2015 Tent Buyer’s Guide: Basecamp, Trail And Fast-Packing

April 08, 2015

  • by
  • Peter Reese

Tents don’t simply offer a place to wait out storms. They’re a nomadic home base, a shelter from which you can connect with both other adventurers and the natural world. 

Unless you live out of your tent more often than not, buying a tent is a seven- to ten-year proposition.  That said, three meaningful improvements in the past 36 months warrant evaluation of every outdoor lover’s shelter.

Upgrade #1:  Faster Pitching Frame Systems cut set-up time to less than 15 minutes, even for previously cumbersome basecamp models. Reliable assembly means convenience after dark or in sketchy weather.

Upgrade #2:  Increased Personal Space gives multi-person tents a greater sense of comfort along with tangible improvements in protected gear storage. This leads to better experiences during extended in-tent periods.

Upgrade #3:  Integrated L.E.D. Lighting increases a shelter’s perceived space while providing illumination conducive to most in-tent activities. More ambient light equals improved camper attitudes as well as an enhanced ability to plan routes, repair equipment and repack.

Analyzing Tent Specs:

Tent specs include weight, floor space, peak height and suggested number of sleepers. Active Junky recommends a quick process to double-check tent models against your expectations as follows.

With blue, removable painter’s tape, mark out the tent’s dimensions on the floor.  Grab sleeping pads and bags and arrange them inside the tape. Toss in extra clothes, water bottles and electronics for a quick reality check. Use trekking poles to estimate heights.

Keep in mind; tents vary based on the targeted activity.  High alpine models tend to run larger if they’re targeted toward base or high-camp applications.  Fast-and-light summiting tents run tight in order to slash weight while sharing occupant’s body heat.

Car or rafting models consider larger sleeping pads (even folding cots) as acceptable; some accommodate children and pets as well.  Ceiling heights are stratospheric as campers enter and exit frequently versus holing-up simply to sleep.

The twelve selections below turn a plethora of eye-glazing choices into clearer paths to long-term satisfaction.

Five Key Attributes to Consider:

Comfort: is more about livability and maintaining personal space than pushing multiple nights on the trail.

Convenience: makes for easy assembly across a variety of campsite conditions from sandy soil to rocky outcrops.

Protection: emphasizes the ability to repel harsh weather from sun to wind to precipitation while maintaining breathability and minimizing condensation.

Durability: keeps performance coming with marginal maintenance.  Some models rely upon a ground cloth (“footprint”) to manage abrasion over months and years.

Value: is both absolute and relative.  From state park campgrounds to high camp on K2, value is important here at Active Junky and includes the brand’s repair and warranty reputation.

Note:  Each tent model possesses the five attributes to varying degrees, with one selected as distinctive to every shelter system.

Big Agnes Rattlesnake 2 mtnGLO:  Carry Your Constellations

Rattlesnakesl2mtnglo tent zm Big Agnes Rattlesnake 2 mtnGLO Starting at: $321.96

One of the values embedded in any Big Agnes product? Innovation. Active Junky’s been consistently impressed by the portable and practical ideas generated by the Steamboat, Colorado-based crew.  Rattlesnake’s a good example, as newfangled L.E.D. lighting technology achieves reliability inside this 2-person, 3-season tent. Deploying even, arched lighting to see and do, a constellation of high-efficiency lumens turns night into productive time (without blasting your tent mates with high-powered headlamp beams).  Evaluators gave the model’s design, zipper operation and venting superior marks; these high ratings were consistent with past, positive experiences with BA.  This REI-exclusive’s 50% brightness level extends AAA battery life as campers relish dual doors and vestibules; the USB connection loves charging bricks and solar cells, too.

Key Attribute:  Convenience

Best For: True multi-season performance across varied weather

Stationary Base Camp Tents

Nemo Wagontop 4:  Stake Your Claim

Nemo wagontop 4 Nemo Wagontop 4 $444.96 - $479.96

Four people.  Three Seasons.  Nearly 20lbs but with a Quonset hut-like design that suits taller travelers under a 78” peak height.  The opposite of claustrophobic, it’s easy to get lost in 69sq ft. plus another 27 in the vestibule.  Nemo translates experience in extreme expedition environments into durable, outrageous comfort that assembles from two hubbed poles (without a separate rainfly). Active Junky approves of the freestanding design along with stay-cool colors that fit desert or woodland campsites.  Pitch Wagontop to survey a world of possibilities outside your tent door – and inside the four walls.

Key Attribute: Convenience

Best For: Winning over reluctant campers, touring state and national parks

Mountainsmith Conifer 5:  Starting Every Adventure Strong

Mountainsmith conifer1 Mountainsmith Conifer 5

Family, friends and four-pawed companions pile into a USFS camp site-compatible tent from Mountainsmith.  Three decades of solid value pop up in this freestanding dome-style, fly-equipped model. Active Junky’s been surprised by the quality and features of the previously reviewed Morrison 2 and Mountain Shelter tents; Conifer stays the course and adds a removable gear loft and easy-stuffing pockets to tame in-tent mayhem. Unfold favorite chairs in the front porch vestibule to tune into a dazzling campfire ahead or the hypnotic Aurora Borealis above.

Key Attribute:  Durability

Best For: Getting out easy and often, with or without children

Coleman Tenaya Lake Fast-Pitch 6:  A New Tradition, Standing Tall

Coleman tenaya lake 1 Coleman Tenaya Lake Fast-Pitch 6 $277.20 - $299.99

This brand’s lit the way in the outdoors with iconic lanterns and stoves.  Backed by a reputation for durability and value, Tenaya is a great second tent for backcountry enthusiasts ready to relax in more civilized settings – or launch toward daily climbing, paddling or mountain biking objectives. Built-in cabinets improve gear storage to reduce clutter between multiple campers.  Active Junky favors the reflective guy lines and quicker-pitching design requiring only a pair of competent assemblers rigging the steel and pre-connected fiberglass poles. More a seasonal tent than one for extreme weather, Tenaya Lake’s profile works best when located on a more sheltered site. 

Key Attribute: Value

Best For: Knocking down the barriers to camping, saving money for other essentials

Eureka! Copper Canyon 8:  Holding Nothing Back

Eureka copper creek2 Eureka! Copper Canyon 8 $359.91 - $367.04

Why rent when you can own (a cabin, that is)?  Spreading out to 10’ x 13’, the eight-person Copper Canyon version means no necessity gets left out (in the car, snow, rain, dust, etc.).  While over 34lbs, CC is worth the lug if only for the zippered Power Port to bring an electrical cord inside the tent.  Active Junky values the protective bathtub floor when rain hits; a removable divider curtain jumps in should the need for privacy strikes.  Though not as fast to assemble as others recommended, Copper Canyon will remain relevant for ten years or more.  If there’s room to pitch it, you’re set for days of exploration and campfire memories.

Key Attribute:  Comfort

Best For: Reunions, exploring nearby vistas and manmade attractions

Trail Tents

Bergans Of Norway Rondane 3:  Expedition-Inspired Design

6027 rondane 3pers tent green Bergans Of Norway Rondane 3

Tunnel tents are venerated among hard-core alpine and polar explorers.  Wind resistance and space efficiency score high; Rondane 3 continues that tradition. Seven pounds sounds heavy for three until four-season utility steps in.  Siliconized nylon shores up the walls as inside vestibule space proves ideal for guarding, storing and sorting gear.  Twin end ventilation openings air it out when better weather prevails.  Pile on the protection with snow flap anchors to defy blizzard conditions.  Learning to live in Rondane takes some practice given the stretched-out floor plan.  Be ready to claim “Gear Genius” status when fall storms freeze others in their tracks.

Key Attribute:  Protection

Best For: Pursuing remote, self-supported mountain, snow and glacier objectives

The North Face Talus 3:  Take Miles in Stride

Tnf talus 3 The North Face Talus 3 $165.56 - $236.55

Talus 3 pulls in a ground tarp and gear loft for a total, no-worries package.  The tent’s rectangular footprint easily slid in between rocks, stumps and brambles, minimizing impact and opening up more site options.  Taller hikers did well in Talus, never scrambling to find room to sit, move or exit.  Ventilation rates high, as does the sense of connection with surroundings.  Testers put this model in the “free to roam” category where sensible features and solid build equal outdoor access.  Count this among the easiest outdoor investments you’ll ever make.  With The North Face behind it, go boldly into a vast and varied world.

Key Attribute:  Value

Best For: All-around adventure for two to three hikers

Mountain Hardwear Optic 6:  All-In Shelter

Mh optic 6 Mountain Hardwear Optic 6 Starting at: $375.06

This one spurred a divergence of opinion. Better as a basecamp or a trail-ready shelter?  For groups of four of five going long, Optic 6 should be in their sights.  While rated for up to six people, leaving one slot open improves the ability to remain comfortably ensconced during weather delays.  Gear storage is abundant as the dual vestibule design makes for a mudroom to isolate soggy or dirty items.  Two will pitch it fast; three make short work of important tarp and guy line steps.  Mountain Hardwear offers sold-separately accessories to elevate Optic’s adaptability to the team’s objectives. 

Key Attribute:  Comfort

Best For: Group outings including packing and multi-sport agendas

Fast-Packing Tents

MSR Hubba Hubba NX:  Wonders Never Cease

Msr hubba hubba6 MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2 $355.96 - $383.96

Walk to the wildest side with the next generation of an Active Junky favorite.  Two people stay protected and rested with plenty of room, features and ventilation.  Nature’s wonders are within reach at a minimum weight of 3lbs 7oz; rainfly, poles and optional footprint total 2lbs 2oz in the Fast & Light mode.  NX requires only minutes to pitch and tune, creating a wind-fighting shape ready for sea breezes and Pac Northwest squalls.  It packs down to a solid 6” x 18” with a passable 39” peak height.  Among the Fast-Packing Tents featured here, MSR’s offering is among the most livable for extended periods.

Key Attribute:  Convenience

Best For: Three-season hiking, pedaling and paddling

Black Diamond First Light:  Dawn Above the Treeline

Bd firstlight1 Black Diamond First Light Starting at: $340.36

At first glance, single-wall tents such as FirstLight appear as throwbacks to early scouting tents.  Unlike those primitive heavy canvas or nylon relics, FirstLight’s NanoShield wall fabric and 2000mm floor take sleet storms and snowdrifts in stride with mesh vent panels to minimize interior condensation.  Active Junky trusts BDE to strike the floor space-to-ridge height balance; there’s enough room to sit to prep meals, sort gear racks and check weather reports by sat phone.  Created for climbers, it packs to 6” x 9” at under 3.5lbs to suit bike packing enthusiasts, touring paddlers and four-season trekkers alike.  Mountain weather is no longer the crux with this double-sewn, enlightened design.

Key Attribute:  Protection

Best For: Hard-core pursuits when dicey weather must be anticipated

Sierra Designs Tensegrity 2 FL:  Bring Your Poles, Raise the Flag

Sd tentsegrity2 Sierra Designs Tensegrity 2 FL Starting at: $350.96

For those ready to trade pop-and-go convenience for lightweight adaptability, grab your trekking or ski poles and make camp.  Ingenuity, practice and careful handling make all the difference as Active Junky anticipated pitching options for this non-free standing, two-person design.  Side doors and end canopy combine ripstop nylon and ultralight (zipper-fragile) no-see-um mesh for protected views along with outside gear storage.  When the weather’s holding, clear the canopy and test yourself on seasonal planet appearances.  Trail weight lands at 2lb 10oz as max interior height hits 41in to sit and stretch. Three-season Tensegrity rewards seam sealing prep and cooperation among hikers as pitching – and tightening – is a team effort.  Note:  Active Junky evaluated the Elite model ahead of the 2 FL’s availability.

Key Attribute: Comfort

Best For: Aspiring and experienced backcountry travelers with cooperative peers

MSR Flylite:  Leaving Grams Behind

Flylite 2 tent b8b MSR Flylite 2

Toothbrush handle trimmed; check.  Stove fuel dialed; check.  Featherweight shelter complete with MSR’s attention to detail; double check.  Flylite’s scant twenty-five ounces yield huge potential for minimalist success. The tent surprisingly stretches out to 29sq ft. of floor space, though taller travelers need to tune their sleeping arrangement to the trekking pole-supported, open front design (a small minipole is included for rear structure).  Durashield fabric coating protects your investment while an optional footprint works well in less Spartan campground settings (when weight is not mission-critical).  With less fabric to go around, determining wind direction before pitching is important in optimizing weather protection.

Key Attribute:  Value

Best For: Experienced hikers aiming for miles or lots of vertical 

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