Camping can be the best adventure you’ll ever have with just a little prep work. Buying a tent is one of those things that will pay big dividends on time spent investing in research. Ask yourself a few questions as you get ready to shop and you’ll end up with the perfect tent for you.
- What is for your camping style?
- Will you be car camping or backpacking?
- How many many people will be in your group?
- Are you camping with kids? Teens? Pets?
- What seasons and temperature ranges will you be camping?
- How tall are you?
- What is your budget?
There are a few ways to differentiate types of tents. Back country campers vs car campers, dome vs cabin tents, minimalist vs luxury, frequent campers vs once a year campers, and the list goes on. As you get ready to investigate specific tents, take a minute to think about your perfect camping trip. How you like to camp will be crucial in picking out the best camping tent for you.
1. Luxury vs minimalist tents
Livability at the campsite falls on a spectrum. Those who want ultimate luxury away from home may opt for an RV with showers and flush toilets. But if you pick tent camping, you’ve already narrowed the field. Most of us will not be glamping like we are on safari in the 1800s or a shooting trip to Wales, with a bevy of white-gloved servants to set up our campsite each evening.
Sleeping on the ground may not fit in your definition of “luxury,” but there is a range when it comes to livability at the campsite. Luxury tents generally use lightweight, strong fabrics and have thoughtful design features that make the most of every square inch and pound. And, speaking of not sleeping on the ground, camping cots are one way to “luxury camp.”
Modern luxury camping takes advantage of breakthrough fabrics and coatings, ease of set up and use, and features that make camping a delight. Roomy, waterproof tents, top quality sleeping pads and bags, and plenty of nifty gadgets for cooking make your campsite a home away from home. On the other end of the spectrum, minimalist camping is less comfortable, but makes you able to get into out-of-the-way places that few ever experience.
2. Car camping tents vs backpacking tents
For those heading into the backcountry, your backpacking tent should ideally be light since it’s only one of the pieces of gear you’ll have on your back. But there’s a saying the gear world: “Strong. Light. Cheap. Pick two.”
Light, durable backpacking tents are going to cost you a significant amount and generally weigh several pounds less than standard camping tents of the same size rating. Some of the ultralight models weigh just a couple of pounds and run into the hundreds of dollars. These are a serious investment. You’ll also sacrifice interior space, head room, and some comfy features that heavier, bulkier tent include. It’s nearly impossible to buy a high-quality, durable backpacking tent for a low price.
For those who camp near their cars, weight and size are less of an issue. Tents made of thicker nylon with heavier poles can bring your purchase price down and increase the amount of interior room in your tent. Some of these car camping options have two rooms with a divider (a great option for families with small kids who go to bed earlier than the adults) or vertical sides to make moving around inside the tent easier. Expect to pay less for this type of tent than a backpacking model.
Casual campers who only occasionally head into the wild can bridge the gap with a hybrid tent. It’s light enough to take backpacking, especially when the tent body and poles are shared out among the group. It’ll also be roomy enough for fairly comfortable car camping.
3. Tent materials
We’ve already mentioned this, since it plays into cost and comfort, but it’s important to say it again. Tents range in weight from under 5 lbs to over 40 lbs, depending on construction, materials, and features. If you plan to take this tent backpacking, you’ll need to be on the lighter side.
Fiberglass poles can be heavy. While they are cheap to manufacture, fiberglass is not as strong as aluminum so these poles need to be thicker to stand up to the same use. With more material comes more weight. Aluminum poles are strong and light but cost more.
Canvas tents will last for years but are many times the heft of nylon. Canvas also takes longer to dry out after a rain, which may lead to mildew. Lighter materials like nylon and polyester increase the purchase price, but give you more versatility. Make sure you balance this vital spec with cost as you shop so you end up with the right tent for you.
4. Packed size
Like weight, this is more of a consideration for backpackers. Even so, no one wants a tent that takes up half the trunk. Keep an eye on this, especially if you have limited cargo space.
5. Who is in your group?
Camping with a bunch of guys from college is very different than a family heading out with small kids. If you have teens or preteens in your group, you may want them to have their own tent. As my kids headed into their teens, we’d put up 3 tents; a 2 man for the 2 girls, a 2 man for my husband and me, and a 6 man tent for the 3 boys. Believe me, they needed every bit of that room as they began to resemble their 6 ft 3-inch dad.
For those who want their gear to last for years, hold up to extremes of weather (rain, wind, cold, heat, etc.), and minimize some of the hassles that come with outdoor living, a mid- to high-end tent will be a long-term investment. I’ve had one of my tents for going on 20 years and it’s as structurally sound as ever.
In general, budget tents are a great option for those who camp in fair weather, stay on established tent pads, and don’t expect their tent to last more than a season or two. The fabrics tend to be heavier. And while they are generally moisture resistant, pay attention to reviews about moisture condensing inside the tent or rain getting in.
7. Usable space
Does a 4 person tent really fit 4 people? It depends on the size of the people. If you are camping with 3 of your college buddies, it’ll be a tight squeeze. Expect to lie shoulder to shoulder without any wiggle room or space to bring gear into the tent. Many 4 person tents are a better fit for 3 adults.
Pay close attention to the actual floor dimension rather than the manufacturer’s claim of 4 person tent, 6 person tent, etc. Also consider what type of sleeper you are. If you toss and turn a lot in a too tight space, your tent mates won’t get a whole lot of sleep.
- 1 man tent: Best for solo backpackers and minimalists
- 2 man tent: Best for couples who don’t mind being really cozy.
- 3 man tent: Best for 2 friends who like a little bit of space
- 4 man tent: Best for a family with 1 or 2 small kids, 2 people who have a considerable amount of gear and maybe a dog, or 3 normal-sized people (and the dog can sleep outside). Read our article on 4 person cabin tents to get more details.
- 6 person tent: Best for a group of 4, or a family with 2 or more kids and a dog
- 8 person tent: (often has a room divider) Best for one family who wants a separate space to put the kids to bed earlier than the adults, or 2 families, or 6 normal-sized adults, or 4 people with lots of gear and a dog.
Interior vertical space
Dome tents have less head room than square sided tents. Backpacking tents are often domed to save in weight by reducing the amount of material needed. The trouble is that you’ll have to crawl in and out, and may not even be able to sit up straight while inside.
If you are car camping, opting for a vertical-sided tent is a way to increase head room. Some tents are even tall enough to stand in, making changing clothes or tending children much easier. You can read more about dome tents vs cabin tent in our article by clicking here.
So if you don’t have room inside the tent for your gear, where do you put it? For backpacking, you’ll want a tent with a vestibule. This is an area that is outside the body of the tent, but covered by the rain fly. While it’s less vital if you have your car nearby to store extra gear, a vestibule is handy for taking on and off shoes or stashing your water bottle and a few necessities you don’t want in the tent with you.
Getting in and out easily is a plus, especially when you have 4 or more people in your tent. For that reason, 2 door tents are increasingly popular for larger sized tents. With doors on either side, you don’t have to climb over more than one tent mate in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.
Keep in mind though, that if you have small kids who may slip out the back while you’re sleeping, families may do better with a single door.
Mesh breathes well and lets moisture escape from your tent. Since we breathe out about 3 lbs of water per night while we sleep, it’s vital to have enough airflow to prevent that moisture from condensing on the inside of your tent.
So why not have an all mesh tent? Two reasons. First, mesh is weaker than nylon, putting you at risk of tears at the stress points of your tent. Second, if the temperature drops overnight, nylon sides will keep your tent warm. A good mix of mesh and nylon can balance breathability with protection from the cold along with durability.
10. Weather resistance
Speaking of cold, your tent needs to insulate you to some extent when the temperature drops while it also let air flow through so you don’t overheat during scorchers. But the key to being comfortable at the campsite? Staying dry.
When storms blow in unexpectedly, it’s vital that your tent keeps the rain on the outside. There’s nothing worse than waking up with a puddle under your sleeping bag while the wind whips outside. Many budget tents only have partial rain flies, while your higher-end options will have better coverage.
It’s always a great idea to set up your tent for the first time at home – in your back yard or even your living room. And having a tent that is easy to set up and take down is a great perk. Some manufacturers use color-coded poles and others use a numbered system on the setup steps. There are even some “instant” tents that have the poles permanently attached to the tent body. These instant tents tend to be a bit heavier and pricier but give you lots of convenience in return.
12. Footprint (needed/included)
Many tents suggest a footprint. This is a tarp that goes on the ground under the tent. A footprint protects the tent bottom from sharp twigs and rocks, and helps keep moisture from seeping through in the night. I always recommend putting a ground cloth down under your tent.
You can either get a footprint specific to your tent model, or use a tarp that you can cut to size. If you choose the (cheaper) tarp option, cut the tarp to the exact size and shape of your tent floor. If you don’t, rainwater will run down the fly and pool under your tent, defeating the purpose and giving you a cold, wet camping adventure.
Your tent will probably be your single biggest camping expense. Make sure you do your homework so you can enjoy your adventure into the outdoors, enjoying the wide open skies and making memories. Whatever your camping style and budget, you can find a tent that fits.