How to choose the right tent for camping

woman, man, and dog sitting in front of a tent

If you’re relatively new to camping, buying a new tent could present some confusion. There are so many styles, brands, and price points to choose from that you may wonder, “What kind of tent should I buy?” Well, the reason there are so many choices is because of the variety of ways that we camp. Backpacking tents are designed to reduce weight, car camping tents are built for convenience and comfort, and beach tents need to resist wind and blowing sand. Keep reading to learn how to choose tents for camping.

How many campers are there?

Possibly the best starting point is roominess. You’ll need ample space for people and gear without bumping into the walls whenever someone turns over. Understand that there is no standard measurement to determine how many people fit comfortably in a tent. If the group is made up of larger campers, gear junkies, dog lovers, or restless sleepers, you’ll want to err on the large side. When the label says something like “four-person tent,” assume that it will be a snug fit. A group of four may actually be more comfortable in a tent that is labeled for five, six, or even eight if air mattresses are part of the equation. 

Spring, summer, fall, or winter camping?

Next, look at the tent’s seasonal rating. Choose from either a three-season, three-to-four-season, or four-season tent depending on the temperature and severity of the weather.

Three-season tents

Three-season tents are built for privacy and protection from rain, light snow, and mosquitoes in temperatures down to about freezing. They feature lots of mesh panels for excellent ventilation. With a good rain fly, they can withstand a downpour, although sustained high winds or heavy snow may damage these fair-weather shelters. Three-season tents tend to be relatively inexpensive and a fine choice for infrequent fair-weather camping.

Three- to-four-season tents

Three-to-four-season tents are built for extended use throughout the spring, summer, and fall, including times when snow or heavy wind are in the forecast. They have fewer mesh panels and more poles to increase stability in the wind and rain, and they also provide better heat retention than three-season tents and offer good ventilation. Three-to-four-season tents come with a mid-range price tag. This is a great choice for longer trips to more isolated places where the weather may be unpredictable.

Four-season tents

Four-season tents are designed with heavier fabrics and additional poles to resist wind, shed snow, and retain warmth. They can be used in any season but may not offer adequate ventilation for camping in mild summer weather. These tents are best suited for camping in cold or foul weather. 

Camper fixing a tent in the rain
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What’s your camping style?

The tent’s design is meant to complement the way you camp. If you prefer to drive up to your campsite and bring all the comforts of home, consider a family-style tent. Wilderness travelers and minimalists will prefer a wild camping tent. 

Family tents, also known as car camping tents, are designed with tall, vertical walls and lots of floor space. They are heavy and bulky but comfortable. These include cabin tents and large dome tents. 

Backpacking and “wild camping” tents are built lower to the ground with less material to save weight while providing superior protection against the elements. These include low domes, rounded peaks, and asymmetrical designs. For backpacking, canoeing, biking, and outdoor camping trips of all kinds, choose one of these.

Added features

Once you’ve determined the size and type of tent you’re looking for, it’s time to consider the additional features that can add comfort, protection, and convenience. Some of the bells and whistles you’ll encounter include entry vestibules, secondary doors, room dividers, closeable vents, and footprints.

Vestibule

An entry vestibule is a shelter for the exterior of the tent entrance. It keeps the rain out as you enter and exit and provides a covered area to leave your muddy, wet boots. It adds cost and weight to the tent, but the convenience is helpful.

Second door

A second door is particularly useful with larger groups in order to avoid crawling over one another to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night. For base camping, they’re great. But they do add weight and cost, so the added convenience may not be worth the cost or weight for backpackers or couples.

Room divider

Room dividers are often available for family tents. They can be used to divide up the space into segments such as living and sleeping areas or adults’ and kids’ sleeping zones. The tent is already heavy, and the divider won’t add much to the cost, so the potential upside of convenience and organization of the space probably outweighs any negative factors.

Closeable vents

Closeable vents are a great way to balance warmth and ventilation. Open them to let the tent breathe or close them to limit heat loss. Rarely would a closeable vent present a problem worse than those it solves. 

Footprint

A footprint is a tarp that lies between the tent floor and the ground. It protects the tent from sharp roots, sticks, and rocks, prolonging the longevity of the tent floor and helping to keep moisture away. It’s nice to have one pre-cut to the right size and packed with the tent, but if your favorite tent doesn’t come with one, you can easily make one from an inexpensive tarp or a sheet of 6-mil plastic sheeting.

Although it may seem that there is a tent for every different kind of camping, you need only buy one to start out. Those designed for wild camping situations like backpacking and canoe camping trips may be the best choice for all-around camping. They are less roomy but more reliable in rough weather than family camping tents, and they are quite durable. But if you’ll never camp away from the car and comfort is the top priority, don’t be afraid to go big with a family tent.

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