Many years ago, when I was a scout, almost no one in my troop owned a real tent. Everyone made do with two plastic tarps, to which we affixed reinforced strapping tape at the corners and tied to whatever trees happened to be close. The other went underneath as a groundsheet. In those days no one made a big deal about marring the soil in campsites, so we trenched the dickens out of the perimeter to keep water from running in during a storm. Each morning, of course, the condensation from our breath would run down the upper tarp and soak our bags, and if the bugs were bad there was no escape – we stayed outside and just kept applying bug repellent. Each summer before our annual fifty miler we would each be issued another tarp, which with some ingenious patching and repair would last another year.
Things have changed a little since then – for one thing, the concept of Leave No Trace mandates that no trenches be dug around one’s campsite, since they promote erosion and damage plant root systems. People can and do still use plastic tarps for shelter, and they are still cheap. If, however, you plan on doing much backpacking, especially in bad weather (that’s when it’s least crowded), you may want to consider investing in a proper tent.
Modern tents come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and prices. Before you buy, you should carefully consider what kind of camping you will be doing. A tent that weighs fifteen pounds and holds four people will be great for a car camping trip with your family, but probably weighs twice what a lightweight two-man tent would. That makes quite a difference if you plan to carry it on a fifty mile backpacking trip. A four-season expedition quality tent would probably work fine for most backpacking, but can cost as much as $500 to $600 and weighs a few pounds more than it has to. You probably don't need this much tent for most scout overnights or even extended backpacking.
Tents are generally classified in terms of seasons – two-season tents are for traveling light in the summer and fall, when the weather is relatively warm. They usually have two poles, and some models save weight by shortening the poles and requiring stakes to hold the tent up. Three-season tents, as you might guess, usually have three poles, which add stability in windy conditions. They are suitable for use in light snow, and have somewhat heavier fabric and more guy lines to secure the rainfly. A four-season tent often has four or more poles and even heavier fabric, with additional guy lines and more velcro to hold the thing together in extreme weather. They are designed for use in stormy or winter weather, and weigh somewhat more than two or three-season units. Finally, there are full-fledged expedition tents, which are four-season structures with extended vestibules (additional storage/cooking areas under the rainfly). Most tents in any of these categories consist of two parts – the tent itself, which is not waterproof and usually has vents, and the rainfly, which is waterproof. You should also buy or make a groundsheet or footprint, a waterproof underlayer which goes under the tent. Some high-end tents are made of a single wall of Gore-tex® XCR or other high-tech waterproof/breathable laminate, which eliminates the need for a rainfly and saves a lot of weight, but be aware that these are extremely expensive relative to other tents of similar capacity.
Relatively new on the scene are super light single walled tents made of silicon-impregnated nylon fabrics that are not completely waterproof, but result in fully serviceable two person shelters weighing less than 3 pounds. Black Diamond and MSR are the manufacturers leading the charge in this division. Primarily designed with light-is-right fanatics and hard core summit attempts in mind, these tents require some care to keep from tearing the fabric and are not cheap, but will definitely take pounds off your back and make a long, hard trip more enjoyable.
On the extreme end of the shelter question, light-and-fast backpackers and hard-core climbers and mountaineers are leaning toward bivy and tarp combinations in ever increasing numbers.
The more backpacking you do, the more seriously you will consider this type of option. A bivy bag is small sack only marginally larger than your sleeping bag, made with tent material on top and with a heavy-duty coated nylon bottom. A bivy will keep your bag dry in damp conditions or snow, and adds about 10º of warmth to any bag. Quality manufacturers include Bibler, Integral Designs, and Outdoor Research (OR). In dry conditions, most people will use the bivy by itself; in wet or snowy conditions they will add a lightweight tarp made of Sil-Nylon (thin parachute-grade ripstop coated with silicone) overhead. The combination of bivy and tarp together will weigh in at between 2½ and 4 pounds, roughly half the weight of the average 2-person 3-season tent/rainfly. The downside to this setup is lack of stability in windy/snowy conditions, no floor to keep critters out, and no bug-free space to hang out in if mosquitos are bad. If you are claustrophobic, you may not be able to get used to sleeping with the bivy fabric right next to your face (although most manufacturers now offer a "hooped" version of their bivy to address this problem). A number of manufacturers, such as Bibler, GoLite, Integral Designs, and MSR are now offering floorless tarp shelters that utilize ski/trekking poles for support (you were going to bring them anyway, why carry tent poles as well?) that offer tent-like security with only a slight weight increase over a simple tarp.
Which should you buy? For most backpacking purposes, a two or three-season tent is perfectly adequate. You should look for something that weighs in the neighborhood of six to eight pounds, including poles and stakes, in a two-man size. Normally two scouts will share a tent on backpacking trips. Look for a "two-man" design that has around 30 to 35 square feet of interior floor space – this is fairly comfortable for two as long as you don’t try to put your pack inside. Prices run from around $70 to over $300 for this type of tent, but there are many good choices under $150. Free-standing tents (which can be set up without using stakes) are slightly heavier but much more versatile – they let you set up on hard, rocky surfaces, sand or snow when stakes won't hold well. Some less expensive tents from reputable manufacturers will use good quality fabrics (usually nylon and nylon mesh for the tent, and coated polyester for the floor and rainfly), and save on labor by not doing all the seam sealing – they do, however, supply a tube of seam sealer to let you do the job yourself.
Tent styles also vary widely – look at a number of models, and try to imagine yourself getting in and out of the tent (at REI you can take off your shoes and go inside them). If two people are actively using the tent, it’s nice to have two entryways, either on the sides or the ends. Make sure the doorways have mosquito netting installed, with separate zippers so you can use only the netting if it’s warm and buggy. Examine the tent and ask yourself if the setup is fairly obvious and logical – if not, it may be difficult to set up in cold or dark conditions. If you like to have your pack inside with you (the other alternative is to keep it outside, covered with a pack cover or garbage bag), examine the vestibule(s) to see if they offer enough storage space. Some manufacturers to consider include Walrus, Eureka, REI, Northface, Marmot, Sierra Designs, Kelty and Mountain Hardware.
Many online outlets, including REI, REI Outlet.com, Sierra Trading Post, and Campmor, offer substantial discounts on year-old, discontinued, or "seconds" tents, which usually have a slight stain or discoloration on the fabric, but your tent will acquire that on your first backpacking trip anyway! Also, most of the outdoor companies have sales toward the end of the normal backpacking season (fall).
Once you decide on a tent, make sure you have the proper footprint (groundsheet) to go with it, or make one by trimming a tarp so that it is slightly smaller than the floor of your tent. If the groundsheet protrudes past the walls of your tent, rainwater will flow under your floor and eventually soak through. If the floor seams and the seams of the rainfly have not been thoroughly sealed, you must do it yourself. Use the seam sealer provided by the manufacturer, and/or buy some yourself, and treat the seams that need it. Be sure to have good ventilation when you do this, as most of the commercial seam sealers are pretty toxic.
Most important, as always, is to be familiar with your own equipment. Practice setting the tent up several times, either inside your house or in the yard. Make sure you have enough stakes, and have nylon cord to guy the tent out (secure it against wind) if the manufacturer hasn’t provided it. When storing the tent, it’s preferable to stuff the entire thing in the stuffsack rather than folding it neatly since folding it in the same place repeatedly tends to stress the waterproof coating.
As soon as you return from a camping or backpacking trip, even if it didn’t rain, take the tent out and air dry it. The best way to do this is to set it up completely in your house and let it sit for a day or two, then vacuum out the interior before you put it away. You can also turn the tent inside out and lay it out over a railing (again, inside your house or a heated structure). Proper care and drying of your tent will help prevent mildew and prolong its life. Like your other outdoor equipment, a good tent will last you for years and can be your best friend on a cold and stormy night.