What is a Freestanding Tent?

What is a Freestanding Tent?

Freestanding tents are tents that can stand up by themselves making them easy to set up in different types of terrain from desert sands and snow-covered peaks to wooden tent platforms. Most freestanding tents are double-wall tents that have a separate inner tent and a rainfly to help prevent internal condensation from making your gear wet, although a handful of single-wall freestanding tents also exist, designed mainly by climbers and mountaineers.

If you’re shopping for a freestanding tent, you’re bound to come across some that are classified as semi-freestanding. Semi-freestanding tents are also freestanding but require several tent stakes to set up — mainly to stake out vestibules — while fully freestanding tents can be completely set up without any stakes at all. It’s a subtle distinction and not a terribly meaningful one since you should always stake out a tent to prevent it from blowing away in the wind or in bad weather. Even if tent stakes can’t be used, you should still anchor a tent with rocks or by burying tent stakes in the ground using sand stakes or deadmen. See How to Set up a Tent on Sand for more information on this topic.

Freestanding tents can be further broken down into three categories, which we describe in greater detail below:

  • Double-wall tents where the Inner Tent is set up first
  • Double-wall tents where the Rainfly is set up first
  • Single-wall tents

Here are some examples of each type:

Make / ModelDesignSetupWeightPrice
Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2Semi-FreestandingInner Tent First2 lbs 11 oz$450
Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL 2Semi-FreestandingInner Tent First2 lbs 3 oz$400
Nemo Hornet Elite 2Semi-FreestandingInner Tent First1 lb 11 oz$500
MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2Semi-FreestandingInner Tent First3 lbs 8 oz$450
Paria Outdoor Zion 2PSemi-FreestandingInner Tent First4 lbs 2 oz$170
SlingFin Portal 2Semi-FreestandingInner Tent First2 lbs 13 oz$485
Exped Lyra IISemi-FreestandingInner Tent First4 lbs 4 oz$249
Hilleberg Niak Semi-FreestandingRainfly First3 lbs 5 oz$800
Hilleberg UnnaSemi- FreestandingRainfly First4 lbs 7 oz$725
Terra Nova Southern Cross 1Fully FreestandingRainfly First3 lbs 4 oz$746
Exped Orion IIFully FreestandingRainfly First6 lbs 9 oz$649
Big Sky Chinook 2Fully FreestandingRainfly First4 lbs$600
Black Diamond Firstlight 2Fully FreestandingSingle Wall3 lbs$370
MSR Advance Pro 2Fully FreestandingSingle Wall2 lbs 14 oz$550
Mountain Hardwear AC 2Fully FreestandingSingle Wall3 lbs 7 oz$650

Double-Wall: Inner Tent First

Most of the semi-freestanding tents made by US-based manufacturers like Big Agnes, MSR, NEMO, REI, and others require that you set up the inner tent first and then drape the rainfly over it. This is a very easy process, which is why the tents that use it are so popular.

The inner tent is set up first on most American-made freestanding tents
The inner tent is set up first on most American-made semi-freestanding tents

You simply stake out the corners of the inner tent, expand the poles and insert them into grommets in the corners, and then hook the walls and ceiling of the inner tent to the poles so the structure stands up by itself. The rainfly gets laid on top and usually connects the corners of the inner tent. The vestibule doors usually have to be staked out, but this usually only requires 1-2 tent stakes.

The upper part of the inner tent is then hooked to the poles
The upper part of the inner tent is then hooked to the poles

This inner tent first design works well in dry weather, but it can result in a wet inner tent if you have to set it up while it’s raining. But worst comes to worst, you can usually mop up any rain that penetrates the mesh ceiling of the inner tent with a camping towel and use the tent as normal.

Double-Wall Tents: Rainfly First

Many European-made tents including the fully freestanding and semi-freestanding tents made by Hilleberg, Exped, and Terra Nova are set up rainfly first. The tent poles slide into sleeves sewn into the rainfly fabric and the inner tent is suspended under the rainfly. In dry weather, you can also leave the rainfly and inner tent attached when you take down the tent, so the entire structure does up at once the next time you pitch the tent,

The tent poles slide into sleeves on the rain fly while and the inner tent is suspended inside
The tent poles slide into sleeves on the rain fly while and the inner tent is suspended inside. Hilleberg Niak tent, shown here.

While the rainfly-first design prevents rain from making the inner tent wet, this type of tent is generally heavier than those that get set up with the inner tent first. These tents are also generally much more expensive because they’re more difficult to manufacture and made with more durable materials.

You can also pick up and move a freestanding tent from one place to another without taking it down.
You can usually pick up and move a freestanding tent from one place to another without taking it down.

Single-Wall Freestanding Tents

There are also single-wall freestanding tents that don’t have a separate inner tent and rainfly but have a single skin. These are often fully freestanding and mainly designed for climbers and mountaineers who need tents that are easy to set up on narrow rock ledges in adverse winter conditions where staking out a tent would be impossible.

Freestanding tents are great for using on wooden tent platforms. Shown here: Black Diamond Firstlight 2 single wall tent
Freestanding tents are great for using on wooden tent platforms because they don’t have to be staked out. Shown here: Black Diamond Firstlight 2 single wall tent

The tent poles in this style of tent usually criss-cross inside the tent and you need to crawl inside to insert them in the tent corners. While these tents are very lightweight and convenient to use in cold winter weather, they tend to have poor ventilation and are subject to heavy internal condensation unless all the doors and windows are left wide open.

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28 comments

  1. Nice of you to publish this article but with all due respect I think you should have included the BA Copper Spur in the list of examples, if you are using images of it in the article. Not to mention that it is one of the most popular freestanding tents on the market.

    • The list gives the impression that freestanding tents are a lot more expensive & heavier which isn’t necessarily true. Example the Big Agnes Copper Spur.

    • I linked to a review of it t the bottom of the article. But it was easy enough to add to the table. It is a nice tent, although I do think that the Tiger Wall has eclipsed it in consumer popularity because it is lighter weight.

      • Dear Phillip, I agree that you can’t include every tent ever made. However that was not what I suggested. As I mentioned before you induced the image therefore if you are going to make use of it then I believe its fair to say that the details should also be listed.
        I did see that you had included the link to the review for it at the end of the article. However most people reading the article will glance at the list as a summary of the article which included the images & gives the impression that freestanding tents are a lot more heavy & expensive when compared to semi-freestanding.
        If I may & again with all due respect you’ve made a mistake now when including it into the list. The Copper Spur is a freestanding tent not a semi-freestanding tent

      • You’re wrong. It’s semi-freestanding. You need to stake out the vestibules.

      • Ok my apologies then. However it is likely that others like myself might interpret it a bit differently since the inner tent stand on its own on any surface protecting the used regardless of the vestibules. So the vestibules aren’t vital & the doors to it can be rolled out of the way. Big Agnes certainly also views it this way since it lists it as freestanding tent on their website.
        Some of the points you’ve made in the article also indicate it fits as freestanding tent & even more so when used with its footprint:
        “Double-wall tents where the Inner Tent is set up first.”
        “Double-wall tents where the Rainfly is set up first.”
        “You can usually pick up and move a freestanding tent from one place to another without taking it down.”

        Just to list a few points mentioned in the article.
        I’ll reread the article & ponder this further.

      • That’s why I wrote this article to enumerate the important differences. You have to realize that manufacturers and retailers claim that their tents are freestanding so that Google lists them that way so people will be fooled into buying them. The problem is rife on the Internet. It’s like calling a 4 lb tent ultralight. It’s not, but google will still list it as such. Same with Amazon.

      • I agree with your point about the abuse of terminology by some companies specially when it come to “lightweight” or “ultralight”.

      • The examples are rife in the outdoor industry.

        Why do shoe companies number their shoes instead of renaming them. To capitalize on the google search results:
        Altra Lone Peak 4.5
        Altra Lone Peak 4.0 etc.

        Why do companies reuse the names of existing backpacks even after they are changed radically? To capitalize on their existing google search results:

        Gregory Zulu
        Gregory Zulu

        –and so on.

      • Philip – Freestanding backpacking tents with vestibules that must be staked out have been called “freestanding” since their invention and predate the internet.

      • I think not. Why would the marketing maggots come up with the term “semi-freestanding” when they could use the term “freestanding” instead.

      • …because “semi” indicates to the buyer that it is not your father’s freestanding tent! That it is a bit different. To me this is a useful distinction since it immediately alerts you that it might not be what you assumed.

        And it conveys the idea that while the tent retains the essence of a freestanding tent, it does something less…in particular “semis” as they currently exist, do not fully form the body of the tent with the poles as is usual with other freestanding tents. They do this to save weight of course, trading off some ease of setup and robustness. It requires a little more skill and effort to set up a “semi” and you must guy out in wind since the pole structure is minimized.

        The essence of a freestanding tent is whether the poles stand up without the need for guys. The principle advantage is a consistent pitch since much of the guesstimating is removed. While such tents minimize the necessary guying and staking, as you point out stakes or alternative ground attachment are still needed. If that also gets you a vestibule so much the better. Adding an extra flap of cloth to a fly to make a vestibule is easy and obvious and doesn’t change the structural design of the tent or add much weight. Freestanding tents are not held up by their vestibules like some non freestanding tents are. They may be held down by them though.

        To say a tent is not freestanding because you have to stake the fly to get your free vestibule just misunderstands what “freestanding” means to no purpose.

        As to maggoty marketeers, Big Agnes who made the “semi” idea popular with the Fly Creek, just uses “freestanding” on their current site…so much for the maggot theory maybe? I first saw the term on the REI site’s BA Tiger Wall listing when I started looking for a new tent about 2 or 3 years ago. The Fly Creek had been around for a few seasons by then so it may have been a term given by concerned retailers not wanting to answer too many bogus false advertising complaints. REI now has their own version with QD SL series and uses the term so they must consider it useful. NEMO use “semi” for theirs on their site so maybe they are the “culprits”. I haven’t looked further.

        If you want to research the history of freestanding backpacking tents in the US just look at the back issues of Backpacker magazine. 1973 to 2009 are available in Google Books. A peruse of the 1977 buyers guide indicates that by the late 70’s freestanding tents were starting to gain interest both as domes and freestanding A frames which often had staked vestibules borrowed straight from their non freestanding antecedents. By the early 90’s (1991 buyers guide) most backpacking tents were domes of some variety and many had standard vestibules formed by the fly which we can infer were of the staked variety. There are only a few pictured with a fly installed to confirm that but a later buyers guide points out specifically that stakes are required for the vestibules on most freestanding tents.

        The internet was not available to the public until 1993, two years later. Amazon started in 1994 and Google started in 1998. Sophisticated maggot driven internet marketing did not come about until at least the 00’s. Before then no one knew how to make money with the internet except through IPOs. I know because I was involved with not making money with the internet at the time.

        The tents you call “freestanding” are largely 4 season or extreme weather type tents and not something the majority of 3 season US backpackers would use, excellent though they may be for their purpose. Most US backpackers are looking to cut weight and not for some false semantic consistency. It also includes some budget tents that don’t get a vestibule option to justify a price point. If you feel these tents need to be called out separately, I have seen them described as “fully” freestanding to indicate that no appendage goes unsupported.

    • Copper Spur is not free standing. If you want to use it in the rain you must stake out the vestibules.

      • I agree with you. But the term that the industry and consumers have adopted is semi-freestanding, which I explain in the article. I tried for many years to explain that semi-freestanding tents were not freestanding in the purist sense. While that is technically true, no one cares anymore. Rather than fight city hall, I think it’s more useful, from an educational standpoint, to explain the differences between the varieties of freestanding as I have here.

  2. I have a Tarptent Double Rainbow, which is classified as semi freestanding. On one of the first times I used it, I tried that mode and wasn’t too impressed. It seemed too wobbly and of course, I couldn’t use the vestibules. I went ahead and staked it all out. I was just experimenting with the semi-free standing mode.

    Regarding the need to stake down freestanding tents, I recall a photograph in the “Parting Shots” section on the last page of Outside magazine some years ago. It showed a tiny tent way up in the blue sky with some mountaintops below. The caption read, “Eureka Mushroom airborne over Adirondack Park, New York.” It’s a fair bet that someone wished he’d staked his tent down!

  3. If setting up a tent inside a lean-to or large covered tent platform, only a free standing or semi-free standing tent will work. Staking out the vestibules is probably unnecessary. The flaps can simply be tied back. There are specially made tent stakes for use on wood floored shelters but most people don’t carry them. They would be necessary for a tent which is not free standing.

  4. Thanks for the information on tents. I’m always looking for lightweight one person tent information.

    The last decade I’ve been using mostly single rainbow tents because their size is large for a one person and they are semi-free standing if you use trekking poles. They set up taught and inside stays dry when setting up in the rain.

    Since this is kind of a specialty niche using the trekking poles I thought I would add this as a comment to your review of tents.

    • I’ve been considering the Rainbow for the freestanding/trekking pole feature you mention. I have a lightweight trekking pole supported tent (The One), but sometimes stacking rocks on all my stakes to keep my tent up is a chore I would rather not have to deal with. Grandpa posts he wasn’t impressed with the Rainbow in this mode. I would only consider the weight penalty of the Rainbow if the freestanding mode (I understand the vestibule still needs staking) is effective. What has been you’re experience using the Rainbow as a freestanding shelter?

      • I concur with Grandpa. For that weight, you can get a BA Copper Spur HV UL1 and never stack rocks again.

  5. I was wondering about that semi-freestanding thing…thanks.

    I just put in a season (March – Nov. in Colorado at all altitudes) with TarpTent’s new Bowfin, a double-walled freestanding. I really am enjoying its adaptability, while still being pretty simple. Its standard pitch is inner wall first.

    But it has a pretty ingenious option to set it up in one piece when it’s raining. I’m still playing around with it — and haven’t truly tested it in rain — but it sets up pretty well. You have to think to do a bit of pre-setting (hooking the tent to the fly and putting a cross pole at the peak on the outside rather than the inside). So you either have to anticipate needing it, or duck into a dry spot to pre-rig to get the full benefit in the rain. I think if I were in a rainy spell, I’d just plan ahead to set it up that way. It’s not quite as easy as the standard pitch, but seems like it would be worth it to keep my nest dry!

  6. The problem with most freestanding tents is that they require the inner tent be set up 1st, before the fly is attached over the frame. This means that in rainy or wet snow weather thinner tent gets soaked.

    IF the inner ent can be clipped on it can be set up last by crawling under the fly and clipping thinner tent on the frame. Definitely a “PITA”.

    My Tarptent Moment DW CAN be a freestanding tent when using the optional Crossing Pole. I’ve shortened my X-ing Pole and rn it under the fly for better support. Either way the X-ing Pole makes a non-freestanding tent into a nice freestanding tent.

    • Except for freestanding tents where you can keep the two linked together when you pack them and set them up at the same time (for example, many models of Hilleberg, Tarptent). If they’re dry when you pack them, they’ll be dry when you set them up. You only need to separate the when the outer is wet at the time of packing.

  7. Is there a truly freestanding tent, double-wall, that doesn’t cost a fortune? I am in the South, so condensation is real! I am looking for a lightweight (or reasonably light-weight) tent that I can set up in a shelter. My Big Agnes FlyCreek 2 is only semi- freestanding. Does such a tent exist- again that doesn’t cost a fortune?

    • You realize, you only need to set up the inner tent in the shelter…
      Even then, you’re really not supposed to do that. It’s considered bad etiquette to hog up a shelter with a tent designed fo people to sleep on the floor.
      But if you’re looking for lightweight double-wall tents take a look at Big Sky International.

  8. CAPT Gary Andres USN ret

    Ha! Marketing Maggots! Phillip, you are a gem!

    • Stole that from a reader named Eddie who’s been using it for years on this website. He’s finally got me saying it too!

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