Buying a tent is a tricky business because there are so many different types of camping tents to choose from, each of which has its own unique advantages and disadvantages.
To make things easier for you as you shop for your next camping shelter, here’s our ultimate guide to the different types of tents.
We’ll walk you through the basics of tent types so that you can determine which kind is best for your needs.
Tent Types by Type of Camping
- Backpacking Tent
- Car Camping Tent
- Family Tent
- Mountaineering Tent
- Glamping Tent
- Tree Tent/Suspended Tent
- Hammock Tent
- Three-Season Tent
- Four-Season Tent
- Canvas Tent
Tent Types by Shape
- Ridge Tent (a.k.a. Frame Tent/Wedge Tent)
- Dome Tent
- Tunnel Tent
- Geodesic Tent
- Cabin Tent
- Pyramid Tent
- Bell Tent
Specialty Tent Types
- Cot Tent
- Bivy Bag (a.k.a. Bivy Sack)
- Ultralight Tents
- Pop-Up Tent
- Multi-Room Tent
- Beach Tent
- Roof-Top Tent
- Truck Bed Tent
Tent Types by Type of Camping
Perhaps the simplest way to characterize tents is by the type of camping for which they’re intended.
Here are some tent types you might encounter, based on your preferred style of camping:
Backpacking tents are designed for extended trips in remote environments. They are generally small and lightweight, and have a maximum sleeping capacity of between 1-5 people.
What sets backpacking tents apart from other tent types is their compactness. With this style of shelter, you get a highly packable tent that prioritizes portability over comfort.
Additionally, backpacking shelters must be able to withstand harsh alpine environments that get lots of wind and rain.
Therefore, they’re often made with ripstop nylon, extra-strong micromesh, and burly aluminum poles that offer a great strength-to-weight ratio.
Car Camping Tent
Car camping tents are crafted for outdoor adventures that take place close to the road.
This tent style is designed to prioritize comfort over portability, as you generally won’t need to carry them more than a few dozen feet from your car to your campsite.
With car camping tents, you can expect lots of interior space and, often, enough headroom for you to stand fully upright. Some models come with large windows for ventilation or even a screen porch for an outdoor living space.
Although car camping tents are generally waterproof, they usually aren’t as durable or robust as backpacking tents, particularly in the wind.
That makes them best for camping trips at a local campground, rather than expeditions into the mountains.
Often considered a subset of car camping tents, family tents are meant to provide a large, comfortable living space for large group camping trips.
They often have enough space to accommodate upwards of 10-20 people, sometimes in multiple rooms. You’ll usually find that family tents are tall enough for you to stand fully upright for added comfort.
Additionally, family tents frequently boast lots of interior gear storage and organization tools to help you keep your living space neat and tidy. Some even come with built-in LED lighting to turn your tent into a home away from home in the outdoors.
Designed for high alpine expeditions into harsh terrain, mountaineering tents are burlier versions of backpacking tents.
Backpacking and mountaineering tents tend to be similarly constructed, but mountaineering-specific models feature thicker materials and even stronger poles.
You’ll often find that tents for mountaineering have larger vestibules (covered areas over the doorway) than backpacking tents, as they’re meant to store substantial amounts of climbing gear.
Most mountaineering tents are crafted for year-round use, but they are usually too heavy or too well-insulated for a standard backpacking trip.
Additionally, mountaineering tents, especially those designed for expeditions to places like the Himalayas, Antarctica, Alaska, and other highly remote areas, tend to be some of the most expensive options on the market.
Glamping or, “glamorous camping,” is any outdoor trip where comfort is key.
Tents designed for glamping include all sorts of luxurious features, including ample interior space, large windows, and plenty of gear storage.
While some glamping tents designed for permanent set-up are made from canvas, many newer glamping tents are made from the same great ripstop fabrics that we find on car camping tents.
The difference between a car camping tent and a glamping tent comes down to added features and creature comforts.
Glamping tents tend to be larger, heavier, and more expensive, but oh-so-comfortable.
Tree Tent/Suspended Tent
Tree tents or suspended tents are a lesser-known style of tent that’s becoming more popular each year. These tents are designed to be suspended between 3 or more trees, elevating you at least a few feet off the ground.
However, tree tents and hammocks are not the same. Tree tents are essentially regular backpacking tents that have burly straps to connect them to multiple trees.
They have flat floors and are designed to be slept in with a sleeping pad and sleeping bag, just like a regular tent.
For some, tree tents are just a novelty. However, they do offer the unique benefit of letting you pitch your tent in any forested area, even if there’s a steep slope underneath your campsite.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, hammock tents are a popular choice among ultralight hikers who find that they just don’t like sleeping in a tent.
Hammocks have been used for millennia, particularly in parts of Central and South America, and they offer a simple way to catch some Zs while camping.
The main advantage of hammock tents is their light weight and portability. Modern hammock tents come with rain flies for waterproofing and mosquito nets to keep away the bugs.
However, you can set them up only below the treeline, so they’re not ideal for alpine trips.
In the outdoor industry, “three season” refers to spring, summer, and fall.
However, seasons vary from place to place, so it’s more important to judge a tent by the conditions for which it’s suitable rather than the “season” for which it’s advertised.
Tents designed for three seasons are appropriate for use in snow-free environments in above-freezing temperatures.
This is because their lightweight poles and fabrics are not designed to withstand the pressure of heavy snowfall or high winds.
Additionally, three-season tents usually have inner canopies made mostly from mesh. As a result, they’re usually not warm enough for wintertime use.
However, if you’re looking to camp primarily during the warmer months of the year, a three-season tent will be lighter, cheaper, and much more packable than a four-season alternative.
Four-season tents (a.k.a. winter camping tents) are specifically designed for use in the snow and cold.
They have thicker fabrics, stronger poles, and special pole constructions that make them strong enough to hold up in foul weather.
Additionally, the inner body of most four-season tents is made from ripstop fabrics rather than mesh, for added insulation in the cold.
The downside? Most four-season tents are heavier and more expensive than their three-season counterparts.
As the name suggests, canvas tents are made from canvas. Featuring extra-thick cotton canvas, these tents have been around for generations, in both recreational and military contexts.
The main benefit of a canvas tent is its durability and weather-resistance. Plus, canvas is a bit of a miracle fabric, as it can keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
However, canvas tents are usually expensive and heavy. They can also take quite a bit of time to set up.
This makes them more popular for hunting camps and other applications in which you plan to sleep outside for an extended period of time, rather than a weekend trip to a campground.
Tent Types by Shape
The shape of a tent has a major impact on its performance in the outdoors.
This is what you need to know:
Ridge Tent (a.k.a. Frame Tent/Wedge Tent)
Ridge tents have a classic triangular shape that’s reminiscent of a bygone era. While this type of tent used to be the go-to for campers, it has fallen by the wayside in popularity because of its limited head space and trickier set-up.
These days, A-frame tents are generally quite budget-friendly, though most people find that setting them up properly is no walk in the park.
Additionally, they’re usually heavier than dome-style tents and other alternatives, despite having smaller sleeping capacities.
Dome tents have a half-dome construction with a rounded roof and curved sides. They are perhaps the most commonly used type of backpacking tent because they offer a good mix of durability and weight savings.
That being said, dome tents offer minimal headroom and are usually just high enough for you to sit upright without hitting your head on the roof.
However, they are pretty robust in the wind and are good at protecting you from the rain.
Featuring a long, cylindrical design, tunnel tents are somewhat popular thanks to their wind-resistance.
They were originally designed to cut down on weight without compromising durability in foul weather. When pitched so that the doorway faces into the wind, tunnel tents can hold up exceptionally well in bad storms.
That being said, tunnel tents can be tricky to set up. This is because they get much of their structure from how they’re staked down to the ground.
This means that tunnel tents must be pitched properly for maximum durability.
A geodesic tent takes the classic dome shape to the next level. These tents are among the most durable and wind-resistant on the market because they feature multiple crisscrossing poles and a sturdy half-dome design.
However, they are usually very heavy and expensive because of all the extra poles and technology that goes into designing them.
Additionally, geodesic tents can take a while to set up and they often have bulky packed sizes.
Geodesic tents are very popular on big mountain climbing trips because they offer plenty of living space without sacrificing weather protection.
Popular among car campers, cabin tents feature straight-sided walls and house-like constructions.
Many cabin tents have pop-up set-up designs, which allow them to be pitched in just a few minutes. The real appeal of a cabin tent, however, lies in its livability.
Thanks to their near-vertical walls, cabin tents offer plenty of headroom and lots of interior living space.
They are ideal for larger groups because they sometimes come with removable room dividers, which allow you to create separate living and sleeping spaces for everyone on your camping trip.
With that in mind, cabin tents tend to be quite heavy and aren’t the best for very stormy conditions.
This is because their high-roof designs more easily catch the wind and their flat-ish roofs tend to pool up with water in a storm.
Designed to look a lot like a pyramid, pyramid tents are among the simplest options available. They generally have just one center pole, which makes them fairly lightweight.
However, much like tunnel tents, the limited pole design of pyramid tents means that pitching them properly isn’t easy. With pyramid tents, how you set up the guylines directly impacts the shelter’s stability in the wind.
So, if you want to ensure that you’ll stay warm and dry in a pyramid tent during a storm, you need to pitch it nearly perfectly when you arrive in camp for the night.
Bell tents are conceptually similar to pyramid tents because they have a single central pole.
For the most part, bell tents are made from canvas. They are designed for car camping and other glamping situations.
Many people opt for bell tents because they offer plenty of interior space. While they’re not always the easiest to set up, thanks to their thick steel poles, bell tents are generally quite durable, even in the wind and snow.
Additionally, many bell tents feature ports for wood stoves, so they’re suitable for wintertime use.
When it comes to the summer months, most models also have an assortment of mesh windows and even a mesh door to allow air—but not bugs—to flow in.
Specialty Tent Types
In addition to the basic tent categories and shapes that we’ve mentioned so far, there are some specialty tents out there that are designed for very specific types of camping.
Here are a few that you should know about:
Cot tents are small all-in-one shelters that combine a cot with a tent. Most cot tents are designed for either one or two people and have specific weight limitations based on the strength of the cot.
Most cot tents are relatively easy to set up because the cot portion usually folds open and comes with a rainfly that can be pitched over the top.
The main advantage of a cot tent is that it elevates you off the ground. This is helpful for campers with limited mobility and for anyone who has trouble crawling into a tent at night.
The all-in-one design of most tent cots also makes them ideal for solo campers who are trying to keep their gear to a minimum.
With that in mind, many tent cots are fairly heavy (20lbs/9.1kg or more), so they’re often best for car camping applications.
While a few companies make lightweight cot tents for backpacking, these often have lower maximum weight capacities.
Bivy Bag (a.k.a. Bivy Sack)
A bivy bag or bivy sack, depending on whom you ask, is a type of ultralight emergency tent often used in climbing and ultralight camping situations.
These one-person shelters usually have a mummy-style shape.
They are meant to serve as a minimalist shelter that completely encloses you and your sleeping bag. Many of them have mesh screens around the head for ventilation on warm nights.
The limited interior space of bivy sacks makes them a fairly niche piece of gear.
Many people feel claustrophobic inside bivy bags, so some companies have started building them with small poles designed to lift the fabric of the bag off your face at night.
Additionally, not all bivy bags are waterproof. While some are made from waterproof-breathable materials, like Gore-Tex, others have only water-resistant fabrics.
Thus, bivy sacks aren’t overwhelmingly common, though they’re somewhat popular amongst alpinists and long-distance thru-hikers.
As the name suggests, ultralight tents are ultralight. Usually, a tent won’t be classified as ultralight unless it weighs less than 1.5lbs (680g), but definitions will vary from person to person.
A light weight isn’t the only unique part about an ultralight tent. With an ultralight tent, you get a bare-bones minimalist shelter that’s free of any of the creature comforts that you normally find in a backpacking tent.
In fact, many ultralight models don’t come with poles, as often they’re designed to make use of your trekking poles instead.
Another key consideration for anyone considering an ultralight tent is durability.
Because most minimalist shelters are made from super-thin materials, like 7D ripstop nylon, extra care is needed to ensure that these tents don’t fall apart after a single use.
Many ultralight tents are ultra-expensive and some feature bodies and rain flies that are sold separately.
Some models don’t even come with a purpose-built rainfly, as they’re designed to be used with a lightweight tarp instead.
Pop-up tents are fairly new in the camping scene, but they fill an important role for campers who want a hassle-free way to set up their shelter for the night.
The vast majority of pop-up tents are designed for car camping, as they tend to be quite heavy. What makes a pop-up tent a pop-up tent is its pre-attached pole design.
Thanks to their pre-attached poles, these shelters can be set up in 1-2 minutes. To pitch a pop-up tent, one simply needs to unpack it from its carry case, unfold it, and stake down the corners.
It’s important to note that many pop-up tents aren’t strong enough to withstand heavy winds or lots of rainfall. Instead, they’re best used for car camping adventures in fair weather conditions.
Multi-room tents can be considered a subsection of family tents or car camping tents. However, their unique design warrants a separate category.
These tents tend to be quite large and heavy because they’re designed to accommodate large groups of people.
Most have a maximum sleeping capacity of between 8-20 people, so they’re great for those family camping trips on which everyone values their personal space.
The main advantage of a multi-room tent is the fact that they provide you with separate sleeping and living areas.
Depending on how you configure them, multi-room tents often have separate entrances for each room, so everyone can get the privacy they crave.
Multi-room tents are very popular among families with older children or for car camping trips with family friends.
However, like most family tents, they don’t perform nearly as well in the wind and the rain, so they’re best for those sunny weekends at your favorite campground.
Although they’re called “tents,” beach tents are used more as a sunshade at the beach rather than a place to sleep for the night.
Most beach tents have instant pop-up designs, which allow them to be pitched in just a few seconds.
They tend to be fairly lightweight and compact, so they’re easy to carry from your car to your spot on the beach.
Beach tents are particularly popular among families with small children, though they can be used by anyone who needs a respite from the sun while at the beach. Most are made from UPF fabrics for added protection from the sun’s harmful rays.
Some models also come with privacy screens so that you can use them as a makeshift changing areas when you want to change out of your swimsuit.
Roof-top tents are becoming more popular each year as people look for new ways to simplify their car camping set-up.
These awesome tents can be mounted onto the roofs of most mid- and large-sized vehicles with roof racks. Then, when you arrive at camp for the night, you can simply pop open the tent and tuck in for the night.
The main advantage of roof-top tents is their simplicity. When you use a roof-top tent, you don’t have to look for a place to pitch a shelter for the night.
Instead, you can sleep wherever you can park your car.
The type of roof-top tent you can buy is limited based on the type of vehicle you have. Every car has a different maximum roof-top carrying capacity and some smaller cars just aren’t appropriate for a roof-top tent.
Moreover, with a roof-top tent, you must be willing to climb up and down a ladder to get into your bed at night. Many roof-top tents are designed for a maximum of 3-4 people, so they’re not ideal for large groups.
Truck Bed Tent
Truck bed tents take the convenience and simplicity of a roof-top tent but remove the need to climb up and down a ladder at night.
With a truck bed tent, you mount your shelter in the bed of your pick-up truck to create a home on wheels.
Because most truck beds are designed to carry thousands of pounds of weight, nearly any truck bed is suitable for use with one of these tents.
Additionally, the walls of your truck bed act as a natural barrier to the wind, so many truck bed tents are very durable in foul conditions.
Depending on your vehicle’s layout, some truck bed tents also allow you to crawl directly from the tent into the cab of your truck.
This allows you to store gear in the cab for extra living and sleeping space inside the actual tent.
Regardless of how you like to camp, there’s a tent out there for your needs.
The key is to understand the advantages and disadvantages of all the different tent types so that you can have the perfect shelter for your upcoming camping adventure.
We hope you found this article helpful, and we wish you many happy camping adventures!
About the author
Gaby is a professional outdoor educator, guide, and wilderness medicine instructor. She holds a master's degree in outdoor education and spends most of her time hanging out with penguins and polar bears in the polar region. When she's not outdoors, you can find her traveling, reading Nietzsche, and drinking copious double espressos.