How To Buy a Tent

Whether you’ll use it to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail or initiate your kids with a backyard campout, the right tent will affect your enjoyment of the outdoors. There are tents for every condition and every budget and it’s not uncommon to have a variety of them in the garage for different situations. This guide is designed to help you learn how to choose the best tent for your needs.

Types: There is a tent style for every condition you are likely to encounter in the great outdoors. Knowing what time of year you plan to camp will immediately rule out a large number of options. Tents are usually rated as 1-season, 3-season, 4-season, or expedition.

One Season: One-season tents are generally only good in the summer. They’re very breathable and may come with a rain fly. Even if a fly is included, the waterproof rating is usually lower (information on waterproof ratings to follow later). As such you will want to assess local rainfall amounts to see if the summer season is also monsoon season. If so, you might not want to get a one-season tent.

Three Season: Three-season tents are good from spring to autumn and offer better insulation and water protection than a one-season tent. They can usually even handle a bit of snowfall. These are a great option if you plan on owning only one tent, and if you’re not going to have to worry about waking up to a foot of snowfall.

Four Season: Four-season tents as the name implies, are usable in any season but are not always the best option. Using a Four Season tent in August on the Bayou would put you in a state of sweaty discomfort. Four-season tents are built strong enough to not buckle under the elements (such as heavy snowfall on the roof), yet are hospitable enough to keep you warm and dry. As such there can be a bit of a price jump by adding the ability to camp in the winter. But these tents will withstand almost anything — leaving the final rating of “Expedition” to handle the rest.

Expedition: Expedition tents are for those extended trips to Mt. Everest or the South Pole. It can hold up to intense wind, snow, sideways freezing rain, and whatever else you or Mother Nature can throw at it. For most of the population a tent like this is complete overkill. But for the small percentage that is voyaging to Antarctica or altitude, an Expedition-rated tent is the only option. This rating comes with a high price tag.

Additionally there are a few other options that aren’t technically classified as tents, but aid you in sleeping outdoors, and therefore are worth considering.

Bivouac or “Bivvy” sacks are basically large sacks made from waterproof breathable material. Some come with single-pole or inflatable support structures to give you some room to read or to help combat the claustrophobia. Simply insert a sleeping bag, pad, and go to bed. They protect from wind, rain, and insects but are extremely minimal. These are a great option for backpacking, climbing, or paddling missions where size and weight are a rare commodity. Bivvy sacks also have ratings based on weather and warmth, so make sure to be mindful of the environment in which you will “bivvy up”.

Hammock: Sometimes in life, simpler is better. For sleeping arrangements, you can’t go more minimal than a hammock without sleeping directly on the ground. Hammocks are portable, lightweight, and relaxing. Bring a tarp as well, and you have an instant rain cover!

Liveability: Everyone’s standard of “liveable” is as different as the places they camp. Overlooking the liveability might make you (or your reluctant significant other) not so happy. Here are some elements that can make your tent feel more liveable:

Sleeping Capacity: While seemingly self-explanatory, keep in mind that tent capacity ratings are usually based on a 150-lb adult. If members of your party are significantly larger, it might be a good idea to get a larger tent than the rating suggests. Conversely, if the tent will be full of lil’ rugrats, the rating may be more than sufficient.

Floor Dimensions: This is akin to the square footage of your home. Measuring the floor dimensions is important, especially if you are in the “Big and Tall” category. Remember to keep in mind that a round-shaped tent will require a larger area than one that is square. If you have extra belongings or need extra space for cooking, reading, meditating, stacking shoes or packs, etc., be sure to keep the floor dimensions in mind — enough space to simply sleep might not cut it for you.

Height: How high your tent needs to be is often directly related to how much time you plan on spending inside the tent. If you plan on sleeping in it and nothing more, then height is nothing more than added bulk. But if you plan on playing cards, comfortably changing clothes, or ever having to sit at base camp for two weeks waiting for the clouds to lift then height should be a consideration. Be sure to know your own height, both while standing and seated, and find a tent that will accommodate.

Vestibule: A vestibule is a covered area that is technically “outside” the tent, located at the entry point. It is essentially a mudroom. This is a place to leave muddy shoes or items that you do not want inside. The vestibule area is important if you will have a lot of gear or people. Some tents have large vestibules so be sure to check that the area suits your party’s needs.

Venting: Venting is an environmental necessity in three-season and one-season tents. Some four-season single-wall tents get by without vents, but they are constructed of breathable materials and extremely expensive. In warm, dry climates, venting is an obvious necessity, but it’s equally important in cool weather to promote moisture transfer from inside the tent out. Folks who sweat heavily might want a tent with more venting options than someone who is perpetually cold.

Packability: Most tents will show “packed” volume meaning how large the tent is when it’s ready for transport. This will vary significantly with each tent — lower packed volume means higher cost. Furthermore some tents can be stuffed into the bag with reckless abandon; others must be folded and packed just right for it to fit in the sack. The tent’s material has a lot to do with packability (more on that later).

Features: Today’s tents are full of extra features that can make your camping life much easier. Here are a few bells and whistles to pay attention to:

Number of Doors: Some tents only have one front door for access while others have multiple entry points. Multiple doors come in handy in situations where the tent is wedged into a narrow space like inside a dense forest or a packed festival campground. It’s also a great option for side-entry tents meant for two or more people – so you can enter and exit with minimal disruption to your tentmate.

Guy Lines: You can attach guy lines to the rain fly to tension it down for stormy situations. They are particularly beneficial during high winds. Most rain flys feature attachment points for Guy Lines, which often come with tents but can also be bought as an add-on.

Pockets: Some tents feature interior pockets, which are really convenient for keeping important items like headlamps, car keys, or clean socks within easy reach without getting shuffled around.

Sealed Seams: Most tents are seam-sealed at the factory, meaning an effort was made to waterproof the tiny holes made along the seams. However this is not always the case, make sure to check if this has been done. Seam seals can wear off over time and let water in. There are a number of seam seal products on the market so be sure to check with the manufacturer for the best-recommended seam seal type for that tent if you’re attempting to do it yourself.

Footprint: A footprint is used as a barrier between your tent and the ground. It will greatly extend your tent’s life by helping preventing bottom damage. Sometimes a footprint is included with the tent, sometimes not. If not, there are a number of third-party footprints, or even a simple tarp will do.

Rain Fly: Arguably the most important feature, the rain fly can be the only thing between you and a few hundred gallons of torrential downpour. Additionally it can be a nice privacy screen if your tent has a mesh top. Even when it isn’t raining, the rain fly acts as an extra moisture barrier from morning dew, something people often overlook just once.

Gear Lofts: Gear lofts provide extra storage space in your tent. Depending on the tent’s strength, you can hang small items such as a lantern or wet laundry. If your tent doesn’t come with its own gear loft, there are a number of third party vendors that will fit most models.

Pitchability: A tent’s setup differs greatly between each model. Different people have different preferences and different tent-pitching skills. While you and you alone will ultimately determine how fast your tent will go up, a tent’s setup speed and difficulty is usually determined by how the poles fasten to the tent. There are three primary methods: Sleeves, Clips, and No-poles.

Sleeves: Sleeves are narrow tubes on the tent’s exterior, generally made out of the same material as the tent. They are the most time consuming of the three options, but also provide great stability with very little chance of the poles freeing themselves. Initially the setup can be tedious but with time comes mastery.

Clips: Clips provide a simpler setup, but lack the stability of pitching with sleeves. These ‘clip’ onto the tent pole, effectively hanging (with tension) from the crisscrossing poles. Clips can be an issue in windy situations without a fly since they are prone to disconnecting when moved around. But if a speedy setup is your top priority, then go with a clip-based tent.

No Poles: No Poles setups are becoming increasingly popular. If you are frustration-prone and have sausage fingers, a setup that does not require threading small tent poles through equally small holes might be the way to go.

Inflatable: Inflatable tents have a very easy setup, but require a pump, which can be an issue if you’re short on space. If you have the capacity to bring a pump along and don’t want to be burdened with setup, an inflatable is a great option.

Pop Up: Pop up tents have poles within, but are already constructed to “pop up” when unpacked. Packing it back up can take some getting used to without it exploding in your face, but with a little practice you’ll be packing and unpacking with no sweat.

Material: The tent’s fabric plays an important role in your camping experience. The tent material affects breathability, waterproofing, and insulating capacity.

Nylon: This fabric is lightweight and water-resistant, and repels water effectively when coated with a waterproofing substance. The waterproofing does wear with time and nylon tends to eventually get saturated and waterlogged in heavy rain. Nylon is an affordable option if you aren’t recklessly abusing your tent, and with the right coating, can be used for full-on expeditions.

Polyester: Polyester tents are similar to nylon but much more durable. With the right coating it can repel water and also breathe. They are also more resistant to sun than Nylon, which fades over time.

GORE-Tex: GORE-Tex is an excellent waterproof/breathable fabric often used in technical outdoor apparel. GORE-Tex is very insulating, which is great in winter months but no so much in the summer. And as you probably already know, gear that features advanced technologies such as GORE-Tex can get pricey.

Canvas/Cotton: Canvas tents are what all tents were made of not very long ago. They are great for nostalgia, but with today’s technology are unnecessarily heavy. Canvas has stood the test of time, and will probably be around awhile but has no place in a backpack.

Pole Materials: The flexibility, weight, and durability of each tent pole varies according to material. The price point is usually the determining factor of what type of material is included with each tent. Here is a rundown on what to expect, as you can generally expect your poles to be one of three varieties:

Aluminum Alloy: This is the most common material on the market. It’s lightweight, strong, and flexible. Chances are that your tent poles will be made from Aluminum Alloy, but never assume and double-check when purchasing.

Fiberglass: Fiberglass poles are becoming outdated because they’re heavier and break easier than aluminum alloy. There are still some less expensive tents with fiberglass poles, but any replacements that you buy should be made from aluminum alloy.

Carbon Fiber: These poles are strong, lightweight and nearly indestructible. The only setback is that current technology has not allowed the material to be constructed at a reasonable price point, and thus these poles are much more expensive. Carbon Fiber poles are the material of choice for top-shelf models and backpacker series tents where weight is of the utmost importance.

In the end, you want a tent that will be comfortable for 8 hours a day sometimes more if the weather is horrendous. Then assess the conditions where you expect to be using your tent.

Remember what you read above. And be sure to answer the following questions:

  1. In what season(s) will you be camping?  How wet or dry is the climate?
  2. How will you be getting to the campsite?
  3. Will you be camping in your car? In a boat? With a backpack?
  4. How much space do you have for your tent in your car/boat/backpack?
  5. With how many people will you be sharing your sleeping space?
  6. How much time are you willing to allot for setup?
  7. Are you on a budget, or do you need the latest and greatest (and most expensive) products?
  8. What other activities do you plan on doing while camping?  Do you need to store additional gear in your tent?  Or perhaps you need a tent for your gear…?

Asking these questions, as well as being conscious of the different types of features, will go a long way in helping you choose your tent. So be sure that you’re getting the right tent at the beginning, and hopefully you’ll be in your new outdoor abode for many years to come.