Backpacking tents fall into two categories: freestanding and non-freestanding. The ideal tent design for your trip depends on the climate, the type of ground you’re camping on, how often you plan to use it, personal preference, and more. This guide outlines the pros and cons of freestanding vs non-freestanding tents to help you decide which is best for your style of camping.
What is a Freestanding Tent?
Freestanding tents hold their shape without needing to be staked out or tied to anything for support. They can be picked up and moved around without collapsing on themselves. Freestanding tents get their structure from the included tent pole(s).
The ends of the poles attach to the corners of the tent. The poles bend up from the ends and form an “X” or “Y” shape in the center of the tent. The tent inner clips to the raised poles to give the tent its form. Some tents use fabric tubes that you slide the poles through before attaching them to the corners.
After the poles are secured, the tent can be staked to the ground to prevent it from flying away in the wind. The stakes also maximize floor space and improve protection from the wind and rain by keeping everything taught. The stakes don’t provide support.
Generally, freestanding tents are double-wall. This means they have a separate rainfly that attaches over the tent inner. Some models are single wall, meaning the tent is one piece made of a single layer.
What is a Non-Freestanding Tent?
Non-freestanding tents need to be staked out in order to maintain their shape. This means they cannot be picked up and moved around after they are pitched. Without the stakes, the tent will collapse. Non-freestanding tents get their structure from stakes, tensioned guy lines, and a pole.
When pitching a non-freestanding tent, you first, stake it by pushing or pounding stakes into the ground. Guy lines, which are attached to the tent, attach to the stakes. You then raise the tent up by wedging a straight pole vertically between the ground and a pocket in the tent’s ceiling. Oftentimes trekking poles are used. The tension on the guy lines holds the pole up to give the tent its structure. If the ground is too hard to pound stakes, you may be able to attach guy lines to nearby trees instead.
Most non-freestanding tents are single-wall. This means the tent is a single piece. There is no separate rainfly. Some models are double-wall.
Freestanding Tent Pros
- Freestanding tents give you more campsite options than non-freestanding tents- You don’t need soft ground to pound stakes into or trees to attach guy lines to. A freestanding tent can be pitched on a wooden tent platform, deck, concrete parking lot, inside a backwoods shelter, or on a solid rock surface. This gives you more potential campsites to choose from.
- You can move a freestanding tent while it’s pitched- Freestanding tents don’t need to be staked out to stay pitched. If, after pitching your tent, you feel a rock or root in the middle of your back, you can simply pick the tent up and move it to a better, flatter spot. You don’t have to tear it down and start over. This helps you get a better night of sleep.
- Freestanding tents set up faster- With a freestanding tent, you don’t have to spend as much time selecting a campsite or thinking about where your guy lines or stakes will go. The tent pitches exactly the same every time. You don’t have to strategize or plan in order to get a good pitch. You can also use fewer stakes because they aren’t required to keep the tent pitched. This allows you to set up camp faster.
- Easier to clean- You can simply pick up your freestanding tent while it’s pitched and shake it out. This is the easiest way to remove sand, dirt, bugs, and any other debris that accumulated inside while you were camping.
- Freestanding tents are sturdier- Generally, freestanding tents are a bit more structurally stable than non-freestanding tents. The poles give the tent a bit more support. You’re not completely reliant on stakes staying in the ground like you are with non-freestanding tents. If a couple of stakes pop out in the night, the tent won’t collapse. Freestanding tents are also able to handle a heavier snow load without collapsing.
- Freestanding tents offer better ventilation, which reduces condensation- Most freestanding tents are double-wall tents. The inner is mostly made of mesh. This allows condensation to escape and evaporate away. A waterproof outer keeps the rain out. Most non-freestanding tents are single-wall. They are made of materials that are designed to be waterproof and breathable at the same time. These materials don’t vent as well as non-waterproof breathable materials like mesh. Moisture gets trapped inside. In some conditions, the condensation can get so bad that your sleeping bag can get wet. Of course, the ventilation depends on the tent design. There are non-freestanding double-wall tents with excellent ventilation.
- You can pitch the rainfly before the tent inner- This way, your tent inner stays dry while you pitch your tent in the rain. In order to do this, you’ll need the footprint that was designed for your specific tent model. Not every freestanding tent offers this option but many do these days.
- You don’t need trekking poles- Freestanding tents include their own tent poles. You don’t need trekking poles to pitch them. This makes freestanding tents a better choice for those who don’t like to use trekking poles or have no reason to carry them.
- Some freestanding tent designs perform better in the wind and rain- This point depends on your tent’s design. The poles can make the tent stronger. This allows the tent to stand up to heavier winds. Also, if the wind causes a stake to pull out of the ground, the tent won’t collapse on you. Freestanding tents are also generally double wall. This design tends to perform better in wet weather because there is a second layer of material to protect you from the elements.
- Freestanding tents are more spacious- Generally, freestanding tents have higher ceilings. This gives them a more roomy feel inside, even if the floor space is the same. A higher ceiling also allows you to more easily sit up and move around. This makes changing your clothes and packing and organizing gear much easier. If you have to spend a day in your tent due to bad weather, it’s much more pleasant if you can sit up and move around a bit. Freestanding tents are also available in larger sizes. If you want to camp with your extended family, you can buy freestanding tents that can accommodate up to 20 people.
- No learning curve- Pretty much every camper knows how to pitch a freestanding tent. They all pitch about the same. There are no new skills to learn.
Freestanding Tent Cons
- Heavier- Freestanding tents have poles which add weight. They also usually have two walls. This requires more material which adds more weight. On average, an ultralight one person freestanding tent weighs about 2-2.5 pounds (around 900-1100 grams). A non-freestanding ultralight single person backpacking tent weighs in at around 1.5-2 pounds (around 680-900 grams). You’ll save about .5-1 pound by switching from a freestanding tent to a non-freestanding tent.
- Bulkier- Freestanding tents have long poles that can only collapse so far. Usually around 18-22 inches (around 45-55 cm). This is the minimum length of your packed tent. Freestanding tents are also usually double wall. This adds material which adds bulk. When rolled up, the tent might measure 4-7 inches (10-18 cm) in diameter. A freestanding tent takes up an extra liter or two of space in your pack than a non-freestanding tent. This isn’t really a problem on the trail because you can just attach your bulky tent to the outside of your pack. It is a problem if have to fly to your camping destination. Airline baggage allowances are pretty limited these days.
- Freestanding tents often perform worse in windy conditions- Due to the tall design of some freestanding tents, they tend to act like a sail in the wind. If your tent isn’t properly staked down, it could blow away. You need to make sure that your tent is securely attached to the ground. On particularly windy nights, your tent could tear if it gets blown around too much. Generally, non-freestanding tents have a more low profile design that directs the wind over the tent. This allows you to camp in windier conditions more comfortably.
- You still need to stake out freestanding tents- You aren’t getting away from the hassle of staking out your tent and adjusting guy lines by choosing a freestanding model. Even though freestanding tents can stand on their own, you still need to stake them out in most cases. If your tent isn’t staked out, it can blow away in a light wind, even if your gear is inside. Most freestanding tent rainflys need to be staked out to keep the rain out and allow the tent to vent properly. The stakes also help to maximize floor space. The only time you don’t need to stake your freestanding tent is if you’re camping in a sheltered area that will protect you from wind and rain.
- More fragile- The weak spot of freestanding tents is the poles. Aluminum or fiberglass tent poles are designed to be as light as possible. The material is thin and the poles must be flexible. If you bend them too far or hard, they can crack or bend. Non-freestanding tents use trekking poles to pitch. These are much more robust.
- If a pole breaks, it can be difficult and expensive to get a replacement- Freestanding tents require poles to pitch. These poles are designed by the manufacturer to be the perfect length and shape for your specific tent. They are proprietary. If a pole breaks or bends, you’ll have to find a replacement. This usually means ordering a new one from the tent manufacture. You can’t just go to an outdoors shop and buy a new one, in most cases. If you’re camping in a remote area or in the developing world, you might not be able to find the replacement pole that you need. These poles are also expensive. Non-freestanding tents usually just need a trekking pole or generic adjustable tent pole to pitch. You can even use a stick if nothing else is available.
Non-Freestanding Tent Pros
- Lighter- The main reason to choose a non-freestanding tent is the weight savings. Modern ultralight non-freestanding tents can weigh as little as 1 lb 4oz (about 570 grams). Ultralight freestanding tents weigh around 2 lb 6 oz (about 1077 grams). The non-freestanding tent weighs over 1 pound less. An extra pound is nothing if you’re car camping or bicycle touring. If you’re a hiker carrying all of the weight of your gear on your back, it can be significant. Of course, when comparing the weights, you’ll also have to consider the weight of a trekking pole that you’ll need if you’re using a non-freestanding tent.
- More compact- Because most non-freestanding tents are single wall, they have much less material. They also don’t have any poles. For these reasons, they pack down much smaller. You can even compress some models in a stuff sack. I would estimate that you’ll save 1-2 liters of space in your pack by choosing a non-freestanding tent. A packed non-freestanding tent can also be much shorter because there aren’t any long poles to pack. This can make packing a bit easier in some cases.
- Easier to find replacement poles- Non-freestanding tents don’t require a specific tent pole. If you lose or break your tent poles, you can find replacements at almost any sporting goods store. Even in small towns or in the developing world. Any trekking poles or generic adjustable tent poles will work just fine. Worst case, you can make your own poles out of wood, a broomstick, or anything shaped like a pole. For this reason, non-freestanding tents are the better choice if you’re traveling with a tent. No matter where you are, you can get a new pole.
- You can pitch your non-freestanding tent without a pole- There are a number of ways to achieve this. The easiest is to find a couple of sticks, break them off at the correct length, and use them as poles. Some non-freestanding tents have loops on the top that allow you to tie guy lines to nearby trees to hold the roof up. Another option is to tie a ridgeline between two trees and attach the roof of your tent to the top. If you’re resourceful, there is almost always a way to pitch a non-freestanding tent without poles.
- Better performance in the wind- Non-freestanding tents tend to have a lower roof than freestanding tents. This low profile allows the wind to blow over the tent more easily. This allows the tent to withstand heavier wind gusts without collapsing, tearing, or blowing away.
- The poles have multiple uses- Most non-freestanding tent users use their trekking poles as tent poles. By choosing multi-use gear, you can cut a significant amount of weight and bulk from your pack. You’ll save about a pound by using your trekking poles as tent poles.
Non-Freestanding Tent Cons
- Non-freestanding tents are less versatile- You can’t pitch a non-freestanding tent in as many places as a freestanding tent. The tent needs to be attached to the ground or it will collapse. This means you need soft ground that you can pound stakes into. You can’t pitch your tent on an asphalt parking lot, tent platform, on rock surface, or indoors in many cases. Having said this, there are ways to pitch a non-freestanding tent on a solid surface. For example, you can anchor the guy lines to the ground using rocks. You can often get a decent pitch this way.
There is a learning curve to pitching non-freestanding tents- hey take a bit of skill to pitch in some locations. For example, you may need to learn a couple of knots to help you properly tie and tension your guy lines. A few good ones to know are the trucker’s hitch, McCarthy hitch, and bowline. You also need to learn how to use rocks to secure your lines if the ground isn’t stake friendly. If your tent uses trekking poles, you’ll need to adjust them to the correct height for the conditions. Every pitch is slightly different. Sometimes it takes a bit of planning, problem-solving, and trial and error to get the perfect pitch.
- If the stakes pop out, your non-freestanding tent can collapse- On some types of ground, stakes just don’t hold well. This is often the case when the ground is very dry or sandy. If a couple of stakes come loose in the night, your tent can fall down. This isn’t the case with freestanding tents. Even if all of the stakes come loose, the tent still stands.
- Condensation is a bigger problem in some non-freestanding tents- Most non-freestanding tents are single-wall. These tend to suffer from condensation issues. Moisture from your breath and the environment build up in the tent. This can get so bad that the walls are wet and water drips from the ceiling. This happens because single wall tents don’t offer as much ventilation as double-wall tents due to the design and materials used. Breathable waterproof materials don’t let humidity escape as easily as the mesh that is used on most double-wall tents. Of course, this isn’t the case with all non-freestanding tents. There are double wall options available. For more info, check out my guide to reducing condensation.
Not much weight savings- Modern fabrics and tent poles are so light that you’re not really saving much weight by using a non-freestanding tent, even though they use less materials. Really, you’re only saving .5-1 pound (227-453 grams) max. This is pretty insignificant for most backpackers. The slight weight penalty of a freestanding tent can be worth it for some.
- Non-freestanding tents are less sturdy- Non-freestanding tents rely on the stakes to keep them standing. This makes them less structurally stable. They might not be able to handle as heavy of snow load or withstand as strong of winds as a freestanding tent.
- You have to stake them out- In order to use a non-freestanding tent, it must be attached to the ground. This involves pounding stakes or securing guy lines with rocks.
Hard to move if you chose a poor campsite- If, after laying down, you realize that you pitched your tent on top of a root or big rock, you’ll probably want to move it. This involves tearing the whole tent down and pitching it again in a different location. You can’t just pick it up and move it like you can with a freestanding tent.
- Non-freestanding tents offer less interior space and are harder to get in and out of- They usually have a lower ceiling. This makes the tent feel less roomy inside. You can’t as easily sit up and move around. With some models, the pole sits near the entrance or even in the center of the tent. This takes up valuable space and can make it harder to move around in the tent. You also have to be careful not to knock the pole lose or the tent could collapse on you.
- You can’t pitch the rainfly first- Most non-freestanding tents don’t offer this option due to the design. When you’re pitching your tent in the rain, the inside will probably get a bit wet. Of course, if your tent is single-wall, it doesn’t matter because the rainfly and tent are one piece.
- Harder to clean- You can’t lift the tent up while it’s pitched to shake it out. This makes it a bit harder to remove debris that you tracked in.
- Takes more time to set up- Generally, it takes a few extra minutes to pitch a non-freestanding tent. It often takes more time to find a suitable campsite. You must also properly stake it out so it doesn’t fall down. You can’t just half-ass your staking like you can with a freestanding tent. Having said this, this point is debatable. Some hikers claim that non-freestanding tents pitch faster.
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Similarities Between Freestanding and Non-Freestanding Tents
- Price- Both freestanding and non-freestanding tents are available in a wide range of prices. Basic mass-produced models cost $30-$50. Ultralight options range from $200-$600. Poles are usually sold separately on non-freestanding tents so you’ll have to factor in that cost if you don’t already own trekking poles. One thing to remember is that more expensive tents aren’t necessarily more durable. At prices above $100 or so, you’re just paying for lighter weight materials like Dyneema and carbon fiber. In fact, cheap tents that are made from heavier, thicker materials are often more durable than ultralight models. If you’re car camping, you’ll be fine with a heavy budget tent. For backpacking or bicycle touring, ultralight tents are often worth the price premium.
- Vestibule space- Freestanding and non-freestanding tents are available with a wide range of vestibule sizes. Some don’t have a vestibule. Vestibule space often varies by brand. Some are more generous than others. On average, the vestibule for a one-person tent measures about 4-8 square feet. Two-person tents sometimes have vestibules up to 16 square feet.
A Third Option: Semi-Freestanding Tents
These days, a few manufacturers are making tents that are somewhere between freestanding and non-freestanding. These are often called semi-freestanding tents. This design is less common but seems to be growing in popularity.
Semi-Freestanding tents usually use a single pole that forms into a ‘Y’ or ‘T’ shape. This pole holds the tent inner upright when the tent is not staked down. In this sense, the tent is freestanding.
In order to maximize interior space and stabilize the pole in place, the tent must be staked out. The reason is that the pole really only holds the head end of the tent up. The foot end just kind of hangs from the pole without any form. In this sense, the tent is non-freestanding.
Some semi-freestanding tents require stakes to hold the pole up. Some designs only require stakes to hold the rainfly. There really is no standard design.
The goal of these semi-freestanding designs is to give you the best of both worlds. For example, the option to pitch without poles gives you the versatility of a freestanding tent. You can still move the tent around when it’s not staked. The minimalist pole design gives you some of the weight and space savings of a non-freestanding tent.
One thing to remember when shopping for tents is that the term semi-freestanding is used pretty inconsistently. A semi-freestanding tent from one manufacturer may pitch without stakes and a similar tent from another manufacture may require stakes.
Oftentimes, retailers consider semi-freestanding tents to be the same as freestanding, even though there is a distinct difference. Before you buy, make sure you really know what you’re getting.
Semi-freestanding is really more of a marketing term than anything else. All else being equal, most people would choose a freestanding tent over a non-freestanding tent. By calling a tent semi-freestanding, they may sell more.
Single Wall Vs Double Wall Tents
Another important consideration to make when choosing a tent is whether it uses single or double-wall construction. Both freestanding and non-freestanding tents are available in single wall and double wall designs. Generally speaking, most freestanding tents are double wall and most non-freestanding tents are single-wall.
Double-wall tents consist of two layers of fabric. A breathable mesh inner allows moisture to vent and evaporate away. This is the part that attaches to the poles. A separate outer rainfly attaches over the poles. This is the second wall. The rainfly protects you from precipitation. It must be staked away from the mesh inner to give you the best ventilation and protection from the elements. Double-wall tents are ideal for camping in hot and humid environments.
Single wall tents combine the inner and outer into a single piece. There is no separate rainfly. They are made of materials that are meant to be both breathable and waterproof at the same time. There are often vents or mesh sections that allow for additional ventilation. These tents are ideal for camping in cool and dry environments.
Double Wall Tent Pros
- Better ventilation- The tent inner is made almost entirely of mesh. This allows air to freely pass through so sweat and moisture can evaporate away.
- Less condensation- Stakes hold the rainfly away from the mesh inner. When moisture evaporates, it passes through the mesh and condenses on the rainfly. When the water is on the rainfly, it’s essentially outside of the tent. You and your gear won’t get wet when you rub against the tent walls.
- You’ll stay dryer- The separate rainfly provides more complete rain protection. The increased ventilation also helps you stay dry.
Double Wall Tent Cons
- More stakes required- Double-wall tents often require separate stakes for the inner and rainfly. Most require 6-8 stakes to properly pitch.
- Heavier- The second layer of material adds a considerable amount of weight. The extra stakes add weight as well.
- Takes longer to pitch- Attaching and staking out the rainfly is an additional step that isn’t required with single-wall tents.
Single Wall Tent Pros
- Lighter- Single-wall tents use less material because there is no separate rainfly. This saves a considerable amount of weight over a comparable double-wall tent.
- Faster to pitch- You don’t have to mess with pitching and staking out a rainfly. This saves you a few minutes every time you pitch and take down your tent.
- Fewer stakes required- Single-wall tents usually require 4-6 stakes to pitch.
Single Wall Tent Cons
- More condensation- Single-wall tents don’t allow moisture to leave the tent when it evaporates. It just condenses on the ceiling and walls. When your gear rubs against the wet inside wall, it becomes wet. Sometimes water drips from the ceiling if enough condenses.
- Less breathability- Single-wall tents use less mesh. This leaves less opportunity for fresh air to pass through. The inside can get humid and damp.
- The interior gets wet more easily- The single wall generally doesn’t offer as much protection from the rain. Condensation issues also add to the problem. You and your gear may not stay as dry.
A Few Tent Recommendations
REI Co-op Flash Ari 1 Tent- This ultralight non-freestanding single-wall tent from REI has a trail weight of just 1 lb 4 oz and packs down to 16 x 6 inches. You can pitch it with trekking poles or the included tent poles. One excellent feature is the side entry which makes the tent easy to get in and out of. A two-person version is also available.
River Country Products One Person Trekking Pole Tent- This affordable non-freestanding tent weighs just 2.5 pounds and includes 9 aluminum stakes. Poles are not included. For the price, this is one of the lightest tents available. This would be a great choice for an ultralight hiker on a budget. River County Products offers a great range of affordable trekking pole tents in different sizes and designs.
Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 1- I have used this semi-freestanding tent pretty extensively while bicycle touring and hiking over the past couple of years. This tent uses a single-pole to hold the tent up without any stakes. The pole holds the door end open but leaves the foot end pretty much unsupported. To take advantage of the full interior space of the tent, it must be staked.
I actually enjoy this design. The tent can stand on its own. This allows me to pick the tent up and move it around or use it unstaked if there is no wind. Weight-wise, the tent is incredibly light at just 2 lbs 1 oz. For more info, check out my full review of the tent here.
NEMO Dragonfly 1 Tent- This freestanding double-wall tent has a minimum trail weight of just 2 lbs and packs down to 19.5 x 4 inches. The single-pole design makes the tent fast and easy to pitch. One unique feature of this tent is the large door which makes it easy to enter and exit. The 39 inch peak height gives you plenty of room to sit up and move around.
Final Thoughts about Freestanding Vs Non-Freestanding Tents
Your shelter is one of your most important pieces of gear. After all, it’s what protects you from the rain and wind as well as insects and other critters. It’s important to choose a tent that will keep you dry and comfortable in a wide range of conditions.
The choice between freestanding and non-freestanding tents mostly comes down to weight. If you’re an ultralight hiker who is looking for the lightest possible tent, you’ll prefer a non-freestanding design. Particularly if you plan to carry trekking poles.
The ground you camp on is another important consideration. If you camp on rocky or sandy surfaces or wooden tent platforms, you may find it easier to use a freestanding tent because staking it out is less important. Whichever design you choose, I hope this guide helped to make the decision a bit easier.
Where do you stand on the freestanding vs non-freestanding tent debate? Share your experience in the comments below!
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