When I set out to buy my first tent, I headed to my local sporting goods store with a short list of requirements: it needed have enough room to stand up, fit an air mattress and be CHEAP! I picked a traditional, $30 no-fuss, easy-to-put-together, square-shaped, 4-man tent with a rain fly. I sat it up in the backyard and slept in it the night I brought it home. It fit two people, 2 dogs and a king-sized, blow-up air mattress quite well, with a little extra room on the sides. “No problem,” I thought, stuffed it back into its carrying bag and let it sit until my camping trip a week later.
My group and I headed out to the lake to begin a three-night camping trip. The weather was hot, sunny and dry. We swam, grilled, drank a beer overlooking the lake at sunset and then made a campfire for s’mores when it got dark. I crawled into the tent, expecting a fine night to match such a fine first day.
At some point during the night, I woke up to a drip…drip….drip….drip…on my face! A storm had blown in, and it was raining cats and dogs outside! Even though the rain fly was up, the tent was still leaking. Unfortunately, the leak was directly over my duffle bag and soaked all of my clothes. I spent the next 3 days and 2 nights in my swimsuit and men’s boxer shorts. Not exactly comfortable!
Though I had all the best intentions to get a tent that fit my budget, could fit two people and the dogs and have a tall center point, I didn’t take into account many important factors you should consider when buying a tent. After considering how much you can spend on the tent, start looking at these factors:
- How many of you will be camping? Always pick a bigger tent than how many people will be sleeping in the tent. A two-man tent holds two people with no gear inside and not much room for moving around. For a one-night stay this might be fine, but if you’re going out for a few nights or a week, you will want more room.
- When are you doing your camping? Tents are also made for different seasons. If you are doing only warm-weather camping or only winter camping, your tent needs are different.
- Where will you be camping? Do you mountain climb or go hiking? Will you be primitive/walk-in camping or car camping? Weight and size are important factors in picking out your tent.
You can find tents in polyester, nylon and canvas. Polyester tents have better UV-resistance and hold out moisture better than nylon, but nylon is lighter weight. Canvas is very durable, but quite heavy. The tent’s poles are usually made of either fiberglass or aluminum. Fiberglass poles are more flexible and durable than aluminum, but aluminum poles are stronger and hold more weight. The more poles a tent comes with, the more stable the tent will be.
There are 3 basic types of seasonal tents: 3-season, 4-season and convertible. Most leisure campers will want a 3-season tent, which are good for summer, fall and spring camping and are not rated for winter camping. A 4-season tent has maximum weatherproofing, although may not have enough ventilation for summer months. A convertible tent is a 4-season tent that converts to a 3-season tent.
Tents come in a huge variety of shapes and the typical ones are:
- Dome tents, which use poles that crisscross over the top and are good for windy areas.
- A-Frames, which have steep-pitched walls, curved ridge poles, are easy to set-up and lightweight, and are not particularly wind or wet-weather friendly. The steeper the walls, the roomier the tent gets. A-frames also offer increased ventilation and help reduce humidity in the tent.
- Cabin tents, which offer lots of room and have vertical walls. Cabin tents are usually heavy and not easy to set-up, although may be perfect for a larger family who goes car camping.
- Mountaineering tents, which are usually more expensive tents designed especially for severe weather conditions.
There are also modified A-Frame tents, umbrella tents, hoop tents and wedge tents.
Tents are either single-walled or double-walled. Single-wall tents are made of waterproof material and do not come with a rain fly. (The rain fly is a cover for your tent and can help prevent your tent from leaking). Single-walled tents are not particularly good for hot weather camping.
Double-walled tents are heavier than single-walled, are usually less expensive and use a rain fly.
A Rain Fly
If you choose a tent with a rain fly, it should be made of coated polyester or nylon and wrap around the tent. Pay attention to where the rain fly lays over your tent. You should look for a tent with a rain fly that has maximum space between the fly and tent, which allows for less chance of leakage. Also, the lower the rain fly reaches to the ground, the less ventilation you have in your tent. Ideally, the rain fly should cover all seams of the tent (seams are any point where your tent can leak) and not cover the ventilation windows. A tent with double-stitched seams helps prevent leaks as well. To be extra safe, seal the seams with waterproofing before you go out camping.
A lot of tents these days are “free-standing” tents, meaning the tent will not need to be staked down, although it is still a good idea to purchase a tent that comes with optional stakes. My cheap tent came with plastic stakes and it is a good idea to buy metal stakes instead of using the included plastic ones. Staking down your tent provides better stability.
Consider the dimensions of the tent. Not only do you want more space than just how many bodies can fit in there to sleep, you want to know how tall the tent is at its highest point. Will you comfortably fit in it sitting down? If one of you or both of you or all of you are 6′ or taller, make sure you pick a tent with enough floor space to stretch out while lying down.
The floor of your tent should rise up a few inches onto the walls of the tent and make sure there are no seams along the bottom of the tent. Remember, seams are where water can get in. Even if you pick out a tent with a tub floor, you should also buy a tarp to put between the tent and the ground. The tarp protects the tent’s floor from rips and tears AND it prevents water from building up and seeping into your tent. Buy a tarp no bigger than the tent’s floor. The tarp should not poke out. If you buy a tarp too big, it may gather water and start leaking.
Since I camp in Texas, a tent with a lot of ventilation is very important to me. In the summer, we can stay in the high 90s, even during the night. Look for mesh doors, windows and roof panels that increase the ventilation in your tent. The mesh on the tent should be tight, no-see-um, mesh to keep bugs out. Some tents offer “vestibules,” which is an area that extends outside your tent to cover your gear if you choose not to store it inside.
Write Down Your Requirements
From my experience, the biggest and cheapest tent isn’t always your best bet: you also need to consider weight, construction quality, and season. When setting your budget for your camping trip, make sure your tent gets the highest priority. Write down your requirements and then start shopping around within your budget.
- Rain fly
- Ground tarp
And have a wonderful, comfortable and non-leaky camping season!