You’ve been camping with friends and family your whole life or perhaps you’re interested in starting a new hobby and want to start spending more time in the great outdoors. Regardless of why you camp, at some point you’ll have to buy your first tent, which might seem like a daunting task.
Tents are fantastic pieces of equipment that let you enjoy the peace and quiet of sleeping under the stars without the nuisance and danger of getting soaked in a rainstorm. These portable houses can be set up nearly anywhere, so you can always have a warm, dry place to retreat to at the end of a day of adventuring outside.
But, if you’ve ever walked around an outdoor gear store’s tent section, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of different options available, to say nothing of all the technical jargon that tent companies use to describe their gear. Luckily for you, we understand how difficult it can be to buy your first tent, so we’ve created this guide to finding and choosing a specific model that you’ll take with you on all of your future adventures. Let’s get to it!
Make a List of Priorities
First things first, before we even get into the nitty-gritty of tent construction and technologies, it’s important for you to make a list of the things you need from your tent. Do you plan on camping solo or with a family? Are you more of a backpacker or a car camper? Would you sacrifice some durability for lighter materials? Or are you looking for something more affordable?
Although it might not be possible to accommodate all of the features and desires you’d like to have in your tent, making a list of priorities before you start shopping will help you identify what’s actually important to you and what is just a nice added bonus. Shopping for a tent is much like shopping for a home (minus the mortgage), so at some point, you’ll likely have to compromise, but knowing what you want is a good place to start.
Understand Key Tent Elements
Once you identify what your priorities are in a tent, here are some of the key tent elements you should know about before you make a purchase:
The easiest way to eliminate contenders from your potential tent line-up is to determine how many people you want it to fit. Generally speaking, tent manufacturers are pretty spot-on with how many people their tents can actually fit, but it’s important to remember that being able to fit 3 people in a 3 person tent doesn’t mean it’ll be comfortable or spacious.
Rather, most of the time, you’ll get quite cozy in a tent when you fill it to capacity. If you’re the type of person who likes to have a lot of room or likes to keep their gear inside their tent with them, you might consider getting a tent that can fit one more person than you actually need. Moreover, if you’re a larger person, plan on bringing along a dog, or often toss and turn at night, you’ll likely want to size up when it comes to tent sleeping capacity.
This extra space does, however, come at a cost, both financial and in terms of weight and bulk. Larger tents tend to cost more, weigh more, and take up more room, so you need to decide if space is more important than weight and financial savings.
The vast majority of tents on the market today are three-season models, which are designed to hold up well in spring, summer, and fall. While these three-season models can, indeed, be used in the winter, this all depends on the kind of winter you’re expecting as winter in Alabama is quite different than winter in Alaska.
Generally speaking, three-season tents are not designed to handle high winds and to bear the weight of deep snow. Four-season tents, however, tend to be a bit burlier so they can handle these conditions. Plus, four-season tents are usually what we call “double-walled,” which means they tend to have more solid fabric and less mesh on the tent body, which reduces heat loss due to wind and keeps things slightly warmer inside the tent.
If you don’t really plan to camp in snowy and windy winter conditions, you’ll probably be okay with a three-season tent. Although you might be tempted to buy that four-season tent in the off chance that you want to camp in the winter, the extra price, weight, and bulk of the four-season tent isn’t really worth it unless you’re a dedicated cold weather camper.
Backpacking or Car Camping
At first, one might think that a tent is a tent and it doesn’t quite matter whether you pitch it in a campground or 100 miles into the backcountry. However, tents designed for car camping are totally different from those meant for backcountry adventures, so you’ll want to pick a tent accordingly.
Car camping tents tend to be big, spacious, and quite heavy. They’re designed more for comfort and are often not meant to handle foul conditions as many people will skip a weekend camping trip if a storm is coming. Backpacking tents, on the other hand, tend to be light, portable, and designed more for functionality and protecting you from poor weather.
Although it’s best to have separate car camping and backpacking tents, that might not be possible for everyone. Our advice? If you plan to do a mix of backpacking and car camping, buy a backpacking tent first, as it’s more versatile. You can always invest in a car camping tent down the line if the need arises.
Identify Important Features
After you decide how many people your tent needs to house and if you want a three- or a four-season tent, it’s time to look at the other features of a tent. Here are some features to consider:
For the most part, tents fall into one of two main styles: cabin or dome. Cabin tents have vertical or near vertical walls, which maximize livable space while dome-style tents have sloping walls that slightly reduce the livable space but offer more strength and durability.
Unless you’re over 6 feet tall, this doesn’t really apply to you, but, if you’re a particularly tall human, it’s nice to know that you’ll comfortably fit inside your tent. Thus, while most tent floors are between 84 and 88 inches long, those of us that are over 6 feet tall should seek out tents that are over 90 inches long so you don’t have to spend all night scrunched up in the corner of your own tent.
The number of doors on a tent – and their shape – are really important to the design of the tent and its overall functionality. A tent with multiple doors placed either at the head/foot of the tent or on the sides means you don’t have to climb over other people on your way out for a midnight toilet break, but it also adds some extra weight and adds a potential weak point to the tent. Therefore, while having more tent doors that allow easier exit and entry into the tent can be nice it comes with some important disadvantages.
Vestibules are essentially little mudrooms on the sides or front of your tent. These areas are sheltered from the elements by the rain fly but aren’t enclosed within the body of the tent. This means that they’re a great place to store boots and gear that you don’t want to sleep next to, but also don’t want to get soaked in an overnight rainstorm.
Not all tents have vestibules, however, and those that do can have tiny, ineffective vestibules, or great big palatial vestibules that can house all of your gear and then some. Vestibules do add weight, bulk, and price to your tent, though, so you need to balance a desire for gear storage with the benefits of a lighter tent.
Once you understand the basics of tent construction and the different tent features, it’s time to go shopping for your first tent. If you’ve done as we suggested and created a list of priorities for your tent and features that you want it to have, you can already eliminate a significant number of tents from your list of possibilities.
Once you have a short list of tents, it’s time to check out the tents in person. Although you can easily buy tents online, for your first tent, it’s nice to go and experience the tent firsthand before you buy. Especially if you’re new to the world of tents, this will help you get acquainted with the different models and features out there and make you more confident when you decide to finally purchase that tent.
Ultimately, it all comes down to identifying what you need in a tent and matching that list of requirements with the right model. Now that you know what to look for, though, the ball is in your court. Happy trails!
AUTHOR: Gaby Pilson