Go to any campground or on any extended backpacking trip, and you’ll see dozens of different tent styles, colors, shapes and sizes. Why one over the other? Which is best for me? A tent can serve as a reliable refuge from a storm; be as large as a veritable palace for the family; or be just enough of a tight cocoon to keep the bugs off. Here we’ll try to straighten out some of the confusion you might encounter in choosing a tent, and then how to best use and take care of one.
SIZE. As in how many will your tent need to protect – just you; a couple, or a family? When considering what size tent, you also have to factor in the issues of weight, privacy and practicality. For backpacking trips, one- or-two-man tents are most common. For car or base camping, larger (and heavier) tents will work if you need the space, but are usually too heavy for backpacking. Will your family always be going with you – if so get a larger one. If you want privacy or less rustling around all night, try two smaller ones instead – one for the parents; one for the kids. One good compromise is a lightweight 2-person tent – it’s not too heavy to carry for one, but big enough to share with another when needed. See more on tent size below, and in this article on tent size.
SEASONS. Tents are designed for the variety of weather conditions encountered during different seasons of the year, as well as the activities in which you may participate during these seasons. Be sure that the tent you choose meets or exceeds the conditions that you expect to encounter. The main categories are 3-season tents, good for Spring thru the mild stages of winter; and 4-season tents, which are often used in expeditions under severe weather conditions. See more on these two styles below. Some campers just want minimal protection and focus on lightweight tarps and covers. That can be an inexpensive, lightweight direction to go, but not always practical under bad weather conditions.
WEIGHT. Weight is an issue for tents used for backpacking, but pretty much a non-issue for car-camping. The lighter the tent, the more expensive it often is since the materials are higher-tech and thus more costly to produce. Typical high quality backpacking solo tents are in the 2-4 pound range (see example here); two-person versions are in the 4-6 pound range (see example here). A large family tent can weigh in at close to 20 pounds or more (see example here). Tents designed to handle severe weather will be substantially heavier than their 3-season counterparts.
BUDGET. Beware the cheapie tent at the discount store. It might keep a sprinkle off of you, but you’ll get wet in a heavy downpour; ventilation can be iffy, and heavy winds can bring it crashing down. The lighter the tent, usually the more expensive it is, and 4-season tents are more expensive than 3-season versions. Everything else being equal, larger tents are more expensive than smaller tents, but note that most high-quality, but small backpacking tents are more expensive than some discount larger family tents.
We offer a wide range of tents to meet most budgets and most intended camping styles. Everything we offer is high-quality, though; we don’t try to compete with the discount store offerings. We want you to stay dry and not blow away; buy a tent from Wally World at your own risk!! See our full selection of tents here.
There are many differences between 3-season and 4-season tents, including: 4-season tents are stronger; more wind and snow resistant; less ventilated; have more poles; may have a different geometric design; and can be twice as heavy as a comparably sized 3-season tent. Select a 4-season tent if you will likely face harsh weather conditions, such as high winds and/or heavy snow. Unless you do a lot of winter camping, a 3-season tent should suffice – better model 3-season tents will protect you from a reasonable amount of snowfall and high wind if properly staked out. But if you often hike into higher elevations – even in the fall and spring – you may face weather extremes frequently enough to warrant having a 4-season tent.
Most of the tents we carry are 3-season, which reflects the needs of most campers. See our complete selection of tents here.
After you have settled on the appropriate size, style, weight and have determined your budget range, here’s a few other features to look for or consider to narrow down your choices:
Free Standing or Not. A “free-standing” tent is designed with a pole structure that doesn’t require stakes to keep its shape intact. Such a tent is ideal if you frequently camp in rocky areas or loose sand where use of stakes is difficult. But just because it is free-standing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t secure it with guy lines if its windy – otherwise it could go flying off like a kite. And, tents that are normally staked out can still be secured in rocky, hard ground areas with rocks laid on top of the straps normally used for the stakes. This isn’t perfect, but works fine in mild winds; use guy lines when stakes can’t be used for even more wind and rain security.
Pockets. Look for internal storage and organizing pockets and loops along the tent walls or overhead to store loose items; suspend lights; or hang gear.
High Floor Seams. Beware of low-level seams where the tent floor meets the walls; could be an open avenue for water to seep thru.
Taped Seams. Be sure the specs indicate all the seams are taped for waterproofness.
Rainfly. If a double-walled tent, make sure the outer wall, or rainfly, is easily attached to the poles or first wall with clips – avoiding a need to carry a lot of extra stakes. Make sure the rainfly adequately covers the tent body to offer full rain protection.
Doors. A 2- or 3-person tent with just one door can make it difficult to get in and out of without stepping on your fellow campers; doors on each side are ideal.
Ventilation. Double-wall tents are less conducive to condensation than single-walled tents, so keep that in mind when choosing, particularly if you camp in humid areas. Look for ventilation enhancements such as flaps, configurable rainfly doors, etc to maximize air flow.
Poles. Look for color-coding in poles and straps or other helpful features that ease tent setup.
Vestibule. This is the tent “porch” of sorts – usually provided by a section of the rainfly near the door that extends out further than the tent body, offering covered shelter beyond the sleeping area. Can be used to protect gear, shoes or a canine companion you don’t want inside the tent with you.
Interior Height. Check this spec – ultralight tents sometimes get light by shaving off the amount of material needed with a lower profile. That’s great unless you have bouts with claustrophobia, or like to change clothes inside your tent. Some low-slung versions aren’t very conducive to movement inside. Also note that the listed interior height is usually at just one peak point; walls may descend sharply from that.
Everyone probably knows by now that a “2 by 4” board isn’t really sized 2” x 4” anymore. So be careful with claims about tents that say “2-man”, “6-person”, etc. They may be technically correct, but it can depend on the camper’s size and willingness to “be cozy”. For example, some two-man tents won’t have enough side room to lay two mattresses together without touching the side walls – I guess they assumed one guy would just lie on the ground. Some family-sized tents claiming room for 5 or more only fit that many if you stack everyone in a certain way, or if some campers are pint-sized.
Check out interior height specs to make sure you won’t get claustrophobic, and lengths to make sure your head and feet won’t be pressing up against the walls. Some tents get tight for those over 6’ tall. For multi-person tents, consider how campers will get in and out without stepping on someone else in a middle-of-the-night pee run – two doors help.
Most tent spec sheets include a diagram of the floor space with dimensions. If you can’t see the tent in person, mark out the dimensions on a floor and make sure it’s big enough for your needs. If you are at a store checking one out, have the sales clerk throw air mattress(s) inside of it and see how it fits. Climb in yourself and stretch out. See more on tent sizes.
Selecting a Camp Site and Usage Tips
Rule #1. Always setup a new tent at home, in the yard or even in your living room if necessary, before taking it out on a trip. Figure out how it sets up and make sure all the parts are there before you leave home.
The best tent ever made won’t help if you start out with a crappy campsite and bad preparation. A few pointers:
· Choose a spot previously used by other campers. Minimize your impact on nature; don’t be a trailblazer with additional camp sites. When you leave, make it look like you were never there.
· Find the most level spot to pitch your tent; choose a rough flat surface over a smooth slope if you have to choose, since your mattress will absorb most of the rough spots.
· If you end up on a slope, sleep parallel with the slope with your head on the higher side.
· Always look over the area where your tent will sit and remove any sharp objects that may damage the floor. This is where most tent damage occurs.
· You should find a camp site near water for convenience and a soothing melody at night, but don’t setup so close where flooding is a danger or you’re in the only path animals use to come to drink. Beware that “water = mosquitos + flies” most of the time.
· Look up above your intended site for overhead dangers. Tents are strong, but they won’t hold back a widowmaker – a dead tree or branch that started to fall but is precariously held in place by another tree.
· Choose sites that will drain well, even in a downpour. Avoid slight depressions and dry beds of creeks in canyon country.
· It is not safe to use a candle or candle lantern inside the tent. It is also not safe to cook inside or even under the vestibule. Flames = heat on thin fabric = disaster in the making.
· Use a ground cloth or “foot print” to go under your tent, especially if car camping. This protects your valuable tent floor from tears and punctures, and offers a bit more insulation. Just make sure that whatever you use is smaller in size than the perimeter of your tent; otherwise water might pool underneath you.
· Open up any vents in the tent to allow air to circulate and minimize clamminess, even in cold weather.
· If you are in bear country, do not keep any food, cookware, deodorant, toothpaste or anything else aromatic in the tent with you. Don’t even sleep in the clothes you cooked in or wore all day with snacks in the pockets. Otherwise, you may have an unwelcome visitor at night checking you out. Even if bears aren’t around, you’d have a potential problem with mice, squirrels and other critters coming in to check things out. Either hang your food out of harm’s way, or use a bear canister. Learn more about safety in bear country.
For related information on the art of sleeping in the woods, and info on sleeping gear, see our “Sleeping Resources’ page here.
Like a lot of things, tents will last a long time if you take care of them, but can rapidly turn into trash if you don’t. Here’s how to avoid the trash route.
· Rule #1. Proper cleaning and storage of a tent will prolong its life. When backpacking, try to reasonably clean and dry your tent everyday on your trip before packing it up for that day’s hike. Definitely clean your tent of all mud, loose dirt and debris as soon as you return from your camping trip. Shake out any loose dirt, and wipe the floor and fly clean with a sponge and water. Make sure your tent is completely dry before you pack it away. A tent that is packed away while damp will mildew. Storing your tent loosely in a large stuff sack or box may help prevent the formation of mildew, especially in humid climates. For a more thorough cleaning, hand wash your tent in a mild cleaner like liquid hand soap and water solution. Rinse thoroughly and allow to air dry out of direct sunlight. Never machine wash or tumble dry your tent.
· Mildew will “kill” a tent. A musty odor, and/or small cross-shaped spots on the tent fabric indicate mildew formation. Mildew uses the dirt and soil as nutrients to grow and reproduce. This fungus actually penetrates the urethane coating of the tent fabric and grows between the tent fabric and coating, eventually lifting the coating from the fabric. Waterproofness is thus lost and the fabric is eventually destroyed.
· Should mildew begin to form, immediate action can be taken to retard further growth. Wash the tent as instructed above. Next, sponge-wipe the tent with a solution made up of 1/2 cup Lysol to a gallon of hot water, or rinse with a solution of 1 cup of lemon juice and 1 cup of salt to a gallon of hot water. Sponge over the affected areas and allow to air dry, out of direct sunlight, without rinsing. This will kill the mildew on the tent, and prevent it from getting worse, but it may not remove the mildew marks. In some severe cases, the mildew and/or the treatment will damage the coating that waterproofs your tent. In those cases you might be able to salvage the tent by spraying the affected area with a waterproofing solution.
· Avoid storing your tent in a plastic bag or any other airtight, confined space. Find a cool, dry spot to store your tent such as a closet inside your house where it won't be exposed to humidity.
· Most of the problems experienced with tent zippers are due to wear in the zipper sliders, rather than a failure of the coil itself. (The slider is the metal part that you move to zip and unzip the zipper.) Particles of dirt and grit on the coil, accumulated during use, abrade the mechanism inside the slider head. When the slider becomes sufficiently worn, it will stop engaging the teeth of the coil correctly and cause the zipper to open up behind the slider. Obviously, keeping your tent as clean as possible will slow this process. The more exposure to sand and grit that the zippers see, the more quickly the sliders will wear. Be sure to clean the zipper coils after every trip. Water and a gentle brushing works. Zipper cleaners and lubes are available at most outdoor stores, or you can use paraffin wax or lip balm if you're in a pinch. Petroleum based lubricants are not recommended.
· Most seams in good quality tents have been taped at the factory for increased waterproofing. While seam tape helps, additional seam sealing will improve the performance of your tent in rainy conditions. For additional weatherproofness, seal all places where attachments are sewn to the fly, including webbing, Velcro, snaps, guy-outs, and zipper tracks. The best way to seal your tent is to use a urethane-based seam sealer such as Seam Grip, and run a thin bead around the base of the attachment, where it is sewn to the fly. Do this to attachments both on the inside and outside of the fly. If needed, seal the perimeter seam of your tent floor by running a bead of seam-sealer around the inside perimeter. Make sure the seam-sealer is completely dry – up to 12 hours - before re-packing your tent.
· Keep all flame and heat sources away from tent fabric. Many tents are made with flame-resistant fabric, but are not fire-proof.
· Another silent tent killer is UV damage from the sun. UV damage will cause nylon and polyester to become brittle and tear easily. Setup your tent on trips in the shade when possible, and don’t let your tent set up all week in your backyard as it's drying out from your last trip. Consider using the rain fly even on clear days, since it acts as a sunscreen to the tent and is less expensive to replace if damaged.
· Don’t wear shoes inside your tent. Create a “mat” to place outside your tent door to minimize tracking in dirt and twigs. A plastic garbage bag works well for that.
· To get tree sap or pitch off your tent, freeze the tent and pick off the pitch with some duct tape rolled back on itself, or use mineral oil to clean it off. GoofOff adhesive cleaner works as well.
· Avoid letting your tent poles come together by hard snapping of the shock cord--it could bend the tips. Avoid scratching the pole coatings, since that promotes corrosion. Lightly lubricate the pole joints to minimize wear, and break poles down from the middle to reduce strain on the cords. If possible, store the poles in assembled position to minimize stress on the cords.
Following are links to LowerGear videos that include individual setup instructions for a variety of car camping tents we rent. We change models frequently, but similar principles apply:
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