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How to Choose Tents for Camping
Tent Buying Guide
For The Best Hints & Tips On Buying Your Cosy ‘Home Away From Home’
Whether you’re backpacking in Bolivia or overnighting on a campsite in Connecticut, you’ll need to take along a tent to tick all the boxes.
Buying a tent isn’t rocket science, but if you start with a little basic knowledge and build your wish list from there, you’ll do a better job of selecting your perfect home away from home.
Here at TopNotch, we had our team write this together so we could pool our collective experience and savvy.
Here you have it:
The definitive guide on How To Choose A Tent – we think we’ve covered everything – it’s based on 237 years of collective experience, so we can safely say we made (and hopefully learned from) every mistake in the book.
Make yourself a coffee and take note.
How Often Will You Use Your Tent?
Firstly, it’s a good idea to think about how often you plan on taking your new tent out for an adventure.
Is this a treat for a rare weekend off with your partner in crime?
Or are you thinking of dropping the daily humdrum every Friday night and heading out to a local beauty spot with friends?
Or perhaps it’s a three week a year summer trip with the kids in tow.
For the rare trip, you could look for a small tent. You won’t need too many expensive features since your trips will be short, sweet and few and far between.
On the other hand, if you’re using your tent regularly, then it’s worth investing a few dollars to buy yourself a tent that’ll last – one that offers great durability. If there’s a possibility you’ll have friends to stay, then think of how many people there’ll be in total, and how you can make your time more comfortable – read on for ideas on that…
And for the third option – with the kids – you may want to look for a tent with a few home comforts – look for features like space, room dividers and vestibules to make your camping experience one to remember for all the right reasons.
In What Weather Conditions Are You Planning To Camp?
Protection from the weather means different things to different people…
…Apart from one common theme – everyone wants to stay dry in the rain.
Camping with a group somewhere hot?
Then you’ll need to focus on space and ventilation.
Camping alone in the Winter?
Then you’ll want a cozy tent, with just a little space to chill if you need to hole up.
You could opt for a geodesic design that will offer you maximum protection against the wind, rain and even snow.
Might you choose to camp in Winter?
Consider whether you should opt for a three-season tent, or whether you need to add the fourth season.
Look out for:
Bathtub flooring with welded seams as a minimum – to save damp and wet seeping in from the ground upwards.
And we’re ALL agreed that a full-coverage rainfly is where it’s at.
How Long Are You Prepared To Spend On Set-Up?
If you’re pitching your tent for the kids in the back yard you’ll want something that’s quick and simple to pitch. You won’t worry about weathering storms or setting up storage areas.
If you’re away for three weeks with the family for a summer vacay, then you probably won’t mind spending the first evening setting up your campground – you’ll know that time invested at this stage will make life so much easier over the coming weeks.
A more complicated design and layout may be a better choice to enhance convenience and comfort later.
The Good News!
You can now buy super easy set-up tents.
Pop Up Tents
You know the kind – like baby beach tents – you take them out of the bag, and the internal coil springs into shape in seconds.
They can be a challenge to fit back in the bag.
Have someone logical read the instructions and work as a team.
Bottom Line: They are great for festivals or home camping.
Quick Opening Tents
Manufacturers often stipulate the number of minutes a tent will take to set up.
Don’t believe everything you read!
Our experience is that this information is usually on the conservative side!
While you’re probably not ‘to a couple of minutes’ in terms of your timing, we’d always recommend practicing the set up at home and adding on more minutes than recommended, so you’re not disappointed or worse still, pushed for time.
How Many People Will Be Sleeping In Your Tent?
A tent can be a long term investment.
Our advice is – don’t just buy a tent with the very next camping trip in mind.Think about the next trip – and the trip after that.
Think about how many people you ‘might’ have in your party (we’re talking about friends who may join you for an impromptu chillout).
Think about the various scenarios which may play out.
It’s possible to buy tents to allow for some flexibility of sleeping space and storage areas, so you can cover every eventuality.
The Bottom Line:
Make sure your tent has at least 30m2 of space per person.
This will allow an optimal level of space for sleep, for hanging out if the weather closes in, and for storing your kit (oh, and maybe the dog).
That’s not all: Add on one (or two if you’re feeling generous) extra person capacity for a bit of wiggle room – and multiply out.
There’s anything from 6 Person Tents right up to 15 Person Tents available on the market today.
And remember – you can always choose two smaller tents if that’s a better option for you. An excellent middle ground though is the 8 Person Tent.
What’s Your Budget?
As with everything it’s about getting the most bang for your buck, no matter what the budget.
The ‘Watchword’ is Value. Not Price.
Seek out recommendations from people who’ve tried and tested the tents you’re interested in – those who you trust to give you honest, unbiased help.
Do your homework to ensure you end up with a tent you’ll be happy with for the long haul.
How Will You Transport Your Tent?
If you’re heading out on a backpacking trail, space will be at a premium – you’ll be wanting to drill down to learn the specifications like ‘Packed Size’ and ‘Weight’ of your prospective purchase.
If you’re buying a Backpacking Tent, it should weigh no more than 2lbs – any bigger will be heavy to pack and carry, and smaller tents are easier to set up (and locate).
On the other hand, if you’re taking the car along – then, assuming your campground is close to your vehicle, you won’t need to worry overly about the weight or packed size of your new tent.
Other Things To Consider
Not everyone wants to ‘unplug’ when they camp.
Most manufacturers of family tents provide zipped openings for a power cable, meaning you can run a mains cable into your tent to power electrical devices and chargers.
A super handy feature to look out for…
The rainfly is the ultimate protection between your inner tent and the elements and must be super strong and durable.
Here’s what you need to know:
Usually made of nylon with a polyurethane coating, the hydrostatic head measurement of a rainfly (a standard indication of water resistance) should be no less than 1,500mm – the basic level at which any fabric can be considered waterproof.
Poles are generally made of aluminum and are mainly constructed with an elasticated inner cord which allows for easy folding and storage.
Look out for…
…color-coded poles – they match to different parts of the tent, so that setup is more straightforward.
Other materials include carbon composite and fiberglass (tends to shatter easily), which may be lighter, but aluminum is the strongest and therefore most durable of the options.
The good news is:
If you do happen to break a pole, most outdoor shops sell replacement items or repair kits.
While your rainfly should protect you from the elements above, your groundsheet will protect you from dirt, debris, and moisture from below.
Durability is the watchword here. The fabric needs to be sturdy and must be fully waterproof.
Backpacking and some Technical Tents will feature a removable groundsheet to save weight.
Your options are generally to have a double door or single door tent.
Single doors mean a lighter construction, while double doors offer greater flexibility of space.
All doors should come with a fine mesh covering which will not only improve ventilation but will also keep out those pesky bugs and insects.
Even being in the great outdoors, miles away from anywhere, ventilation can be a big issue when camping and is easy to overlook.
Want to optimize ventilation for large groups?
Always make sure you go for a tent with adequate mesh paneled ventilation windows which will prevent condensation and improve airflow – both super-important when you’re living and sleeping in such an enclosed space.
Choose a tent with a roof vent and keep it open at night to maximize air circulation and minimize condensation.
Guy lines are found around the outside of a tent and are designed to maintain the tent’s stability and keep it upright.
Something to opt for – fluorescent or bright guy lines which will show up on your night-time trips to the bathroom.
Apart from that, consider weight versus user-friendliness – strength is not an issue you’ll need to consider since the lightest cord we came across in our research has a breaking strength of 200 lbs, and we can’t imagine coming across that kind of force, even in the worst weather on a Winter trip.
Dynamite comes in small parcels.
The zippers on a tent are no exception to that analogy.
Buy a cheap tent, and you may find the zippers are the first things to go, rendering the rest of your investment worthless. Argh.
When you think about the stress a zipper is subjected to – not just keeping the tent taut, but with the constant comings and goings, you’ll understand how vulnerable they are, and how durable they need to be.
Be on the lookout…
…for quality fastenings…
Not to mention…
…some form of manufacturer guarantee to ensure you can enjoy your tent for many years to come.
Double zippers are a great indication of quality and when used correctly, will lengthen the lifespan of your tent considerably.
If you’re part of a car camping group, the size and weight of your tent won’t necessarily be an issue – you’ll probably have plenty of help to carry your tent.
If you’re backpacking alone or as a couple, you need to consider packability carefully.
Lighter tents are usually more expensive since the material they’re made of is thinner and more specialized. But as we said earlier – to be comfortable – 2lbs is your limit for backpacking.
A fancy word for a bit of covered space on the inside of your tent (can be located at the front, sides or rear), but not contained within the sleeping area.
These vary in size a lot, but we think it’s essential to consider how you’re going to use this space.
Do you have a dog, and related food bowls and equipment?
For longer stays – will you need somewhere to stash walking boots and other gear?
What about food, camping cookware, clothes?
If you think about it, the connotations are endless, but planning this will allow for maximum organization – crucial when space is limited.
Want to max-out your storage capabilities?
We’d recommend you opt for a vestibule with a square-shaped floor plan.
Some tents also benefit from zipped or tinted windows and may have curtains to enable you to block out the light.
Double/ Single Wall
Single wall tents are constructed using only one layer of waterproof and breathable fabric. They are generally lighter and easier to set up than their double-walled equivalent.
Need to save $$$?
The cheaper option is a double-walled tent where the rainfly is separate from the inner tent (or sleeping area).
Double-walled tents are slightly more substantial, but will usually have better ventilation and keep drier in damp conditions.
Tent Buying Guide: Buying Tips
- Look after your tent well, and it will look after you. When you’ve finished your trip, dry out your tent (to prevent mildew and mold) and carefully fold to pack it up. Store it somewhere dry and cool, like a closet or garage.
- Apply seam sealer annually to keep those joins in tiptop condition.
- Suspend a flashlight from the ceiling while it’s still light – when it goes dark, you won’t be fumbling about trying to navigate the pitch black.
- Carefully choose the location of your camping setup. Think about the ground – make sure it’s level and clean of rocks and debris which can damage your groundsheet and make it uncomfortable to move around without shoes.
- If you’re traveling with a brand new tent, happy days, make sure you do a test pitch in your back yard before you go. That way you can reassure yourself you have all the necessary poles and equipment, and your trial run will make it so much easier to pitch on site.
- Always zip your door(s) shut. If you’re new to camping you’ll probably learn this the hard way – without exception we all did! If you do forget, or decide not to take advice – you’ll find your tent is full of unwelcome visitors in the shape of bugs and insects, all of which you’ll need to remove at some point… don’t say we didn’t try to tell you!
- If space will allow – take along some form of mat to trap the debris between outside and inside. Oh, and a small dustpan and brush will help to keep the tent clean and tidy as you go.
- Bring along a mallet (rarely included but always necessary) and consider upgrading to Titanium stakes for extra strength.
- Critical Features to consider are your anticipated weather conditions, size of your party, quality of tent construction, duration of your trip and last but not least, packability.
Tents can be highly flammable – beware of naked flame anywhere in or around your camping area. Take care when cooking inside.
Types Of Tent
Tents come in 6 basic designs.
‘A’ Frame/ Ridge Tents
Often the cheapest of the bunch, these tents tend to be made of poorer quality materials and are generally light to carry. They can be prone to wind damage.
Typically they have a pole at each end and a ‘cross’ or ‘ridge’ pole forming the roof.
These tents usually have two or more poles which cross in the middle at the top and are generally seen from the outside of the tent. They have arched ceilings and are usually easy to pitch.
Named after their triangular themed design, these tents are similar to Dome tents, but the crossed poles (generally at least 7) create triangle shapes.
Geodesic Tent Design offers maximum stability against the elements and is therefore excellent for use in Winter.
Similar to dome tents, these are very much a favorite for family camping.
They’re usually super easy to set up.
The poles are arched to form the tunnel and need to be ‘pegged while you pitch’ as they are not freestanding.
These tents generally have a higher space to weight ratio than others.
Says exactly what it does – these tents contain a series of inflatable beams instead of tent poles.
They’re straightforward to set up – even with just one person.
Pyramid or TeePee
Usually consisting of a rainfly attached to a central pole, these tents are a straightforward design. You’ll see a lot of space for the weight, but their lack of a floor can be compromising – especially in wet weather.
Armed with an idea of your budget and a few thoughts on some of the questions above, you can now go shopping or surf the web to find your Ultimate Tent.
It’s over to you now.
The team here at TopNotch hope this guide will help you make the best selection – we wish you safe and happy travels.