It can be hard to set a price range for gear when you’re first getting into camping. Some of the basic gear can be easy, but there are 1000’s of tents to choose from ranging from $10 into the $1000+ range. Obviously most people don’t need top of the line gear, but at what price point do you start to see quality tents? How much should you spend on a tent?
Tent prices can range from $20-$1000+ so you need to look at your overall needs and budget. The occasional once every year campground camper that’s careful with their gear can get by with a heavy fiberglass pole $50-100 tent, but you’ll want to buy a more expensive lightweight design if you’re planning an extended backpacking trip. Backpackers should look for lightweight designs that use aluminum poles and have better features in the $150+ range.
It can be hard to tell the difference between a $20 and $500 looking at it from the outside. They’re made out of the same basic material, have similar designs, and serve the same basic purpose. While I wouldn’t recommend a $20 Walmart tent, the average person won’t need to spend a small fortune either.
Looking in the $50-$150 price range is a good place to start if you don’t have to haul in your gear. Backpackers should look at $150 tents at the minimum and will usually spend $200+ to get a lightweight design with decent ventilation. Prices will go up as you increase the square footage and additional features over the $200 price range.
So what’s the difference between a cheap tent and one that’s more expensive than the average person’s weekly paycheck? It all boils down to the materials used in the tent, design, ventilation, and overall weight. You find lighter, sturdier, well ventilated gear once you start increasing the price range a bit. So how much do you need to spend? I’ll go over a few points to help narrow down a price range in the rest of this article.
Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Tents
Tents might look the same, but there are a few key differences between cheap and expensive tents. I’ll give a brief breakdown of factors that influence price. Some of these may seem obvious, but others are more nuanced.
- People In The Tent: Tents that can accommodate more people will always be more expensive than smaller tents in the same product line. They use more tent poles and material so costs will increase. Expect to pay an additional $30-50 more for each additional person in a tent.
- 3-Season vs Winter Tents: The vast majority of tents are designed for 3-Season use from spring to fall. You can use them in cold weather, but they’re not designed for heavy snow loads and strong winds. Winter tents can be ridiculously expensive since they have to be designed to withstand heavy snow load. You have more poles that are stronger and less people buy them so there’s increased production costs due to economies of scale.
- Weight: Compare the weights and square footage of tents in different price ranges. You almost always get a lighter tent with more floor space on expensive models. Just make sure you compare all the features to get apples to apples comparisons.
- Poles (Fiberglass vs Aluminum): Every tent that costs less than $150 uses cheap fiberglass poles. Fiberglass poles are durable and perfectly functional, but they’re much heavier than lightweight aluminum poles found in expensive tents. You can cut 4-5lbs off a tents trail weight by purchasing one with aluminum poles. Backpackers should always buy a tent with aluminum poles and look on ebay for used tents if they can’t afford to buy one new.
- Doors and Windows: Cheap tents typically have a single door and vestibule with small mesh side windows. Expensive tents tend to have bigger doors with stronger zippers and mesh window screens running along the entire side wall and roof.
- Ventilation: Tents start to get well ventilated once the price increases above the $100 range. That’s when most manufacturers start using mesh walls/roofs instead of tiny windows. Proper ventilation will reduce condensation and significantly cut down the heat in the summer.
How Much Should I Spend On A Tent?
Everybody has different needs, so it can be hard to give a definite answer. You need to look into your budget, overall needs, camping frequency, square footage needed, and how you plan on treating the gear. It’s definitely possible to get what you need without breaking the bank.
Before we get into the finite details, lets break campers into 2 basic categories. You have weekend campground campers that drive their car to the campground and set up camp within a short walking distance of the car and backpackers that need lightweight more expensive tents so they can hike long distances into camp without weighing down their pack.
The occasional weekend campground camper doesn’t need to spend a fortune on lightweight models. They can usually get by with a budget tent in the $50-150 price range depending on how big of a tent they need. You don’t have to hike into your campsite so it doesn’t make sense to spend the extra money on lightweight gear. Backpackers will want to splurge on a lightweight model with aluminum tent poles in the $150-300 range.
What’s the difference between cheap and expensive tent models? I’ll go over a few of the common features found in tents at each price range.
- Cheap Camping Tents (Under $50): Cheap tents are designed for people that rarely camp in a tent. There are a bunch of no-name Chinese manufactured tents on Amazon at this price range, but they’re all garbage. Go with one of Walmart’s Ozark Trail tents if you’re really trying to keep prices low. They’re heavy with fiberglass poles, have poor insulation, and bad waterproofing, but they are fairly durable (fail at the zipper). Spray on some waterproofing spray (Kiwi Camp Dry), and use seam sealant (Gear Aid Seam Sealant) to prevent leaks.
- Budget Camping Tents ($50-$100): Coleman is the king of budget tents, but there are a few options from premium brands. Kelty, Alps Mountaineering, and REI Co-op tents are the best option in this price range. This is the price point where you get a durable tent that should last a while, but they’re heavy with ventilation issues. Alps Mountaineering’s Meramac 2 and 3 Person Tent is probably the best option at this price range. The low mesh side windows really help with ventilation when you’re trying to sleep. REI Co-op Groundbreaker 2 is lighter, but has a smaller floor area.
- Mid-Range Camping Tents ($100-$150): This is the sweet spot where you start seeing premium designs with proper ventilation, but you usually have weight issues due to the heavy fiberglass poles. I recommend looking at tents in this price range and seeking out the models that are on sale with aluminum tent poles. You can usually get Alps Mountaineering’s Chaos 2 or 3 person tent or Mountainsmith’s Morrson 2 Tent when they’re on sale in this price range or increase your budget a bit to $159 and get REI Co-ops Passage 2 Tent with aluminum poles. Alps Mountaineering’s Taurus 2 and Meramac 3 are great options at the lower end of this price range, but they’re slightly heavier with fiberglass poles. If you can find a tent with aluminum poles for $20-30 more it’s definitely worth the extra money.
- Budget Backpacking Tents ($150-$200): This is the bottom end of backpacking tents where you start to run into lightweight designs with aluminum tent poles. Ignore everything in this price range with fiberglass poles. Once again this section will be dominated by Alps Mountaineering and REI Co-op tents, but there are more options at the upper end of the price range. I’ll list off a few options for you to look at that should fall somewhere in this price range. Alps Mountaineering Chaos 2 (5lb 12oz) or Chaos 3 Person Tent (6lb 9oz), Marmot Catalyst 2 Person Tent (4lb 11oz), REI Co-op Passage 2 Tent (4lb 2 oz), Alps Mountaineering Helix 2 (3lb 12oz), REI Co-op Trail Hut 2 (4lb 14oz). All of these tents have aluminum poles and I included a few options that are slightly more expensive at the regular price, but they’re usually on sale. You can always find something in this price range with aluminum poles and a lightweight design.
- Lightweight Backpacking Tents ($200+): There are 100s of backpacking tents in the $200+ price range and they’re all great for backpacking. There are so many options that I can’t list them all, but keep an eye on the trail weight and floor area to make an informed choice. I recommend going to REI.com and using their compare function to get side by side technical specs.
There are lots of different things that go into tent price, but it mostly boils down to 3 things: pole material (aluminum is better), how many people (subtract 1 person advertised rating), weight (lightweight tents are expensive), and ventilation/design. As you increase tent size, add features like aluminum poles, large mesh windows/doors, and reduce trail weight the price will go up.
Try to set a realistic budget for your needs and buy the lightest tent you can afford. Backpackers should look for aluminum poles and regular campsite campers should look for tents with lots of ventilation and a larger floor area.
Tents For Casual Weekend Campers
You can probably get by with a cheap $20-40 Walmart or No-Name tent, but I recommend bumping up your price range a bit. Spend the extra $50 bucks so you don’t have to skimp on features. Durability will be slightly improved with better zippers and improved waterproofing, but ventilation is the primary improvement.
The under $100 range will give you a limited selection of quality gear. Coleman is easily the king of budget camping gear, but you can get great deals by looking at premium brands budget models. Look for budget gear from well respected brands like Alps Mountaineering, Coleman, and Kelty in this price range. I really like the Alps Mountaineering Meramac 2 person and 3 person tent (check the drop down for the 3 and 5 person models). It has full side/back wall windows and an oversized door for excellent ventilation.
You start getting into more durable well ventilated designs once you increase the budget to $100-$150. This is where the majority of budget models start to pop up from respected brands. You can find budget models from Kelty, REI Co-Op, Alps Mountaineering, Alpine Mountain Gear, Big Agnes, Mountainsmith, etc. in this price range.
This is the sweet spot where you get a high quality durable, well ventilated tent, but they’re slightly heavy for backpacking. There’s one major difference between under $150 and entry level lightweight backpacking tents in the $200+ range.
Cheaper tents use fiberglass poles which are strong, but much heavier than the lightweight aluminum poles used in backpacking tents. It will make a 4-5 lb difference in pack weight, which can be a big deal on long hikes. You can definitely use a $100-150 tent on backpacking trips, but you’ll have to try to minimize the rest of your packs weight or slow down a bit on the trail.
Tents For Serious Backpackers
Backpackers should try to save up the extra money for a tent with aluminum poles. Cheap fiberglass poles are strong, but they’re ridiculously heavy compared to aluminum. You can shed 4-5 lbs off your pack weight by switching over to a lightweight tent with aluminum poles.
I also recommend picking up a set of lightweight Tent stakes to cut out another pound or so. MSR Groundhog Tent Stakes hold better than the cheap stakes that come with most tents and their a fraction of the weight. A set of 4 groundhog stakes weigh about 4 oz vs well over 1 lb for traditional stakes.
There might be a few exceptions, but you generally have to spend $200 to find a lightweight tent with aluminum poles. This is the bare entry point with ultralight tents and 4 season tents reaching well into the $500+ range. I’d be willing to bet 99% of backpackers buy tents in the $200-300 range.
If you have the budget for a more expensive tent go ahead and buy it, but theirs negligible gains once you go above $300. I’m not going to lie, Big Agnes Tiger Wall Crazylight Tent at about 2lbs has tempted me a few times, but I can’t justify the price. You might shed a pound or two by switching from a freestanding tent to non-freestanding with less poles, but you can always find other ways to drop a pound.
Budget Casual Tents In The $80-150 Range
You won’t find tents with lightweight design in the budget price range. These are typical family camping tents that focus on durability and comfort over shedding weight. They will almost always use fiberglass poles, that are really sturdy, but much heavier than aluminum poles.
Here are a few of the best budget tents on the market that are right around the $100 price range. Personally, I would go with either the 2 person or 3 person Alps Mountaineering Tent, because it has massive windows on each side and an oversized door. Keep in mind that you need to subtract 1 person from a tents recommendations to make room for gear. So a 3 person tent is big enough to fit 2 people and 2 person tent (1 person).
- Alps Mountaineering Meramac 2 Person Tent
- Alps Mountaineering Meramac 3 Person Tent
- REI Co-Op Groundbreaker 2 Person Tent
- Coleman Tents (there’s 100’s of models in this price range)
Budget Lightweight Backpacking Tents $150-200 Range
Once you reach the $100-200 range, you’ll get bigger doors, extra windows, and an overall improvement in ventilation. This is the sweet spot for most casual campers. You get a durable tent with lots of features, but they’re heavier than the typical backpacking tent.
They use specialty materials to block out UV rays and you won’t have to worry about unbearable temperatures from tiny windows. A hot tent isn’t just a comfort problem. You will also have serious condensation issues when the temperature drops at night.
The $100-200 range is where most of the well respected manufacturers start showing up. You can find budget models from Kelty, REI Co-Op, Alps Mountaineering, Alpine Mountain Gear, Big Agnes, Black Diamond, Marmot, Mountainsmith, etc. in this price range. You see their budget models with fiberglass poles, but they use similar designs to their more expensive models.
Most of these tents weight about 8-10lbs depending on their floorplan and have lots of nice features, but you can find lightweight designs as well. Alps Mountaineering, REI Co-Op, Kelty, and Mountainsmith are the only manufacturers that I can think of that offer aluminum poles at this price point. one of the few manufacturers that offer aluminum poles at this price range.
Alps Mountaineerings Chaos 2 Person and Chaos 3 person tents are by far my favorite tents at this price range. It has aluminum poles making it lighter (5lb 12 oz) than most of the other options and uses mesh everywhere for extra ventilation. It’s slightly heavier than REI-Coop’s Passage 2 tent, but I really like the breeze you get from the mesh rear window that runs down to the floor. Alps Mountaineering has a few other tents in this price range with aluminum poles that you may also want to check out, but I really like the design on the Chaos series.
REI-Coop’s Passage 2 Tent (4lb 2oz) is another option with aluminum poles. It’s one of the cheapest lightweight freestanding tents you can buy with a traditional bathtub floor. The floor area is slightly smaller than the Chaos series, but it’s a great alternative if you want to shed almost 1.5 lbs from your pack.
Mountainsmiths Morrison 3 Person Tent (4lb 2oz) can be found for about the same price when there are deals going on. It uses aluminum poles and is lighter, but it doesn’t have a floor so you have extra weight if you decide to lay down a ground cloth.
Premium Backpacking Tents Over $200
Lets start out by saying, I won’t even try to give a recommendation in the over $200 price range. This is the starting point for most premium manufacturers and you’ll find 100s of tents in this price range. All the tents use aluminum poles, have vestibules, and have lightweight designs.
I recommend setting your budget with about $25 leeway in each direction. So if you want to spend $250, look at tents in the $225-275 price range. They should all have similar features. I recommend going to a website like REI.com that lets you compare models in your price range. REI has a compare button that sets the technical specs side by side so you can easily choose between models.
Start by filtering out how many people the tents for and look at the overall pack or trail weight. Remember that a 3 person tent is only comfortable for 2 people once you bring in your pack and gear. Then you should set the price from low-high and cycle through the tents in your price range.
Pay special attention to tents that are marked down as deals, because you can usually bump up to a lighter weight option. Hit the compare button on a handful of tents so you can look at the technical specs side by side. Eliminate the heaviest models and start looking at the differences between the 3 lightest options.
At this point you need to look at the square footage to see where the additional weight came from. If the square footage is the same, that usually means the lighter tent uses thinner fabric to cut weight, doesn’t have a floor, has a smaller zipper, less pockets, or additional mesh ventilation.
Go with the lightest tent if all the technical specs are comparable. For 3-Season use, I usually go with whichever tent looks like it has the best ventilation. Look for walls and ceilings that are entirely made out of mesh and check to see how high the sidewalls are before you hit mesh.
Should I Ever Buy A Cheap $20-50 Tent?
Tents in the $20-50 price range are great for people that rarely go camping, but they’re meant to be disposable. I have a $30 Ozark Trail tent that I bought at Walmart at least 10 years ago. It’s heavy and poorly ventilated, but it’s good enough for an overnight camping trip when you don’t have to hike into camp.
I’ve used my Ozark Trail tent at least 20 times over the past 5 years. It comes out whenever I’m worried about damaging my expensive tent. It goes with me to every Nascar Race (where we get hammered drunk) and gets used when I’m camping with younger kids. Drunks have fallen on it, dogs have slept in it, kids play, and it’s been packed away wet and left in my car for a few days. It’s ridiculously heavy, but it can handle serious abuse.
Just try to keep the fabric door and windows open to get some airflow through the mesh. It will definitely get stuffy and you’ll end up with condensation issues if everything’s closed up. A little bit of light rain through the windows is better than everything getting covered in condensation.
A tent usually fails at the zipper so be careful with that and buy a new one whenever it fails. You may also want to spray it down with water repellent coatings (Kiwi Camp Dry) and going over the seams with sealants (Gear Aid Seam Sealant).
Look For Used Tents On Ebay And Facebook Marketplace
Think about all the hobbies you’ve picked up over the years. At most you’ve stuck with maybe 20% of them over the long haul. What did you do with everything? You either donate it to goodwill, have a yard sale, or try to sell it in the secondary market.
Camping/backpacking is just like every other hobby. Most people get really excited when they first start and buy a bunch of gear. They go on a few backpacking trips over the first 1-2 years and never go again. All the gear gets tossed in a closet or garage until it starts getting in the way. That’s when they decide to sell or donate what they don’t need.
There are also the backpacking enthusiasts that constantly want to upgrade their gear. They buy a tent, treat it like their firstborn child for 2-3 years, and sell it for a newer lighter model. You can always find great deals on used gear at about 50% of the price you’d buy it new.
You can find cheap gear way above your price range by shopping on the secondary market for used gear. I picked up a $500 Big Agnes Ultralight tent on ebay for less than $200. It weighs less than 2lbs and came with a bunch of accessories that would have cost at least $50 more. I never would have been able to afford to buy that tent new.