Tents That Are Budget-Friendly, Not Low-Performance

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The Tents Were Tested

Backpackers have a hard time justifying the steep prices of tents, which can cost up to $400 for a two-person shelter. There are low-cost options available on the market that are still of high quality. All tents should fit at least two people and cost less than $300 to be considered for review. Keeping the focus on affordability, I tested tents from major and lesser-known tent manufacturers at this price point. The tents were evaluated in the field, not on paper-from Hawaii to Colorado to Florida, we rated the tents based on our experiences and how their specs held up in practice. The pitch of a tent with narrow side walls and little usable space may have high peak height on paper, but it isn’t ideal. A small tent with well-designed storage can also feel larger despite its small footprint. For all evaluations, we sought to find the perfect balance between price and performance. In these detailed reviews, we do our best to explain our reasoning. – Will McGough, Manager of Tents

Salt Creek SL2: Big Agnes

Overall: 4.8 out of 5

(Photo: Courtesy Big Agnes)

Livingability: 4.9

Salt Creek SL2 is costlier than other tents we tested, but it weighs the least. Despite its three doors — two on each side and one at the front — testers raved about it. In Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, our testers enjoyed sun-filled days under the awning attached to the front door. With its nearly vertical sidewalls and top-of-class peak height of 44 inches, the Salt Creek boats feature an innovative hobbed-pole design. Its one drawback: a 28-square-foot floor that’s the smallest of all the tents here. The bed fits two occupants on standard sleeping pads, but it is tightly fitted.

4.8 Features

Salt Creek’s SL2 has two vestibules (10 square feet each) that provide plenty of storage space, which allows you to use more interior space. The interior of the case also includes five pockets, including a 26-by-20-inch shelf at the back wall that holds items like water bottles, clothes, and other items with little sagging. With everything stored in pockets or on the big shelf, my girlfriend and I had no trouble sleeping next to each other, and there was plenty of space around our heads and shoulders,” says one tester.

4.8 Strength/durability

With DAC aluminum poles, a half-mesh, half-20-denier polyester ripstop canopy is supported. Testers were impressed by the poles, bathtub floor, and durable canopy, but they were concerned about some of the design elements. “The plastic clip-in fly connectors need to be handled carefully in the wild so as not to break them,” one tester reported after a weekend in Colorado National Monument (none of ours broke). A polyurethane coating on the fly kept the tent dry during passing showers (20 mph wind gusts were no problem). It comes with chintzy aluminum stakes.

4.5 Breathability

With a half-mesh canopy, the Salt Creek SL2 strikes a balance between protection and ventilation, putting it in the middle of the pack when it comes to breathability. A test subject reported after a few humid nights in the Florida Everglades that he saw only minor condensation on the bottom half of the tent, even without a breeze.
$300; 3 pounds. 11 oz.

NEMO Aurora 2’s best features

Overall: 4.7 out of 5

(Photo: Courtesy Nemo)

Living Index: 4.7

This 32-square-foot tent tied for the longest interior (88 inches) and highest peak height (44 inches) in our test, but its cross-pole pitch ensures ample headroom throughout: A 6’2″ tester was able to sit anywhere in the tent without hitting his head. A large 52 by 28-inch D-shaped door makes it easy to exit and enter thanks to smooth zipper action.

4.9 Features

This tent offers more interior storage space than any other in the testing group. A triangular mesh net spanning the entire 52-inch width of the tent’s backside spans the entire inner wall, including two pockets on the outer wall for small items like a light. Our tester praises the tent’s enormous storage shelf at the back. “It’s like having a dresser drawer in there.” Add in two 9-square-foot vestibules, and you’ll have plenty of space to stash your stuff.

4.8 Strength/durability

Despite weighing less than 5 pounds, this tent has a tubular fiberglass floor, with a height of 16 inches on each end – the highest in our tests. With its 68-denier, PU-coated polyester floor and included ground sheet made of the same material, the fly is connected at the corners with metal eyelets, which bodes well for the long run. With a single, four-section hubbed main pole and a small cross pole for reinforcement, the Aurora maintains its strength while being easy to set up. On Colorado’s Grand Mesa, the 68-denier polyester fly (with a waterproof coating) withstood wind gusts of 32 mph.

4.4 Breathability

There is a three-quarter mesh design on both the head and foot of the Aurora, but only half mesh on the doors. As a result, wind and dust are protected more effectively, but it does sacrifice some airflow. After a trip through Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, our tester told us, “You can peel back the fly at night and see the stars” without worry of dust or wind blowing into the room. “But when the fly was zipped down, there was condensation along the sides. ”

$250; 4 pounds. 9 oz.

AlpinHelix 2 is the strongest

4.6 / 5 Overall

(Photo: Courtesy ALPS Mountaineering)

Livingability: 4.4

Our testers enjoyed sleeping without rubbing shoulders or brushing up against the tent walls during the night, because the Helix 2 has 31.5 square feet of interior space, more than average for tents in this class. However, it also has one of the lowest peak heights in the test at 41.5 inches, so sacrificing some space for its low weight and best-in-class packability –about the size of a two-liter soda bottle.

4.3 Features

A water bottle can fit inside each of the pockets at each corner of this tent. Although our testers appreciated the tent’s roomy interior, when compared to other tents in this test, the storage space left them unimpressed.

4.8 Strength/durability

Nylon is the only material used in the canopy and fly of the Helix 2. We found our test subjects found that the fly’s silicone/PU coating prevented sagging in hot, humid southern Florida even when nylon absorbs more water than polyester. One of the crosspoles is split into two in the three-pole design, which reduces weight by eliminating the need for an extra pole. As opposed to meeting in the middle, the poles angle out above the door (spreading out from the ceiling) and slip directly into aluminum eyelets, providing wind and weather protection. The fly did not flail in the Everglades when we had winds of 30 mph. Despite the 20-denier nylon and silicone/PU coating, the floor is not very heavy. A metal eyelet and a solid aluminum stake that refused to bend add to the durability in the details.

4.7 Breathability

Despite having bathtub floors that are 6.5 inches high, the canopy of the Helix 2 is entirely made of mesh. During 80°F days, the strut vents on the fly kept the air flowing, and condensation was never an issue.

250 dollars; 4 pounds. 2 oz.

Mountain Hardwear Mineral King 2 has the best ventilation

Overall: 4.5 out of 5

(Photo: Courtesy Mountain Hardwear)

Livingability: 4.4

The Mineral King’s long center pole lays across two cross poles and creates vertical walls and a nearly rectangular interior headspace, complementing its 43-inch peak height. Three feet of space on each floor as well as two vestibules (10 square feet each) allowed two 6′ tall men to sleep comfortably on each floor without touching the walls or each other. The one of them says she had plenty of room around her feet and head when she laid down.

4.5 Features

Two of the pockets on the Mineral King can accommodate large water bottles. It has five pockets for storage. The doors are the largest in the test, measuring 64 inches in width by 29 inches in height, best in class. You won’t find a better entry/exit solution than the Mineral King.

Strongness/durability: 4.4

Testers were equally confident camping in wet south Florida or on rocky ground in southern Utah with a fly made of 68-denier polyester, a body that includes both 68- and 75-denier poly, and bathtub floors. To provide a stable pitch, DAC aluminum poles and a cross pole are pre-bent and hubbed. Even with 20 mph gusts, there was no instability, according to one tester. When using plastic connectors for flies and hookstakes, be cautious at the corners since they may bend easily.

4.8 Breathability

A 7-inch bathtub floor and mesh walls help the Mineral King to be rated best-in-class for ventilation. Even with the vestibules closed on a hot day with temperatures in the low-80s, two fly vents kept air moving.

250 dollars; 5 pounds. 13 oz.

Poler 2+ Person Tent is the most spacious

Overall: 4.4 out of 5

(Photo: Courtesy Poler)

Livingability: 4.4

The Mineral King’s long center pole lays across two cross poles and creates vertical walls and a nearly rectangular interior headspace, complementing its 43-inch peak height. Three feet of space on each floor as well as two vestibules (10 square feet each) allowed two 6′ tall men to sleep comfortably on each floor without touching the walls or each other. The one of them says she had plenty of room around her feet and head when she laid down.

4.5 Features

Two of the pockets on the Mineral King can accommodate large water bottles. It has five pockets for storage. The doors are the largest in the test, measuring 64 inches in width by 29 inches in height, best in class. You won’t find a better entry/exit solution than the Mineral King.

Strongness/durability: 4.4

Testers were equally confident camping in wet south Florida or on rocky ground in southern Utah with a fly made of 68-denier polyester, a body that includes both 68- and 75-denier poly, and bathtub floors. To provide a stable pitch, DAC aluminum poles and a cross pole are pre-bent and hubbed. Even with 20 mph gusts, there was no instability, according to one tester. When using plastic connectors for flies and hookstakes, be cautious at the corners since they may bend easily.

4.8 Breathability

A 7-inch bathtub floor and mesh walls help the Mineral King to be rated best-in-class for ventilation. Even with the vestibules closed on a hot day with temperatures in the low-80s, two fly vents kept air moving.

250 dollars; 5 pounds. 13 oz.

Poler 2+ Person Tent is the most spacious

Overall: 4.4 out of 5

(Photo: Courtesy Kelty)

Livingability: 4.4

A steal at $120, the Wireless 2 is the most affordable tent that can still perform well. The tent’s 29 square feet of floor space makes it suitable for two people, but you’ll need to utilize its 20 square feet of vestibule space to get all your gear out of the way. “If you have anything inside, it starts to feel a bit cramped,” one tester says. Height of 43 inches offsets claustrophobia.

4.0 Features

With a weight of more than 7 pounds and a packed size of two watermelons, this tent isn’t ideal for the backcountry (although it could work in an emergency, especially if split between two packs). There are no interior pockets in the Wireless 2, so you will need to hang anything you may need from the provided ceiling loops. You shouldn’t expect anything flashy here, as the price tag is the main issue. One tester remarks, “The product has few bells and whistles, but you can make it work if you’re willing to get creative and don’t mind using the vestibules.”.

4.4 Strength/Durability

The resilient materials used in this shelter contribute to its weight. When you get to your destination, the tent’s 68-denier polyester fly provides a rock-solid pitch, while sleeves at each corner (rather than grommets) tighten the tent’s stance while pulling the bottom taut. After a breezy night on Oahu, Hawaii’s windward side, our tester reported that the Wireless held up well against 25-mph gusts and its three-quarter fabric canopy provides good insulation. Even when hammered into rocks, Kelty’s aluminum stakes did not bend. However, its plastic fly clips can go bad if not cared for properly.

4.0 Breathability

Using a three-quarter fabric, one-quarter mesh tent body provides additional protection from the elements when the fly is not in use, preventing dust or sand from blowing inside. Additional insulation is also provided during cold weather. While this design increases the tent’s airflow, it also makes it less breathable, resulting in condensation. When our Hawaii tester awoke, he found water on the side walls, despite it not raining.

120 dollars; 7 pounds. 5 oz.

The Scenes of a Mission

In early spring, we spent a gorgeous weekend at Canyonlands – bright skies, wildflowers blooming, warm sunshine. During our hike, we crossed slickrock over grassy prairies and slot canyons. The sky darkened as we watched the stars come out as we climbed a canyon wall at sunset. The sky became sharply chill after the sun had gone down. Despite my disappointment at not being able to see the stars, I felt compelled to retire to my tent with no fire permitted. I was surprised by the two portholes on the Poler 2-man when I returned to the ship. My back was shielded from the wind and chill as I lay on my back, warm and content. The author’s thanks go to Steve Donaldson, tester

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