A tent is one of the bulkiest and heaviest items we carry on the trail, so it makes sense that new backpackers often ask “What’s the best way to carry a tent while backpacking?”
Over the years my backpacking setup has moved toward the lighter side of the spectrum, and tucking a lightweight solo tent into my pack is no problem. If you expect to get into backpacking in a big way, I highly recommend exploring the lightweight backpacking rabbit hole. Your body will thank you!
But in those early days, I started where many people do and perhaps where you’re starting too: with a cheap 3-person tent I bought on Craigslist. It was not small and it was not light, and my first backpack was not all that big. With this kind of setup it’s entirely reasonable to wonder about the best way to pack a tent for backpacking.
In this post I’ll lay out all the options for carrying your tent in, or on, your backpack. I’ll explain how to choose the best method based on your particular gear. I’ll also offer helpful tips for packing your tent, like what to do if it’s wet, and how to roll it up so it actually fits back into that tiny stuff sack it came in.
After a couple trips into the wilderness you’ll find that packing your tent in / on your backpack is actually pretty straightforward. Then you’ll be free to focus on other aspects of backpacking, like honing your camping skills, enjoying the freedom of moving your body through a beautiful wild place, and eating your weight in trail mix.
Are you interested in backpacking but not sure how to get started? The Backpacking Trip Planner Worksheet can help!
Carrying A Tent In Your Backpack
If you have a large enough backpack and small enough tent, the best way to carry a tent is inside your backpack, right up against the back panel. Consider these tips:
Roll it: Most backpackers roll their tent and cram it into its stuff sack to keep things organized and other gear clean. More on rolling technique below.
Or just fold / stuff it: If it fits better, you can pack the poles separately and stuff the fabric loosely into the bottom of your pack. This can be more space efficient and works well for smaller packs. Just make sure any fragile parts — like poles or bug netting — are protected from damage if packed on their own.
Pack it near your back: Remember this key rule for packing the rest of your gear too: it feels easier to carry heavy items closer to your center of gravity. Packing them far from your back will cause more pressure on your shoulders and be more work for your core muscles.
Pack it vertically: Because tent poles can be awkwardly long and most packs are tall, they usually fit best when packed vertically.
Middle or side? The middle of your back or off to one side can both work, but if the tent is heavy you should either pack it in the center or balance it with something equally heavy on the other side. If your pack is a lightweight frameless model or you carry water in a hydration bladder, carrying your tent off-center may work best.
Pack it on the bottom: Keep in mind a key principle of packing for backpacking: put stuff you won’t need until camp (like your tent, usually) toward the bottom and items you might rummage for during the day on top.
Pro tip: Everything will fit better in your backpack, including your tent, if you take your sleeping bag and clothing out of stuff sacks so they can fill every nook and cranny. Just make sure it’s all protected from water using an internal pack liner or external pack cover.
Advantages of carrying your tent inside your pack:
- Better weight distribution
- Protects tent from being torn or snagged
- No risk of tent falling off or parts falling out
- Less sun exposure might prolong life of tent over the long term
Disadvantages of carrying your tent inside your pack:
- A wet and dirty tent can make your other gear wet and dirty
- Takes up valuable space you may need for other gear
Carrying A Tent On Your Pack
Some people prefer to carry their tent outside their backpack rather than in it. You might prefer this approach if:
- Your tent is wet or dirty.
- You’re backpacking with a smaller pack
- You might need easy access to your tent during the day, for example to hunker down during an afternoon thunderstorm (a common occurrence on the Colorado Trail).
- Your pack is full of other bulky or awkwardly shaped items, like a bear canister.
Start low: If you’re going to carry a tent on the outside of your backpack, the best way is to strap it to the bottom. Another key rule of packing for backpacking: try to carry heavy items as low in your pack as possible. Some backpacks have straps attached to the bottom for exactly this purpose.
Try high: No straps on the bottom of your pack? No problem, you can also attach the tent to the top of your pack. If your pack has a “lid” or a compression strap across the top, secure the rolled tent under it. This works best for lighter tents; heavy ones can impact your balance and make you feel top-heavy.
Avoid the far back: Whatever you do, don’t try and attach your tent to the very back of your pack, farthest from your body. It’ll feel much heavier and more awkward back there.
Keep it dry: Use a waterproof stuff sack to keep your tent dry while hiking in the rain. Though the rainfly is waterproof, if it gets wet on the underside or the tent inner gets wet you’ll be setting up a damp tent when you get to camp.
Protect from damage: When carrying a tent on the outside of your pack, be careful not to snag it while passing under low branches (if on top) or setting your pack down on rough surfaces (if on bottom). Close the stuff sack carefully so nothing falls out.
Secure carefully: If you’re going to carry a tent on the outside of your backpack, find a way to tether it redundantly so it can’t fall off without you noticing. As a simple solution, tie the drawstring from the stuff sack around a strap on your pack.
Mix and match: I usually carry my tent or tarp inside my backpack, but if it’s wet or I might need to use it during the day I’ll strap it to the top instead. It’s nice to have both options.
Advantages of carrying a tent outside your pack:
- Leaves more space inside for other gear.
- Allows you to backpack with a smaller pack.
- Easier access during the day (to hunker down during a storm for example, or spread a wet tent out to dry in the sun).
- If tent needs to be packed up wet, it won’t get the inside of your pack wet too.
Disadvantages of carrying a tent outside your pack:
- Can be damaged or lost if not packed correctly.
- Weight distribution is slightly less comfortable, especially if packed on top.
- Needs to be kept dry in rain.
- Sun exposure can potentially degrade fabric faster.
Split it Up
There’s no rule against splitting your tent into pieces and packing them in different places. Maybe it’s a little too bulky for any one spot, or you want to share the load with a hiking partner. For example, you might stuff the clean and dry inner portion inside your pack while you strap the rain fly and poles to the top on the outside.
Poles in a waterproof bag can also slide vertically into a side pocket (make sure they can’t fall out!) where a full tent would never fit.
How to Roll Up A Tent
To pack a tent in its stuff sack, you first need to roll it carefully. This can seem tricky to new backpackers, but I promise it’s a cinch once you know these simple tricks.
Dry the tent before packing it, if you have time. Wet tents aren’t just wet, they’re heavy! Rain or dew on the outside will evaporate once the morning sun hits it, so consider moving the tent into the sun to speed things up. If there’s condensation inside: pack up your gear and turn the tent inside out, give it a good shake, then spread it out to dry in the sun. It’s best to start the drying process as soon as you get up in the morning if you’re short on time.
Lay the tent flat. If you have a double-wall tent with multiple pieces, lay them on top of each other.
Fold both edges of the tent inward in thirds, or even quarters if it’s a big tent. The goal is to create a long strip of fabric the same size as the folded tent poles.
Place the poles at one end and gradually start rolling the folded tent around the poles. Use enough pressure to roll it tightly so it stays neat, and brush off big chunks of dirt and leaves as you go.
Stuff the tent into its stuff sack. Some can be a tight fit! You’ll save yourself hassle in this step if you take time upfront to roll carefully and tightly.
Don’t forget the stakes! Collect them all from the ground and slip them inside the stuff sack before closing it up securely.
Consider A Lightweight Tent
A new tent is one of the biggest expenses involved in building your gear collection. When you’re just starting out, it makes sense to go backpacking with whatever tent you already have or can borrow.
But if you do get hooked on backpacking, I want you to know that not all lightweight tents are super expensive. Though getting down below one pound (for a solo tent) costs some serious bucks, there are many reasonably priced options in the 1.5 – 2.5 pound range.
For starters, have a look at this list of lightweight solo tents arranged by price and weight. All the tents in the $200 – $300 range would be solid investments in a more comfortable backpacking future, and likely worth the money if you treat them well and use them often.
There you have it, more than you ever wanted to know about the best ways to carry a tent for backpacking. I hope it helps you feel a bit more prepared and organized for your next trip.
Remember, our gear and packing styles change over time and it’s normal to try a few methods that don’t work before settling on one that does. Experiment and enjoy!
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