Wednesday, June 12, 2024

How to Choose the Best Tent

Updated March 2014

Buying Advice: Tents

A tent is the most expensive and most important piece of camping equipment you will buy. Since tents come in a variety of styles and price ranges, it is important to carefully consider how you will be using it and in what type of environment to ensure that you purchase the best shelter for your unique needs. Will you primarily be using the tent for car camping with your family in the summer? Or, are you a serious solo mountaineer that needs a tent that will withstand extreme weather conditions? Asking yourself a few simple questions beforehand will significantly narrow down your options and help you find the perfect tent for your next adventure.

What to Know Before You Buy

Tents and Seasonality

The majority of tents you will see on the market are three-season tents because of their versatility. Unless you need shelter in severe conditions or above the tree line, these tents will be a great choice for most campers. Three-season tents will typically have good interior space (depending on their frame), 1-2 doors and ample mesh for ventilation. A good three-season tent will also have a rainfly that can be pitched over the top of the tent for protection against wind and rain. Three-season tents can sleep anywhere from one to six people, and their weight/size varies depending on how it will be used. Backpacking ones will obviously be lighter and more compact than tents meant only for campsites. Prices for three-season tents will range from $100 to $650 depending on the size and features you choose.

All-season tents are designed for backpacking or mountaineering in extreme weather conditions. They are built with stronger frames and fabrics, so they can withstand high winds and/or heavy rain/snow. They typically feature a dome or geodesic dome shape, so they can shed precipitation and keep a low profile to hold up in windy conditions. Sometimes they are referred to as "one-season tents" since the lack of mesh ventilation is great for insulation in the winter but can make them stuffy to use in warmer conditions. If you truly need an all-season tent, you want to pay closer attention to the ventilation systems of the tents you are evaluating. Finally, given that these tents are stronger and more durable, they also tend to be slightly heavier and more expensive. Prices for all-season tents will range from about $400 to $800. </p>

<p>Other tent classifications you may see are summer (two-season) tents or family tents. Summer tents will have the most ventilation and are only intended for use in warm, dry conditions. Family tents are intended for camping with larger groups (4+) and are available in two or three-season versions. They typically have more interior living space and more verticality in the walls so you can stand comfortably inside them (ie. cabin-style tents). They will have more storage space for gear and sometimes even extra compartments for privacy. Family tents are much heavier than other tents and are perfect for campsites/car camping. Prices will range between $200-$600, but you will probably want to spend $300-$400 for a sturdy one since these tents receive more wear and tear from high use.

Tent Styles or Shapes

There are three main tent shapes you will encounter. Dome tents are popular for families and backpackers alike because they maximize interior space, in terms of headroom and sleeping space, and they are easy to pitch. Geodesic designs improve upon traditional dome shapes by using advanced pole positioning to create a more stable tent. They can be pitched on most surfaces and are only marginally heavier. Tunnel or hoop tents also have good interior space but require fewer poles, which makes them easy to pitch as well as lighter than dome tents. While some tunnel tents hold up in extreme weather conditions, they may be less rigid in high winds and even require extra stakes and more carefully selected pitching sites. Finally, a cabin tent is the most popular tent for family/car camping at established campgrounds. They are the heaviest tents but will have the most interior space and are typically easy to pitch.

Tent Materials and Construction

Most tents will have aluminum alloy poles, but there are still some cheaper tents that have fiberglass poles. Aluminum poles are preferable to fiberglass poles because fiberglass ones are heavier and break easily in cold weather. Based on the weather conditions you will be camping in, you will want to make sure the poles are an adequate thickness. Severe weather will require thicker (ie. stronger and heavier) tent poles.

Nylon and polyester are the fabrics you will see used in tents. Nylon is a good fabric for backpackers because it is lightweight, durable, water-resistant and breathable. Polyester fabric is commonly used in rainflys because it naturally has more water resistance and is better at withstanding exposure to UV light, which can be damaging to a tent especially on longer camping trips. The fabric of your tent can also be coated with polyurethane and/or silicone for additional durability and waterproofing. It can also be weaved with nylon or polyester taffeta (ripstop) to further enhance its durability.

An adequate ventilation system is essential for your tent because it will help you regulate internal condensation and temperature levels. Tents may have an entirely mesh canopy or nylon walls with mesh paneling. The amount of mesh in the design will indicate how warm the tent will be, so, if you anticipate cooler temperatures, you will want to look for a tent with adjustable mesh panels. If given the choice, opt for no-see-um mesh since it is the best at keeping pesky insects out of your tent. A detachable rainfly will also help you regulate the internal temperature but only by about 10 degrees or so.

A tent's seams will also be a good indication of its waterproofing ability. Double stitched/folded seams that have been sealed will provide the best protection against leaks. Also, look at the seam that attaches the tent floor to the walls. To prevent groundwater from leaking into the interior, you want to see a bathtub-style floor, in which the floor fabric comes up a few inches on the sides of a tent before it is sewed into the tent walls.

Size and Storage

If you are backpacking with partner(s), you want to look for a tent that will average out to a carrying weight of about 2 pounds or less per person. Whether you are backpacking or car camping, you may want to consider tents that have a capacity of one person more than you need. Most tents aren't designed to be roomy, so this will provide additional living, sleeping and storage space. Storage pockets on the interior are also helpful for organizing your gear, and protected vestibules or porches on the exterior are great for additional storage, cooking or simply hanging out.

Pitching Your Tent

Tents feature different pitching options to make your camping experience more efficient and enjoyable. In general, tents with continuous sleeve poles are the easiest to put together because the poles don't catch on the fabric as you run them through. Most tents are freestanding, but they will still come with stakes if you need additional stability.


Once you have determined how you will be using your tent, it should be easy to find a great shelter to fit your needs. While you will come across many cheap options in your search, you probably want to spend as much as you can reasonably afford on your tent to ensure you get a high quality product. An extra $100 may seem like a lot while you are shopping, but you might not feel that way if you are in the middle of nowhere and a pole snaps or you are watching water creep across the floor towards your sleeping bag.

Proper care will ensure that you can enjoy your tent for years. Be sure to air it out after each trip, and store it somewhere dry. Repair holes, reseal seams, and address any other issues as soon as possible. Don't eat in your tent as it can attract bugs and animals and make it smell bad. Finally, protect it from getting torn by clearing away debris from the pitching area and using a groundcloth if possible.