Buying Guide for Tents
By Steve Kopitz
Choosing the right tent for your upcoming trip can be a daunting task. Tents come in many sizes, styles, and designs to provide a different experience for campers in different situations. Use the following tips to help select the right tent for you!
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Before buying a tent, let’s go over a few tent basics. Tents are composed of three primary parts: A rainfly, a body, and poles.
Rain Fly: The rainfly is an exterior layer of fabric, usually treated with a waterproof laminate that is designed to keep the inside of the tent dry. The rainfly will be your outermost layer of defense against the elements so it is important to consider its shape and length when purchasing a tent. If you are traveling to an area where you are expecting extreme weather, it might be more beneficial to purchase a tent with a more protective rainfly.
Tent Body: Under the rainfly we have the body of the tent. The tent body is the interior layer of the tent, and is usually comprised of a mesh/nylon hybrid designed to keep out animals and bugs, as well as providing good airflow and strength. Tent bodies that are mostly mesh provide more airflow (good for warm trips) while tent bodies that are comprised of mostly nylon provide more strength and more insulation (good for cold or extreme weather).
TentPoles: In between the rainfly and the body are the tent poles. Tent poles provide the spine of a tent. Most freestanding (ability to hold shape without the support of stakes or guy lines) tents will have at least 2 poles associated with them, however, as size and shape change, the number of poles often increases. Poles not only provide stability, but they also increase headroom and leg room inside of the tent. Those of you who are taller might want to consider the shape and design of the tent poles while shopping for poles.
Types of Tents
There are three primary types or classifications of tents which are three season, four season and family tents. Determining which of these types of tents is going to work for you is the first step when buying a tent.
Three Season Tents: Three season tents are the most common type of tent and work well for summer weather with good venting and will hold off the rain with covered protection. There will always be a double wall construction, leaving a gap for airflow between the rainfly and the body of the tent. Airflow is important for three season tents because it provides fresh air for those inside, as well as helping to reduce condensation from building up on humid days. These tents are typically very lightweight and work great as backpacking tents for the spring, summer and fall.
Four Season Tents: Four season tents are the burlier older brother to three season tents and offer great protection and coverage for winter camping, backpacking and mountaineering. Labeled as four season tents this style of tent is really only necessary if you are looking to use it in the winter and in colder temperatures. These tents are often a single wall or single/double hybrid construction, meaning that the tent body and the rainfly are the same piece of fabric, or they allow separated pockets of airflow. This not only creates a thicker, more durable layer, but it increases warmth as well. It should be noted that single wall tents decrease breathability, so in humid environments such as the Appalachian Mountains, more condensation can build up inside of the tent. If you are planning to travel to a more humid environment, try and find a four season tent that is a single/double hybrid construction to provide increased airflow while still providing good protection from the elements.
Family Tents: For those seeking excess room and a touch more luxury there are family tents. These family style tents work great for car camping because weight and size are often sacrificed for comfort and design. Family tents often have high ceilings and separated “rooms” within the design to allow multiple people to comfortably live inside at the same time.
Choosing Your Tent
Now that you have an education on the different types and classifications of tents it's time to decide which type of tent is going to work best for you. There are three questions you should ask yourself before purchasing a tent;
1. What are you using the tent for?
2. Where and in what season will you be using the tent?
3. What size tent will you need?
What kind of camping will you be using the tent for?
As there are many different types of camping there are differing tents to accommodate these types of camping. You need to decide what type of camping you will be doing and if you are doing a variation of styles you will need to determine if one tent can take on all you are looking to do. Below are a couple of the most common types of tents and the style of camping that will work greatest for them.
Three Season Tents
• Backpacking in spring, summer, and fall
• Kayak Camping
• General camping (car camping) and backpacking (multipurpose)
• Any camping where you have to travel any distance stowing the tent
Four Season Tents
• Mountaineering, Backpacking, and Cold Weather Camping
• Camping in a rapidly changing climate
• Camping in adverse terrain and weather conditions (very durable)
• Windy conditions
• Double wall four season tents make great base camps
• Car Camping (You don't need to carry it very far, these tents tend to be a bit heavier)
• Larger family in need of more room
• Activity tent in case of rain (large tent leaves enough room to play board games!)
Where and in which seasons will you be using the tent?
With the information you have gathered from the above sections this should be pretty easy to determine. You now know and understand that there are three season tents and four season tents. Now, you will need to ask yourself where you will be camping and in what weather conditions.
Generally, the decision should be based off of the combination of humidity and temperature. Climates which are more dry and aired, such as the southwest allow for the use of any style of tent, single wall, double wall, three season or four season. Humid environments, particularly those of the south eastern region, often create a very damp environment inside of a tent. It is usually recommended that if traveling to a humid environment, you take a double wall (three season) tent with a body comprised of mostly mesh. This will maximize airflow within the tent and help prevent a rainstorm from developing inside of your tent. For the family that only goes out on holidays to their favorite modern or rustic campground a larger family tent will work great as they will be car camping.
Those are just a few of endless differing circumstances that campers could fall into; you as the camper will need to determine just what type of tent is going to fit your needs the best and at what level. If you do a fair amount of each style of camping there is no shame in owning several tents for the different occasions. I own several tents; this way I can have a larger roomier tent for car camping yet still have a nice packable tent for any backcountry activities or kayak camping trips I take.
What size tent will you need?
Choosing the size of your tent will rely on a few factors but really boils down to how many people will be camping and what gear needs to be stored.
Campers Capacity: Determining how many campers will regularly be sleeping in the tent will be key in choosing a size. If you typically have 2 sleeping in a tent but occasionally may have 3 you will want to err on the larger side for car camping but may want to err on the smaller side for backcountry camping. If you are an avid backcountry camper and will more than likely have 2 in your tent most of the time going with the smaller tent will shed the weight and you can possibly still squeeze more than 2 if necessary.
Storage: Tent storage is dependent upon design of the tent. Generally, Three and Four season tents are built with a “gear vestibule.” These are spaces outside of the body of the tent, but inside the rainfly. These spaces are designed to separate campers from their potentially dirty equipment, while still providing a dry environment for storage. Family tents, however, are designed with internal storage in mind. They provide enough floor space for people and gear.