You’ll need a good tent to protect you from rain, wind, dirt,
mosquitoes, spiders, bugs, and cool temperatures.
A tent is the first piece of equipment to buy for tent camping trips. Families should consider several factors before buying a tent so that they will be able to use use their tent in a wide variety of campsites, enjoy maximum comfort, and get many years of trouble-free service from it. Hammocks and tarps can provide basic shelter from the rain but cannot match the overall comfort and protection provided by a good tent.
Buy a well-known brand such as Eureka, Kelty, REI, Marmot, Big Agnes, Kodiak, Mountain Hardware, Sierra Designs, or Cabella’s.
These well-known brand tents are made from the best quality materials and workmanship, and will last over 20 years if you are careful and dry them after every trip. Most of these tents have tape sealed seams that will be waterproof right out of the box and will not require additional waterproof treatment for many years after purchase. Furthermore, if these tents are ever damaged, their makers will usually repair or replace them for a minimum fee or no cost at all. Although several people have reported good results with economically priced discount department store and no-name tent brands, my personal experience has not been so good. Seams have frayed and ripped, zippers have snagged, roofs have leaked, and fiberglass poles have chipped away after just a few trips. And many reviews posted on the internet report similar problems with economically-priced discount department store brands. So invest in a good-quality tent. Although the price may be a little higher than discount department store tents, good-quality tents will provide many years of trouble-free camping enjoyment.
Canvas, Nylon, or Polyester
If you plan to camp in cool weather, buy a canvas tent; if you plan to camp in hot weather, buy a polyester tent.
Canvas holds heat and blocks the wind better than other materials. Furthermore, it is more fire-retardant and can be used with a combustable heater with proper care. But it is very heavy and the beefier poles needed to support it are also heavy. So the total tent package can weigh about 100 pounds. Furthermore, canvas is susceptible to mold/mildew and requires much longer drying time. Nylon is much lighter and easier to dry. It was initially used to make lightweight tents because it was stronger than polyester. Although it is waterproof, it stretches and saggs when wet. Today, it is mainly used to make economy priced tents. Polyester is also lightweight but it doesn’t stretch when wet and its strength has been improved over the past 10 years. So, newer good-quality, lightweight tents are now made with rip-stop polyester. Its primary limitation is it holds in moisture and frequently produces condensation droplets inside the tent, especially after rainy nights with a significant temperature drop.
Buy a 6-person tent that measures about 9 feet by 10 feet and has 90 - 100 square feet of floor space.
Most families that travel by SUV and camp in developed state and federal campgrounds should buy a 6-person tent because this size is large enough to stand up in and provides ample comfort for small families. Furthermore, it is small enough to pack in family vehicles and fit in most developed campsites. Couples that travel in smaller cars may have to buy a 4-person tent and sacrifice a little comfort. Couples with older children, should buy a second 4 or 6-person tent rather than a larger 8, 10, or 12- person tent. Larger tents require extra packing space, extra set-up effort, and extra packing time at the end of your camp. Furthermore, they will be too large to fit on many developed campsites. Smaller and lighter 1, 2 & 3-person tents may be necessary for backpacking, bicycle camping, and motorcycle camping but are too low and too cramped for most adults.
Buy a tent with steel or aluminum poles rather than fiberglass.
Although tents with aluminum poles will cost about $100 more than tents with fiberglass poles, tents with aluminum poles will last about 20 years longer. Fiberglass poles will slowly chip away with normal use and can easily break in cold weather. Thin fiberglass poles, such as those commonly used to make economy discount department store tents will usually fail within a year or two after purchase. Thicker fiberglass poles, such as those used to make lower-priced good-quality tents will last much longer.
Buy a tent with a bathtub (or cantinary) floor made from a single piece of durable waterproof fabric.
The floor should have no seams through the center. If the tent floor is made with two or more pieces of fabric sewn together, this seam will be the first place to leak. In moderate rainfall, water will seep through the seam and soak your bedding and clothing.
Look for tents that have good-quality, heavy-duty zippers.
Some tent makers use strong zippers such as YKK while other makers save costs by using cheap zippers that stick, snag, and separate. To assess the quality of zippers in a tent, read reviews and look for comments regarding the zippers. If a tent has poor-quality zippers, users will quickly become annoyed and will usually comment about them in their review.
Fabric to Mesh Ratio
When buying a polyester or Nylon tent, look for one with fabric walls, zip-open windows, and a partial-coverage rainfly rather than one with mesh walls and a full-coverage rainfly.
Polyester and Nylon tents require lots of mesh to ventilate heat and moisture and to reduce condensation. And this mesh is incorporated in two standard designs. Tents with fabric walls, zip-open windows, and a partial-coverage rainflies can be adequately ventilated by opening the windows or can be closed to hold in heat reasonably well. Furthermore, they are more economically priced. Tents with mesh walls, on the other hand, require full-coverage rainflies, cannot be closed to hold in heat on cool days, and cost more. They are very drafty and cold when the temperature drops below 60 degrees F.
Try to buy a tent that has large D-style doors rather than upside down U-style doors.
Although having a second door increases convenience, it is not necessary and increases the cost of a tent by about $50. Thus, many lower priced tents will only have one door - which is no big deal. Regardless of the number of doors, tents with D-style doors that hang from the side when open, will be much more durable than tents with upside down U-style doors that drop down to the floor when open. No matter how careful you try to be, you’ll frequently step on those upside down doors.
Try to buy a tent with near vertical walls and guy them out well.
Cabin, umbrella, and tunnel tents that have near vertical walls are much more comfortable than standard dome tents that typically have steeply sloped walls. Vertical walls allow campers to stand upright in the tent and move around with ease. But tents with vertical walls are more vulnerable to damage from strong winds. Recently, several tent makers have modified the dome tent design by adding extra poles and fabric that pull the walls out to a more vertical position - but these extra poles and fabric typically add an extra $100 to the price of the tent. So, pay a few extra dollars and get a more comfortable tent with near vertical walls.
Vestibules and Garages
Avoid tents that have large vestibules and garages.
Contrary to sales promotions and claims made by inexperienced campers, vestibules and garages have few, if any, legitimate uses. They should NOT be used to store food, shoes, or dirty clothes. And they should NOT be used for cooking. Furthermore they require additional time to set up and additional ground space that may not be available in many campsites - especially those with elevated tent pads. And they make it harder for big people to enter and exit the tent.
Contrary to opinions expressed by a few inexperienced campers, the color of a tent should NOT influence your decision.
Most tent models are only available in one color. For example, the REI Kingdom is only available in tan and the Coleman SunDome is only available in lime green/ white. Choose your tent based upon its important features rather than color.
And, contrary to the opinions of these same inexperienced campers, the number of pockets should NOT influence your decision.
Having a couple of pockets is nice to hold your mattress roll straps but more than two pockets are unnecessary. You should not put full water bottles or other heavy objects in them because their weight could rip seams or tear fabric.
To save money, look for sales, discontinued models, and second hand tents.
The full retail price of good-quality 6-person tents with aluminum poles can run up to $500 or more but you can easily find the same tents at a much lower price if you are patient and know where to look. Prices will be high in April and May but much lower in November and December. Many outdoor outfitter stores run late fall/ early winter sales to move merchandise for the spring camping season. Also look for store returns and second hand gear on eBay. Prices of good-quality tents with fiberglass poles will be about $100 lower and will also be reduced at times but not as much as the more expensive models.
Do your research before buying an Instant Tent.
Early Instant Tents reportedly had lots of problems with leaking, faulty zippers, bent folding mechanisms, and cheap materials but they have improved over time. Nevertheless, it would be prudent to read internet reviews before buying one. Personally, I have avoided them because they are heavier than traditional tents and require extra packing space. Furthermore, experienced campers can set up a traditional tent almost as fast.
Suggested Tent Choices
Here are my top 6-person tent picks for 2019 with current prices. Click on their links for more information.
Alps Mt'ering Meramac Dome $175
Alps Mt’eering Camp Creek Umbrella $175
Eureka Tetragon 5 Dome $190
Eureka Copper Canyon Umbrella $220
Kelty Trail Ridge Dome $280
Kelty Sequoia Umbrella $300
Big Agnes Big House Deluxe Mod. Dome $305
Eureka Space Camp Mod. Dome $315
REI Kingdom Mod. Tunnel $320
REI Co-op Grand Hut Umbrella $350
Marmot Limestone Mod. Dome $400
REI Base Camp Geo. Dome $450
Kodiak Canvas Flex Bow 10 x 10 $460
Danchel Canvas Bell 13’ Diameter $530
Kodiak Canvas Cabin 9 X 12 $575
Springbar Canvas Highland 10 X 10 $600
Trek Canvas Cabin 9 X 12 $635
Pinnacle Canvas Cabin 9 X 12 $700
Cabella’s Canvas Wall 10 x 12 $1,700