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HOW TO BUY A TENT

Whether you’ll use it to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail or ini­ti­ate your kids with a back­yard cam­pout, the right tent will affect your enjoy­ment of the out­doors. There are tents for every con­di­tion and every bud­get and it’s not uncom­mon to have a vari­ety of them in the garage for dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. This guide is designed to help you learn how to choose the best tent for your needs.

TYPES: There is a tent style for every con­di­tion you are likely to encounter in the great out­doors. Know­ing what time of year you plan to camp will imme­di­ately rule out a large num­ber of options. Tents are usu­ally rated as 1-season, 3-season, 4-season, or expedition.

ONE SEA­SON: One-season tents are gen­er­ally only good in the summer. They’re very breath­able and may come with a rain fly. Even if a fly is included, the water­proof rat­ing is usu­ally lower (infor­ma­tion on water­proof rat­ings to fol­low later). As such you will want to assess local rain­fall amounts to see if the sum­mer sea­son is also mon­soon sea­son. If so, you might not want to get a one-season tent.

THREE SEA­SON: Three-season tents are good from spring to autumn and offer bet­ter insu­la­tion and water pro­tec­tion than a one-season tent. They can usu­ally even han­dle a bit of snow­fall. These are a great option if you plan on own­ing only one tent, and if you’re not going to have to worry about wak­ing up to a foot of snowfall.

FOUR SEA­SON: Four-season tents as the name implies, are usable in any sea­son but are not always the best option. Using a Four Sea­son tent in August on the Bayou would put you in a state of sweaty dis­com­fort. Four-season tents are built strong enough to not buckle under the ele­ments (such as heavy snow­fall on the roof), yet are hos­pitable enough to keep you warm and dry. As such there can be a bit of a price jump by adding the abil­ity to camp in the winter. But these tents will with­stand almost any­thing — leav­ing the final rat­ing of “Expe­di­tion” to han­dle the rest.

EXPE­DI­TION: Expe­di­tion tents are for those extended trips to Mt. Ever­est or the South Pole. It can hold up to intense wind, snow, side­ways freez­ing rain, and what­ever else you or Mother Nature can throw at it. For most of the pop­u­la­tion a tent like this is com­plete overkill. But for the small per­cent­age that is voy­ag­ing to Antarc­tica or alti­tude, an Expedition-rated tent is the only option. This rat­ing comes with a high price tag.


Addi­tion­ally there are a few other options that aren’t tech­ni­cally clas­si­fied as tents, but aid you in sleep­ing out­doors, and there­fore are worth considering.

BIVOUAC or “Bivvy” sacks are basi­cally large sacks made from water­proof breath­able mate­r­ial. Some come with single-pole or inflat­able sup­port struc­tures to give you some room to read or to help com­bat the claus­tro­pho­bia. Sim­ply insert a sleep­ing bag, pad, and go to bed. They pro­tect from wind, rain, and insects but are extremely min­i­mal. These are a great option for back­pack­ing, climb­ing, or pad­dling mis­sions where size and weight are a rare commodity. Bivvy sacks also have rat­ings based on weather and warmth, so make sure to be mind­ful of the envi­ron­ment in which you will “bivvy up”.

HAM­MOCK: Some­times in life, sim­pler is bet­ter. For sleep­ing arrange­ments, you can’t go more min­i­mal than a ham­mock with­out sleep­ing directly on the ground. Ham­mocks are portable, light­weight, and relax­ing. Bring a tarp as well, and you have an instant rain cover!


LIVE­ABIL­ITY: Everyone’s stan­dard of “live­able” is as dif­fer­ent as the places they camp. Over­look­ing the live­abil­ity might make you (or your reluc­tant sig­nif­i­cant other) not so happy. Here are some ele­ments that can make your tent feel more liveable:

SLEEP­ING CAPAC­ITY: While seem­ingly self-explanatory, keep in mind that tent capac­ity rat­ings are usu­ally based on a 150-lb adult. If mem­bers of your party are sig­nif­i­cantly larger, it might be a good idea to get a larger tent than the rat­ing sug­gests. Con­versely, if the tent will be full of lil’ rugrats, the rat­ing may be more than sufficient.

FLOOR DIMEN­SIONS: This is akin to the square footage of your home. Mea­sur­ing the floor dimen­sions is impor­tant, espe­cially if you are in the “Big and Tall” cat­e­gory. Remem­ber to keep in mind that a round-shaped tent will require a larger area than one that is square. If you have extra belong­ings or need extra space for cook­ing, read­ing, med­i­tat­ing, stack­ing shoes or packs, etc., be sure to keep the floor dimen­sions in mind — enough space to sim­ply sleep might not cut it for you.

HEIGHT: How high your tent needs to be is often directly related to how much time you plan on spend­ing inside the tent. If you plan on sleep­ing in it and noth­ing more, then height is noth­ing more than added bulk. But if you plan on play­ing cards, com­fort­ably chang­ing clothes, or ever hav­ing to sit at base camp for two weeks wait­ing for the clouds to lift then height should be a con­sid­er­a­tion. Be sure to know your own height, both while stand­ing and seated, and find a tent that will accommodate.

VESTIBULE: A vestibule is a cov­ered area that is tech­ni­cally “out­side” the tent, located at the entry point. It is essen­tially a mudroom. This is a place to leave muddy shoes or items that you do not want inside. The vestibule area is impor­tant if you will have a lot of gear or peo­ple. Some tents have large vestibules so be sure to check that the area suits your party’s needs.


VENT­ING: Vent­ing is an envi­ron­men­tal neces­sity in three-season and one-season tents. Some four-season single-wall tents get by with­out vents, but they are con­structed of breath­able mate­ri­als and extremely expensive. In warm, dry cli­mates, vent­ing is an obvi­ous neces­sity, but it’s equally impor­tant in cool weather to pro­mote mois­ture trans­fer from inside the tent out. Folks who sweat heav­ily might want a tent with more vent­ing options than some­one who is per­pet­u­ally cold.

PACK­A­BIL­ITY: Most tents will show “packed” vol­ume mean­ing how large the tent is when it’s ready for trans­port. This will vary sig­nif­i­cantly with each tent — lower packed vol­ume means higher cost. Fur­ther­more some tents can be stuffed into the bag with reck­less aban­don; oth­ers must be folded and packed just right for it to fit in the sack. The tent’s mate­r­ial has a lot to do with pack­a­bil­ity (more on that later).


FEA­TURES: Today’s tents are full of extra fea­tures that can make your camp­ing life much eas­ier. Here are a few bells and whis­tles to pay atten­tion to:

NUM­BER OF DOORS: Some tents only have one front door for access while oth­ers have mul­ti­ple entry points. Mul­ti­ple doors come in handy in sit­u­a­tions where the tent is wedged into a nar­row space like inside a dense for­est or a packed fes­ti­val campground. It’s also a great option for side-entry tents meant for two or more peo­ple – so you can enter and exit with min­i­mal dis­rup­tion to your tentmate.

GUY LINES: You can attach guy lines to the rain fly to ten­sion it down for stormy sit­u­a­tions. They are par­tic­u­larly ben­e­fi­cial dur­ing high winds. Most rain flys fea­ture attach­ment points for Guy Lines, which often come with tents but can also be bought as an add-on.

POCK­ETS: Some tents fea­ture inte­rior pock­ets, which are really con­ve­nient for keep­ing impor­tant items like head­lamps, car keys, or clean socks within easy reach with­out get­ting shuf­fled around.

SEALED SEAMS: Most tents are seam-sealed at the fac­tory, mean­ing an effort was made to water­proof the tiny holes made along the seams. However this is not always the case, make sure to check if this has been done. Seam seals can wear off over time and let water in. There are a num­ber of seam seal prod­ucts on the mar­ket so be sure to check with the man­u­fac­turer for the best-recommended seam seal type for that tent if you’re attempt­ing to do it yourself.

FOOT­PRINT: A foot­print is used as a bar­rier between your tent and the ground. It will greatly extend your tent’s life by help­ing pre­vent­ing bot­tom dam­age. Some­times a foot­print is included with the tent, some­times not. If not, there are a num­ber of third-party foot­prints, or even a sim­ple tarp will do.

RAIN FLY: Arguably the most impor­tant fea­ture, the rain fly can be the only thing between you and a few hun­dred gal­lons of tor­ren­tial downpour. Additionally it can be a nice pri­vacy screen if your tent has a mesh top. Even when it isn’t rain­ing, the rain fly acts as an extra mois­ture bar­rier from morn­ing dew, some­thing peo­ple often over­look just once.

GEAR LOFTS: Gear lofts pro­vide extra stor­age space in your tent. Depending on the tent’s strength, you can hang small items such as a lantern or wet laun­dry. If your tent doesn’t come with its own gear loft, there are a num­ber of third party ven­dors that will fit most models.


PITCH­A­BIL­ITY: A tent’s setup dif­fers greatly between each model. Dif­fer­ent peo­ple have dif­fer­ent pref­er­ences and dif­fer­ent tent-pitching skills. While you and you alone will ulti­mately deter­mine how fast your tent will go up, a tent’s setup speed and dif­fi­culty is usu­ally deter­mined by how the poles fas­ten to the tent. There are three pri­mary meth­ods: Sleeves, Clips, and No-poles.

SLEEVES: Sleeves are nar­row tubes on the tent’s exte­rior, gen­er­ally made out of the same mate­r­ial as the tent. They are the most time con­sum­ing of the three options, but also pro­vide great sta­bil­ity with very lit­tle chance of the poles free­ing them­selves. Ini­tially the setup can be tedious but with time comes mastery.

CLIPS: Clips pro­vide a sim­pler setup, but lack the sta­bil­ity of pitch­ing with sleeves. These ‘clip’ onto the tent pole, effec­tively hang­ing (with ten­sion) from the criss­cross­ing poles. Clips can be an issue in windy sit­u­a­tions with­out a fly since they are prone to dis­con­nect­ing when moved around. But if a speedy setup is your top pri­or­ity, then go with a clip-based tent.

NO POLES: No Poles setups are becom­ing increas­ingly pop­u­lar. If you are frustration-prone and have sausage fin­gers, a setup that does not require thread­ing small tent poles through equally small holes might be the way to go.

INFLAT­ABLE: Inflat­able tents have a very easy setup, but require a pump, which can be an issue if you’re short on space. If you have the capac­ity to bring a pump along and don’t want to be bur­dened with setup, an inflat­able is a great option.

POP UP: Pop up tents have poles within, but are already con­structed to “pop up” when unpacked. Packing it back up can take some get­ting used to with­out it explod­ing in your face, but with a lit­tle prac­tice you’ll be pack­ing and unpack­ing with no sweat.


MATE­R­IAL: The tent’s fab­ric plays an impor­tant role in your camp­ing expe­ri­ence. The tent mate­r­ial affects breatha­bil­ity, water­proof­ing, and insu­lat­ing capacity.

NYLON: This fab­ric is light­weight and water-resistant, and repels water effec­tively when coated with a water­proof­ing substance. The water­proof­ing does wear with time and nylon tends to even­tu­ally get sat­u­rated and water­logged in heavy rain. Nylon is an afford­able option if you aren’t reck­lessly abus­ing your tent, and with the right coat­ing, can be used for full-on expeditions.

POLY­ESTER: Poly­ester tents are sim­i­lar to nylon but much more durable. With the right coat­ing it can repel water and also breathe. They are also more resis­tant to sun than Nylon, which fades over time.

GORE-TEX: GORE-Tex is an excel­lent waterproof/breathable fab­ric often used in tech­ni­cal out­door apparel. GORE-Tex is very insu­lat­ing, which is great in win­ter months but no so much in the sum­mer. And as you prob­a­bly already know, gear that fea­tures advanced tech­nolo­gies such as GORE-Tex can get pricey.

CANVAS/COTTON: Can­vas tents are what all tents were made of not very long ago. They are great for nos­tal­gia, but with today’s tech­nol­ogy are unnec­es­sar­ily heavy. Can­vas has stood the test of time, and will prob­a­bly be around awhile but has no place in a backpack.


POLE MATE­RI­ALS: The flex­i­bil­ity, weight, and dura­bil­ity of each tent pole varies accord­ing to mate­r­ial. The price point is usu­ally the deter­min­ing fac­tor of what type of mate­r­ial is included with each tent. Here is a run­down on what to expect, as you can gen­er­ally expect your poles to be one of three varieties:

ALU­MINUM ALLOY: This is the most com­mon mate­r­ial on the mar­ket. It’s light­weight, strong, and flex­i­ble. Chances are that your tent poles will be made from Alu­minum Alloy, but never assume and double-check when purchasing.

FIBER­GLASS: Fiber­glass poles are becom­ing out­dated because they’re heav­ier and break eas­ier than alu­minum alloy. There are still some less expen­sive tents with fiber­glass poles, but any replace­ments that you buy should be made from alu­minum alloy.

CAR­BON FIBER: These poles are strong, light­weight and nearly inde­struc­tible. The only set­back is that cur­rent tech­nol­ogy has not allowed the mate­r­ial to be con­structed at a rea­son­able price point, and thus these poles are much more expen­sive. Car­bon Fiber poles are the mate­r­ial of choice for top-shelf mod­els and back­packer series tents where weight is of the utmost importance.


In the end, you want a tent that will be com­fort­able for 8 hours a day some­times more if the weather is hor­ren­dous. Then assess the con­di­tions where you expect to be using your tent.

Remem­ber what you read above. And be sure to answer the fol­low­ing questions:

  1. In what season(s) will you be camp­ing?  How wet or dry is the climate?
  2. How will you be get­ting to the campsite?
  3. Will you be camp­ing in your car? In a boat? With a backpack?
  4. How much space do you have for your tent in your car/boat/backpack?
  5. With how many peo­ple will you be shar­ing your sleep­ing space?
  6. How much time are you will­ing to allot for setup?
  7. Are you on a bud­get, or do you need the lat­est and great­est (and most expen­sive) products?
  8. What other activ­i­ties do you plan on doing while camp­ing?  Do you need to store addi­tional gear in your tent?  Or per­haps you need a tent for your gear…?

Ask­ing these ques­tions, as well as being con­scious of the dif­fer­ent types of fea­tures, will go a long way in help­ing you choose your tent. So be sure that you’re get­ting the right tent at the begin­ning, and hope­fully you’ll be in your new out­door abode for many years to come.

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