What are the Easiest Tents to Set Up?

There's nothing worse than setting up your tent after a long day and finding it incredibly hard! To avoid that frustration, learn more about easy-to-handle tents here.

A tent stands in a grassy area with mountains in the background.

Photo by Brett K.

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In a time when gear technology is at an all-time high, and our options are seemingly limitless, it can feel impossible to find a good reliable tent, let alone one that suits your needs as an individual. And let’s face it—camping gear is personal. It’s as personal as your sleep number, or whether you like your peanut butter smooth or crunchy, or if you’re a folder or a buncher. Manufacturers are constantly making lighter and more nuanced versions of our beloved childhood forts. They all have their own designs (and design flaws), and everyone wants you to buy their product. So how does a backpacker choose the right tent for them? Is lighter always better? What do you mean there are tents without poles? What does double-walled mean? Relax. I’ve got you!

There are three main types of fully enclosed tents on the market today:

  • Freestanding
  • Non-freestanding
  • Semi-freestanding

Freestanding

Freestanding tents are by far the most straightforward and user-friendly option. Basically, freestanding means it comes with poles, and you can pitch it without using stakes or guy lines. The classic example of a freestanding tent is the iconic dome tent that you’ve probably seen a thousand times on the cover of Outside Magazine or in an REI brochure. They usually come with just two long poles that are configured in an “X” pattern and can be set up with virtually no staking. However, staking is always a good idea, of course, for optimal wind and rain protection and to create a vestibule for your gear.

This tried and true design has been utilized by backcountry gear manufacturers for decades, and for a good reason. They are incredibly versatile and can be pitched virtually anywhere you can plop your body. Once raised, they retain their integrity and can be moved around camp (if, for example, you have decided to opt for a different site) or picked up by the poles to shake out any debris from the inside before packing up. They’ve also got excellent livability and weather protection. Freestanding tents usually have steeper walls, more headroom, and a larger floor plan. Overall, they make for a more comfortable and roomier design.

A tent that has a dedicated pole structure and doesn’t rely on stakes is just a little sturdier and more reliable. Unlike non-freestanding tents, the whole shelter isn’t going to collapse in on you if a stake pulls loose. If I had to choose a shelter to wait out a storm in, I would much rather be in a freestanding tent than a non-freestanding one.

Of course, there are some disadvantages to freestanding tents as well. Tent poles are bulky and add one extra thing to pack. Freestanding tents almost always feature a double-wall design. A double-walled tent comes in two pieces—the main body with a mesh roof and walls and an exterior rain fly. While it does provide superior ventilation, a double wall means more fabric and thus more weight and a larger pack size. A typical freestanding backpacking tent weighs in at 2-4 pounds and packs down to about the size of a sack of delicious russet potatoes…mmm potatoes.

A woman stands outside a tent.

Photo by Kat Smith

Pros

  • Easy setup
  • Versatile
  • Sturdy
  • It can be pitched anywhere

Cons

  • Heavier than other tents
  • Must carry tent poles
  • Useless if a pole breaks

If you’re a first-time backpacker that wants something familiar and easy to work with, or if you prioritize versatility, look no further. Freestanding tents are for you. If you are thinking about shedding every ounce possible to dial in your ultralight kit, read on.

Non-Freestanding

Although not a new concept by any means, non-freestanding tents are currently trending in the backpacking world and are quickly becoming one of the most used styles of shelters in the backcountry, especially on long-distance trails such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.

If you’ve never heard of a non-freestanding tent, just picture an old, green, canvas military tent your grandpa might have used in the Boy Scouts. It’s basically just a piece of canvas propped up by two sticks and then secured to the ground with some guy lines and stakes. These days, instead of sticks, we’re using trekking poles, and instead of canvas, we have high-tech fabric that is as light as feathers and as strong as steel. Not to mention a tent floor, mesh, zippers, and all the stuff that makes a shelter nice and homey.

The big allure of non-freestanding tents is how lightweight and packable they are. Since your trekking poles are doubling as your tent’s support, there is no need to carry the extra weight of collapsible tent poles, which can break, rendering the tent useless. Trekking poles are less likely to break, and if they do, you can always improvise with an appropriately sized tree branch. Also, most non-freestanding tents have a single wall design (they have no mesh inner or detachable fly) and commonly utilize Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF)—a ridiculously lightweight and rugged state-of-the-art material. A DCF non-freestanding tent can weigh as little as 14 ounces! That’s about the weight of a soccer ball or a can of soda.

The downside to non-freestanding tents is that you MUST stake it out with stakes and guy lines in order to pitch the tent. At a minimum, you must stake out all four corners. Then, to make it sturdier and create more interior space, many tents have attachment points that can be used to pull the tent tighter. Generally, more staking equals a better pitch. Once your tent is set up, you can’t just easily pick it up and move it around if you find a better spot. The pitch can prove to be quite tricky in certain scenarios, and all of that staking requires a larger space than a freestanding tent. The high alpine tundra, for example, can be extremely rocky and nearly impossible to drive in a stake. In such cases, you may have to get a little creative and use your imagination.

A tent in some trees with mountains in the background.

Photo by Brett K.

Pros

  • Very lightweight
  • Quick setup with practice
  • No need for tent poles
  • Small pack size

Cons

  • It can be tricky to pitch
  • More vulnerable in bad weather
  • Requires more ground space

So who uses non-freestanding tents? They are for the ultralight thru-hiker and experienced backpacker. When planning a long trip, it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of ultralight gear, but a “trekking pole” tent can be challenging and hangs on your experience and aptitude for improvisation.

Semi-Freestanding

Probably the least common of the three styles is the semi-freestanding tent. As the name implies, semi-freestanding tents possess some of the benefits of the freestanding and non-freestanding designs. They can provide an excellent middle ground in balancing the versatility and sturdiness of freestanding tents with the low weight and small packability of a non-freestanding tent.

Semi-freestanding tents come with poles and require a few stakes to create a rigid frame and bring the floor plan to its full size. This often allows manufacturers to get away with a one-pole instead of a two-pole design, shedding some valuable ounces. They are lighter than freestanding tents but not as light as non-freestanding tents. They provide better weather protection than non-freestanding tents but not as much as (you guessed it) freestanding tents. You get the idea. Semi-freestanding tents are your extra-medium middle-ground option for folks who want to have their cake and eat it too.

A tent above a lake. There is a sunset in the background.

Photo by Amy B.

Get Out There!

We hope this information has provided you with a better understanding of tents and which style is right for you. The freestanding tent is still the most common amongst backpackers and car campers alike but experienced ultralight hikers looking to up their game will appreciate the weight and packability benefits of a non-freestanding tent. The semi-freestanding tent, although not as common, can be a viable compromise between the two.

If you would like further help choosing the perfect tent for you, please reach out to me or one of my fellow Camping & Hiking Experts here at Curated! Experts live for talking gear with fellow outdoor enthusiasts, and we would love to help you get out there and start adventuring!

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The wilderness is my home, my vacation spot, and my church. It's where I feel the most in tune and the most like myself. If I can help even a handful of people get out into nature and experience the blissful oneness that I've experienced out there, I'll feel fulfilled as a hiking and camping expert....

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