With so many tents on the market nowadays, deciding which one to pick can be a daunting task. Online shopping is a super convenient way to browse the huge range of tents out there, especially for those of us on a busy schedule, and it’s also a great way to find the best deals around.
However, without an enthusiastic sales assistant close at hand, it’s up to you to figure out what all that technical tent lingo really means.
Two phrases you might have heard but might not fully understand are ‘freestanding tents’ and ‘non-freestanding tents’. Although both types of tents are great in different ways, it’s important that you understand the differences so that you can make an informed decision on which tent is the right one for you.
After all, tents aren’t cheap and you want to make sure that your investment will live up to your expectations.
Here, we’ll go through what freestanding and non-freestanding tents actually are, and then we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of each. And, in case you need pointing in the right direction, we’ve mentioned a few of our favorite freestanding and non-freestanding tents throughout.
Unsurprisingly, a freestanding tent can stand up freely – that is, they don’t need to be attached to anything else to keep their shape intact. The form is maintained via tent poles but nothing is pegged into the ground or tied to anything around the campsite. The self-contained structure means you can literally pick up the tent and plonk it down somewhere else without having to dismantle it.
Freestanding tents also tend to be double-walled. This is another phrase you might be unsure of, and it means that, in addition to the tent itself, there’s also a rainfly that goes over the stop of the tent for added protection.
So, to summarise, freestanding tents:
In contrast to freestanding tents, non-freestanding tents have a shape that relies on rope or cord attached to staked pegs. This doesn’t mean that they don’t use tent poles too, just that the poles alone are not enough to maintain the form. Often, trekking poles are used instead of ordinary tent poles. Typically, the staking occurs prior to the pole assembly during set-up.
You might have guessed it… a single-walled tent has just one wall – the one provided by the tent itself. The lack of an additional layer (the rainfly) means that this one wall is all that stands between the interior and the outside elements. Generally, non-freestanding tents are single-walled.
So, to summarise, non-freestanding tents:
Yes! Some tents don’t tick all the boxes of every category. For instance, you’ll find some freestanding tents that have opted for single-walled design, like the Black Diamond Firstlight. Plus, to make matters even more confusing, many people decide to stake out their freestanding tent anyway.
Staking out the main body of a freestanding tent makes the walls nice and taut and maximizes interior space, particularly in the corners. Similarly, staking out the rainfly maximizes vestibule space. And, if the weather takes a turn for the worse, it’s always reassuring to know your tent is anchored down.
And finally, semi-freestanding tents are a hybrid of the two. Sometimes they are lumped into either category rather than being classed as their own type of tent, but it’s good to be aware of them even though you might not see them that often. A great example of this is the Hornet Ultralight Tent produced by Nemo.
At one end, the form of this tent is provided by two poles as you’d expect from a freestanding tent, yet at the other end, there is just one pole and the shape depends on two stakes, as you’d expect from a non-freestanding tent.
However, using the criteria outlined above, you can generally spot the difference between a standing and a non-freestanding tent.
When you’re pitching a new tent that you’re still familiarizing yourself with, those first few attempts will generally be way quicker with a freestanding tent than with a non-freestanding tent.
Firstly, if it’s not particularly windy, you don’t have to bother hammering in those pesky stakes, which we all know can be a nightmare sometimes. Secondly, there are usually clear instructions on how to set up your tent, and these might be complemented with color-coded tent poles and quick clips, all of which save you heaps of time.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, if you found that you’ve put your tent in a bad spot, you can simply pick it up and put it in a better one. This is way easier than disassembling your whole tent and starting again from scratch, a would be the case with a non-freestanding tent.
Some ground is simply not stakeable. The soil might be too tough, or perhaps there happens to be a rock right where you were hoping to hammer in a stake. The fact that freestanding tents don’t depend on stakes for their shape means that you can be a bit more flexible when it comes to choosing a spot to camp in.
Sure, we do recommend a few stakes in case the wind picks up and to maximize interior space, but still, it doesn’t matter if you miss a few out. With a non-freestanding tent, stakes are essential, so this flexibility means you can pitch a freestanding tent on more terrain than you can a non-freestanding tent.
The fact that freestanding tents come with an optional rainfly gives you some options too – camp in the rain with your rainfly on or remove it to stargaze on those sunny nights, the choice is yours.
This all comes down to the double-walled nature of freestanding tents. With an outer layer designed to protect you from the elements, freestanding tents can afford to have a well-ventilated inner layer.
This is often made of breathable fabric so that condensation can leave your abode, and big mesh panels often feature too. Plus, on hot nights, you can even remove the rainfly entirely to keep yourself cool, something which isn’t an option for non-freestanding tents.
Again, this is largely due to the double-walled nature of freestanding tents. Put simply, with freestanding tents, you get two layers of protection compared to one layer with a non-freestanding tent. Plus, the inner layers can be used primarily for ventilation, leaving the outer layer free to be as tough as it needs.
On top of that, the added support of tent poles can help non-freestanding tents stand up to wind better than non-freestanding tents that generally use trekking poles rather than then poles and use fewer poles altogether.
The use of tent poles means the structures are freestanding tents are generally tauter, taller, and have steeper walls than non-freestanding tents. Steeper walls from bottom to top maximizes interior space, particularly in corner areas, giving you more room to spread out.
As much as double-walls provide some clear advantages, carrying a whole extra layer around with you is inevitably going to increase the weight of your camping gear. Plus, you’re going to have tent poles that a non-freestanding tent might not have (and if it does, it will likely use less).
You might be able to shed a bit of weight by not bringing stakes with you… but like we said, we recommend using at least a few even with a freestanding tent.
Similarly, carrying around an additional layer and more poles will add more bulk to your bundle so this is something to bear in mind, particularly if you’ll be carrying your tent on your back.
Although those first few pitches tend to be a lot easier with freestanding tents, with time, we reckon that setting up a non-freestanding tent is actually easier.
Learning how tight to set your guy lines and how long your trekking poles should be comes with time but, once you’ve got it, there are far fewer poles to assemble and clip to attach. Similarly, as your eye for a good pitching spot develops, you won’t waste time disassembling and reassembling your tent so you can move to a better one.
Unsurprisingly, the lack of a second wall means and heaps of tent poles makes non-freestanding tents, on the whole, considerably lighter than freestanding tents.
On a very similar note, the lack of an additional layer and using fewer poles means you can fold non-freestanding packs away into more compact bundles than you can with freestanding tents – a massive plus for backpackers.
As non-freestanding tents tend to be single-walled, just one layer of material is tasked with both protecting you from the elements and keeping you well ventilated. Even though a nice draft on hot nights is pleasant, the vents that would allow this would also let through unwanted rain and wind during a storm.
Therefore, there has to be a compromise, which is usually a lot less ventilation and slightly less weather protection.
Due to the minimal poles involved in shaping non-freestanding tents, they typically take an ‘A-framed’ shape. These sloping sides detract space from the interior of your tent, particularly in corner areas, unlike in freestanding tents that tend to have walls that are a lot straighter.
We’ve highlighted the key difference between freestanding and non-freestanding tents but there are, of course, many other factors you need to think about when choosing a tent.
The amount of vestibule space might play an important part in your decision-making, particularly if you’ll be camping with a lot of mucky gear. Although you might think that the steep walls of freestanding tents might equate to larger vestibules, this isn’t always the case and vestibule size varies considerably across both types of tent.
The semi-freestanding Nemo Hornet Elite 2 is a great choice if you want to max out on vestibule and sleeping space without tonnes of extra weight.
Similarly, you’ll find tents of both types that are constructed of all kinds of materials, some far more durable than others. And you’ll find standing and non-freestanding tents across the whole price spectrum. If you want good weather protection but don’t want to fork out for high-end materials, then freestanding is probably the way to go thanks to the double walls.
Alternatively, if you want to shed some weight but don’t trust paper-thin fabrics to last you very long, then maybe go for a non-freestanding tent made from slightly heavier durable material.
So, we’ve looked at the differences between freestanding and non-freestanding tents and we’ve weighed up the pros and cons of each, but what if you still can’t decide?
Well, the main thing to think about is the type of camping trips you’ll be going on. If you’ll be driving by car with your tent in the boot and are likely to experience some dramatic downpours, then we’d say definitely take the extra weight in exchange for the added comfort and protection of a spacious double-walled freestanding tent.
One option we’d definitely recommend is the MSR advance Pro 2, which offers great weather protection and has a spacious interior.
Having said that, there are some lightweight freestanding options out there, and one of the most popular choices at the moment is the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2. This ultralight freestanding tent is a great choice for backpackers, as it offers double-walled weather protection, you can pick it up and move it around the campsite, and yet it’s still ultralightweight.
However, although there are some exceptions if you’re going to be hiking up mountainsides with your tent on your back, then you’re most likely going to settle for less living space in exchange for a lighter and more compact load. Six Moon Designs make some great non-freestanding tents, and we’d definitely recommend the Skyscape Scout.
As you’ve seen, there are some key differences between freestanding and non-freestanding tents. But there are exceptions to the rules and, ultimately, which one you go for will depend on the types of trips you’ll be taking.
Factors such as price, durability, and vestibule space only make matters more complicated, but there really are some great options out there and it’s worth taking your time to find the tent that’s right for you.
Plus, at least now when you’re shopping online, you’ll know what you’re looking at when you see a tent described as freestanding, non-freestanding, single-walled, and double-walled – happy shopping (and camping)!
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.