can be rolled back for added ventilation in warmer weather.
We were really impressed by the amount of internal space – it’s wide enough for two campers to share the space and having doors on both sides makes access easier. The inner tent’s steep walls means there is plenty of room to sit up inside.
Overall this is an excellent and reliable lightweight tent that won’t cost the earth – in either sense.
Pitching time 8 minutes
Size 213cm x 130cm
Packed size 45.7cm x 16.5cm
MATERIALS Outer 68D poly taffeta, hydrostatic head 3,000mm Groundsheet 68D poly taffeta, hydrostatic head 3,000mm Poles DAC Pressfit Aluminum Pegs 10
ROBENS BOULDER 2
Expect to pay £154.99
The Boulder 2 is squarely aimed at backpackers on a budget. In fact, it’s part of a range called Route, developed to meet the demand for easy to use entry-level tents. Manufacturing quality is excellent. Ease of pitching and pricing aimed at budget campers make this a great choice for beginners, DoE participants or youth groups.
It comes out of its stuff sack with fly and inner separate, as it pitches inner first. In warm dry conditions, this may be all you need – protection from marauding insects, and a tinge of modesty if you’re on a site.
When the wind gets up, you have four guys, each with two attachment points, so offering good stability even for a basic dome. Robens do wind tunnel tests for all their tents – this one comes out unscathed up to 105 kph (65 mph). That’s actually a Force 10 storm! Needless to say you should always seek out a sheltered spot to pitch when you can.
Headroom inside is good – a metre at the highest point, which extends the full width of the inner, so two backpackers can sit up without feeling as though they have to compete for space.
Weight 2.4 kg
Pitching time 5 minutes
Size 260cm x 230cm Inner 210cm x 120cm (100cm)
Packed size 51cm x 14cm
Materials Outer HydroTex Core 75D polyester 185T, 3,000mm Inner 68D breathable polyester 190T Groundsheet 75D polyester Taffeta 185T, 6,000mm Poles Anodised alloy #6061, T6, 8.5 mm Pegs 10 square section alloy
Check out some of the very latest tents in The Essential Guide to 2021 Camping. This special edition guide has everything you need to know about getting kitted out for the new camping season. Buy it here now!
LIGHTWAVE S15 SIGMA
Expect to pay £649
Foolproof pitching, minimal pegging for the majority of situations, and better than average space make this tent a joy to use. It’s not cheap, of course, but worth it when you combine space for weight with the sturdy design.
Lightwave’s single-skin S15 Sigma pitches all in one, because one is all there is! It has a single side entry and porch, which provides plenty of space for your kit – it’s bigger than porches I’ve seen on some two-berth tents!
The liveability factor is good – it’s spacious for a solo tent, with steep walls and that cross pole adding up to lots of headroom.
The fabric is black, so it’s rather darker than your average two-skin tent, and the patterned underside has a soft and warm feel to the touch. This is Lightwave’s own fabric called X-tex. It’s highly breathable, and deals with moisture even when it condenses.
Weight 1.36 kg (S20 1.75 kg)
Pitching time 5 minutes
Size 230cm x 95cm, porch max width 70cm (100cm)
Packed size 45cm x 15cm
Materials Outer 75gm 20D ripstop Nylon, X-tex lamination, 20,000mm; porch wall 51gm 30D 6.6 ripstop Nylon, silicon-coated both sides, 5,000mm Inner 25gm 20D 6.6 ripstop Nylon, DWR treated, mesh window Groundsheet 75gm 50D PU Nylon taffeta, 5,000mm Poles DAC 9.35mm Featherlite alloy Pegs 8 Lightning pegs, 11gms each, square section alloy; 4 Flash pegs, 7gms each, rectangular section alloy
MSR ZOIC 2
Expect to pay £345.00
The Zoic is a range of solo, two and three-berth lightweight tents from American outdoors company MSR. It’s designed to keep you cool in warmer weather camping, and after last summer, that’s probably not a bad starting point.
The design of this easy to pitch tent is best suited to three season use on low-level or sheltered sites, but with the longer lasting PU coating and MSR quality build, you have a lightweight for beginners or trail campers which will offer years of trusty service.
The inner tent is entirely mesh above the generous tub walls in the groundsheet, ideal for hot balmy summer nights when all you want to do is keep the insects at bay while you count stars.
With a full-length porch on each side of the inner, you have plenty of space for kit storage without impinging on accessibility, and once you’ve unzipped the inner door panel and secured it with loop and toggle fastening, inside is roomy, too.
Weight 1.97 kg
Pitching time 5 minutes
Size 223cm x 289cm Inner 223cm x 137cm (100cm)
Packed size 47cm x 12cm
Materials Outer 40D ripstop Nylon Xtreme Shield PU/silicone, 1500mm Inner 15D Nylon micromesh Groundsheet 70D taffeta Nylon Xtreme Shield PU/DWR, 3000mm Poles 7000 series aluminium Pegs 8 anodised alloy
TERRA NOVA LASER PULSE 1
Expect to pay £600
This has to be one of the lightest and smallest pack size double-wall tents we’ve reviewed. Packed in its stuff sack, the Laser Pulse 1 is about the size of a one litre water bottle, and tips the scales at just over half a kilo.
It’s aimed at fast movers with limited pack size, such as mountain marathon runners, but its qualities will definitely appeal to backpackers going for light weight and small pack size throughout their gear. Even using the most advanced lightweight materials, it’s inevitable that a tent that more or less fits into your pocket demands a few compromises.
The pitched size may or may not be an issue depending on the size of the user, but certainly it’s best suited to sheltered pitches. It’s a single hoop tunnel with a short upright at the tail, and while its default pitching mode is all in one, it’s possible to pitch the inner on its own, or indeed the fly on its own.
The tent is a three season model best suited to sheltered pitches, but you could certainly extend its range somewhat with a small handful of alternative pegs for better grip in the ground. The porch runs the side of the tent, and while the storage space beyond the doorway at the head of the tent isn’t huge, in the context of the other lightweight gear you’d be using, it’s adequate.
With a maximum head height of 82 cms, you’ll probably find it most comfortable sitting in the doorway with your head outside, but for what is essentially a luxury bivvy tent, the space inside for one isn’t that bad.
Weight 0.545 kg
Pitching time 5 minutes
Size 234 cm x 115cm Inner 220cm x 81cm (82cm)
Packed size 30cm x 10cm
Materials Outer Watershed 7D Si, 1,700mm Inner ripstop Nylon plus mesh Groundsheet ripstop Watershed Si2, 3,000mm Poles DAC 8.7mm alloy Pegs 8 titanium
VAUDE LOW CHAPEL L 1-2P
Expect to pay £440
The Chapel design has been around for a few years – and this one from Vaude is much more suited to backpackers and cycle campers. If you like lots of space, both horizontally and vertically, this is the tent for you.
The tent pitches all in one, and the poles are external. The inner doors unzip back to over half the length of the inner, secured with drawcord loop and toggle fastenings. The top third of each door is mesh, and each end of the inner also has a mesh panel.
There’s a generously sized mesh storage pocket in opposing corners of the inner, and if that isn’t enough, they’ve craftily turned the fire safety information panel – in most tents usually attached along its top edge – into a pocket as well.
We rather liked the credit printed on the flysheet: “architecture by Jake Lah.” This is a nod to the founder and boss of Korean company DAC, and a reminder that without poles, a tent is just a pile of loose fabric.
Weight 2.5 kg
Pitching time 5 minutes
Size 255cm x 225cm Inner 225cm x 110cm (105cm)
Packed size 55cm x 20cm
Materials Outer 30D silicone/PU ripstop polyester, 3,000mm Inner 30D ripstop polyester Groundsheet 70D PU polyamide, 7,000mm Poles DAC Pressfit Al 7001 alloy 11.1/9.5 mm Pegs 10 Y section alloy
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