Buying a tent may seem simple at first glance. But, with so many options on the market, how do you choose one that’s not too big, not too expensive, but “just right?” That’s why I wrote this guide. Inside, you’ll learn everything you need to know about picking a tent. We’ll go over what factors to look for and how to compare tents side-by-side, so you can buy the one that’s perfect for you and your needs. Without further adieu, let’s get right into it.
First, decide what type of material you want. How much rain do you anticipate during your camping trip? What will the temperature be like? (Hint: Plan on colder and wetter than Google says it will be). Most tents are made out of synthetic fabrics – nylon or polyester. Good family tents are generally made out of polyester, while backpacking tents are usually nylon (to cut down weight). Another material used is canvas. Canvas was commonly used in the past since it was a breathable material available before polyesters were. While synthetic fabrics are cheaper and lighter, they have flaws. For instance, they’re weaker than canvas when it comes to insulation. This could pose a problem if you’re camping in harsh winter conditions.
Your tent’s performance against water is crucial. Why? No one likes sleeping in the rain (duh). But, how can you tell how waterproof a tent is?
Thankfully, synthetic materials are rated based on how much water they let in. The rating is called “millimeters of hydrostatic head,” or “mm HH.” Without getting into the nitty-gritty, this metric measures how much pressure is needed for water to pierce the tent. Higher mm HH? Better water resistance. To achieve higher mm HH, manufacturers use better materials and thicker waterproofing spray. That’s cool, but how much waterproofing do you need?
Although mm HH is an accurate measurement, it’s not everything for water resistance. Some tents might have higher mm HH, but lower durability. That’s why it’s important to scan reviews before purchasing your tent. Generally, you want at least 1,000mm HH on the outside of your tent, and at least 5,000mm HH on the floor (to keep your butt dry).
The next factor is what size tent you’ll need. It’s tempting to want the most enormous tent available to feel like “king of the castle,” but we’re trying to have fun here, not break the bank. Obviously, the easiest way to determine the ideal tent size is to consider how many people will be using it. If you’re a lone wolf, then something small and light should be a solid choice. But, if you have a group with you, the numbers can get tricky. My pro-tip is to never rely on manufacturer labeling, and here’s why.
Just because a tent’s called a “4-person tent”, that doesn’t mean it’ll be comfy for four people. It means there’s enough room for four average people to lie down like stick figures with their elbows touching. So, I recommend adding “two people” to the tent size when considering a tent. That’ll give you plenty of room to stretch your legs and store your bags.
In the example above, a four-person group should go for a six-person tent, so your whole family can sleep easy.
You should also consider how far away your campsite is from your parking spot since you’re going to have to lug the tent over there. If it’s just a few yards from your car, then a heftier tent shouldn’t be a problem. But, backpackers should get the smallest tent possible to keep their bags light.
It might seem insignificant, you should pay close attention to the warranty when comparing tents. Some would argue that it’s a trivial detail since, if you pick a good tent, you’ll never need to use the warranty. I usually agree with that, but you never know when a raccoon will bite holes in your tent (it happens). That being said, I think the warranty’s length is a direct reflection of the manufacturer’s confidence in their products. If the warranty only lasts a few months, that’s a red flag in my book. It says that the very people who made the tent expect it to break down in under a year. In contrast, a warranty of one, two, or even three years shows that they’ve built it with longevity in mind. My favorite example of this is Patagonia. They offer an “Ironclad Guarantee” on all their products
Of course, you should always think about the price of a tent before purchasing it. Buy a quality tent, but make sure you don’t go overboard. When you find a new passion, it’s easy to get carried away, loading up on gear. I know when I started fishing, I bought so many random lures and baits that my wife thought I was crazy.
There are countless deluxe tents out there with more bells and whistles than anyone can count. But, you should only buy gear that you can afford (without putting yourself in a pinch with upcoming bills). I’m not saying that you shouldn’t pay for quality. But, there’s a fine line between getting a high-performance tent and throwing cash at something because it looks pretty. Now, if you’re planning on backpacking for months on end, you should probably splurge on your tent. But, most family campers shouldn’t worry about getting a top-of-the-line tent. Camping decisions should be practical. So, if you empty your wallet for silly ego reasons, then you’ve defeated the purpose of the activity before even setting your tent up. Camping is supposed to remove stress, not increase it.
There are some key features to look for in your tent. You likely won’t be able to get all of them in a single tent (without clearing out your bank account), so aim for as many as possible.
Some tents come with fiberglass poles, but they are far more fragile than their aluminum brethren. They also tend to fragment into sharp needles when they break. So, look for aluminum poles whenever choosing a tent to maximize durability and safety.
Whenever possible, pick a tent that has a roof vent. This will work wonders for air circulation and thus prevent any condensation problems that may otherwise arise. It will also keep you from feeling suffocated during hot weather.
The zippers of your tent will see the most use since you’ll always be opening and closing it during camping trips. All this heavy use can lead to wear and tear, so look for zippers that are heavy-duty to ensure a long lifespan. My favorite zipper brand is YKK. Look at the zipper tab to see who manufactured it.
As you can see, picking the right tent can actually be rather easy once you get the formula down. No one can tell you what the BEST tent is since it merely doesn’t exist. The ideal tent will vary from one person to the next, depending on their specific needs, so go find yours!
Mike Miller is the founder of Wilderness Times. After realizing he was spending way too much time in front of a laptop and not enough time in nature, he decided to do something about it. Nowadays you can find him outside, hiking, camping, and having all sorts of outdoor adventures.