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What is a Freestanding Tent – And Does It Matter?

Ultralight tarp rigged as a non-freestanding shelter

We were confused. What is a Freestanding Tent – And Does It Matter? In recent years we have seen reviews of tents that give a lower rating for non-freestanding tents. We decided to investigate.

This is a short post and would only take 5 minutes to read. However, if you are in a hurry, our conclusion is that, for family camping tents, there is no advantage in a tent being freestanding or not.

We may comment if a tent is freestanding but we will never use it as a ranking factor in any of our reviews.

What is a Freestanding Tent

Despite more than 3 decades of camping experience I confess I was not certain what a freestanding tent was.  I had a good idea – I have erected more than my share of tents – but I wasn’t sure. So, I did a little research.

A freestanding tent is one, which when properly erected with poles located on their respective pins, grommets and clips, will be fully self supporting.  It does not require any external guy lines or stakes to retain its structure and shape.

CampingSage Definition
Dome tents are freestanding. What is a Freestanding Tent – And Does It Matter?
Dome tents are freestanding – all of their shape and structure comes from correctly positioned and tensioned tent fabric

Non-freestanding tents need staking out and guy lines attaching to their poles to provide the shape and structure of the tent.  Some tents come with a pole.  Others rely on you carrying a trekking pole that you use as you main tent support.

non-freestanding tent
Non Freestanding tent. The tent cannot stand or maintain shape and structure without the front and rear guy ropes

A freestanding tent can be re-located easily without disassembly or removing stakes.

There are tents which are a bit of a hybrid.  The majority of the tent structure is provided by tensioned poles.  Some features of the tent will only be available once there are some stakes in the ground.  With multi room family tents you might find that the body of the tent is self-supporting but that you will not get the full height of the additional rooms until certain of the guy ropes are staked and tensioned. 

Large tunnel tent - largely freestanding but needs guy ropes staking at the ends to be stable
Large tunnel tent – largely freestanding but needs guy ropes staking at the ends to be stable

That’s pretty much what I expected.  But so what?  Why do some reviewers rate non-freestanding tents lower?

Does it matter if a tent is not freestanding?

As far as I can tell, the debate on freestanding vs non-freestanding started in the backpackers and ultralight communities.  These guys tent to want the simplest, lightest tents possible.  For many this just means a bivouac with a sleeping bag under a tarp.

As tent fabrics got lighter and lighter and poles became lighter, stronger and more flexible – it became viable to put a freestanding tent into your backpack.

Arguably, freestanding tents are easier to erect.  Simply position and tension the poles and you have a tent.  Climb in and checkout the floor.  If there is an unexpected rock, you can get out, pick up the tent and reposition.  It takes seconds.

Freestanding tents tend to win when the weather is not so good.  Most of them come with attached, waterproof bathtub floors.  Not only does it remove the need for a separate footprint or ground sheet, but it also helps keep bugs and creepy crawlies out.

The counter argument is that non-freestanding tents are lighter.  As you may not need to carry poles they can be lighter still.

In good weather you don’t need a ground sheet.  With just a little practice, it is no more difficult to set up a non-freestanding tent.  Even with a freestanding tent you would be foolish not to stake it down and attach guy ropes if you are expecting any wind.

The debate goes on.  Just google freestanding vs non-freestanding tents to get a flavor of the entrenched views.  It seems to be 50-50 split and, like politics, seems to rely on pre-existing beliefs.

Freestanding vs Non-Freestanding for Family Tent

Our focus at CampingSage is on comfortable family camping.  We are unlikely to ever buy an ultralight shelter or tent.

So, what does Freestanding vs non-freestanding mean for family tents.  I don’t think anyone advertises a tent as non-freestanding.  It sounds kind of negative.  Quite a few are advertised as freestanding though. 

In our view, there is no discernible advantage between freestanding and non-freestanding family tents.  Every family tent in all of our reviews is largely freestanding.  As we mentioned earlier, you may need to stake out and tension guy ropes to provide some of the structure. 

We see this as neither an advantage or a disadvantage.  It would be foolish to not stake down both sorts of tents.  All family tents have a lot of surface area.  Even a gentle breeze can create quite a bit of force on the tent.  Anything more can easily have your tent blowing along the campsite.  We have seen it happen.

Unless you are absolutely certain that there will be no wind you must always stake down your family tent.

Conclusion – What is a Freestanding Tent – And Does It Matter?

In the family tent world, there is no advantage between freestanding and not.  Choose the tent that has the features that best suit your needs and family size.  Completely ignore the marketing blurb extolling freestanding.  Treat any reviews that use freestanding vs non-freestanding as a ranking factor with caution.

At CampingSage we will never rank one family tent above another based on whether it is freestanding or not.

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Keith Longmire

Keith Longmire

I’m the guy that loves camping, insists on family camping trips, and the editor and owner of Campingsage.com

I love camping and the outdoors. Through this site I hope to help you enjoy it too.