What To Look For
Ultralight tents are the choice of backpackers who are concerned with how much weight they're hauling around.
Size: Before considering other characteristics, it's helpful to determine the number of people that will be sharing your tent. Beware that ultralight tents are known for cutting down interior space to save weight, so you may need to size up (three-man tent for two people). Most ultralight tents are solo, two-person, three-person or four-person. Since tents can be broken down into pieces and split up, it saves space and weight to use one tent for several people as opposed to individual tents. It's best to pitch before you buy to see just how much space the tent offers.
Weight: Obviously when it comes to anything "ultralight," weight is key. Expect a good ultralight two-person tent to weigh anywhere from 2 to 5 pounds packed. Packed weight is the weight of all the tent components. Be sure you know which weight you're looking at when making comparisons.
Season: Ultralight tents generally refer to three-season tents designed for use in spring, summer and fall. For winter use, look for a four-season tent, which is going to be significantly heavier and bulkier.
Ventilation: While single-wall tents cut weight, they may provide little ventilation and can be hot and muggy. Double-walled tents that use a separate rain fly and mesh walls or windows offer better air circulation and provide a cooler night of sleep.
Frame: Freestanding tents use aluminum or fiberglass poles to provide tent structure without necessitating staking the tent out with guy lines. Other tents cut weight by eliminating poles and requiring guy lines.
Other features: Consider basic features, including number of doors and windows, storage compartments and vestibule.
Other options: You can save even more weight with a bivy or shelter. However, these options don't provide the full coverage and comfort of a tent.
While weight is certainly one important consideration, it shouldn't be the only one. The lightest tents may very well be the least comfortable. Remember that it will be your primary shelter for days on end, so be sure that it is as comfortable on the ground as it is on your back.
Where To Buy
Shop in person so that you can pitch it in the store. You can also get a better feel for the packed weight and size. While you can view dimensions and specs on paper, it's always more beneficial to get hands-on. Any good camping or outdoor shop should have a good selection of backpacking tents, and should also allow you to pitch it before you buy it. If you prefer shopping online, Trails.com has a full selection of ultralight backpacking tents. Other major outdoor retailers include Backcountry, REI and Campmor.
Cost varies widely based on size, weight and design. Generally, expect to pay anywhere from $150 to $500 for a quality three-season ultralight tent. A few to consider are the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL series, MSR Hubba series and Black Diamond Superlight series.
One important accessory to consider buying is a tent footprint. This is basically a separate bottom for the tent that goes underneath and protects the actual tent bottom from damage. Footprints are a good idea for any tent, but are a particularly important purchase for ultralight tents given their thin, lightweight materials. Another item to consider is seam sealer. Many tents come factory-sealed, but if not, you'll want to purchase seam sealer and seal the seams for additional water protection.