What features you should should consider when buying a tent, your home away from home.
When you plan a camping trip, the most important piece of gear is your tent. Your tent must keep you warm and dry, and have ample space for everyone – and room in the vestibule(s) for backpacks if you are camping in the backcountry. We’ve tried ultralight backpacking tents, affordable and higher end dome tents, and the Costco 6-person “circus tent.” While the huge family tent was great when we had a baby and toddler (room for a queen-sized air mattress and two travel cribs), it was always at risk of breaking/blowing away in extreme weather, so we got a 4-person dome tent as soon as the kids were big enough to sleep in their own sleeping bags. We also have an ultralight backcountry tent that is only four pounds.
The Q&As below should get you on the right track to getting a good tent, within budget, for your family this summer.
What type of tent should I get? Dome tent, “Family” tent, or ultralight backpacking tent?
Different tents suit different purposes so ultimately the kind of camping you do will dictate the kind of tent(s) you should get. If you do frontcountry and backcountry camping, but don’t want to buy two tents, you can make do with a “hybrid” tent – one that is light enough to bring backpacking but large enough for frontcountry camping:
- The MEC Camper 3 (discontinued) is a reliable and affordable option for both kinds of camping; much roomier than a backpacking tent, but not overly heavy.
- Another high quality, affordable option is the MEC Base Camper 4-person tent.
A car camping tent is fine for front country camping in sheltered areas, but if the tent is very large and you are camping in an open area, it is more likely to be broken or blown away by high winds. In Glacier National Park, the campground operators took our huge tent down while we were hiking because the 60 mph winds were bending the poles! Consider where you will be camping and purchase accordingly; we have one of each tent type. If you plan on buying just one tent, buy the one that fits your needs. Campers who frequently backpack and stay at walk-in campsites would do best with a dome backpacking tent as it is smaller, lighter, will fit on backcountry tent pads, and stand up to more extreme weather conditions. Car campers may prefer larger “family” tents for headroom and space for travel cribs; many even have privacy partitions.
Should I buy a 3-season or 4-season tent?
For most people, a 3-season tent will suffice. A 4-season tent is heavier, bulkier, and only necessary for very cold weather.
For backpacking, be sure to check the dimensions (will it fit on a backcountry tent pad) and weight (lighter is better) before you buy. Since backpacking tents are very small, if there are 3 people in your family, you may wish to get a 4-person tent so you have more room.
What should I look for?
- Good reviews.
- A fly that goes down to the ground.
- Zippers that are easy to open/close without getting stuck
- Two doors: For family camping, it is preferable to have a door on each side of the tent so you don’t have to crawl over everyone to get out. Double doors also provide for better ventilation and temperature control on warm nights.
- “Bathtub floor” bottom to protect you from water seeping in.
- At least one vestibule. Vestibules are handy for keeping footwear or gear dry, especially when your vehicle isn’t nearby.
- A footprint/groundsheet to protect your tent from rips and tears. If your tent does not come with a footprint/groundsheet, purchase one or cut a tarp to the size of your tent floor. If you make your own, be sure it is no larger than your tent or water may collect underneath and seep in. I lucked out and found a $5 blue tarp at at hardware store that fit my first tent perfectly.
- Good ventilation. Some tents will have vents near the top of the tent. These are helpful to prevent condensation buildup inside or overheating in warm conditions. If these vents are not available, be sure to get a tent with 2 doors for increased ventilation.
Nice to Have
- Gear loft and pockets in the sides of the tent for small items like hats, phones, and sunglasses
- Reflectors on guy lines are handy, but not a deal-breaker. If you love the tent and the price is right, you could always replace the lines with reflective paracord so someone doesn’t trip over the lines in the night.
Which tent is best?
I would like to say the best tent is the one you use, but not all tents are created equal. We have 5 tents and a couple of them are ready to retire. For family trips, the $125 6-person tent was good while it lasted, but it only lasted one season (30 nights). Although our MEC Wanderer 4-person tent was a lot more money ($300 used / $400 new), it has all the features we were looking for and we are confident we will get a lot more use out of it. My Outbound 2-person tent was only $200 and lasted 4+ years but we outgrew it.
Tips on setting up your tent
No one dreams about staying in a leaky tent, but it happens to people all the time and turns them off tent camping. How can this situation be avoided? You need to start with a decent tent and set it up properly. I have seen campers in top of the line tents get soaked because they failed to peg the fly out properly. In other instances, getting soaked was inevitable due to poor tent design (short fly) and/or inferior tent materials (thin floor material vs reinforced bathtub floor, brittle/bent tent poles).
When looking for a tent, get the best you can afford with a fly that goes down to the ground, and buy/make a footprint to protect it. Next, learn how to set it up properly. Set up your tent before you go so you can set it up in any conditions. You will appreciate knowing how to set up quickly when a storm is rolling in, it’s getting dark, or you are surrounded by biting insects! Set up includes pegging the fly out correctly so water doesn’t wick in when it rains. The most expensive tent will not keep you dry if you fail to put the fly on right. Finally, be sure to sweep and dry out your tent before packing it away, and check it over after each trip for tears or rips. A little maintenance will ensure you get many years out of your home away from home. Here’s to happy, dry campers!
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