A tent and a backpack can be your key to the great outdoors and nearly limitless adventure. With so much of life flying by at breakneck speeds, especially in our urban jungles, camping is becoming more of a necessity. Getting out and spending some nights in nature is a skill though that many of us have to relearn.
One of the most fundamental aspects of that is having a reliable shelter. Knowing how to pack a tent in a backpack so that it is properly packed and at the ready is fundamental in some cases and there might be more to it than you think.
To pack or not to pack a tent
If you scour the internet for solutions and how to’s for packing a tent into your particular bag it is almost a certainty that you will find little videos and bullet-pointed lists which give you a quick and easy step by step. This article will cover those steps of course (scroll down if you want to get right to it) but, more importantly, it is first necessary to understand whether or not you should even be bringing a tent in your pack in the first place.
Why go through the trouble of lugging a relatively heavy and bulky tent if another option might work better for you? No matter where you fall on the spectrum of experience, whether you are a first-time camper or the next Bear Grylls there are solid reasons to not bring a traditional tent at all.
Camping and backpacking, as an act, can be about many things. It is a communion with nature, a test of endurance and strength, a retreat from the frenetic pace of life, and sometimes a necessity. If you have spent your entire life mostly sleeping indoors then an initial foray into camping can seem a bit daunting. Where do you even start? Definitions of “real camping” are varied with some swearing by a cushy RV parked next to a communal bathroom and shower and others thinking that anything short of a 15-mile hike into the mountains doesn’t count.
Decision making for the brand new camper
When it comes to the tent question here are some basic questions you need to ask yourself to help you decide. The first question should be, how comfortable (read experienced) am I with not sleeping in a bed? If the very idea shocks you but you want to spend that time away from home and out in nature then you have some options. A tent is not your best one. To spend a night in nature you will very likely want to sleep at some point so here are your options. First, an RV can be parked in a rented campsite just off of the road. These sites often have amenities like running water, toilets, etc. Just be aware that some might call this “glamping” or glamorous camping because of the luxuries relative to other types of camping.
If an RV isn’t your style then one of your other options is to sleep in your vehicle. The same approach, just with less space. You’ll still be near nature, you’ll still be cooking on a camp stove, and you’re still technically camping. Similar to this you might also want to consider renting a cabin or even a pre-built luxury tent such as a bell tent. These cabins and tents can come equipped with small kitchens and even proper beds. If you read all this and think to yourself “RVs, vehicles, and cabins just don’t cut it, I hear the call of the wild!” then read on. Learning to pack a tent, and being aware of the other options available, is just the beginning.
Decision making for the more experienced camper
If you, when considering tent camping, asked yourself the question, “How comfortable am I with not sleeping in a bed?” and thought, “Hmmm, sounds like a fun challenge,” then this is a good starting point for you. This opens you up to some more advanced forms of camping but also brings with it some new and very important questions. It still isn’t a given that you should bring a tent and, depending on your skill in the outdoors, a tent might just get in the way. The alternatives each come with a different degree of skill and should only be used if you know exactly what you are doing.
A common non-tent option is something known as “roughing it”. This is basically just you, a sleeping bag (maybe), and the ground. It doesn’t get simpler than that. You sleep out under the stars in an unadulterated connection with nature. Similar to this is the use of a hammock. Some people swear by them and camp with nothing more than their hammock. You just sling it up between two trees and hop in. Both options are very lightweight, very easy to set up and break down, but also leave you very exposed.
You could also include bivvy bags and bivvy tents with the above options. These are basically structures that enclose you and a sleeping bag and add a layer of protection between you and the environment. The bivvy tents are mostly tent-like because they have some structural support but you can’t really do more than lay down inside them.
The last practical non-tent option is to make your own sleeping structure. This can be done in many ways. One of the most common approaches is to carry a tarp and then just string it up between some trees. Voila, instant shelter! You can also make more advanced structures with branches, leaves, mud, and even snow. That is advanced camping and should never be relied on unless you know exactly what you are doing.
Packing tents for different climates
So, how do you decide between attempting one of the above or just bringing a tent? The next questions all sort of fit together to create a picture of what sort of sleeping arrangements you might need. You must ask yourself, what will the weather/climate/environment be like? How long will I be camping/hiking? And how difficult will it be to reach the nearest town and shelter?
The first question is a matter of life or death. Weather, climate, and overall environment should be the determining factors in how you camp or if you even camp at all. Wet and cold can definitely be a camper’s worst nightmare but so can dry and hot. The more extreme weather conditions and climate changes, the more experienced and prepared you need to be. As a general rule if you can put the word “very” in front of climate descriptor and you’re going to be outside in it then you will probably need a tent. So, if it is very cold, very wet, very hot, or very dry. Even with a regular cold, wet, hot and dry you should have a tent.
You also have to consider the overall environment, the plants, and animals around you. Snakes, bugs, and other critters can be seriously dangerous. Even in a nice temperate environment, you wouldn’t want to be roughing it on the ground near a poisonous snake.
Tents are meant as a barrier against the extremes of nature and they can protect both you and your equipment. Nature can be extreme in subtle ways though. This is why you must also decide how long you’ll be camping/hiking and how far you’ll be from a town, people, or good shelter. A very long hike, or even a relatively short hike which takes you far from people, should both be very well prepared for. On a long hike, you might get injured or sick and a tent provides a safer shelter to recover in. A shorter hike can easily turn in to a longer hike for similar reasons. Injuries happen and sometimes you have to spend a night somewhere you didn’t expect.
If you can consider all these factors and feel you don’t need a tent then you get to enjoy the luxuries of a simpler, lighter weight camping experience. No need to worry about packing a tent. Otherwise, read on to learn the essential methods and things to consider when packing a tent into your bag.
How to pack a tent in a backpack, a primer
Packing a tent in a backpack implies that there must be some hiking involved to reach your campsite. Otherwise, you could just toss the tent in the back of your vehicle and be on your way. For hikers equipped with the right gear, you will either have an internal frame or an external frame hiking backpack to get you on your way. Not all packs are created equal though! Especially when it comes to lugging your tent from point A to point B.
For those of you without a hiking backpack, you should get yourself an internal frame pack. If you are already own an external frame pack or, some other type of backpack, and don’t want to get another then hang in there. There are some techniques for you to consider when it comes to packing your tent.
An internal frame backpack is, by far, the best pack to have when it comes to packing away your tent for an adventurous hike. These packs are typically built with aluminum stays along the back which gives it rigidity while also allowing for more room. Before refining your packing technique it is important to check that your tent simply fits into the backpack you have. It should be able to fit inside with enough room below it for your sleeping bag and enough room above it for additional storage.
If you don’t have at least this much space then either your pack is too small or your tent is too big. If you can get away with it buy a smaller tent. You will always want more storage room on a hike but carrying a bigger and heavier tent every day quickly grows tiring. You might also want to invest in a compression sack that can be used to house your tent and squeeze it down to its smallest size possible.
As a general rule when packing your bag you should pack the heaviest items and least used items near the bottom of your pack. This might include your sleeping bag, which comes out last anyway, some of your clothes, maybe a sleeping pad. These heavier items can really strain your back so keeping them near the bottom of the pack is best.
This provides for a better center of gravity and makes it much easier to hike with a heavier pack for long periods of time. Your tent can then go in vertically or horizontally depending on size and space needs. It is best to keep the heavy tent as close to the middle of the pack and against your back as possible. If your pack has any internal straps you should use them to hold the tent in place so you can then pack around it.
The remaining space in front of and on top of your packed tent should be used for easy access daily essentials, the things that you will want to regularly access. This includes food, snacks, maps, sunscreen, a first aid kit and such. Water bottles, headlamps, and other quick-access items can go into the side pockets while trekking poles can be strapped outside of your pack.
The overall weight of your pack shouldn’t exceed more than a third of your body weight. On a backpacking trip the less you carry the more your body will thank you. Weight can be offset by having a hip belt on your backpack and any seasoned backpacker will probably recommend this.
What if my backpack doesn’t have an internal frame or enough room?
The next best thing to an internal frame backpack is an external frame backpack when it comes to long hikes and camping. The internal frame offers support and more room inside while the external frame offers support and more room outside the pack to attach things. If you can’t pack your tent in your bag you might want to strap it to the outside of your bag.
This isn’t the best option though. With your tent strapped to the outside of your bag, it is more likely that it will get wet, torn or even fall off and be lost. There are things you can do to minimize this risk though. First, you must keep your tent in a waterproof and tear-proof bag if it is outside your pack. You must also strap it down to the bag and/or tie it securely so that even if it is jarred or slips from the bag it is strongly attached. When placed externally it is best to put the tent on the bottom of your bag as this will also help keep a good center of gravity and put less strain on your back.
How do I repack the tent?
If you have ever tried putting a tent back into the carrying bag it originally came in after having used it for a night then you know how frustrating this can be. The tent repacking process can be better though. First, you can start by simply cleaning and drying all the tent poles and pegs and putting them back into their bags. Then you must layout the tent in the flattest most spread out form possible. Ideally, you should let it dry fully on both sides before repacking it otherwise it will be much harder to pack and much heavier.
Once everything is laid out and dry you can then set the tent poles (in their bag) along the middle of one edge of the tent. Fold in the sides of the tent if you need so that you have a long rectangle with tent poles along one short edge. Next, start rolling up the tent using the tent poles as a sort of backbone for the rolled tent.
Along the way, before you finish rolling up the tent you should add the tent pegs (in their bag) into the fold to add more rigidity and support to the final rolled tent. Basically, you’re making the tent into a long rectangle and then rolling it up with the tent poles and tent pegs inside to give it structure.
Once this is all rolled up and ready to go you can try fitting the tent back into its original bag. This should be easier with the rigidity of the tentpoles as a base. If this still proves too difficult though you can try buying a compression sack which is bigger than the rolled-up tent. This will allow you to place the rolled tent in the sack and then use compression straps along the side to tighten it and compress the whole thing.
Many people are under the impression that camping requires a tent but this is not the case. You have to camp at the level that suits your skill, willingness, and environment. This means that a tent isn’t always necessary. When a tent is necessary though it helps to pack it right. An internal frame hiking backpack will always serve you well as long as the tent is properly cared for and stowed away correctly.
A word of extreme importance though before you head out the door on your adventures, practice at home. If the tent is new or the bag is new or if any equipment is new then you must use it at home before you go. Try setting up the tent, taking it down and packing it up. Trying walking around your neighborhood with your hiking pack filled with everything you intend to bring.
It is always better to find out you don’t know how to do something while you are still in your living room than when you are twenty miles from another person. Preparation makes for a good adventure.
Bonus tip: Check out these 10 camping hacks to make your next adventure a little smoother!