What the Heck is a Semi-Freestanding Tent?

The Tower of Babel

If you want to buy a camping or backpacking tent, welcome to Babel! The made-up marketing jargon that tent manufacturers and outdoor retailers use to describe their products defies comprehension. It’s no wonder that so many tents are returned to retailers because they don’t measure up to the hype.

One marketing term that I find to be a particularly egregious abuse of language is the concept of a semi-freestanding tent. 

Here are a few examples:

This choice of words is not accidental but intended to convey a similarity to freestanding tents, which are valuable (and rare) tents because they can be set up without any tent stakes. Freestanding tents, with an inner tent and a rain fly, can be effortlessly picked up and repositioned or set up on tent platforms, something which is impossible to do with a tent that requires tent stakes to set up.

You’d think that a semi-freestanding tent would be an inner tent that doesn’t require any tent stakes to be pitched. But actual usage varies, and the term is also used to refer to inner tents that need tent stakes to set up. (Incidentally, the term freestanding is also used inconsistently and includes tents that require tent stakes to be pitched.)

A Modest Proposal

Instead of making up misleading jargon, tent manufacturers and retailers could simply tell consumers the minimum number of tent stakes required to pitch the inner tent and the outer rainfly, if there is one. There’s no need to define a new concept such as semi-freestanding or spend any time arguing about what a freestanding tent is or is not.

Manufacturers could also list the number of tent stakes that can be shared between the inner tent and rain fly, so consumers could compute a tent’s minimum trail weight including tent stakes, which are currently excluded from most online product descriptions.

For example, here are five lightweight double-walled tents that I’ve reviewed recently (or about to publish reviews for) and the minimum number of stakes their inner tents and rain flies require to be pitched.

TentInner Tent (Min Stakes Req.)Rain Fly - (Additional Stakes Req.)Notes
NEMO Hornet 2P22The rainfly requires 4 stakes; 2 are shared w/ inner tent
MSR Freelite 222The rainfly requires 4 stakes; 2 are shared w/ inner tent
Mountain Hardwear Ghost UL 221The rainfly requires 3 stakes; 2 are shared w/ inner tent
Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 101The inner tent is freestanding
Mountain Hardwear SuperMega UL 103The inner tent is freestanding

A quick look at this table tells you whether the inner tent is truly freestanding (zero stakes) and how many stakes are required to pitch the rain fly.

This is just one suggestion for making it clearer to consumers what they’re buying when they purchase tents online. Making up new marketing jargon is not the answer.

You’d figure that retailers would see the advantage of providing consumers with accurate information about the products they sell since it would attract more online visitors (who’d shop at the online stores with the most concise product information) and reduce return rates.

What other jargon do you find confusing or misleading in online product descriptions?

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  1. I like you’re idea to use tent stake counts. It drives me crazy when retailers say a tent is freestanding, only to discover that the rain fly requires 5 stakes to pitch. Your method puts an end to that farce!

  2. I like what you’re saying. I have a Tarptent Double Rainbow, which I dearly love. It’s kinda, sorta, maybe, a little bit, possibly, somewhat, barely semi free standing if pitched with hiking poles along the base at the front and back… as long as there’s no breeze and you want actual vestibules. I’ve learned to take a pile of stakes, especially if I want to open the vestibules to turn them into a covered porch. Fortunately, with MSR Needle Stakes, there’s not much weight or bulk involved.

  3. Totally agree. Such labels make the marketing departments happy, but are misleading and ultimately negative for consumers. Give people the data and let them decide!

  4. Not relating to the tents but the question of confusing on-line product descriptions. The mix of imperial measurements and metric measurements. Liters, cubic inches, kilograms, ounces. Sure you can find conversion tools on-line but in this modern world we need to use the metric system (talking to you, fellow Americans) and use it for all advertising.

    • Yep. I prefer liters to cubic inches – I can imagine 5 L or 25 L volume readily, I use volumes of microliters to 25 L in the lab, so this is intuitive volume measurement for me – cubic inches not so much. Grams to pound/oz. – I calculate gear in grams then convert total pack weight to pounds, mostly because my exercise weights are in pounds and I think in pounds about the experience of carrying weight.

  5. I tried a Sierra Designs and Big Agnes brand and wasn’t impressed, neither here nor there…

  6. I find “waterproof” confusing. I’ve seen plenty of “waterproof” gear made of coated fabric where it seems unlikely that all the seams are taped, and include conventional zippers with no shielding. I was looking at some Jandd bike bags like that earlier this week.
    I’ve also seen boots constructed without a bootie but with coated leather that are “waterproof”. Maybe they are for the first few miles.

  7. Considering that even a “freestanding” tent must be staked down to be safe, unless you want it to sail off a cliff or into the lake with the next gust of wind, I really don’t think it makes much difference.

    I once had a “freestanding” tent that required 9 stakes for the fly. Aargh! (This is the same tent in which condensation on the fly continually dripped onto me through the inner tent.) It was so awful that I refused to sell it but eventually gave it to an unfortunate person whose gear was stolen out of his car in the Columbia River Gorge (unfortunately very prone to car prowls).

    • While it’s recommended, that’s not totally true in practice. I’ve slept well over 100 nights in a truly freestanding tent that requires 0 stakes to pitch and my tent has never blown away. I just whittle two sticks for the corners if I need tent stakes.

  8. The most egregious term used by gear manufacturers, ‘unisex’. Total disregard for half the population, usually female!

    • YES! “Unisex” means “we made in man-shaped, but we see no reason a woman needs anything different when she can just stuff herself in to this convenient man-shaped item”.

  9. The thing that bothers me the most is the weight marketing jargon… “packed weight,” “trail weight,” “fast-pitch weight.”

    These terms piss me off beyond belief, simply because they are all really stupidly either including something you don’t carry, or leaving out something you need, like stakes.

    Big Agnes goes on to define these things in ways that are just annoying:

    “Note: We list several weights for our tents to aid your product research.
    Trail weight refers to poles, fly and tent body.
    Packed weight includes poles, fly, tent body, stakes, guy lines, stuff sacks, instructions, and packaging.
    Fast Fly weight refers to the poles, tent fly and accessory Fast Fly footprint.”

    So Trail Weight leaves out the stuff sack for the tent, the stuff sack for the poles, the stakes, and the stuff sack for the stakes. WHAT? Don’t those things usually go on the trail with you? Also, guy lines… is there a reason these are left out of Trail Weight? You kind of need them on the trail too, no?

    Packed weight includes instructions and packaging… something you’ll never carry on the trail. However, BONUS! We get the stakes and stuff sacks included here. I don’t think anyone cares about this total package weight except USPS/UPS/FedEx?

    Fast fly weight doesn’t include the stakes, which in most tents, especially these “semi-free standing tents” you can’t go without for the “fast fly” pitch. It also doesn’t include any stuff sacks or guy lines again.

    I can’t even fathom the math needed to figure this out if you don’t have a scale handy.

    I think its simple – just list the weight of the tent, fly, poles, stakes, stuff sacks and guy lines. You know, the things that come attached to the tent and that you need to carry it with you in your pack…

    That’s my marketing pet peeve!

  10. Maybe I’m a luddite, but I’ve never slept in any tent which did not requirie some form of stake or guy to secure it to the ground. Yes there are simple dome tents which can be erected and moved, but they still need guys to keep from becoming a kite. My 2 cents.

    I do like the concept of a simple stake number reference.

  11. In my 60 0dd years of camping/ hiking/climbing and adventuring I have yet to find a usable free standing tent! Wind is the enemy: Even with people inside the tent has a propensity to travel, with a squall it could take you over a drop-off and serious injury could occur. I regard pegs with good holding and storm guys a must, even if the tent flattens with enough pegs it means it will stay in position.

  12. Brian Terenzini

    This article wasted more time and was way more nonsenseical than the term ‘semi-freestanding.’

    • Why do you say that?

      • Please ignore the “smartest guy in the room” types who add nothing to the conversation Philip. For this new-to-backpacking guy, the article (and indeed your whole site) is filled with valuable info…

      • Because it should be self expanatory. If you eant to stake the tent you can, however, it isnt entirely necessary.

  13. Excellent discussion. A key to unravelling the hype is always welcome.

  14. I can’t see the point of a freestanding tent. Surely it would have to be pegged down anyway? Besides, backpacking tents aren’t exactly difficult to resite if need be although I’ve never shifted my shelter once I’m settled in.

    My pet hates in terms of jargon as applied to backpacking are waterproof (nothing is given time and enough water), breathable (eventually it will stop breathing and the internal atmosphere builds up) and “warmth without weight or bulk” (simply untrue as even the lightest insulation takes up space in the pack and is never weightless).

    However, what really gets my goat is “new and improved”. Something can be new or an existing product can be improved but it is impossible to have both at once. Please don’t get me started on “can I get?” When the asker means “May I please have?” Aaaaagh??

  15. Agree! All we need is a simple system like this!
    To me a truly free-standing tent is one that requires zero stakes at all — inner tent and fly included! That’s what I’m looking for….any suggestions??

  16. Great idea! Can we get away from Trail Weight vs Packed Weight too?

  17. So far the discussion seems to be focusing on camping in traditional outdoor areas where stakes can be used to anchor a tent. However,unless I missed it, none of the comments have addressed the best options if you are “bikepacking” and/or homeless and you need an affordable, portable tent for 4-season stealth camping in urban or suburban locations where stakes can’t be used (for ex., a parking lot or outdoor public meeting area)? Please note: In addition to any suitable 1-or-2-person, winter-ready tents, I’m also open to 3-season models that can handle the winters of upstate/central NY and have colors that support stealth camping. Nothing flashy.
    Within these parameters, what are my best freestanding tent options for stealth camping in urban/suburban areas?

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