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.