Differences and Use Cases of Camping vs Backpacking Tents

couple pitching tent

The world of camping gear is filled to the brim with variations of similar products, which can make it incredibly challenging to figure out what exactly you need to buy. While confusing, these small variations can make a massive difference when the gear hits the trail.

Camping and backpacking tents are great examples of how two things can be similar but still different. For beginner campers, the standoff of camping vs. backpacking tents will come down to a few main characteristics, including the size and weight, comfort, and various features that are included. But it doesn’t stop here.

A camping tent can be as big as you want, meaning the material will be heftier, more weather resistant, more spacious, and more feature-rich overall. A backpacking tent is designed to be compact, lightweight, and easy to set up and take down.

What’s the difference between a backpacking and a camping tent?

The primary difference between these two is that a camping tent is much larger, heavier, and more spacious than any backpacking tent. They’re designed to provide comfort, while a backpacking tent works for a balance of comfort and portability.

When you’re hiking twenty miles per day, you don’t want a hefty canvas tent strapped to your back, no matter how waterproof it may be. But when you’re setting your tent up right where your car is parked, that doesn’t matter nearly as much.

This main difference encompasses all the different features of a tent. Each area is worth considering as you debate which is right for you.

Camping Tent Backpacking Tent
Structure More spacious Compact and often cramped
Material Canvas, nylon, polyester Nylon
Construction Heavy duty and durable More fragile
Weather resistance Mild to extreme Moderate, depending on model
Size Large Compact
Weight Much heavier Lightweight
Comfort Built for comfort Sacrifices space for portability
Setup Can be highly involved Quick and simple
Features More features, multiple spaces, extensive pockets A few pockets

Looking at all the different features, it’s easy to see that a backpacking tent seems to fall short in most categories. But that can be highly debatable as it depends on what you’re hoping to use your tent for.

Backpacking tents are designed to be small, compact, and portable. This means they must use lightweight material that packs into a small bag. Camping tents don’t need to do much more than fold up and be crammed into your car’s trunk, so they have no size restrictions.

What is considered a regular camping tent?

Regular camping tents can be almost any kind of tent. A camping tent is designed with comfort in mind more than anything else. That means it will often have a thicker, more durable fabric that will stand up to harsher weather and can take a beating.

Choosing a canvas tent as your camping tent will keep you warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. The fabric is durable, waterproof when treated, and highly breathable. Canvas is significantly heavier than any other tent material, meaning you won’t want to lug it very far.

Camping tents come in a variety of styles.

  • Dome
  • Tunnel
  • Cabin
  • Wall
  • Springbar
  • Bell
  • Pop-up
  • Truck
  • Rooftop

Perhaps the best tent design for new campers on a budget is a simple dome or tunnel tent.

A regular camping tent allows you to have space inside, sometimes even enough to stand up straight and get changed rather than wiggling in and out of pants while fully horizontal.

What is considered a backpacking tent?

Backpacking tents, on the other hand, don’t provide the spacious luxury that most regular camping tents do. The best backpacking tents might allow you to sit up straight, but not much more than that. They’re designed to be light and easy to pack in a small backpacking pack.

These small, compact, lightweight tents are typically made from lighter, more fragile materials. Some designs utilize a large amount of mesh, some stick to nylon, and some rely on hiking poles instead of tent poles.

Now, with the specialization of a backpacking tent, many options exist:

  • Ultralight
  • Tarps
  • Bivys
  • Hammocks
  • Single wall
  • Double wall
  • Non-free standing
  • Trekking pole
  • Hot tent

It’s essential that when you’re just starting, don’t let all of these options overwhelm you.

The best advice is to go with a basic, lightweight, freestanding, double-wall tent design and use it for a while. This will give you a better idea of whether you want to expand and try something different or are happy with a basic setup.

When to Use a Backpacking vs. Camping Tent

Each of these tents will shine in certain areas, as they both have a right time and place to use them. When making the decision, you need to be able to visualize when you plan on using the tent.

Will you be hiking long distances with the tent strapped to your back? Are you even going to be hiking short distances with it?

Or do you plan on doing mostly car camping? You like to pull off to a campground and have all your accessories and amenities available.

This is the first place to start before even looking at tents. Know what you want to do, and make a choice from there.

When to Get a Camping Tent

Camping tents

If you’re looking to go camping but aren’t interested in hiking before you get to sleep, a regular camping tent might be the best option for you.

Many times, people will choose a camping tent when they’re planning on driving a long distance and are choosing campgrounds over hotels, they’re going camping with a big family, or they just prefer to stick to structured campgrounds over wild camping.

There are a lot of positives to getting a camping tent, but there are also a few drawbacks to keep in mind.


  • Heavy duty construction
  • Durable and long-lasting
  • Built to withstand severe weather
  • More affordable
  • Spacious and comfortable for multiple people or families
  • Lots of features


  • Heavy and bulky
  • Can be difficult to set up

When to Get a Backpacking Tent

Hiker by her backpacking tent

Now, if you want to try hiking down a trail and setting up a campground for the night, a backpacking tent will be more suited for the job.

The lightweight and compact design lets you fit the tent conveniently inside or strapped outside your backpack. They’re quick and easy to set up, so you can have shelter in just a few minutes when a storm is heading in.

But they aren’t perfect for everyone. There are plenty of drawbacks. In fact, there are a lot more drawbacks to a backpacking tent than a regular camping tent.


  • Lightweight and compact
  • Easy to set up
  • Portable
  • Good models are very wind and waterproof


  • Expensive
  • Less durable
  • Provide very little space
  • Very few extra features

Can you use a regular tent for backpacking?

The extra weight of a regular tent makes it a pretty poor choice for backpacking, and it’s something that I highly recommend you don’t bother trying.

I have personally used my regular tent for the first few backpacking trips I ever went on, but it didn’t take long to convince me that dropping the money for a nicer backpacking tent was well worth it.

Now, I have both and actually tend to use my backpacking tent for just about everything while the regular tent sits in storage collecting dust.

What to Get if You Only Get One Tent

If you’re single and only looking to get one tent, which makes a lot of sense, my advice is to grab a good backpacking tent.

But that is only if you’re likely to do any backpacking in the future. If you’re dead set on never hiking with a tent, then a regular tent is perfectly fine. You just need to know what you’ll do with it, and the decision should be pretty simple from there.

That being said, families with a lot of people that only want one tent will most likely need a regular camping tent. There are four-person backpacking tents, but they tend only to sleep about three people comfortably.

The backpacking tents available today are much more durable than those of the past, and you don’t need to buy the most lightweight model. You can buy a heavier backpacking tent with more space and use it for everything.

No matter what you end up buying, make sure it’s something that helps get you outside more. Get out and enjoy a night or two beneath the stars, waking up to the calling birds.