My dad always used to say, “If the tool ain’t right, the man ain’t bright.” It made me chuckle at the time, it still does, but now it resonates with me when thinking about hunting equipment for the backcountry. A tent is no different than a hammer, saw, or a drill. Yes, it’s a lightweight, packable product, but it’s still a tool. For me, the best tent choice for a particular hunting application comes down to finding the right tool for the job. Otherwise, I’m just that not-so-bright guy.
Generally speaking, when I’m in the process of selecting my backpacking gear, and especially when I’m considering tents, I’m looking at a product’s overall construction and the quality of the materials as well as durability, functionality, weight, and packability.
I’ve found consistently across the board that a quiver of tents from Hilleberg have performed astoundingly well in a diverse array of conditions, from scorching hot mountains on the Baja of Mexico to the deep winter of the far north. It can be a little intimidating to find what tent is right for you, so let’s dive in and narrow the options with a few factors to consider.
SNOW VS. NO SNOW
Ask yourself, do you expect there to be a significant chance of it snowing a significant amount (beyond just a light skiff)? Depending on your location and trip duration, simply check the weather forecast if close enough to the trip dates or refer to historical precipitation and temperature normals. For me, if I’m mountain hunting in the north (northern BC, Yukon, NWT, or Alaska), I’m comfortable bringing a “3-season,” or in Hilleberg’s language, a Yellow Label tent, from July until early-mid September.
It should be noted that there is no “standardized” rating for “3-season,” so you’re relying on the reputation of the company, peer reviews, and personal experience. Hilleberg prefers describing their Yellow Label tents as being for the warmer and snow-free times of the year rather than for “3-seasons,” since those three seasons in the Southeast are very different than those in the far north. I can tell you that even though Hilleberg doesn’t recommend it, their Yellow Label (3-season) series of tents has no problem bucking a solid shot of snow in a pinch.
If I know that snow is likely to occur, I go for one of their all-season Red Label or Black Label tents. “All-season” means they will handle equally well any weather in any season. Black Label tents are the way to go if you know you’ll need the strongest tent you can get, and Red Label models are still incredibly strong at a lighter weight. However, if I know that I’ll need the absolute strongest shelter, I’ll choose a Black Label model.
HUNTING STYLE AND TERRAIN
The majority of hunting I do is backpack style, so it makes sense to choose a tent that is as light as possible and also offers the protection I’m looking for. If I expect to be hunting primarily in the alpine, I’m going to want a tent that is totally bomber and can withstand high winds and driving rain. I have yet to have a Hilleberg have a catastrophic error in a storm (and I’ve been in some bad ones), so I’m confident in their models offering plenty of protection from the elements. That being said, it’s important to know the range of weather they’re built for, the advantages of certain models, how to pitch them, how to use windbreaks and other approaches to maximize protection, and when to choose and when to avoid things like a tarp or trekking pole shelter above tree line.
PITCHING LOCATIONS, TRIP STYLE, GROUND TYPE – TUNNEL VS. SELF-SUPPORTING VS. FREESTANDING
In general, a tunnel style tent offers more useable space for its weight than a self- supporting or freestanding dome-style one. Tunnel tents typically don’t have crossing poles and rely on their tensional structure for their strength, which is remarkably high. Self-supporting tents have crossing poles, so the tent body is self-supporting, but you still have to peg out the vestibules. A fully freestanding model has its vestibules integrated into the structure, so it requires no pegs to stand. Tunnel tents have to be fully pegged out to function, so if I’m going where the ground is particularly tricky for pegs – think solid rock, sandy soil, or aggressively rocky terrain – I favor a freestanding tent like Hilleberg’s all-season Red Label Allak 2 or 3. The freestanding construction means I don’t have to worry too much about finding the perfect pitching spot, and I can set it up quickly along a trail as I’m moving to a different location.
I’m also a big fan of the 2-person self- supporting Yellow Label models, the Niak (especially as a solo tent) and the Rogen. Both are very light, and I rarely have any problems pegging out the vestibules. If I do choose a tunnel tent, I really like the Yellow Label Anjan and the extended vestibule Anjan GT models. They have a big amount of space for impressively low weight!
NUMBER OF PEOPLE
This will immediately determine if I need a solo, 2-person, or 3+ person tent. However, who the people are is important, too. Case in point. I’m 5'7", and my brother and wife, two of my main sheep hunting partners, are 5'7" and 5'1", respectively. We can easily run a 2-person tent as we’re relatively small people and will take the weight savings. If I’m with someone who is 6'+ or we have tons of gear (camera gear, hunting gear, cold- weather gear, etc.) for a longer trip or if we are somewhere where the weather can be nastier, I’ll select a tent that is one person larger than we have in the party (e.g., 3-person tent for 2 people or 4-person tent for 3 people).
On a similar thread, I think that two solo tents sometimes offer greater versatility and protection with almost no meaningful weight penalty, and especially if you look at Hilleberg’s extremely lightweight Yellow Label Enan.
Depending on the terrain, it can be difficult to find or dig out a spot for pitching for a 2- or 3-person tent, although it’s almost always possible to scratch out a couple of spots for 1-person tents. This gives an advantage for hunting animals like sheep as it often pays to stay in the alpine to maintain a high vantage point rather than returning to the flatter valley floor below. Taking a couple of solo tents, or even lightweight 2-person tents for each person, can prove to be a remarkably prudent choice as it gives the ability for hunters to split up if needed, say to spread out to cover more country or if one person on the hunting party needs to shorten or extend their trip. Bonus tip: In sheep country, expanding a well-worn sheep bed by a couple feet with an ice-ax makes for a comfy tent spot!
DURATION OF TRIP – FUNCTIONALITY VS. WEIGHT
In theory, it’s tempting to have the mindset of going as light as possible for a longer trip. However, I typically think the opposite. I should mention that I personally define “long” as anything 10 days or more unsupported in the backcountry, but long for you might be anything more than a weekend. The longer the trip, the more the unpredictability in what the weather will be like in 15 days, the more functionality and spaciousness I want built into the tent. For these longer trips, I'm looking for features like dual entrances and vestibules, plenty of room, and comfort (a necessity, not a luxury) for weather days. Of course, this will come with an increased packed weight, but that’s a trade-off I’m happy to make. For a shorter trip, such as a night or two, I usually take advantage of testing out a new tent design or go as light as possible with a tarp or hybrid shelter should the forecast allow.
An important consideration is you, your skills, and what you’re comfortable with. Hilleberg talks a lot about “margin of safety,” the “insurance” they build into their tents against unforeseen problems. Think of it as the padding that you will feel comfortable with if your trip goes sideways. Black Label tents have the most margin, so they are the strongest of the Hilleberg tents and are great for either super challenging conditions or if you want the most security. Yellow Label tents are very light, and they have the smallest margin of safety. I know from experience that they will hold up to serious storms, but I also know they’re not the best choice for every situation. I, personally, am comfortable with my skills and I’m willing to sacrifice some “margin” for weight. Red Label tents are an excellent middle ground. They are strong enough for nearly anything, but light enough to keep my pack weight down. Also from personal experience, I know that if I’m in doubt, I go “up” a Label. It might “cost” weight, but the extra security (and comfort) can mean the difference between a great hunt and a really grim one.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hilleberg Ambassador Adam Foss is a world-class hunter who has transformed his passion for wildlife and wild places into a rewarding career in filmmaking and photography. Adam has been obsessed with wilderness adventure for practically his entire life. At age 24, he was the youngest person to take all four species of North American sheep with a bow, an amazing achievement for a hunter of any age. Despite this accomplishment and others, Adam is much more focused on the process of the hunt, spending challenging days in the mountains, forming long-lasting friendships, stewarding public lands, and conserving legendary big game species. Born in the Canadian Rockies, Adam spent much of his youth bowhunting with his father and older brother. As he grew older, his hunting trips expanded in geography and complexity, and he has now hunted many of the world’s wildest places for some of the most renowned big game.