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How to Choose a Tent for Camping


Tents might just be the most iconic piece of camping gear. There’s something magical about a shelter that packs down small enough to fit inside your pack, but can be whipped out and assembled into a completely serviceable shelter in just a few minutes. And a tent usually one of the first pieces of camping gear that people purchase, right after a sleeping bag. But there are a huge range of different types and styles of tents on the market, all with their own strengths and weaknesses.
 

It can be challenging to figure out what tent will work best for you. That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive guide of different tent types and features to help you find the perfect tent. Remember, with tents, as with any other piece of gear, there is no universal “best tent,” instead, there is a best tent for you.


Choosing a Tent Based on the Type of Camping
& Intended Use

There are two main groups of campers, those who hike into their campsite with their gear in a backpack, and those who drive to their campsite. Whether or not you’re planning on walking long miles with your tent on your back is a big driving factor in what features size you should be shopping for. You hike with just about any tent on your back, but the further you get from the trailhead, the more extra pounds hurt. So if you’re planning on primarily car camping, you can shop for tents completely disregardless of their weight. But if you plan on backpacking, it’s worth sacrificing some extra features and capacity for lower weight.

When & Where Will You be Using Your Tent?

The second question to ask yourself is when, and where you’ll be using your tent. Do you plan on only camping on warm summer nights in the desert? Or are you looking for a tent to do a winter ski ascent of a volcano?

Look up the average weather conditions of the places you plan on camping, and the months you plan on camping during. Look at low overnight temperatures, as well as average wind speeds. If you often camp in very windy areas you’re going to need to account for that with your tent.

How Many People Does the Tent Need to Fit?

Are you planning on camping with your family? Your partner? Or just solo missions? Tents are generally rated by capacity, so a two-person tent has room for two average-sized people, and their gear, but will be a little cramped. If you’re car camping and don’t have to worry about your tent’s weight, it’s a good idea to get a tent with capacity for at least one more person than you plan on having in it. This gives everyone more room, and helps keep gear organized. Plus, it's no problem to fit four people into a six-person tent, meanwhile, the opposite will not work very well.

If you’re planning on camping solo, it’s still worth getting a two-person tent - It allows you to keep all your gear dry, and to bring a partner at some point if you want to.

If you’re backpacking, remember to think about how you might be able to split up your tent in order to distribute the weight amongst the group. For example, if you’re backpacking with four people, it might be more worth it bring two two person tents, since it’s easier to divide the poles, fly, and body between four people, as opposed to one big four person tent that’s harder to divide.

Different Types of Tents

There are five main types of tents and camping shelters: Four Season Tents, Three Season Tents, Tarps, Bivy Bags, and Hammocks. We’ll break down the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Four Season Tents

As the name implies, four-season tents are designed for use all year round. They usually have a single-wall construction, as opposed to the mesh liner, and waterproof fly three season tents have and feature more robust tent poles that are better at dealing with high winds.

While Four Season tents might sound more versatile than three-season tents, they’re overkill for most people. They’re generally heavier, and take more time to set up properly, and don’t have the option to just sleep in a mesh tent under the stars like three-season tents. Plus, they can get pretty hot in the summertime.

Only get a four-season tent if you’re planning on winter camping. You’re better off using your three-season tent for a few snowy winter days than you are using a four-season tent on long backpacking trips in the summer.

Three Season Tents

Three season tents are designed for spring, winter, and fall use. That’s not to say you can’t use them in the wintertime. They just aren’t as warm and are much more susceptible to collapsing from wind or snow.

Three season tents are the right call for most people. They’re very adaptable and work well across a huge range of conditions. On hot nights you can sleep in the mesh inner tent. You can throw the fly on for rainy nights, and they’re less prone to condensation inside than four-season tents. They also usually pack down smaller and lighter. Most folks should look for a three-season tent with enough capacity for their group and good vestibules. If you’re car camping, don’t worry about weight, if you’re backpacking, look at lighter three-season tents.

Tarps & Pyramid Shelters

Camping tarps and pyramid shelters are gaining popularity among folks looking for the lightest, and smallest options available. Only look into these types of tents if weight trumps comfort for you.

Tarps and pyramids don’t have floors, instead, they use trekking poles, pegs, and straps to create a tent out of a simple tarp, and other gear you’re already carrying, like trekking poles. They pack down very small, and when set up correctly can withstand high winds. But they’re generally harder to set up well than three-season tents, and they are not as comfortable.

So if you’re looking for the fastest and lightest option, a tarp or a pyramid shelter might be the right call, but for most people, they’re just too fiddly and uncomfortable.

Bivy Bags

Bivy bags, or bivy sacks, are special water and wind-proof bags designed to keep a single person warm and dry. They go over your sleeping bag and act as a mini tent. Their best attribute is their small size, most pack down to about the size of a water bottle. That makes them a great backup to keep in your pack when you don’t plan on spending the night, but might get stranded after dark.

That said, size and weight definitely come at the expense of comfort. Bivies have a tendency to get wet with condensation and can feel claustrophobic - zipping into a bag barely larger than your sleeping bag. They also won’t help keep your gear dry.

A bivy bag is a great backup or a good option for alpinists who aren’t planning on spending very much time sleeping and are just looking for a waterproof shelter to grab a few hours of rest in before they move on. For the rest of us, a three-season tent is the right call.

Camping Hammocks

In recent years hammock camping has exploded in popularity, with more and more brands creating technical hammocks, designed for camping and backpacking. One of the big pros of hammocks is that they make a great place to hang out even when you’re not sleeping. They also are pretty light, pack down small, and are quick to set up. If you’re planning on hammock camping, make sure you’re comfortable sleeping in one though. For side and belly sleepers, and those with back issues, hammocks often are very uncomfortable.

If you do decide to try hammock camping, make sure you’ve got a sleeping pad that works in a hammock, as well as a sleeping bag designed for hammock camping. Because they’re suspended in the air, it’s easy to end up with a cold back if you don’t have the correct gear to spend the night in a hammock. You’ll also be out of luck if you try to hammock camp somewhere without big trees at the correct spacing. Hammock camping is great for some people but is not always an option.

Tent Features

Vestibules

Vestibules are small covered areas outside the tent, the fly extends down to keep gear dry. It’s nice to have at least two vestibules to store shoes, packs, and other gear that you don’t need in the tent, but want to keep close and dry.

Number of Doors

Lighter tents often only have a door in one side, since zippers are heavy and add to the overall weight of the tent. That means if you’re sharing the tent with someone and one of you needs to get up in the middle of the night, they may have to crawl over you to get to the only door. Having a door on each side can be really nice.

Headroom

The lighter a tent is, generally, the smaller the inside space is. For some taller folks, this means that they can’t sit up straight in backpacking tents. Most tents will list their ceiling height, it’s a good idea to look at that number if you’re planning on hanging out in the tent a lot.

Moon Roofs & Vents

Some new tents have special flaps and features that allow you to easily fold back part of the fly and have a view of the night sky. This adds a little bit of weight, but makes falling asleep looking at the stars possible, and it’s easy to pull the fly back over if it starts to rain.


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