When you look at the market for tents, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by choices. The variety of styles, types, sizes, and functions is so vast these days, that even if you think you know what you want, you might end up paralyzed by choices you didn’t know you had.
That’s totally normal. Just stay calm and remember: The right tent is out there waiting for you — you just need to know how to choose it. Which is exactly what this guide is meant to help with. Follow this tutorial and you should have everything you need to choose a tent that will serve your needs, match your budget, and hopefully last for many adventures.
How to Choose 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 a 2-pound tent 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 — go for comfort.
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. Three-season tents fit most people’s camping and backpacking needs. But, sometimes people like to camp in the snow — for skiing, hunting, or cinematography — in which case, a four-season tent might be necessary.
Step 3: Think about capacity. How many people will you be sharing this tent with? 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? Most tents come in two- and three-person sizes. Some come in four- and six-person sizes, and there are even tents out there that are big enough to sleep eight or more.
At the store, even if the tent is already set up, ask if you can set another 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 wind or rain? Most sales associates at outdoor stores will be psyched to let you set up a sample tent and will be more than willing to help if asked.
Once you’ve set the tent up, crawl inside and stretch out. Do your head or toes touch either side? Sit up in the tent. Do you have enough room to dress and undress in it? When you wake up in the night to answer the call of nature, will you disturb your tent mates when you try to get out?
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? Because that will be the first source of moisture.
Pick a Camping Tent
Somewhere between extra-large cabin tents and ultralight backpacking tents lies the realm of the camping tent. These are popular options and include models like the iconic REI Half Dome 3 and the Mountain Hardware Meridian 2.
Many of 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. Two- and three-person tents weighing 4-6 pounds will work for almost anyone who just wants to drive to a campsite for an evening or a few.
Backpacking Tents: How to Choose
If you’re carrying your tent more than a few hundred feet from the car, you’ll appreciate something lighter than a regular car camping tent. Enter the backpacking tent.
Backpacking tents prioritize weight and packability over interior 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 tents, 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 Tent, which weighs in at less than 2.5 pounds, and the MSR Hubba Hubba 2, which has a pole configuration designed to maximize headspace while still proving light and packable.
Hiking above the tree line, where wind and snow can unexpectedly crash your party, you’ll want a shelter that can stand up to cold winds and winter weather.
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 no matter what kind of weather you find yourself in. They’re also great for winter campouts at lower elevations.
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. They’re specifically designed for long-distance, fast-paced adventures.
A niche arrow in your backcountry quiver, these shelters often double down using trekking poles as tent poles or eschew the poles altogether. Some tents even allow users to just set up the rainfly without the tent body, to maximize minimalism.
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 also be pragmatic and very lightweight shelters.
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.
While you can still find canvas tents on the market, most of today’s tents employ synthetic nylon fabric. Measured in denier (grams of mass per 9,000 m of a fabric’s thread), the lower the number, the lighter (and more fragile) the tent will be.
Some ultralight shelters cut weight by using specialty fabrics, like sil-nylon (silicone-impregnated nylon) and Dyneema (military- and maritime-grade fabric).
Single-Wall and Double-Wall Tents
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. Single-wall tents are also typically easier to set up because they only have one wall and don’t require adding a rainfly.
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 hotel with a 1-million-star view.
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. Some tent pole configurations come as a single piece with hinges. Others are separate poles that come together to raise the tent. As mentioned, some lightweight tents allow people to use trekking poles for a center tent pole.
Tents stakes should come with the tent and match the tent’s purpose. Lightweight tents will come with lighter-weight stakes, and heavy camp tents will have heavier gauge stakes. Aftermarket stakes can be purchased to cut weight, add durability, and replace those you lose.
Pro tip: Look for native stakes — rocks, roots, trees — to tie down the tent. And if you lose a stake, look around empty campsites — nine times out of ten, someone else lost one, too.
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 a place to kick off your muddy boots. It’s a space-saving addition that’s worth considering when making a purchase.
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.
If there’s a chink in the armor of a tent, it’s usually 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 campers might appreciate having separate ports of entry instead of crawling over one another to get out a single side door.
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, like pyramid tents, often require guylines. Either way, it’s a good idea to sling the tent prior to hitting the trail to ensure that 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. Or you can add reflective tape to your non-reflective guylines.
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. Some tents, like Sea to Summit’s Ikos, allow for multiple different rainfly configurations (or “modes”).
Pro tip: If you expect to spend several days in a tent, consider the color. Sunflower yellows will be more cheery for your 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.
Family tents, with their vertical walls, allow campers to stand up (or at least, sit 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 a 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 (or Footprint)
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. Some brands will void their warranty on tents if a ground cloth is not used.
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. Tarps can also be substituted in a pinch.
How to Care For Your New Tent
So, you pulled the trigger and bought the tent. Congratulations! Here are a few tips to ensure that 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 first trip with the tent, be sure to securely stake it down. An empty tent is a box kite in disguise — putting a hefty rock, or a filled backpack inside can help weigh it down while you stake it out. Try to keep debris out of the tent.
After each use, remove the fly and let it dry out — either hanging on something or laid out in the sun. And before breaking camp, open the tent’s door and shake it out to remove debris.
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 and store the tent in a dry area.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you choose a tent ground cloth?
Many brands will sell ground cloths (or “footprints”) specifically made for the different models and sizes of tents. Go to the brand’s website (or REI) and search the name of your tent, plus the word “footprint” and the right one should pop up. Similarly, if you’re buying in a store, just ask one of the sales associates and they should be able to direct you.
There are also more universal or generic ground cloths you can buy off Amazon. They typically come in one-, two-, and three-person sizes and chances are they won’t fit your tent’s shape perfectly. But they do the job and usually, they’re cheaper.
How do you choose a tent site?
Choosing a site for a tent is one of those things you get better at over time. The first thing you want to make sure of is that you’re using a flat area. If you set up your tent on an angle, gravity will pull you down the sleeping mat overnight and you’ll wake up crumpled in a corner.
Some people will use a Nalgene bottle as a makeshift level, testing the ground to see if it rolls in any one direction. And obviously, look for tent sites that aren’t covered in rocks, roots, or other obstructions.
It also helps to consider your morning. Are you trying to sleep in? Or do you want to wake up with the sun? If your tent isn’t in a shaded area, the sun will likely wake you as soon as it’s up. If you want to sleep in, pick a spot where you’ve got some good cover.
How do you choose a tent size?
If the tent is just for you, you can get a single-person tent or a bivy. However, if you’ve got a partner, or just want a little more room by yourself, get a two-person tent. If the tent is for you and your significant other plus your dog or child, size up and get a three-person. Really, this is a matter of preference.