What To Look For
During your backpacking trips, your tent is your home, your protection against weather and biting insects and the place where you store your stuff so that it doesn't get rained on or chewed apart by marmots. Choosing the right backpacking tent means finding the best combination of weight, space, convenience and price.
Determine what kind of backpacking you like to do. Are you a minimalist, who likes to go light and fast at the expense of comfort? If so, you'll want the lightest tent possible that will fit you and your gear, such as a bivy sack or a floorless tent that uses only a trekking pole for support.
If you like to go light, but prefer a little more space, an ultralight tent will offer reduced weight and enough room to sleep two, but may have little room for spreading out your gear.
If you like to have some room to spread out and do mostly warm weather backpacking, then a simple lightweight three-season tent may be right for you. With enough room for two to three people, it will offer some "liveable" space inside where you can sit up and move around, as well as a little bit more room to store and organize gear.
Finally, if you prefer going "expedition style," or if you anticipate spending a great deal of time inside your tent, and if weight is not a concern, then go big. A deluxe, four-season tent will have enough square footage for you and all your gear and offer full protection from the worst of weather, even in winter.
When shopping for tents, try them out. Have the salesperson set a few up so that you see just what the square footage feels like from the inside.
When choosing a lightweight tent, don't sacrifice quality of the fabric and the geometric integrity of its construction for lower cost. Less expensive tents or super lightweight models may have thinner, non-ripstop fabric that might not hold up during the course of a longer backpacking trip. Also, you'll find that more expensive tents have more stable designs, which means they'll hold up better in a storm or in high winds.
Also check out the coverage of the rain fly. Some higher quality tents will have a full coverage vestibule where you can store your gear, although this added fabric adds more weight to the tent.
Where To Buy
You can buy tents at just about any store that sells camping and outdoor gear, although you'll generally find better selections and service at a local specialty outdoor shop or at one of the national chains like REI and Eastern Mountain Sports. Since tent shopping can be an involved process, it's probably best to buy them at a store and not online, unless you know exactly what you want.
Expect to pay between $200 and $400 for a good three-season backpacking tent at a specialty outdoor store. Sometimes you can find slightly more economic models at a general sporting goods stores, although they may not have the same selection or quality. With tents, you really do get what you pay for.
Gear loft: Essentially a small mesh shelf, a gear loft hangs from the ceiling of the tent and helps you organize your smaller gear.
Footprint: A tent footprint is a custom-shaped groundcloth that fits underneath your tent and helps protect your tent floor from tears and abrasion.