Camping is fun for most of us, unless the tent is small, crampy wet and uncomfortable. It can ruin what was to be a very memorable time, so it is wise to choose the right tent especially if affordability is one of your criteria.
The first thing we would advise is space, not just for people but for gear. People are still creatures of habit not matter where they are and they still need things to be in some kind of order even when they are not in their normal environment. So if this is you get a bigger tent. We would also recommend upsizing your tent by 1 person capacity if you are a restless sleeper, have companions, bringing a dog or tend to feel claustrophobic.
The most popular choice of tents are 3-season for outdoor adventures because they are lightweight and designed to give you protection against wind, rain and insects. They are there for the relatively temperate conditions of spring, summer and fall. They are usually equipped with a good amount of mesh panels (to keep insects out) and to boost air flow. Properly pitched with a taut rainfly, 3-season tents can withstand downpours but are not the best choice for sustained exposure to harsh storms, violent winds or heavy snow.
Extended 3 season tents (3+ or 3-4 Seasons) are designed for prolonged 3 Season use. They are also suitable for summer. Their claim to fame is balanced ventilation, strength and warmth retention. That being said, they do include a few more poles which make them more sturdy but less mesh than a pure 3 season tent. They are a good fit for more frequent trips, but if you want more fortification then a 4 season tent is more what you are looking for.
Architectured to withstand fierce winds and significant snow loads, mountaineering tents can be used in any season. Their chief function, though, is to stand firm in the face of seriously unfriendly weather, primarily in winter or above treeline.
They have more poles and heavier fabrics than 3-season cousins. Their rounded dome designs remove flat roof spaces where snow can collect. They offer few mesh panels and rainflies that extend close to the ground. This hinders ventilation and can make them feel warm and stuffy in mild weather. But when the winds begin to howl, a 4-season tent provides great reassurance that you chose right!
Other Features to consider
If you like being able to stand up when changing clothes or enjoy the airiness of a high ceiling, then look for a tent with a tall peak height. If this is an important aspect for you, don’t sacrifice this feature over another unless it’s a more critical feature. Comfort is a very important part of the experience.
Cabin-style tents feature near-vertical walls to maximize overall peak height and livable space, (and some models come with family-pleasing features such as room dividers and an awning, or a vestibule door).
Dome-style tents offer superior strength and wind-shedding abilities, both of which you’ll be thankful for on a stormy night. They stand tall in the center, but their walls have more of a slope which slightly reduces livable space.
Tent Floor Length
If you’re tall (over 6 feet) or like additional space, consider a tent with a floor length of 225 -230 cm (rather than the more typical 213-223cm).
When choosing your tent, think about the number of doors you need as well as their shape and orientation. If you’re camping with your family, multiple doors help you avoid climbing over each other for midnight bathroom breaks. Cabin-style tents tend to shine in this area. Also note how easy or noisy the doors are to zip open and shut. YKK zippers on the doors resist snagging and breaking better than others.
A tent’s pole structure helps to determine how easy or hard it is to pitch. Virtually all family tents these days are freestanding. This means they do not require stakes to set up. The big advantage of this is that you can pick the tent up and move it to a different location prior to staking. You can also easily shake dirt out of it before taking it down.
Fewer poles allow faster setups. It’s also easier to attach poles to clips than it is to thread them through long pole sleeves. Many tents use both clips and short pole sleeves in an effort to balance strength, ventilation and setup ease. Color-coded corners and pole clips also make setup faster. Aluminum poles are stronger and more durable than fiberglass.
A rainfly is a separate waterproof cover designed to fit over the roof of your tent. Use it whenever rain or dew is expected, or any time you want to retain a little extra warmth. Two rainfly types are common. Roof-only rainflies allow more light and views while offering fair rain protection. Full-coverage rainflies offer maximum protection from wind and rain.
Fabric and stitching is important when it comes to tent selection. Waterproof indexing (HH) is also important but just how high should it be? It would be perfectly logical to assume that higher HH ratings are better because they can withstand larger amounts of water pressure. That’s true, but also consider that an umbrella with a very low HH will still keep you perfectly dry. Tents are used for different purposes and exposed to various stresses including exposure to sunlight, rough winds and weather, handling, and abrasion from rough, damp ground. Higher HH fabrics are more rigid and heavier and may it be unnecessary for the type of conditions you will be facing.
And it is important to remember that HH is only one factor in determining a tent’s overall ability to withstand water. A 10,000-mm tent can still leak if it is not stitched correctly, or the seams are not treated with heat taped seams, or if the tent is badly designed and water finds its way through places like zips or windows.
Shelters or awnings attach to your tent for the purpose of storing or sheltering your muddy or dusty boots or keeping your packs out of the rain. They can be an integral part of the rainfly or add-on items that are sold separately.
Mesh panels are often used in the ceiling, doors and windows of tents. This allows views and enhances cross-ventilation to help manage condensation. For hot, humid climates, look for larger mesh panels.
Interior Loops and Pockets
A lantern loop is often placed at the top-center of a tent’s ceiling for hanging a lantern. Loops on interior tent walls can be used to attach a mesh shelf (called a gear loft, sold separately) to keep small items off of the tent floor. Similarly, interior pockets help keep your tent organized.
Higher-quality tents will include loops on the outside of the tent body for attaching guy lines. Guy lines allow you to batten down the hatches—no flapping fabric—during high winds.
Optional Tent Accessories
This is a custom-fitted groundcloth (usually sold separately) that goes under your tent floor. Tent floors can be tough, but rocks, twigs and dirt eventually take a toll. A footprint costs far less to replace than a tent. For family tents that get a lot of in/out foot traffic, this is especially useful. Also, footprints are sized to fit your tent shape exactly, so they won’t catch water like a generic groundcloth that sticks out beyond the floor edges. Water caught that way flows underneath your tent and can seep through the floor fabric.
Most tents come with an integral pocket or two to let you keep small items off of the tent floor. A gear loft is an optional interior mesh shelf that can tuck greater volumes of gear out of the way.
Other Nice-to-Have Accessories
- Stakes and anchors for varying site conditions
- Broom and dustpan
- Inside/outside floor mat
- Tent repair kit
- Seam sealer
- Utility cord
- Battery-powered ventilation fan
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