Backpackers, cyclists, kayakers and others who use lightweight backpacking tents are about as varied crowd as any you could find. Can you say Rugged Individualist? That’s a cross section with people who by definition resist definition. So consider some principles most people can probably come close to agreeing on.
Pick a backpacking tent to handle the worst conditions you may well face whenever you might use it. A good quality backpacking tent will last a long time with minimal care which means you may use it in many climates. Heavy rains like the Pacific Northwest? High winds like in the Rockies? Snow? The suggestions above? This is just about the most critical components of your purchasing decision for your backpacking tent. Most people don’t look far enough ahead and in addition they choose a tent that meets their immediate needs, but for the next trip they should start over. Unless you’re climbing Denali, you can probably find a tent that will be a real asset for most trips. It should tempt you to laugh at the elements and become like a trusted friend after a few trips-your refuge in the storm.
Obtain a tent with a bucket floor which means it’s waterproof on the bottom and water proof fabric extends a ways up the side. That is a non-negotiable feature i believe. The walls above the bucket floor need to breath. But you still want to put a ground cloth under your tent to keep it waterproof. Most tent walls are made of a fabric that will allow moisture to pass out of the tent so you won’t condense and form droplets inside the backpacking tent. The rain is kept out with a waterproof second layer called a “rain-fly” which sits a couple inches above the breathable layer. The exception to this is when the fabric of the breathable layer is also waterproof. Many of the newer high tech fabrics like Gore-tex let water vapor pass through, but keep rain out. These can come scarce, but they save weight.
Besides waterproofing, get a backpacking tent that is bug proof, snake proof and scorpion proof. Many a pleasant evening has been ruined by a cloud of flying biting insects. Many lightweight tents have “no-see-um” mesh to keep out the smallest insects. Because of this , I don’t recommend camping under tarps along but push for enclosed bug proof, lightweight camping tents.
Other things to consider are large mesh windows to allow good ventilation on stuffy or rainy nights. Another great benefit is stargazing while the skeeters learn the meaning of frustration. Think about where you will put your gear-minus your food-if the weather is inclement. If your pack must be sheltered, look for a tent with a gear canopy or you’ll need extra space inside.
Whenever you are travelling under “muscle-power” compactness and weight are key concerns. Every inch and every pound is something useful. A high quality ultralight backpacking tent is worth every ounce, but every ounce counts. Tent weights should engage in the description of the tent and must be evaluated carefully before you decide. By the end of a long day on the trail or the road, a few less pounds translate to less sweat and soreness.