5 Ways to Carry Your Tent While Backpacking (Which is Best?)

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 my tent?”

Over the years my backpacking setup has moved toward the lighter end 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 taking a peek down the lightweight backpacking rabbit hole.

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 also offer helpful tips 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 (easier said than done!).

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 on how to pack a tent in your backpack:

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 by other gear.

Pack it near your back: Remember this key rule for packing any kind of backpacking gear: 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 demand more work from 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 (nothing surprising here).

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 so it doesn’t interfere with how the pack sits against your back.

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.

It’s easier to fit both a tent and sleeping bag in your pack if you take at least one of them out of its stuff sack. Here, the tent is on the right and the sleeping bag is packed loosely around it. All other gear and food will be layered on top.

Advantages of carrying your tent inside your pack:

  • More comfortable 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

Related: 5 Ways to Carry Water While Backpacking

Looking into top of backpacking pack with large 3-person tent packed vertically in its stuff sack.
This three person tent takes up a lot of room in this mid-size backpack! It might fit better if taken out of the stuff sack and folded at the bottom, with the poles in a side pocket.

Carrying A Tent On Your Pack

Sometimes it’s better to carry a tent outside your backpack rather than in it. You might prefer this approach if:

  • Your tent is wet or dirty.
  • You’re backpacking with a smaller pack and a big tent
  • 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, for example).
  • Your pack is full of other bulky or awkwardly shaped items, like a bear canister.

If you prefer this approach, follow these guidelines for how to attach a tent to the outside of a backpack.

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 on the bottom for exactly this purpose.

Red backpack sitting on ground with green tent bag strapped to the bottom
Tent attached to the bottom of a backpack using two straps. If you’re going to carry your tent outside your pack, this location is usually the most comfortable from a weight-distribution standpoint.

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.

Red lightweight backpack with lightweight tent strapped to the top
Lightweight tent attached under the compression strap on top of a ULA Circuit pack.

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.

Backpack with large tent strapped awkwardly to the middle of the back, with yellow "no" symbol indicating this option isn't good.
Don’t pack a tent here! It will pull you backward, make it harder to balance, and just generally feel heavier.

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.

This tent is tethered to the backpack by the drawstring cord so it can’t accidentally fall out while hiking.

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.

Drying a wet rainfly on top of my pack (Colorado Trail)

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.

Once the tent is folded in thirds or quarters (for big tents), begin rolling it around the poles.

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.

If you roll the tent tightly from the beginning, it’ll be easier to cram into the stuff sack at the end.

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.

My Big Sky Soul tent is just a bit over two pounds and costs $280, a great deal considering how much use I’ve gotten out of it. See my review here.

Other Common Questions

Can you fit a tent in a backpack?

Obviously that depends on the size of the tent and the backpack, but yes, it’s often possible and preferred to carry your tent inside your pack. A typical 1 person backpacking tent should have no problem fitting inside a typical backpacking pack in the 50+ liter size range, while a larger 2 or 3 person tent might require a 60+ liter pack depending on its design. If your tent doesn’t fit inside your pack, strapping it to the outside is also an option.

Is it better to stuff or roll a tent while backpacking?

Either works. Rolling can be nice and tidy and makes it easy to attach your tent on the outside of your pack, if you prefer. Stuffing saves time and helps your tent fit into a wider variety of spaces inside your pack, but the tent may be vulnerable to damage from items inside your pack and it may get your other gear dirty. See which works best for you, or alternate depending on your needs.

More Backpacking Resources

If you’re into backpacking, you might also find these helpful:

Or, visit the backpacking and hiking resources page for plenty more!

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the US and abroad. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more here.

Excited about backpacking but need help getting started? The Backpacking Trip Planner Workbook will help you start off on the right foot.

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Pictures of tents packed in and on backpacks

4 thoughts on “5 Ways to Carry Your Tent While Backpacking (Which is Best?)”

  1. A couple of thoughts.

    If you still use a closed cell pad, the best place to carry that often is below the pack. Roll your tent poles in the pad to protect them from bending. Then you can stuff the tent anywhere in your pack.

    If you no longer use a closed cell pad, but still have one lying around, wrap it around your rolled-up tent and cut it to length to wrap the tent exactly once. Use it to protect the tent when it is strapped to the bottom of your pack as a 25-35 pound pack can bend a pole or rip a hole if you take a spill. Bonus, your half pad can be used as a sitting pad while in camp.

    Reply
  2. No clue if you (or anyone) will read this within the next 3 weeks before i go on my 400 mile hike with my Jack Russell sized bichon… I had to buy a 4 man tent as my solo would only fit me and my 2 man is still very tight for me… the dog… the back.. the boots… the 4 man weighs 9.9208 pound this is the cheapest of the lightest tents in the UK… (there is no way i can afford £399> £2k just for a 3 man ultralight) my 2 man was 4.62971 pound and very light (even at the back end of my pack due to lack of room)

    Advice on packing something this *Heavy* *on to* my 80L backpack? (would it be the same formula regardless of weight?) Thanks

    Reply
    • Hi Barney, oof, 10 pounds is quite a bit. I understand the need for extra space and an affordable tent though. I’d say the basic idea is the same: pack it low and close to your back. 80 liters is a pretty big pack, but if I understand you right you’re saying the tent won’t fit inside. You might consider splitting it into pieces and putting part inside and the lightest part (maybe the fly) on the outside. If it all has to go on the outside, try to strap it to the bottom, below the pack. If the extra weight is new for you, go for a fully loaded training hike to get your body used to the new burden. I hope you and the dog have a wonderful hike!

      Reply

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