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How to Choose a Camping Tent

With more than 500 camping tents on the market these days, to say that choosing the right one is “overwhelming” would be an understatement.

Although we’ve tried to help you out by narrowing the playing field and stocking only 100 or so of the tents we think are awesome, we realize that picking one tent out of 100 is still a daunting task. So we’ve also written this article to tell you everything you need to know about tents so you can choose the perfect one.

A BRIEF LESSON IN TENT ANATOMY

Anatomy of A Camping Tent

FIRST THINGS TO CONSIDER

When you begin your search for the ideal camping tent, there are many important factors to take into consideration. The first couple of things you should think about are 1) when you do most of your camping and 2) how many people will most likely be sleeping in your home away from home. A tertiary concern should be tent weight (though once you’ve determined the other two things, there won’t be much wiggle room when it comes to weight).

Seasonality

Depending on when you’ll be camping, considering a tent’s seasonality will significantly narrow your search field or at least weed out a handful of choices.

Camping tents can be divided into two seasonal categories: 3-season and 4-season. The majority of tents that we carry are 3-season, made for use from spring to fall. They’re lighter weight and tend to be cooler in hot weather than their 4-season counterparts.

Four-season camping tents are built to withstand snow and high winds in the winter, yet still be used in fairer weather. They tend to be heavier and more expensive than 3-season tents, and it can get a little hot inside a 4-season tent during the summer. Many people who camp year-round will invest in two tents, one for winter and another for the rest of the year.

Sleep Capacity

Once you’ve determined whether you need a 3- or 4-season tent, it’s time to consider how many people you’re willing to share it with. You’ll find most tents labeled as 1-, 2-, 3-, or 4-person, with some being as big as 6- or 8-person.

Take these labels with a grain of salt, though—tent designers determine sleep capacity by laying down as many 72 x 20 in. sleeping pads as possible without any overlap. So just because a tent is able to fit three people inside, it doesn’t guarantee that those three people will be comfortable.

Don’t be afraid to get a tent one size bigger than you think you’ll need (i.e., get a 3-person tent even if there will be only two people using it). If you’re concerned about weight, you can always divide the parts of the tent—canopy, poles, and rainfly—among the people in your party instead of carrying everything yourself.

Tent Weight—The Difference Between Minimum and Maximum

You’ll often see tents listed as having two weights, a minimum and a maximum. Sometimes, you may even see a third weight listed—“fast fly weight” or, simply, “flyweight.”

Minimum weight is how much weight you’ll carry if you bring along only the poles, canopy, and rainfly.

Maximum weight includes everything else you get when you purchase the tent, such as stakes and guy-lines. Max weight also factors in the weight of the three stuff sacks that typically come with a tent—the overall stuff sack plus the stake bag and pole bag. What max weight does not factor in is the tent’s footprint, which adds anywhere from a few ounces to more than a pound of extra weight (depending on tent size).

Flyweight refers to the weight of just the poles and rainfly, a setup method appreciated by minimalist backpackers and anyone who knows for sure that their trip will have fair weather. Again, this measurement does not include the footprint; however, since this method is usually used only with 1- or 2-person backpacking tents, the additional weight of the footprint is minimal (less than 8 oz.).

Tent Weight—A Rough Idea of Tent Weight Based on Sleep Capacity

There’s no way around it—if you need a 3-person tent, you’re going to have to carry more weight than if you were carrying a tent only for yourself (though if the other members in your party are nice, they’ll help you out by splitting the weight).

Here’s a quick reference of tent weights (max) based on size. Please keep in mind that this is in no way exact, just a rough guide:

Sleep CapactiyMax Weight Range
1-Person2-4 lb.
2-Person3-6 lb.
3-Person4.5-7 lb.
4-Person8-12 lb.
6-PersonAtleast 12 lb.

It’s important to note that 4-season tents will always be heavier than 3-season tents of the same size. Also, the way a tent is classified will tell you how light it is compared to other tents of the same size. Remember, in terms of weight:

recreational/base camp tents > backpacking tents > ultralight tents

TENT DESIGN

After you narrow your search based on seasonality and sleep capacity, you should consider the way a tent is designed. Think about the tent’s area, floor plan, “livability,” and how it will accommodate your gear.

Area

While sleep capacity gives you a rough idea of how small or large a tent is, looking at its square footage lets you know exactly how much space you’ll have to work with.

Sleep CapactiyArea Range
1-Person20-25 sq. ft
2-Person25-40 sq. ft.
3-Person40-50 sq. ft..
4-Person50-65 sq. ft.
6-Person80-110 sq. ft.

If you prefer a little extra elbow room or want space to keep your gear inside, choose a camping tent that has a floor area of 20 square feet (give or take) per person. For those looking to shave ounces (ultralight backpackers, bike campers), a camping tent that offers about 15 square feet per person will work nicely, though it will be a tight fit.

In addition to interior area, many tents also offer vestibule space, or extra covered space to store your gear. We’ll discuss this a little more later on.

Floor Plan

A tent’s floor plan usually tells you three things: length, width, and the intended sleeping configuration. It should also show you, at a glance, what to expect for vestibule space and what the tent’s shape is. Here are two examples:

Floor Plan

Here you can see that your tent has two vestibules (the shaded areas), that it’s not truly rectangular, and that you and your tent mate are meant to sleep “face to face.” To ensure that each person has enough shoulder room, the tent’s irregular shape is wider at the head end and narrower at the foot end.

Floor Plan

In this example, you can see that you have two vestibules, that the tent is rectangular, and that you and your tent mates are meant to sleep “face to feet.” Sleeping this way uses a rectangular tent’s floor space most efficiently…just be sure that you aren’t stuck sleeping next to someone who kicks in their sleep!

Doors

While one door is, of course, enough, two might minimize nighttime jostling when either you or your tent mates need to crawl outside to respond to the call of nature. An extra door does, however, add a little bit of extra weight to the tent (due to the zipper), and may slightly increase the cost.

Peak Height and Elbow Room

Obviously you’re going to want to be as comfortable as possible while inside your tent, especially if you end up spending more time in it than you anticipated due to lousy weather. Two factors contribute to your overall comfort in a tent: peak height and elbow room.

Peak height refers to the usable height inside the tent. Bigger tents—6-person or larger—typically offer enough room for a person 6 feet tall or shorter to stand up in. Backpacking tents, on the other hand, are so lightweight because they provide only enough space to sit up in (usually 3 to 3.5 feet).

Elbow room (the less-technical term for “interior volume”) is dependent upon the way the tent walls are designed. If you’re still hunkering down in your old-school A-frame tent with steep walls, then you’re all too familiar with the lack of interior volume. Modern tents—of any size—tend to be much more rounded, which pulls the walls out more to provide a greater amount of both elbow room and headroom.

The Beauty of Vestibules

A vestibule is a floorless storage space created by staking out your tent’s rainfly over the door. Vestibules allow you to have a cleaner, more spacious tent interior by offering a separate place to store your dirty boots, wet clothes, and backpack.

Since they’re designed to simply protect your gear, vestibules are generally not very large; a mere 5 square feet of vestibule space will keep a full-size pack safe from the rain.

The majority of the camping tents we carry have at least one vestibule, while some tents offer two (tents with two doors often have two vestibules). Even tents that don’t provide a true vestibule have enough room under a staked-out rainfly to at least leave your shoes outside without having to worry about them getting wet if it starts to rain.

Other Gear Storage Options

In addition to vestibule space for your larger and/or stinkier gear, many tents now also offer interior pockets and the ability to add a “gear loft.” A gear loft is a mesh panel that attaches to the ceiling of the tent to create an attic of sorts. These interior storage options are perfect for keeping smaller things (think glasses, headlamp/flashlight, guidebook, and your gadgets) safe and easily accessible.

POLE DESIGN

Poles, much like the tents they support, come in many shapes and sizes. Camping tents usually come with two or three poles, but newer hub technology allows many tents to have only one pole. A few companies, such as Nemo and Big Agnes, even have tents that come with no poles at all!

Hubbed or Not Hubbed?

Tents that use traditional, nonhubbed poles require at least two poles. The two main poles cross over the tent to form the main structure, while a third, shorter “brow” pole may be needed to complete the setup.

Tent Poles

Hubbed tent poles take the place of the two crossover poles by combining them into one continuous pole with a plastic hub in the center (some tents may still also require a brow pole). Hubbed poles increase tent stability and are convenient because you don’t need to worry about accidentally leaving one of your main poles behind. You do have to be slightly more careful with a hubbed pole, though, as it can be more difficult to repair in the event of a break.

 ProsCons
TraditionalQuick, easy setup

Easier to repair in the event of a break
Can’t set up your tent if you lose or forget one of the poles
HubbedOnly one pole to keep track of

Provides increased stability

Setup is just as easy as with traditional poles

 
Harder to repair in the event of a break

Pole Materials

The most common tent pole material is aluminum, and the majority of the tents we carry use poles made by a company called DAC. DAC aluminum poles are lightweight, strong, durable, and have a few distinct characteristics that set them apart from other aluminum poles:

Pressfit connectors: While other aluminum tent poles rely on glue or crimping to keep pole sections together, DAC developed Pressfit technology to eliminate failure and breakage. By simply designing the insert tube’s diameter to be 0.01 to 0.02 mm larger than the inside diameter of the tube it’s inserted into, poles using this technology are lighter, stronger, and more reliable.

Green anodizing: Anodized aluminum is more durable and corrosion resistant. But traditional anodizing methods use harsh chemicals and a lot of water. DAC’s anodizing process recycles water during the first rinsing to minimize consumption, eliminates the use of phosphoric and nitric acids during the polishing stage, and minimizes air and water pollution by adhering to much stricter regulations than the government requires.

Carbon fiber tent poles are much less common than aluminum poles, but they do exist. The biggest advantage of a carbon fiber pole is how little it weighs, making it a great option for extended backpacking trips. Due to its higher cost, however, you won’t find many tents that come with carbon poles.

Tent Using Trekking Poles

As previously mentioned, there are also a handful of camping tents that don’t come with any poles. Some tents rely on the use of your trekking poles to give it structure, which greatly reduces the amount of space and weight the tent takes up in your pack.

To make things even more interesting, Nemo introduced a new generation of tents in 2004 that use AST, or AirSupported Technology, instead of poles. AST tents use integrated airbeams that can be inflated either by mouth or with a pump. When inflated to 7-9 psi, AST airbeams are as strong as—if not stronger than—traditional aluminum poles. They’re also easy to repair, can withstand a wide range of temperatures, and allow the tent to be packed up to be little more than the size of a cantaloupe!

While each type of tent pole has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, aluminum poles are the most common for a good reason: they provide the best balance of weight, strength, durability, and price.

Pole Frames

Excluding Nemo’s line of AST tents and those that use trekking poles, all tents have a “pole frame,” which is a bit of a misnomer, as it doesn’t refer to the frame created by the poles. Instead, “pole frame” refers to the way in which the canopy (the main section of the tent) is attached to the poles. There are two methods: clips and sleeves.

Frame Clips

Clips are extremely easy to set up, allow for maximum air circulation, and minimize condensation by creating a bigger gap between the canopy and the rainfly. They also add slightly less weight to the tent than sleeves.

Frame Sleeves

Sleeves, on the other hand, are a little stronger and distribute tension more evenly for less stress on the tent’s seams. The only drawback is that sometimes threading the pole through the sleeve can be a bit of a hassle.

Larger camping tents sometimes use a combination of clips and short sleeves (just at the top of the canopy) to get the best possible balance of weight, strength, and easy setup.

Freestanding Tents

Nearly all tents that require poles for setup are freestanding, which means it can stand without having to stake out the guy-lines. Freestanding tents are incredibly convenient for two reasons:

i) If you decide you want to move your tent to the other side of the campsite, or simply face it in a different direction, you can pick the whole thing up and put it where you want it rather than breaking it down and starting over again.
ii) When the time comes to clean out your tent before packing it away, just open the tent’s door, pick the whole thing up by the poles, and shake out all the loose dirt inside!

Keep in mind that even though your tent may be freestanding, staking it out is still a wise decision—especially when camping in high winds.

WHAT TENTS ARE MADE OF

There are three fabric components to most tents: canopy, floor, and rainfly (single-wall tents eliminate the rainfly; more on that later). These parts are made with either nylon or polyester, and some tents use a combination of the two, such as a polyester canopy with a nylon floor, or nylon canopy and floor with a polyester rainfly.

Canopy

A tent’s canopy (the main part) is most often made of nylon, typically in tough, ripstop form. Nylon is slightly lighter weight than polyester, as well as more durable and abrasion resistant. You’ll see the fabric referred to in terms of its denier, e.g., 40D or 70D. The higher the denier, the stronger and heavier the fabric. (To keep things light, tent designers usually won’t use nylon heavier than 70D for the canopy; for reference, lightweight packs are usually made with 420D nylon.)

Tent canopies also use large mesh panels, sometimes almost entirely so. The more mesh a tent has, the better ventilated it will be. Since mesh weighs very little, a tent with a lot of mesh is also more lightweight.

Some tents do have polyester canopies, but, more often than not, polyester is reserved for the rainfly.

Floor

Since tent floors take the most abuse, they need to be extra-tough. Tent floors are almost always made of nylon, and are rarely less than 70D. Having a higher denier ensures that the floor will be more durable. Even tents that have polyester canopies and rainflies often use nylon as the floor material.

Rainfly

Polyester naturally absorbs less water than nylon, and can survive continuous exposure to UV rays better than nylon. These two properties make polyester ideal for tent rainflies, though some tents also use it as a canopy fabric.

Staying Dry

To ensure that a tent keeps rain out, both the tent floor and rainfly are given waterproof coatings, using polyurethane, silicone, or both. Like waterproof treatments on other outdoor gear, these coatings are tested and rated in terms of millimeters and generally range from 1200 to 3000 mm; the higher the number, the more waterproof the treated material will be. A 1200 mm treatment prevents a column of water 1200 mm tall from seeping through, while a 3000 mm treatment keeps out a 3000 mm tall column of water.

You may be thinking, if the minimum level to be considered waterproof is 3000 mm, why are some tents given a lighter coating? Good question.

Since polyester and nylon are both naturally hydrophobic (polyester slightly more so), rainflies don’t necessarily need a heavy waterproof coating. Tent designers also assume that, in most cases, tents will be set up with a ground cloth or footprint underneath (discussed below), so sometimes tent floors are also given a lighter coating than you may expect. Outdoor companies want to create tents that are as lightweight as possible, and coating the fabric only as much as is needed prevents you from carrying around unnecessary additional weight.

In addition to silicone or polyurethane waterproof coatings, camping tents all come complete with fully sealed seams to prevent water from seeping in at the tent’s most vulnerable areas.

PROTECTING YOUR INVESTMENT

Cleaning and general tent maintenance aside, there’s a very simple step you can take to extend the life your fancy new tent: use a floor guard.

Tent-Specific Footprints

Nearly all the tents carried by Eastern Mountain Sports have a matching “footprint” (sold separately), which is a simpler way of saying “ground cloth that’s cut and sized to perfectly match up with a specific tent.” A footprint helps extend the life of a tent by protecting the tent floor from rocks, roots, and other hazards that may be lurking at a campsite. Footprints also provide an extra layer of protection against wet and/or muddy ground to keep your tent cleaner and drier.

Tent Footprint

Nearly all the tents carried by Eastern Mountain Sports have a matching “footprint” (sold separately), which is a simpler way of saying “ground cloth that’s cut and sized to perfectly match up with a specific tent.” A footprint helps extend the life of a tent by protecting the tent floor from rocks, roots, and other hazards that may be lurking at a campsite. Footprints also provide an extra layer of protection against wet and/or muddy ground to keep your tent cleaner and drier.

Most footprints have webbing straps and grommets that line up perfectly with the tent’s straps and grommets. These allow the footprint to be attached to the tent poles and staked out along with the tent itself to ensure maximum protection.

Generic Ground Cloths

If, for whatever reason, you don’t have a footprint for your tent, you can also get by with laying down a more generic ground cloth or tarp. These options still protect your tent floor against rocks, roots, and dirt/mud. However, because they’ll most likely stick out past the edges of your tent, there’s a chance that if you get caught in a rain storm, the water will end up pooling in the space between your tent and the ground cloth/tarp.

Tent Maintenance Tips

There’s a whole article on taking proper care of your tent, which we certainly recommend reading, but here are a few quick tips:

i) As we’ve already discussed, be sure to use a floor guard of some sort to protect the bottom of your tent.
ii) Make sure you clean out the inside of your tent (by shaking out loose debris) before packing it away.
iii) Tents come with “stuff” sacks for a reason—it’s better for the tent to be stuffed into its bag rather than folded.
iv) Never store a wet tent or keep it in a damp place.
v) Set your tent up in the shadiest spots possible to avoid unnecessary UV damage.
vi) After a while, your tent’s seams may start to leak a little bit. Toss a bottle of seam sealer into your tent’s stuff sack for emergency fixes.

TENT ALTERNATIVES

Do you want to pack as little as possible? Do you like to channel your inner butterfly and sleep in a something a little more cocoon-like? Or maybe you just don’t want to sleep on the ground? Well, no matter what the situation, a perfect tent alternative exists for you.

Shelters

Essentially floorless tents, shelters offer protection from rain and sun, but not much else. Some companies do make shelters that are very tent-like—complete with a door to help keep wind and bugs at bay and, sometimes, an optional floor—but a shelter can also be set up by simply stringing up a tarp between trees.

Pyramid ShelterTarp Shelter

If you’re confident you’ll have good weather during your trip, packing a shelter instead of a tent is a great way to save a ton of weight and space in your pack.

Bivies

A miniature tent of sorts, a bivy (short for bivouac) sack provides exactly enough space for you, your sleeping bag, and maybe your gear, depending on bivy size and how big your pack is.

There are several different designs; some use a small pole on the head end to provide a little extra breathing room, while others just lie flat. Bivy sacks have a mesh panel where your face is to offer bug protection, and a waterproof canopy that can be zipped up to keep you dry if it starts to rain.

Tarp Shelter

Bivies are a great option for minimalist backpackers (or anyone else) who don’t mind sleeping in small spaces and not being able to sit up. They usually only weigh around a pound, so if you’re looking to save weight in your pack and get cozy like a caterpillar, a bivy sack will definitely do the trick.

Hammocks

Sleeping in a hammock is not only incredibly comfortable (and fun!), it’s also beneficial to your health. Studies have shown that people fall asleep faster and sleep deeper in a hammock (we’ll wait while you Google that…), plus there are exactly zero pressure points, so you’ll be consistently more comfortable.

Tarp Shelter

Some camping hammocks allow you to zip yourself inside so you don’t have to worry about bugs, rain, or falling out. Alternatively, you can easily set your hammock up underneath a tarp for protection from the elements (but you’re on your own about the falling-out thing).

TIPS FOR CHOOSING A TENT

Now that you know more than you ever thought you needed to about tents, let’s boil it all down to a few key tips to help you choose the best one for you:

i) If you’re backpacking or bike camping and need a 2-person tent, go with one that weighs four pounds or less.
ii) For family camping/car camping, you don’t really need to worry about tent weight at all. Since the tent will be carried only a short distance from car to campsite, just make sure you pick a tent that has plenty of room for everyone.
iii) If you’re in the market for a 4-season tent, be sure that the one you choose has plenty of guy-lines and a rainfly that goes all the way to the ground for wind protection.
iv) If you still aren’t sure what kind of tent you want or need, stop in to one of our stores and talk to a guide!
 

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