For the majority of outdoorspeople, a tent is synonymous with camping. Tents can be absolutely critical shelters in cold weather or bad storms; they also more generally ramp up comfort as well as an all-around sense of security (much appreciated when that black bear comes nosing around your campsite).
Given the vast array of sizes and styles—and the wide range in price—the prospect of buying a tent can appear intimidating, especially for beginner campers and backpackers. Today at the Mountain House blog we’re going to outline some of the fundamentals of how to choose a tent. This’ll be on the basic side of things for experienced outdoorspeople, but hopefully a useful starting point for newbies wondering where to begin.
Some of the basic considerations when you’re buying a tent (which we’ll get into shortly) are the same whether you’re intending to use it for car camping or for backpacking. There are, however, some important differences. Car campers don’t have to worry very much about the size and weight of their tents, given they aren’t hauling them long-distance on their shoulders as backpackers do. They can also skimp more on quality and robustness, on account they’ve got their vehicles on hand as an emergency refuge if the weather turns all-out foul.
Backpackers drill down much more intensively on a tent’s tradeoffs, namely a model’s weight and compactness versus strength, durability, livability, and protection from the elements. If backpackers encounter a long stretch of bad weather—days on end of heavy rain, for example, or a prolonged stretch of socked-in mist that makes trekking hazardous—they’re going to be spending an awful lot of time inside their tents, so that livability factor is no small consideration (mountaineers striving for a summit are well accustomed to the reality of interminable days spent tentbound, awaiting a break in the weather).
We’ll circle back around to a few specific tips on how to choose a tent for backpacking later in the blog post. First, though, let’s run through some of the general points of tent selection!
As we tick off some things to look for when shopping for a tent, remember that the best way to get a feel for a particular model is to pitch it before purchasing, if possible. Many outdoor retailers will allow you to set up a tent in the store so you can learn firsthand how setup works and how its relative livability and functionality jibe with your needs and wants. Worse comes to worst, definitely pitch your newly bought tent in the backyard or somewhere else close by before committing to a farther-afield camping trip with it!
Tent capacity is rated by how many people can sack out within, but there’s no clear-cut standard. Pay attention to this rating—one-person, two-person, three-person, four-person tents, and so on—but also to the square footage of the floorplan. Will there be children, dogs, or lots of gear or equipment housed in a tent alongside the adults? Obviously you’ll want a larger tent, in that case.
It goes without saying that people come in different shapes and sizes, so what works as a two-person tent for some folks just won’t cut it for others. Taller campers may need to go for more generous floor lengths than the usual 80-odd inches. Some people simply require more elbow room out of personal preference, or are particularly active sleepers; in such cases, sizing up by a per-person rating is likely a good idea.
Consider a tent’s peak height: that is, how tall the interior at its maximum clearance. Some campers aren’t too keen on changing clothes from a prone or sitting position; if you like to stand up to dress, you’ll want a taller peak. The overall shape of the tent (which we’ll get into next) influences this measurement.
Straighter-walled tents boast more clearance than more sloping-walled models, which in turn are better at shedding precipitation and wind. Free-standing dome tents, which don’t require stakes or guylines to erect, provide the convenience of being able to lift them fully set up and move them—handy if your unwisely chosen campsite turns out to be a quagmire in a downpour—and to shake them out before collapsing. Because of their sloping walls, however, dome tents offer less room within than cabin-style tents with more square or rectangular floorplans and straight (or nearly so) walls.
Tents that include vestibules give you a sheltered space outside the inner shelter to place muddy footwear, backpacks, containers for your camping food, and the like. Multiple doors are certainly nice when sharing a tent with others, as you can make a bathroom run without clambering over fellow sleepers, but they’ll likely add weight and cost.
Moisture management is a huge factor in tent design: A tent not only needs to keep rain, snow, and dew from getting inside, but also convey moisture produced by the breathing and sweating of its occupants outside.
The typical double-wall tent does this by separating an inner tent with breathable fabric from a waterproof rainfly, with space in between to facilitate airflow and keep a wetted fly from transferring moisture inside. Single-wall tents combine waterproof and breathable layers in one laminated material, which saves on weight and also eliminates the loud, jostling flapping of a separate rainfly in the wind. In hot weather, though, single-wall tents can build up moisture inside, as they’re most effective when temperatures outside the tent are substantially colder than those within.
Mesh panels on double-wall tents boost ventilation, as do rainfly doors and vestibules that can be rolled back and secured. Such features also, of course, improve the view to the outside.
A groundcloth is highly recommended to protect the bottom of your tent and extend its lifespan. Ideally, go for the model-specific footprint if manufacturers offer it, as this conforms exactly to the tent’s floorplan. Overly large groundcloths will collect rainwater, while undersized ones obviously don’t deliver comprehensive protection.
A tent’s season rating is another fundamental factor to consider when shopping around. The most popular tents are three-season models, ideal for camping trips from late spring through early fall. They’ve typically got plenty of mesh for ventilation on warm days (and for protection against winged hordes).
Extended-season tents, sometimes labeled as “3-4-season” or “3+-season,” are a bit heavier-duty, usually including a pole or two more than a three-season tent and fewer or smaller mesh panels. These are good choices for campers looking to get out and about deeper in the shoulder seasons—early spring or late fall, when the odd snowstorm or frosty night may occur—and for those planning to do a lot of high-elevation summer adventures.
Four-season tents are the toughest of the lot, favored by avid mountaineers and winter campers. Most commonly dome-shaped for maximum snow- and wind-resilience, four-season models come with reinforced fabric, doors and mesh panels that can be zipped close with solid coverings, and rainflies (if they’re double-wall tents) that reach to the ground. They typically employ at least three poles, and those are made from either aluminum or carbon-fiber for maximum strength.
You can use a four-season tent in summer if you’re willing to endure some stuffiness in hot weather; you can try to get by winter camping in tamer settings in an extended-season tent if you don’t skimp on your sleeping bag and liner. But lots of diehard campers with year-round proclivities lean toward acquiring more than one tent so they can most effectively deal with the extremes of camping conditions.
Choosing the right tent also means evaluating how easy it is to set up and break down (this, of course, underscores the value of pitching a tent in the store before buying). Keep in mind that you’re not always going to be able to make camp in optimal conditions (that’s a bit of an understatement). Pitching a tent in a gale force wind is quite a different proposition than doing so in a gentle breeze. Many a camping trip doesn’t quite get off the ground when intended, and at some point you’re probably going to be facing the prospect of (blearily) erecting your tent in full-on darkness. If you’re a backpacker collapsing after a hard day’s slog, ready to cook a quick dinner and then zonk out, you don’t want to monkey with a complicated tent setup.
Features that make a tent easier to set up include a free-standing design, pole clips rather than pole sleeves, color-coded pole segments and clips, and fewer poles in general (all this said, it’s also very much true that practice makes perfect, and once you’re familiar with your given tent model’s setup process—even a fussier one—you’ll likely be able to carry it out in double-time, unthinkingly).
It’s generally true that you get what you pay for when it comes to tents, but you certainly don’t need to spend a fortune to have a perfectly serviceable camping shelter. If you’re new to camping, a cheap tent is better than nothing, and can be a wonderful introduction to the pursuit.
If you plan on doing a lot of camping—and certainly if you’re interested in colder-weather trips or hardcore backpacking—spending a bit more for a high-quality tent definitely pays off: It’ll keep you more comfortable and protected, and it’ll last that much longer.
All of the above are aspects that go into choosing a backpacking tent as well as a car-camping model. As we’ve mentioned, though, backpackers need to be much more concerned about how much a tent weighs and how much space it takes up in the pack (remember, you’ll also be carrying things like food pouches, canteens, bug spray, first aid basics and more). Heavier tents generally deliver more durability and weatherproofing, though these days ultralight tents can boast plenty of muscle (which you’ll pay for).
When choosing the best tent for backpacking, reckon its effective weight in the pack by comparing the advertised minimum trail weight—the heft of the tent, rainfly, and poles alone—against the packaged weight, which is how much the full contents of the tent package/purchase weigh. Remember that you can shave off pounds by dividing the components of larger or heavier tents among members of the backpacking party and leaving tent-storage bags at home. Wedge- or hoop-style tents tend to be lighter than dome tents, though hoop tents don’t give you the freestanding convenience.
The color of your tent isn’t just an aesthetic choice. A lighter-colored rainfly will let more light pass through, which makes for a cheerier vibe if you’re stuck inside the tent for an extended period. Bright, bold colors in general make a tent easier to pick out on the landscape: nice if you’re coming down from the mountaintop and are a little turned around getting back to camp, but also too garish for some.
Backpackers in particular may opt to eschew tents altogether for the sake of saving weight. From camping hammocks to bivy sacks to simple tarp-groundcloth shelters, there are many alternatives to tents available. That said, if you’re just starting out on the camping road, you’re probably going to want to use a tent at first and then, perhaps, ease into these more minimalist options.
Tents can be a camper’s best friend, and, if they’re well-made, one that’ll see you through years or decades of adventuring. We can get mighty attached to beloved tents, which become repositories for a lot of fond memories minted in the great outdoors. Happy tent-hunting!