Your Guide to Choosing the Best Tent
Choosing a tent is a surprisingly complex process! You’ve got to consider everything from size to seasons to fabric to weight to features—and that’s just the beginning. Below, we’ve come up with a complete guide to help you in choosing the right tent for your camping, hiking, beach, and mountain trips.
Obviously, the first thing to consider is how many people you need the tent to sleep. Tent capacity is measured according to the number of people it will be sleeping:
- 2 person tent
- 4 person tent
- 6 person tent
- and so on up to 12-person tents
However, keep in mind that this is an “average-sized” person, often trending on the smaller side of the scale.
If you are extra-large (tall, broad-shouldered, etc.), you move around a lot at night, or you just want more space, you may want to get a size larger than you currently need. The same goes for if you’re bringing pets or small children with you, or you plan to carry more gear than normal. Heck, if you just want more elbow room, it’s a good idea to consider upsizing your tent capacity by 1 person.
Bear in mind that the tent capacity refers to 1 person, but it doesn’t always include that person’s gear. If you are a 2-person hiking team and you buy a 2-person tent, there’s a very good chance the tent will fit EXACTLY the two of you with no space for your shoes, backpack, or supplies.
Unless you are going to be hauling the tent on your back, it’s always a good idea to consider getting a slightly larger tent than is necessary. Not only does this give you enough space to sleep comfortably, but you also have space to store your shoes, supplies, packs, and even a small cook stove or heater. That bit of extra space can do wonders to make you more comfortable while camping overnight.
On the flip side, if you’re going trekking or backpacking and carrying the tent on your back, a larger tent will definitely be heavier. Bear that in mind when choosing the sleeping capacity of the tent—maybe it’ll be better to cram more people into a smaller tent if it means you can carry more food, water, and other crucial supplies.
Tents come in three different “season” options:
3 Seasons – 3 Season tents are designed for using during spring, summer, and fall, when the weather conditions are fairly temperate. They tend to be lighter weight than other tents because they don’t need heavy insulation, and they typically have mesh panels that improve air flow and ventilation.
They can withstand rain storms, especially with a rainfly. However, they’re not suited for very cold, very windy, or very wet conditions. They’re better suited to keeping you dry from mild showers and late spring snowfalls than a heavy blizzard or downpour. They’ll shield you from bugs (though the mesh allows sand to blow in), and they’re great for privacy at the beach, in the mountains, or at your campsite.
3-4 Season – 3-4 Season tents are designed for use in the very early spring and the very late fall, when the temperature is dropping and the risk of heavier snow and rainfall is higher. They provide a combination of ventilation (necessary for hot-weather use), durability, and warmth-retention (for cold weather use).
They’ll usually include fewer mesh panels than 3-season tents, as well as an added pole or two to make the tent’s structure more solid and resistant to heavy wind and rain. They’re not suited for “dead of winter” use, but they can be great for frequent trips to high-elevation destinations.
4 Season – 4 Season tents are designed for all weather conditions, including fierce winds and heavy snow. They’re typically used in the winter or at elevations above the treeline, where you’re going to be facing some seriously inhospitable weather.
They’re made with more poles than 3-Season tents, which increases the durability of the tent’s structure. They also usually have a rounded dome top that won’t collect snow, fewer mesh panels (less ventilation is required in the winter), and rainflies that extend fairly close to the ground. Their primary purpose is to keep as much warmth trapped inside the tent as possible—very necessary for heavy winter use.
The type of tent you choose will depend largely on when and where you camp:
- For summer camping or beach use, go with a 3-Season tent.
- For early spring and late fall camping, or for hiking to high-altitude destinations, consider a 3-4 Season tent.
- For winter use or camping above the treeline where there’s no protection from howling winds, a 4 Season tent should be your go-to.
What is Single and Double Wall?
One thing you’ll often see on tent specifications is “single-walled” or “double-walled”.
A single-wall tent has a single wall of fabric—typically something fairly robust and wind- and water-proof—to make a lightweight tent that offers good ventilation. Single-wall tents tend to be 3-season tents, and the fact that they’re so well-ventilated makes them ideal for use in the hotter months of the year.
However, some 3-4 and 4 Season tents are now being made single-wall, using specially coated, non-breathable fabrics to make them resistant to colder temperatures without adding extra weight. They are best-suited for cold but dry alpine environments.
Single-wall tents are usually very easy to set up, and they weigh less than double-wall tents. However, they tend to be smaller than double-wall tents and will usually collect more condensation on the inside.
A double-wall tent has two layers of fabric—typically, the 100% waterproof rainfly on the outside and the more breathable, less waterproof tent wall on the inside. They tend to be less breathable than single-wall tents, but they offer a lot more resistance to rain and condensation.
Double-wall tents improve your chances of keeping the interior dry, which is ideal in heavy rain conditions. There are multiple vestibules and doors that help you to keep your gear dry, and they tend to have more space for storage and sleeping. On the downside, they’re noticeably heavier than single-wall tents, and they require far more staking and guying (securing with guy ropes) to ensure the tent, vestibule, and rainfly are all properly set up.
Double-wall tents are best-suited for heavy rain and high humidity environments, and in situations when you need to store extra gear.
Choosing the right tent fabric is critical, as the right/wrong fabric can make or break your camping experience depending on climate, moisture, and temperature.
Cotton canvas is the classic material that has been used for tents in the U.S. for decades. It’s heavier than synthetic fabrics, and it’s ideal for both warmth on cold nights and breathability on hot nights. It offers great breathability to let the heat out, but it will do wonders to keep you warm and insulated when the weather turns chilly.
On the downside, cotton canvas tents will usually leak, especially new tents that haven’t been “weathered” (allowed to get wet, which causes the cotton fibers to swell up and nestle into each other). Cotton canvas is also far less common these days, thanks to the popularity and low cost of synthetic fabrics.
Note: Some cotton canvas tents will be coated with PVC, which can increase durability and waterproofing but will also increase weight and condensation.
Nylon is the material typically used for smaller tents, as the nylon fibers are far less likely to absorb water and thus can be made into a lighter fabric. Most nylon fabric is coated with silicone, acrylic, or polyurethane—acrylic is the cheapest and least effective while silicone is the most effective and highest-priced.
A lot of nylon tents will include a “rip-stop” pattern in the weave, which helps to strengthen the lightweight fabric and make it resistant to tearing. Nylon tends to sag when wet, so you may need to tighten the guy lines when the rain is very heavy out. Nylon is also very sensitive to UV light, so exposure to lots of sunlight may shorten the lifespan of the tent. They’re not best-suited for hot, bright summer days, but for windier, colder weather with less direct sunlight.
Polyester is a synthetic material that is often used for larger, heavier tents. Polyester is more durable and resistant to sunlight than nylon, but it also weighs more. It’s typically covered with a special coating that helps to increase waterproofing—the same acrylic, polyurethane, and silicone coatings used for nylon tents.
Polyester will weigh more, so your tent will be heavier. However, polyester won’t sag when wet and it won’t be worn so easily by direct sunlight. This makes them better spring and summer tents!
Note: Polycotton is a mix of polyester and cotton. This blend of synthetic and natural fibers makes the fabric lighter without sacrificing durability, and can be used either uncoated or with the PVC coating to keep out water.
Are Tents Fireproof?
This is a question that many people ask, and an important one! After all, if the weather gets rainy or cold, you may end up having to do a lot of cooking inside your tent—and the last thing we want is a fire hazard where we sleep.
Sadly, none of the tent fabrics mentioned above (polyester, cotton canvas, nylon, or polycotton) are truly fire-resistant. Some manufacturers will coat their tents with special fire-retardant materials, but all tents will burn.
Nylon tents are the most susceptible to fire. If the nylon catches fire, it will burn VERY quickly. Cotton canvas is the least likely to catch fire, but it will still burn with the wrong spark.
NEVER use any equipment with an open flame inside or near your tent. Be very careful with any sort of stove, heater, or heating device that could get hot enough to catch the tent on fire. If you’re going to use any sort of cooking equipment, make sure to do it far away from your tent where there’s no risk of the fabric catching fire.
What happens if it’s raining? Either eat cold meals or use a stove that is specially designed for indoor use.
For safety’s sake, keep a few buckets of water or sand beside your tent. If your tent does catch on fire, you can put it out quickly thanks to this simple preparation.
Important Features to Consider
When shopping for tents, here are a few of the other features you need to consider:
Weight – If you’re hauling this tent in the back of your truck or RV, it doesn’t really matter how much it weighs. But if you’re hauling it around on your back as you hike or climb, weight is a VERY important factor.
Rainfly – A rainfly is a handy addition to any tent, and it can do wonders to keep out even the heaviest rain. If your tent doesn’t come with a rainfly, consider purchasing one separately to use in case the weather turns wet.
Footprint – This is the name for a tarp placed beneath your tent. Not only does a footprint increase the thickness of your floor (reducing wear), but they add extra durability and water-resistance. They can also keep out bugs and creepy-crawlies.
Doors – For a small 1-2 person tent, you only need one way in and out. For larger tents (4-8 people), it may be a good idea to have 2 or more doors to give people multiple ways to access the tent. For family-sized tents (12+), more doors is always a good thing.
Be warned: doors (with their added vestibules) make the tent more comfortable and roomy, but they also make the tent heavier and increases the time required to pitch the tent.
Vestibules – Vestibules are the tent equivalent of a covered porch, and they can provide space to keep your shoes safe from the rain but outside your sleeping area. They can also double as added storage space for your gear. However, they add weight to the tent and can increase pitching time.
For hardcore hikers and trekkers, the added weight and pitching time makes vestibules as unnecessary as they are fancy. For people who care about comfort, vestibules are always a good idea.
Peak Height – This is something to consider according to your height and your desired comfort. Shorter tents are more resistant to wind and weather, but they can make changing or walking around indoors uncomfortable. Taller tents will require more guying and staking, but are great for camping in luxury.
Dome-style tents have rounded roofs that can keep off wind and snow, but the vertical walls of cabin-style tents give you more comfortable space for lounging and sleeping.
Poles and Stakes – The pole structure of a tent determines the difficulty of pitching. Some poles can simply be clipped onto the tent, which leads to faster set-up time but lower durability overall. Pole sleeves will take longer to use but will make the tent much sturdier. Aluminum poles are pricier than fiberglass, but are more durable and resistant to the elements.
Most family tents are freestanding and don’t require stakes, but active outdoor tents will come with plenty of stakes and guylines for hardcore weather conditions. Freestanding tents are easier to move around and keep clean, but they won’t be as resistant to wind, snow, or mudslides.
Tips to Help You Camp Like a Boss
If you’re planning on doing some camping, give these tips a try to streamline the experience and make your tent a whole lot more comfortable:
Get the right tent – The tips above will help you choose the tent that serves your needs best. Try a few tents until you find the one that does the job for you and your friends/family.
Find a level surface – Find the flattest, smoothest ground you can find to pitch your tent. It can be very uncomfortable to sleep on an incline!
Always prepare for rain – There’s nothing worse than waking up in a soaked tent, or with your gear totally waterlogged. Always expect and prepare for rain by bringing a rainfly, tarps to cover your gear, or somewhere waterproof to store everything overnight.
Pack bedding – Inflatable air mattresses and sleeping pads are so much better than sleeping bags! They don’t take up much space in your car or RV, but can make a world of difference in your sleep quality. Also, make sure to pack enough blankets and sleeping bags to keep you warm if the weather turns chilly.
Keep it simple – Until you’ve got lots of experience camping, don’t try to get too hardcore. Choose a tent you know you can pitch, enough gear to make your trip comfy, and start with one or two nights of camping at a time. Consider pitching your tent at a campground with all the modern conveniences to make the trip easier on everyone.
Go with someone who knows – If it’s your first time camping (alone, with friends, or as a family), consider bringing along someone who has camping experience. It’s much easier to ask advice than trying to figure out how to “rough it” on your own.