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The Great Tent Debate: Free Vs Semi Vs Non-Freestanding

Read Time: Approximately 21 minutes

You’ve decided to go on an epic journey. You’re going to hike for miles through rugged terrain, and you need a tent that can withstand Mother Nature at her worst. Do you go for a freestanding or semi-freestanding tent, or maybe a trekking pole tent?

This may seem like an insignificant choice, but it makes a big difference in your hiking experience. Here are some of the differences between these types of tents so you can learn more about what will work best for you!

The main difference between trekking pole tents and others is the use of your trekking poles themselves in the construction. Trekking pole tents are favored in thru-hiking as they tend to be the lightest options leading to less carried weight. The free and semi-freestanding tents offer some other benefits like the ability to adjust camp placement, less tent space, and fewer tent stakes.

There are many nuances involved in this overall discussion; I want to dig deeper into each type of tent and why they are good and bad, along with a comparison to another tent type.

First, I will start with trekking pole tents because I prefer them, and I think they are the best option for thru-hiking when pounds matter.

What is a Trekking Pole Tent?

Many people looking into thru-hiking will hear tent terminology tossed around on YouTube, websites, and forums. One of the biggest ones they will frequently hear will be about freestanding vs. non-freestanding tents and trekking poles tents, so what does non-freestanding mean?

A tent that uses trekking poles instead of dedicated poles is referred to as a non-freestanding tent or a trekking pole tent. This allows trekking poles to become a multi-use item which is key to lowering your base weight for a long-distance trek, allowing sub-one pound shelter systems.

The big issue many appear to face is related to the use of trekking poles in setup and that you have to manage stakes and trekking poles to get the tent stood up correctly.

Are Trekking Pole Tents Any Good?

Personally, I feel all thru-hikers should focus on multi-use gear as opposed to single-use gear as this makes it far more valuable when ounces and pounds matter. I believe trekking pole tents will be the most dominant tent over the next ten years as people grow more comfortable with them.

As to value, with the removal of standard poles, the tents made from the standard fabrics like sil-nylon and sil-poly tend to be much less expensive along with significantly less heavy making them an ideal long-distance tent so then, is a trekking pole tent worth it?

I believe trekking pole tents offer a high value to the thru-hiker, from less weight to more multi-use they give all the benefits that a true thru-hiker wants and needs.

Let’s dive into the benefits of a trekking pole tent and also the drawbacks to help guide you deeper still!

Benefits to Trekking Pole Tents

There is a lot of benefits to choosing to carry a trekking pole tent, outside of the chance to carry a tent that’s is less than one pound in a Zpacks Plexamid, unheard of in a freestanding tent. Overall they typically feature enough benefits from the lighter weight, compactness, and much more.

Lighter Weight

At the core, a trekking pole tent is favored is due to the large weight savings they can provide to your gear. Modern DCF ultralight tents can weigh as little as 14oz ( or about 397 grams) whereas a similar freestanding tent would come in around 2 pounds 6 ounces (or around 1077 grams).

This is an amazing nearly 600 grams difference between the two at the lightest tent mark which works out to nearly 1.5 pounds! For much of overnight hiking, or similar shorter section hikes this may seem like little overall weight savings for the cost but a thru-hiker finds those pounds invaluable!

Near all thru-hikers will already be carrying trekking poles to help climb the peaks and descend into caps or towns, so in swapping to a non-freestanding tent they are just losing excess pounds from their backs!.

More Compact

Another key for a thru-hike is backpack space, the smaller a tent collapses for storage while hiking the better as this allows for a smaller pack to be purchased allowing additional base weight management.

One of the most commonly loved thru-hiking tents is the Zpacks Duplex, this is because it offers an amazing amount of space for a hiker while also being incredibly lightweight at a scant 19 oz (or 539 grams).

Most non-freestanding tent bodies will feature single walls, meaning they have no inner mesh and the mesh is connected to the fly on one big continuous single-wall tent build. This allows them to pack down much smaller as they use far fewer materials becoming far more lightweight tents.

In fact, a large amount of these tents can fit into their sacks at near or around the size of a Nalgene bottle, making them simple to carry in a much smaller backpack.

Without having dedicated poles also allows for you to store them in a horizontal layer in the backpack, as many with poles will have to have the tent stored vertically to give enough space to fit longer poles inside their backpack.

Easier to Replace a Broken Pole

When you use a trekking pole tent you aren’t bound by a manufacturer specific pole, if you should have a gear failure on the trail you only need to get back to the next town to make a purchase of a new trekking pole, you can find these at many sporting goods shops in nearly all towns.

This will allow you to get back to moving down the trail and not be stuck buying a new tent while you figure out manufacturer repairs or waiting for them to mail you a new pole spending days in town.

Additionally, if you are on the trail and this happens you can always pay attention as you are hiking to look for a stick that is close to the right height as this can be used in a pinch until you can reach a town.

These “emergency pitches” are a big advantage to having a non-freestanding tent, also there are frequently many additional loops on the top or similar areas where you can tie guy lines to tree branches or similar items to hold up a tent temporarily.

Better Performance in the Weather

Nearly all trekking pole tents have a lower roof than a similar freestanding tent as they are limited by the height of a trekking pole extension. This lower profile assists in helping divert heavy wind, rain, and sometimes snow.

In some tents, like the Dan Durston X-Mid 2P (also options for 1, and Dyneema 2P), this has been taken up to an even greater length, with all walls having a slight angle it causes wind diversion with limited stakes(4) but also helps to sluff off rain and snow like more high peaked tents!

As a note, I do currently use a Durston X-Mid 1P currently as the X-Mid geometry is amazing and due to this I have an X-Mid Pro (2P Dyneema) that is coming out in June as the tent is amazing and gives an AMAZING amount of interior space that’s unmatched in other trekking pole tents!

Drawbacks to Trekking Pole Tents

As with any tent, there can be some drawbacks or issues that can be caused by having a trekking pole tent that should be addressed to ensure you have the complete picture.

Non-Freestanding Tents Are Less Versatile

There are times where not being freestanding comes as a penalty like there are times on many trails where you can only pitch on platforms and for a trekking pole tent this can be incredibly frustrating.

Not that it can’t be done but you will have to learn to macgyver your setup to make it work by fitting a square peg in a round hole.

The next issue is if you are in an area you can’t pound stakes into, this can happen on asphalt, concrete, tent platforms (like mentioned above), and then on mountain tops (as they are mostly rock) without some unique setup work.

Remember that in a pinch you can put your stake through a line and then use a rock to anchor it in place if you are unable to find a way to keep a stake buried in the ground without issue, always look outside the box!

Learning Curve to Pitching

Unlike a freestanding tent where you have specific places for poles and the ability to pick up the tent and move it after setup with a trekking pole tent, this isn’t possible you have to choose a site and space right up front.

If you want to be best prepared you should learn some basic knots in case you need to tie off to trees or other places at times, the most common being trucker’s hitch and bowline.

I would say setting up your tent in your yard just to become familiar with the setup routine, but then try and test setting it up with rocks like the ground is not peg-friendly so that you have a grasp of the skill and rock size you need once on the trail.

Learn to adjust your trekking poles for variations in ground height and also how low you can pitch to cut out airflow from below and then how high do you need to go to capture a cool breeze for those hotter days.

Collapse Is Plausible

A trekking pole tent is always a stake away from a collapse, something a freestanding tent doesn’t have an issue with.

Some ground types are just prone to stakes pulling loose with heavy weather, water saturates the ground allowing slippage or winds hitting the tent forcefully pulling a stake.

Condensation

A large amount of non-freestanding tents are single-wall, this means there is no inner separate part of the tent which can cause condensation issues if not properly vented and the walls (or ceiling) aren’t steep enough.

If not managed well you can get water condensation falling on you from the ceiling onto you causing your sleeping bag or quilt to get wet along with you and this makes down gear perform worse than rated.

This is the trade-off for most on a DCF, or Dyneema Composite Fabric, tent, like for example, a Duplex and its Dyneema fabric is incredibly waterproof, so waterproof that water can’t escape or get in.

This makes it excellent at performing in poor weather as it won’t wet out, it won’t hold in that water, and make the fabric heavier. These are incredible benefits but you really need to set up where you can get good airflow to pull out the moisture you breathe out all night, it’s more than you think!

On a double-wall tent, there is a separation from you and the tent outer surface so you get far less condensation due to increased airflow.

Weight Savings

If you compare the lightest tents between trekking pole and freestanding you will find that the trekking pole versions will be at least a pound lighter. Many times this is greater than a pound depending on how complex a freestanding tent you choose as the more poles the heavier they will tend to be.

Overall, for most looking to go for an ultralight approach and get their base weight under ten pounds, you will more than likely require a non-freestanding ultralight shelter as there are few gear options in your pack that allow drops of a pound of weight in a single piece of gear!

Tension-Based

A trekking pole tent requires consistent tension to help the tent keep its shape and resilience to inclement weather, if the stakes get loose and it starts to slip then the tent can easily cave in.

The tension drives the entire stability of the structure, so making sure you have anchored your tent stakes correctly and that they stay deep in the ground is vital to comfort over any length of time.

This is another reason why thru-hikers flock to Dyneema tents as they don’t sag with rainy weather and condensation buildup where a PU-Nylon or Sil-Nylon can tend to sag over time and need some re-staking to tension correctly, the one big point I hate on my Lanshan 2 tent and why I am going to a Dyneema tent shortly.

Location Location Location

A huge issue for most on a move to a non-freestanding tent is the need to choose a campsite before ever setting up the tent itself. Since these tents need stakes and trekking poles to set up if you find you run out of space, have roots, or have other issues where you want to shift your site you need to break down camp basically.

This can lead to a lot of irritation the first time on a trail if you don’t have a good understanding of the campsite your tent requires. This is a key before you hit the trail to understand how long and wide your tent is, I did this the first time with heel-toe measuring as this was easy to replicate on the trail.

Harder To Enter

Typical freestanding tents will have large doors open to easy access to get inside, the issue with a trekking pole tent is the poles have to be placed towards the middle for the main support and ceiling height but this typically causes doors to be chaos.

For example, on a Duplex tent, the poles are in the middle of the doors, many trekking pole tents will try their best to offer offset doors from the trekking poles but this tends to also make doors smaller and tighter to fit through.

Other tents, like the Ultamid2 for example, feature a pyramid shape with a trekking pole in the very middle of their tent which means it can be a problem to move around once inside the tent and easy to knock over should you hit the pole with enough force.

Trekking Pole Tents Vs Freestanding Tents

Overall there is a substantial amount of positives to choosing a trekking pole tent instead of a freestanding tent. Personally, I would always rather carry significantly less weight over the course of a thru-hike and be comfortable, especially if I’m not having to sacrifice much in protection from the weather.

That said, freestanding tents are still an excellent option for car camping or shorter trips where you don’t mind a bit more weight and want the ease of setup that comes with it!

What is a Freestanding Tent?

When you read the specs for a manufacturer’s tent they may list that it is a freestanding tent, what does freestanding mean? Let’s talk quickly as to why this matters and why some love them and others don’t care for them.

A freestanding tent can hold its shape and don’t require being staked out to hold their shape. A freestanding pole gets its structure from the tent poles which are included with it. They are also not anchored to the ground allowing easy movement of the campsite by just picking up the tent as a whole.

There are many hugely popular tents on the big trails and little trails that are freestanding from the Big Agnes range of tents to Nemo and their lines of awesome tents.

These all frequently are a double-walled tent with an inner mesh frequently paired with an outer rainfly to keep condensation down and to allow for removal of the rainfly and stargaze on nicer nights.

Generally speaking, many first-time thru-hikers will end up choosing a freestanding tent due to their overall easier setup, overall stability, protection, and large interior living space.

Benefits to Freestanding Tents

There are a load of good points to choosing a freestanding tent and if you aren’t a gram weenie overall there are some good quality tents that may perfectly fit your needs, let’s talk about the pros to a freestanding tent!

More Open to Campsite Choice

Choosing to carry a freestanding tent allows you more campsite options than a non-freestanding tent as you don’t have to find a ground area that can take staking.

You are able to pitch it on platforms without issue, rock, and similar areas with no concern which means you have the freedom to set up camp literally anywhere!

Readjusting Tent While Pitched

If you have a non-freestanding tent you have encountered the issue where you get through 1/2 the tent set up only to realize it is not going to fit how you expected into the campsite.

This is where a freestanding tent works in your favor, they can easily be picked up and fully moved to wherever they will fit without requiring a breakdown to move them.

Faster to Setup

As with the above, a freestanding tent gives you much more flexibility which leads to a faster camp set up for many as there is no need to evaluate the site first to whether the tent will fit or not.

The tent pitches the same exact way every single time without having to run complex math in your head. On top of that, the ability to shift at a moment’s notice is a powerful tool for the people who bring freestanding tents.

Simple to Clean Out Inside

One thing that I personally love about a freestanding tent is the ability to just lift and shake it out, this is something I just don’t get in my trekking pole tents and it means clean up sucks for me.

This may seem small but over a week you slowly can accumulate a lot of crap inside your tent, things like dirt, bugs, tree debris, and so much more that is simple to clean out with a freestanding tent since the poles help keep everything open to simply dump out!

Overall More Sturdy

In general, a freestanding tent is more sound structurally due to the pole structure that they use. Unlike a trekking pole tent, the main poles on a freestanding tent don’t need the fabric to be perfectly tight to maintain stability.

In a freestanding tent, you may stake it to give it some more anchoring to the ground as there have been times where a breeze could pick it up and carry it off, but if these fall out in the middle of the night nothing changes in the tent as it won’t collapse.

Depending on how your tent is designed it can be very sturdy in inclement weather because the poles lend more rigidity to the overall structure leaving you typically more buffered from the elements!

Better Ventilation

A tent with two walls almost always lends itself to less overall condensation as the airflow is allowed to move all around and take out the moisture instead of locking it in.

With the mesh inner on many freestanding tents, you get the chance for all the moisture to evaporate instead of it recondensing into water droplets on the tent walls or ceiling like a single wall tent will experience.

Rainfly First Pitch

A nice benefit to a freestanding shelter is that for most you can pitch the tent with just the rainfly which helps in bad weather to get yourself out of something like heavy rainfall.

Then you can assemble the inner while in much better circumstances, while this isn’t viable on all tents it may be a key for you when looking at tents where you would find this to be valuable.

No Trekking Poles Required

This is a huge benefit for those people who choose not to carry trekking poles, no matter how weird you are with your superhuman legs absorbing punishment I sometimes wish I was in that camp!

This can also be nice if you choose to set up camp and then want to take a short hike up to a viewpoint, it allows you to continue to bring trekking poles that others would have to leave behind.

More Spacious

In general, a freestanding tent will be more spacious with wider walls and higher overall ceilings due to the pole structure. This can give them an almost palatial feeling to some of these tents even with a similar floor space of a trekking pole tent.

Additionally, a high ceiling allows you to sit up and chill inside your tent at the beginning or end of a day and if needed move around inside without feeling like it closes in on you.

When you have a total rainout day where you would rather zero in the campground you have the interior space to enjoy the downtime with some muscle rolling.

A nice high ceiling makes it much simpler to change your clothing in the tent along with a much better experience in packing back up to leave in the morning.

Drawbacks to Freestanding Tents

There are some amazing good points to a freestanding tent but there are some painful drawbacks that come with it, let’s take a look at them in more detail.

Generally Heavier

Overall due to having dedicated poles a tent that is freestanding will generally weigh more than other tents, especially a trekking pole tent. Also due to generally being double-wall, they have more materials that add even more weight than other tents may not have.

As I stated up in the trekking pole section above you will easily drop around 1 pound off the top by switching to a trekking pole tent from a freestanding model.

Typically More Bulky to Carry

Due to the poles, the tents can’t be broken down into smaller parts, typically being limited to the longest pole length, this can lead to issues with your backpack meaning a larger pack or more liters to fit upright.

When you try to roll up a double-wall tent and pack it away it can be bulkier also due in large part to the rainfly and inner mesh taking up space which can quickly add up to significant liter space inside the backpack.

This can be somewhat mitigated by deciding to carry the poles or other parts in an outside pocket freeing up some space internally though depending on the backpack or the hiker.

This may be less than helpful as many thru-hiking packs like the Zpacks Arc Blast and the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest really have a main pack space and limited external storage space.

Poor Wind Performance

The wind is a freestanding tents nightmare as the pole and structure tends to help convert your tent into a sail, there is an amazing video of a tent flying off into the great beyond I will put below as it is sad but hilarious also:

This is why staking a tent, even a freestanding one is important if you aren’t going to be active in it the whole time, or your backpack, something with weight and heft needs to be inside at all times!

This is where a trekking pole tent can do well due to the lower profile they aren’t frequently catching the breeze but more deflecting it.

Staking Is Still Required

As stated above, staking is vital on a tent regardless of the type but while the stakes help assemble the entire structure on a non-freestanding tent on a freestanding tent they help anchor a tent to the ground.

Sometimes the rainfly will need to be staked to give you the most vestibule space possible, this will depend on the tent model.

Much More Fragile

The issue with tent fragility on a freestanding tent comes from the poles themselves if you break a pole, which is typically fiberglass or aluminum you are in a heap of trouble as you can’t easily swap out a stick nor order a replacement pole on the trail.

Since these poles are made of lightweight materials it doesn’t take all that much impact or weight to cause them to bend too far and crack or bend beyond the point of repair, this can leave you stuck in town waiting on a sent pole or having to buy a whole replacement tent.

Since the poles are the tent, the loss of any single tent pole destroys your ability to set it up in any way to create livable space for a night, let alone through stormy conditions. Poles are proprietary and getting them on the trail in a timely manner is nearly impossible.

Freestanding Tents Vs Semi-Freestanding Tents

So freestanding tents have shown some strong performance benefits along with some issues that could derail your enjoyment. There is a somewhat middle ground in tents called the semi-freestanding tent which provides poles but they only support somewhat similar to trekking poles giving you a mix of non-freestanding and freestanding functionality.

What is a Semi-Freestanding Tent?

The last option in the current realm of tents is kind of a blurred line version of both the above trying to get the benefits of both and also cutting down on the drawbacks both have, so what is a semi-freestanding tent?

A semi-freestanding tent is a blend of a few solid poles where the stakes manage the tension of the tent but do not require trekking poles. Many semi-freestanding tents will end up lumped in with freestanding tents on manufacturer websites.

There are a few easy ways to figure out which type of tent it is, looking to see if it has a complete pole structure or if it isn’t and hopefully mentioning the use of stakes in the configuration and set up.

One of the more recent crowd favorites is the REI Co-op Flash Air 2, which actually comes with poles that you can choose to bring with you or leave the poles at home and choose to use your trekking poles in their place.

This gives the benefits of both without the same issues and limitations that would typically happen. Since they are a mix of setups, each tent will be more unique as to its strengths and weaknesses so you will need to investigate each independently.

Semi-Freestanding Tents Vs Trekking Pole Tents

These are very close to each other and are in direct competition with one another, the main difference is that trekking pole tents require the use of trekking poles and semi-freestanding doesn’t require them but can make use of them in a pinch.

Final Thoughts on Thru-Hiking Tents

Your shelter is one of your most crucial pieces of equipment. After all, it’s what protects you from the rain and wind, as well as insects and other creatures. It’s critical to get a tent that keeps you dry and comfortable in a variety of weather conditions.

The difference between freestanding and non-freestanding tents all comes down to weight. If you’re a lightweight hiker searching for the lightest possible shelter, a non-freestanding design is a way to go. Especially if you’ll be using trekking poles.

If you are looking for the right shelter for you I have a lot of tents broken down by purpose over here on my best tents page, growing over time to present only the best that I can find!

I would love to hear your thoughts on freestanding tents in the comments below. Do you prefer them? What are your reasons? And as always, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!

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