When it comes to camping, it’s important to choose the right tent for your needs. But there are so many options out there, how do you know which is best for you? With all the different shapes and types, it’s not very easy. We’re hoping this article will help break down one of the different styles – freestanding tents versus non-freestanding. We’ll talk about the differences between the two, which one stands out in several categories, and more. From there, we hope you can make an educated decision about which style backpacking tent you want.
What Is A Freestanding Tent?
A freestanding tent is a tent that can stand up on its own without the need for stakes or guylines. It’s designed with an internal frame of included tent poles that provide stability and support. Most freestanding tents are double walled, meaning there are two layers – an inner tent that’s mostly mesh covered by an external rain fly that’s attached separately. While there are single wall tents that are freestanding, they aren’t as common.
Since it’s freestanding, you can set it up, then move it around if needed before securely staking it into the ground. Keep in mind that even though tent stakes aren’t required, it’s always a good idea to stake down your tent. That being said, because tent stakes aren’t 100% necessary, it does give you the option of camping on terrain that doesn’t allow for stakes, like wooden tent platforms, inside a backcountry shelter, or on a solid rock surface.
Generally speaking, freestanding tents are the more popular style, and are great for both car camping and backpacking adventures. Most dome tents of all sizes are freestanding and they are great for weather protection, easy setup, and livable space.
What is a Non-Freestanding Tent?
A non-freestanding tent is a tent that requires stakes or guy lines to stand up. They are usually just a pile of tent material when staked, then you must prop them up using a couple tent poles or trekking poles. It’s essentially a trekking pole tent, as most users cut weight by using their poles instead of the added weight of the tent poles. This means you must carry trekking poles, but most long distance hikers do that anyway.
Non freestanding tents are typically single wall designs that prioritize ultralight weight over comfort and space, making them a really popular option amongst experienced thru hikers and backpackers. The single wall design cuts back on weight but may not offer as much weather protection or ventilation versus double wall tents.
What is a Semi-Freestanding Tent?
Semi-freestanding tents are a hybrid between a freestanding and a non-freestanding tent. These tents are designed with an internal frame that provides stability and support, but they still require stakes or guy lines to stand up. While this style is less popular, it can be a great middle ground between the other two styles.
Freestanding vs Non-Freestanding Tents
Now that you know the differences between freestanding and non-freestanding tents, let’s take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of each type of tent.
Winner: Freestanding Tents
Freestanding tents offer the best weather protection of any type of tent. The internal frame with a dedicated pole structure provides stability and support, so the tent is less likely to collapse in strong winds. Also, their double wall designs provide extra protection from the rain and wind because it has two layers of material instead of one.
A non-freestanding tent will still perform well in wet weather, but there’s more than can go wrong between the single wall design, less secure trekking poles, and the general reliance on the stakes staying in the ground. We personally had a really bad experience with a non-freestanding tent on a stormy night where the tent stakes were pulled from the ground during strong gusts of wind and the only thing keeping the tent on the ground was the person inside. We had to go outside and re-stake our tent several times that night, and it was promptly returned to REI after our trip.
That being said, there is one distinct advantage in favor of any tent that’s a single wall design, and that’s when you’re setting up in the rain. A single wall design is already protected from the elements, so the inside will stay dry through the process. On the other hand, double wall tents have a separate rainfly that’s added on after setup, allowing a window of time where the inside of the tent can get wet while it’s exposed to the outside.
Winner: Freestanding Tents
Because freestanding tents are usually double walled vs non-freestanding that are usually single walled, freestanding tents win this category for ventilation. With a double walled tent, the inner tent is made of a breathable fabric allowing for condensation to escape, while the outer tent is made of a waterproof material for inclement weather. Plus, you can sleep with just the rainfly on during warmer, dry nights, which provides the most amount of ventilation possible.
With a single wall design, the fabric must be both waterproof and breathable, which is fairly impossible with current tent materials. This means you’re more likely to struggle with condensation, especially in warmer and more humid climates. The condensation can leave you and your sleeping bag moist, which can lead to a mildew-y sleeping bag in the long term if it’s not properly dried out. You have to be really careful about opening doors and vents to keep moisture at bay as much as possible.
Weight and Packed Size
Winner: Non-Freestanding Tents
When it comes to weight, non-freestanding tents tend to be more lightweight, making them more ideal for backpackers who are trying to get as light as possible. They save weight with their single wall design, so there’s less fabric to carry, and you have the option of using trekking poles instead of tent poles, which also cuts back on weight. This also cuts back on size, so they’ll have a smaller packed size.
Because freestanding tents are usually double walled, the extra weight of poles and a rainfly will make them heavier than non-freestanding. That being said, there are still several options that fall into the ‘ultralight’ category, but you’ll be sacrificing durability and price for these designs.
With differences in brand and size, as well as newer tent fabrics like Dyneema, you may find tents that don’t follow this general rule in the coming years.
Winner: Freestanding Tents
In general, you can’t expect much room from backpacking tents in the first place, but overall you will find more space in a freestanding design than a non-freestanding design. Their pole system will maximize interior space with steeper tent walls and a taller peak height, plus they usually have more vestibule space for gear storage outside the tent.
On a rainy day where you may be stuck inside, we would much prefer to be stuck inside something like the Nemo Aurora, which is a freestanding tent that has enough head room to sit upright.
Both freestanding and non-freestanding tents are usually quite durable, but the actual durability depends more on the specific tent materials than its shape. You would need to look at the specific tent and the fabric’s denier to determine durability. Some may say that freestanding ultralight tents sacrifice fabric quality in exchange for weight, but really all lightweight tents are sacrificing something.
As for poles, you don’t have to worry about them bending or breaking in a non-freestanding tent that uses a trekking pole (or multiple) instead.
Winner: Freestanding Tents
Both freestanding and non-freestanding tents offer a vestibule area for storage, but that space will differ greatly between specific styles. The vestibule square footage will typically be listed in the product specifications, so that’s something to look at when shopping, especially if you want enough space for a pack. This category was almost a tie, but we think freestanding comes out slightly ahead because their pole-based design allows for more space in most situations.
Advantage: Freestanding Tents
A non-freestanding tent can take more time to setup the first few times, but once you get the hang of it, it should be quick and easy. You will have to get your trekking pole height dialed in and learn how to most effectively stake your tent so that it’s sturdy in wind gusts. They do offer the advantage of being weather resistant during setup (because of the single wall design) so they’re better for setting up during wet weather. On the other hand, a freestanding tent pitches easily and quickly from square one, but they are prone to getting wet during setup if it’s raining. Once you get the hang of setting up, there will be a small difference between the two style’s setup times.
With a freestanding shelter, you have more campsite options than you would vs non-freestanding tents. Because they don’t rely on stakes, you can camp on harder ground, wooden tent platforms, large rocks, or even inside a backwoods shelter. You also don’t have to spend as much time worrying about where your guylines will go since they’re less essential to the structure of the tent.
Another factor to consider is that a freestanding model can be moved around even after it’s setup, so you can relocate if you end up not liking your spot. If the slope of the ground is steeper than you like or if there’s a sneaky rock in the middle of your back, then you can just pick it up and slide it to a better spot. Because a non-freestanding tent relies on the stakes from square one, you must completely take it down in order to move it, even if it’s just a few inches to the side. That’s why we’ve selected freestanding tents as the winner of this category.
Generally speaking, tents made of more expensive and lightweight materials are going to be on the more expensive side, especially once you start getting into ultralight. The prices within each category vary more than the prices between the two categories, which is why we wouldn’t say that one is particularly more expensive than the other. In most cases, the more you spend, you’ll get more advanced fabrics that equal more lightweight, smaller pack size, and more durability.
Our Favorite Freestanding and Non-Freestanding Tents
Now that you know the differences between freestanding and non-freestanding tents, let’s take a look at some of our favorite tents.
Overall Best Freestanding: Nemo Aurora 2P
Best Ultralight Freestanding: Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2
Best Budget Freestanding: The North Face Stormbreak 2
Overall Best Non-Freestanding: Hyperlite Unbound 2
Best Ultralight Non-Freestanding: Big Agnes Scout 2 Platinum
Best Budget Non-Freestanding: REI Co Op Flash Air 2
Best Semi Freestanding: Nemo Hornet 2p
No matter which type of tent you choose, you can rest assured that you’ll be camping in comfort and style. So consider your needs and the environment you’ll be camping in, and take the time to research your options to find the perfect tent for your needs.
Freestanding tents offer the best weather protection and ventilation, while non-freestanding tents offer the best weight and packed size. Semi-freestanding tents are a great option if you want the ease of setup of a freestanding tent, but the stability of a non-freestanding tent. With so many options, you’re sure to find the perfect tent for your camping trip.
About the Author
Ashley is an adventurous soul who loves all things nature, especially warm sunshine, hiking, wildflowers, and mushrooms. If she isn’t writing content for Know Nothing Nomads, she’s probably in a forest looking at big mountain views and tiny pieces of moss on the side of the trail.