Pup Tent History: Meaning and Global Timeline

Updated August 4, 2021
Camp scene during the American Civil War

While many people enjoy camping, they often aren't acquainted with pup tent history. Find out more about the origins of this popular tent design, from its Civil War beginnings to the many modern adaptations on the market.

The Pup Tent Is First Developed

Dating back as far as the Civil War, pup tents still play a significant role in the types of covered shelters modern militaries use around the world. Originally, pup tents were created as very small tents, often no taller than three and a half feet high -- although some reports state that they may be as long as 7 feet in length and 5 feet in width -- and were covered with a cloth, tarp, or canvas of some kind to keep people from being exposed to the elements. However, historic pup tents are notorious for their lack of waterproofing and are often referred to as "shelter halves" because of their menial construction.

Dutch army tent 1955

While modern tents offer numerous options in terms of design, aesthetics, and protection levels -- including separate rooms, individual doors, and screen windows, as well as waterproof material -- this was not always the case. During the 1860s, pup tents were basically constructed out of two half pieces of material connected with a row of buttons. While this rudimentary design might not seem to have offered much in the way of shelter from the outside elements, its construction was actually quite ingenious. The buttons or snaps that were used to join the two halves at the roof of the tent were usually two-sided, so that any pair could be connected together, creating a water-resistant seal at the top.

What is the Origin of the Name?

There are a couple of different stories that relate to the origin of the name "pup tent." The most common story states that pup tents were given this moniker by Civil War troops, who commonly used the word "dog" when using military slang, such as with the well-known term "dog tags." Interestingly enough, however, a more specific story points to the Chattanooga Infantry who were said to give their tents the nickname "doghouses," and the name eventually transformed into "pup tents." Whatever the true origin of the term, the phrase "pup tent" is still used today, particularly within the military.

Pup Tent History Timeline

The design of pup tents originated from a combination of common sense and necessity. Many Civil War soldiers moved mostly on foot, and they needed equipment and supplies that were as lightweight as possible. Even if they had the luxury of a horse, their extra equipment and supplies still needed to be carried, either on a wagon, a packhorse, or by the soldier himself. Pup tents were often shared by two soldiers, and the weight of the material, stakes, and poles was generally around 10 pounds. If each soldier in a pair carried half the material, stakes, and poles, he would have an additional 5 pounds on his back.

Pup Tent at Fort Benning-Overstreet

Earliest Pup Tents

Pup tents used in the Civil War, and even in early World War II, did not contain the triangular ends and flap doors of today's pup tents. These early tents offered only basic shelter, with each end of the tent open to the extreme elements.

World War II Pup Tents

By the end of World War II, tent poles transformed from a single folding unit to three separate sections comprised of wood with metal tips. This typically made transportation of the poles easier, particularly if they were split between two men.

Korean War Pup Tents

By the time the Korean War began, cotton duck material was used. Tent colors also changed from khaki to a dark green by the end of the war. Once this darker color was chosen, poles went from unpainted wood to a matching army green, and most contained a "U.S." stamp as well as the name of the contractor and the date. Tent flaps were added as well.

Vietnam War Era Pup Tents

Vietnam's tropical climate meant pup tents generally weren't favored. However, some tents were used during the Vietnam War and actually followed an adaptive design comprised of an A-frame with two poles, creating roomier accommodations.

Modern Pup Tent Designs

Finally, today's tents are still often referred to as pup tents, but they've come a long way from their original design. Modern shelter halves feature mildew resistant and water repellent material, roomier lengths of more than 12 feet, and weather-resistant flaps.

Today's tents are also designed to be sturdier and drier than their predecessors, with some even featuring environmental control ducts for heating and air conditioning. While the premise behind the original design is still the same -- providing shelter and portability -- modern conveniences now rule in the overall construction of today's pup tent.

Contemporary Uses for Pup Tents

Interestingly, pup tents are still widely used today for various situations and organizations. From modern camping to military excursions, you can find pup tents in people's packs all around the world. Take a look at some of the different ways people are incorporating pup tents into their daily lives, and see if you might need to make space for one in your pack, as well:

  • Military Missions - Although current military practices aren't often publicized, it is widely known that pup tents still offer soldiers easy-to-carry shelter while on active duty.
  • Backpacking Adventures - Many backpackers find that pup tents are the perfect alternative to traditional tents as they are very lightweight, making them easy to carry for long hikes or multi-day backpacking trips.
  • Camping Storage - If you're planning on staying at a campsite for a few days and nights, you can always pack a pup tent to set up at your site as a place to store some of you and your friend's and family's goods. This way, everything stays in one place and away from bugs and critters.
Tent On Field Against Sky

Pup Tents Offer Great Lightweight Protection

While they certainly don't have a reputation for being particularly lavish, and they tend to come in on the smaller side of the scale, pup tents are some of the most transportable and lightweight outdoor shelter options on the market. Modern textile technology has allowed for pup tents on the market today to be significantly more weatherproof than those of yesteryear, making them a perfect option for people planning a multi-day adventure or who have a limited amount of space to store their goods in. So, if transportability is the most important factor when you're thinking about shelters, then pup tents are the perfect choice for you.

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Pup Tent History: Meaning and Global Timeline