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Explainer Series

A series of guides to help you buy and use gear in the outdoors.

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How to Choose a Tent: An Explainer

Filed under: Explainer Series  Outdoor  Tents 

Your tent protects you from the elements and forms years of outdoor memories. Your home in the hills, a tent is one of the biggest purchases an outdoor enthusiast can make.

How to choose a tent: Tarptent Scarp 2

With camping season upon us, we took a snapshot of the current tent market to help you choose the best tent for your outdoor pursuits. Pick a tent that’s right for you. Learn more about tent types, materials, storage, and tent care below.

Guide to Choosing a Tent

How to choose a tentChoosing the Right Tent

Step 1: Assess how you will use your tent. Be honest with yourself.

Will you roll it out of the minivan? Or do you need to haul deep into the backcountry? If so, how many miles? While 2 pounds per person is reasonable for a weekend backpacking trip, you may want to go lighter for long-distance hikes. That said, if you will only use it car camping, weight shouldn’t be a significant concern.

How to choose a tent
The Cabela’s Orion with rainfly attached

Step 2: Consider the weather where you camp most of the time. If you use it mostly in the heat of the summer, ventilation is a primary concern. Even if you camp occasionally in cold weather, choose your tent based on the majority usage. How often do you really camp in the snow?

Step 3: Think about capacity. How many people will sleep in it? Each person at a minimum needs 2 feet of elbow room. Big and tall folks will want more width and a longer tent. Will you bring a dog? What about kids?

In-Store Evaluation

At the store, even if the tent is already set up, ask if you can set it up. Is it intuitive? Do the poles snap together easily? Will you be able to set it up in the dark, with cold fingers, in the rain?

Crawl inside, stretch out. Do your head or toes touch either side? Sit up in the tent. Can you see yourself suiting up in it each morning? When you wake up in the night to answer the call of nature, will you disturb your tent mates?

Evaluate the doors and ventilation. Will it ventilate properly for your conditions? If there’s condensation (there likely will be), where will it drip or pool? Can you fit your party inside, in sleeping bags, without touching the walls? That will be the first source of moisture.

How to choose a tent
Big Agnes Scout is a three-season tent with a massive vestibule.

Pick a Camping Tent

Somewhere between extra-large cabin tents and ultralight backpacking tents lies the realm of the camping tent. These are a popular option and include models like the iconic REI Half Dome 2 and the Kelty Circuit.

These tents tend to be light enough to carry for an overnight or weekend backpacking trip. But they’re not ideal for long-distance hikes.

For those who car camp regularly but want to hit the trail from time to time, a camping tent is a strong option. Look for two-person tents weighing 4 to 6 pounds.

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Backpacking Tents: How to Choose

Beyond a few hundred feet from the car, you’ll appreciate something that you can carry in a backpack. Enter the backpacking tent.

Backpacking tents prioritize weight and packability over space. However, forward-thinking engineering also includes pole configurations that pop out the walls, allowing more livable space than ever before.

Touted as three-season, backpacking tents walk a line between ventilation and weather protection, with large mesh panels covered by retractable rainflies. These tents are ideal for most backcountry pursuits and provide nearly year-round coverage.

For serious backpacking, look for tents weighing less than 2 pounds per person. The lighter the better. Strong options include the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2 mtnGLO Tent, which weighs in at less than 2.5 pounds and comes with an integrated internal light, and the MSR Hubba Hubba NX, which has a pole configuration designed to maximize headspace while still proving light and packable.

How to choose a tent
Black Diamond’s Firstlight is a no-frills, two-person, single-wall, four-season dome tent for fast-and-light summit attempts.

Mountaineering Tents

Hiking above the tree line, where wind and snow can unexpectedly crash your party. In that situation, you’ll want a shelter that can stand up to a nuclear winter. A citadel in the storm, a mountaineering tent is designed to deflect sheer force winds and bear heavy snow loads.

These four-season tents are often constructed with additional poles and more durable materials, adding weight (and cost). In turn, these bastions of the high country provide more peace of mind and overall protection.

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Ultralight Shelters

For those with a few miles under their belt and long miles ahead, significant weight savings can be found in a whittled-down shelter. It’s a stretch to call them tents, so these shelters will typically be your second or third “tent” purchase.

A niche arrow in your backcountry quiver, these shelters often double down using trekking poles as tent poles or eschew the poles all together.

How to choose a tent
This floorless three-person shelter from HMG pitches with two poles and seven stakes but weighs under 2 pounds

Just like a mountaineering tent will be overkill for most, on the other end of the spectrum, these ultralight options can leave the unprepared exposed. But with experience, tarps, hammocks, bivy sacks, and pyramid tents can be pragmatic shelters.

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Glossary: Understanding Tent Material Jargon

Perhaps no outdoor purchase has more data to sift through than tents. Jargon abounds; it’s helpful to understand what it all means.

Tent Materials

While you can still find canvas tents on the market, most of today’s tents employ a synthetic nylon fabric. Measured in denier (grams of mass per 9,000 meters of a fabric’s thread), the lower the number the lighter (and more fragile) the tent will be.

How to choose a tent

Some ultralight shelters cut weight by using specialty fabrics, like silnylon (silicone-impregnated nylon) and Dyneema (military-/maritime-grade fabric).

Single-Wall / Double-Wall Tent

Most of the tents you see in stores or online are double-walled. Double-wall tents have a breathable inner tent overlapped by a waterproof outer rainfly. This configuration allows condensation from your breath to quickly move to the outside layer, preventing the dreaded midnight condensation rainstorm.

A few scenarios make a single-wall tent a viable option. High alpine environments will freeze any condensation to the tent wall. Tents with enough ventilation will allow moisture to freely escape before condensing.

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No-See-Um Netting

No-see-ums are small flies that bite. (Though the term has become ubiquitous for any small bug that bites.)

No-see-um netting (mosquito netting) is often used to reduce weight and provide superior ventilation on double-wall tents. With the rainfly removed, the mesh tent can turn your shelter into a 1-million-star hotel.

Tent Poles

How to choose a tent

Most tents have aluminum tubing poles connected with an elastic cord. To loft the tent, poles either slide through nylon sleeves or clip into durable plastic clips. At the end of the pole is a pin that inserts into a ringed grommet.

More complex tent designs will color code the poles with hooks and grommets for an easier setup.

Tent Stakes

Tents stakes should come with the tent and will match the tent purpose. Lightweight tents will come with lighter weight stakes, and heavy camp tents will have a heavier gauge stake.

How to choose a tent

Aftermarket stakes can be purchased to cut weight and add durability.

Pro tip: Look for native stakes – rocks, roots, trees – to tie down the tent.

Tent Vestibule

We all love the great outdoors, but the tent door is where we draw the line. A vestibule is to a tent as the covered porch is to your house – it’s a protective awning to stow your gear and kick off your muddy boots. It’s a space-saving addition that’s worth considering when making a purchase.

How to choose a tent
Big Agnes’ Super Scout ULII has a vestibule large enough to bunk two more campers. The downside is its footprint is larger than a car.

In-Tent Storage

The last thing you want to do en route to a midnight bio break is to fumble for your headlamp. Pockets and lofts are a great way to keep small sundries and personal items organized and within reach. Many tents come with internal loops to string a clothesline to dry out wet clothes.

How to choose a tent
The Sierra Designs Divine Light 2 FL is a three-season tent with three doors: one on each side and a third opening into the vestibule.

Doors

If there’s a chink in the armor of a tent, it’s the door. A good one will have a smooth zipper, providing ample room to wiggle out while sealing out the elements. One door can work fine if it exits the front. But a pair of hikers might appreciate having separate ports of entry instead of crawling over one another to get out a single side door.

Guylines

Tents often come with a knot of cord. These are your guylines and help draw the tent taut. Some tent shapes, like dome tents, don’t need guylines to keep them pitched. Other designs require guylines.

Either way, it’s a good idea to sling the tent prior to hitting the trail to ensure your tent will be camp ready.

Pro tip: Reflective guylines are easy to spot when hit with a light at night, preventing an accidental fall. If the tent doesn’t come with them, they can be purchased aftermarket.

Tent Rainfly

We’ve all seen it – the dome tent at the campground with the blue tarp draped over the top. Don’t be like that guy. The basic function of a tent is to protect you from the elements. Many rainflies can be peeled back for a night view.

Pro tip: If you expect to spend several days in a tent, consider the color. Sunflower yellows will be more cheery on the disposition than blues.

Tent Height & Wall Shape

Tents are built around the physical forces of tension and compression of fabric and poles. Like most things, tent form follows function, so consider your needs and the designs will follow suit.

How to choose a tent

Family tents, with their vertical walls, allow campers to stand up and change. While a low-profile backpacking tent will sling low to the ground to deflect wind and rain.

Some unique designs have explored buying more air real estate, either by flipping the traditional wedge upside down or using bent pole configuration to loft more internal space.

Tent Trail Weight

Turn over a tent label and you’ll often see two listed weights. The packaged weight is the off-the-shelf weight – cords, repair kit, extra stakes, and all. The trail weight refers to the minimum weight to erect the tent: the tent body, fly, poles, and minimum stakes.

Ground Cloth

This is the one aftermarket item that you should seriously consider purchasing. A ground cloth serves as a buffer between the tent and the underlying rocks and roots. It saves wear and tear on the tent floor.

Pro tip: Don’t want to shell out for the brand-name drop cloth? DIY with a sheet of Dupont Tyvek from your local hardware store.

How to Care For Your New Tent

So, you pulled the trigger and bought the tent. Congratulations! Here are a few tips to ensure it has a long life.

Many tents will come with “taped” seams. That means the holes caused by sewing are sealed at the factory. But some tents still come with unsealed seams from the store. If yours is unsealed, apply seam sealer to the floor and inside the fly stitching before use.

Rig the guylines and practice setting up the tent in a park or your yard. Figure out how to stake it out for both fair and foul weather. Check for any manufacturing flaws.

During your trip, stake it down. An empty tent is a box kite in disguise. Try to keep debris out of the tent. Remove the fly after each night and let it dry out. Before breaking camp, shake the tent out and dry it out.

At home, continue to dry the tent out and store it loose (not rolled up tight).

After a season, give it a once-over. Repair any small holes with seam sealer. Use mild soap and water to remove any stains. Check the poles and guylines for any damage. Store the tent in a dry area.

A tent is your home away from home. A good one will enhance your outdoor experience. And a great one will become a dependable travel partner. Happy shopping!


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Editor’s note: This article was updated in May 2018. It was first published in June 2017.

tagged: Cabela's
By
Contributing Editor (and Gear Junkie Idaho Bureau Chief) Steve Graepel is allegedly a crook and a thief, conning his friends to steal away time from their families in pursuit of premeditated leisure, which typically involves a bike, a pack-raft, skis, running shoes, climbing rack, or all of the above.
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