How to Choose a Tent Q&A

by - Tuesday, March 10, 2015

When you plan a camping trip, the most important piece of gear is your tent. Your tent must keep you warm and dry, and have ample storage space for your packs if you are camping in the backcountry. No one dreams about staying in a leaky tent, but it happens to people all the time and turns them off tent camping. How can this situation be avoided? You need to start with a decent tent and set it up properly. I have seen campers in top of the line tents get soaked because they were too lazy to peg the fly out properly. In other instances, getting soaked was inevitable due to poor tent design (short fly) and/or inferior tent materials (thin floor material vs reinforced bathtub floor, brittle/bent tent poles). The Q&As below should get you on the right track to getting a good tent, within budget, for your family this summer.

Car camping / "Family" tent or backpacking tent? 

A car camping tent is fine for front country camping in sheltered areas, but if the tent is very large and you are camping in an open area, it is more likely to be broken or blown away by high winds. In Glacier National Park, the campground operators took our huge tent down while we were hiking because the 60 mph winds were bending the poles! Consider where you will be camping and purchase accordingly; we have one of each tent type. If you plan on buying just one tent, buy the one that fits your needs. Campers who frequently backpack and stay at walk-in campsites would do best with a dome backpacking tent as it is smaller, lighter, will fit on backcountry tent pads, and stand up to more extreme weather conditions. Car campers may prefer larger "family" tents for headroom and space for travel cribs; many even have privacy partitions.

Backpacking tents aren't too big but they are dual purpose (car camping and backcountry camping).

Should I buy a 3-season or 4-season tent? 

For most people, a 3-season tent will suffice. If you frequently camp in very cold weather, look into a 4-season tent. For backpacking, be sure to check the dimensions (will it fit on a backcountry tent pad) and weight (lighter is better) before you buy.

What should I look for? 
  • Good reviews.
  • A fly that goes down to the ground. 
  • Zippers that are easy to open/close without getting stuck,
  • Two doors: For family camping, it is preferable to have a door on each side of the tent so you don't have to crawl over everyone to get out. 
  • "Bathtub floor" bottom to protect you from water seeping in.
  • At least one vestibule. Vestibules are handy for keeping footwear or gear dry, especially when your vehicle isn't nearby. 
  • A footprint/groundsheet to protect your tent from rips and tears. If your tent does not come with a footprint/groundsheet, purchase one or cut a tarp to the size of your tent floor. If you make your own, be sure it is no larger than your tent or water may collect underneath and seep in. I lucked out and found a $5 blue tarp at at hardware store that fit my first tent perfectly. 
  • Good ventilation. Some tents will have vents near the top of the tent. These are helpful to prevent condensation buildup inside or overheating in warm conditions. If these vents are not available, be sure to get a tent with 2 doors for increased ventilation.
  • Reflectors on guy lines are nice to have, but not a dealbreaker. If you love the tent and the price is right, you could always replace the lines with reflective paracord so someone doesn't trip over the lines in the night.
MEC Wanderer Tent - check out that fly! Pretty weatherproof!
AVOID a tent like this. The fly is not large enough to protect your tent!

Which tent is best? 

I would like to say the best tent is the one you use, but not all tents are created equal. We have 5 tents and a couple of them are ready to retire. For family trips, the $125 6-person tent was good while it lasted, but it only lasted one season (30 nights). Although our MEC Wanderer 4-person tent was a lot more money ($300 used / $400 new), it has all the features we were looking for and we are confident we will get a lot more use out of it. My Outbound 2-person tent was only $200 and lasted 4+ years but we outgrew it. 

Follow the "What should I look for" guidelines above, and follow the set up instructions, and you will be fine.
My $200 Outbound tent served me well for 4 years!


When looking for a tent, get the best you can afford and be sure to get one with a footprint and fly that goes down to the ground. Next, learn how to set it up properly. Set up your tent before you go so you can set it up in any conditions. You will appreciate knowing how to set up your tent fast when a storm is rolling in, it's getting dark, or you are surrounded by biting insects! Set up includes pegging the fly out correctly so water doesn't wick in when it rains. The most expensive tent will not keep you dry if you fail to put the fly on right. Finally, be sure to sweep and dry out your tent before packing it away, and check it over after each trip for tears or rips. A little maintenance will ensure you get many years out of your home away from home. 

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