Selecting Your Tent

Tents comes in all shapes and sizes, but most consist of the same basic components. Here’s some basic tent terminology:

There’s the tent (that’s the easy part). Tents range from little superlight one-man tents (more commonly known as a bivy) to cavernous bohemofs that can sleep 6 or 8 or even more. Most common are the 2 person and the 3-4 person size.

4 common types of tents

4 common types of tents

Then, most tents have a fly, which goes over the tent, keeping the rain out but allowing for ventilation. Single-wall tents don’t have a fly.

There’s a groundcloth or footprint, which is a separate piece of material usually the shape of the tent’s footprint that goes under the tent. Sometimes you have to purchase the footprint separately from the tent.

There are the poles. Poles in modern tents are almost aways threaded with elastic shock cord, so they practically assemble themselves and makes it difficult to lose a pole. Many newer tents also have plastic joints that allow for different tent configurations and very quick set up. However, if one gets broken, it may prevent the tent from being able to be set up properly.

Finally, there are stakes. Stakes can range from large (usually yellow) plastic, to long metal hooks, to more complicated designs and specialized stakes for snow or hard ground. One tip about stakes. I am a big fan of the lightweight hog stake. They are much easier to pound into the ground than the plastic stakes (I can usually just press them in with my foot); they don’t bend like metal stakes; and they have a reflective loop that makes them visible at night and easy to pull out. At $4/stake, they are worth the small investment.

Types of Stakes

Types of Stakes

Okay—those are the tent basics.

Now, I just have to rant a bit here. Sorry for the soapbox. Feel free to skip down a few paragraphs where I regain my sanity. But this sort of camping advice drives me nuts. It’s the lazy kind of “essential lists” that you see in magazines all the time, focused more on selling a product, than on providing any useful advice.

Too frequent example of selling products, instead of advice

Too frequent example of selling products, instead of advice

According to this, a tent’s main features should be pockets and hooks, tall enough to stand in, have a separate sleeping room, and pitchable. Okay, I’ll concede the last point, tents should be pitchable by one person in five minutes (but maybe not the first time).

Really???? The first thing you look at is the hooks and pockets???? That’s like picking your car because of its cupholders.

Okay, end of rant.

Selecting a tent doesn’t start with its whistles and bells. It starts with thinking about how you plan to use the tent. Specifically, ask yourself the following questions:

What type of weather and season you will be camping in? Will it be mainly warm, summer camping where shade and bug protection is important? Or will you also be camping in cooler, rainier situations where protection from the cold and wet is important. Do you anticipate windy situations?

What type of camping you will be doing? Will you use your tent on backpacking or biking trips, where weight and size is a serious consideration? If so, I am pretty that the 9.8 pound Coleman Instant Tent is not for you. Or will you be limited to boating and car camping, where weight is less important. Will you be establishing a base camp where you hang around in the tent for extended periods of time, and therefore, additional space (and hooks and pockets) might be warranted? Or will you be crawling in at night and out in the morning, so extra room is just wasted weight?

How many people will use the tent? Will people be crowding in for a game of cards away from bugs and rain, or will the tent be a sleeping only place? Will there be just one or two good friends or a couple in the tent so a little intimacy is not an issue, or will you be using it for first dates or amongst mixed company, or with toddlers who take naps, where a room divider makes things more comfortable? If you are camping with kids, I can understand getting a multi-person tent that can sleep two adults and 1-2 kids. If camping with more people, I’d seriously think about getting multiple tents, rather than the larger 6 or 8 person tents, for the following reasons:

  • Two tents are more flexible regarding sleeping arrangements. For example, you can put the snorers far away from the light sleepers, segregate the early from the late risers, or make a kids’ tent. My sister’s kids have been sleeping in their own tent since they were 5 and 7. We just set up the adult tent nearby.
  • Finding good tent spots for two smaller tents is also usually easier than for one larger tent.
  • The bigger the tent, the harder it is to keep warm during the night. You’ll be cozier and warmer in small tents, even with fewer people.
  • Smaller tents are better for windy and rainy days. The big tents have higher height profiles that make shedding wind harder, and the longer ceilings can droop during heavy rains, leading to catastrophe.
  • Two smaller tents are easier to pack and carry than the large, multi-person castles. You can split them up, get kids to carry the small tents, etc.
  • Smaller tents are easier and faster to set up, especially for beginners and infrequent campers.

There’s a rule of thumb suggesting allowing 2½ feet width per person, but again, it depends on the size of the persons, the amount of personal space that they desire, etc. For example, I have a very snuggly husband. It doesn’t matter how big the tent is, he wants to be curled up right next to me! Sometimes I’ll wake up and we’ll be squished up next to the tent wall with 3 feet of space on the other side. But, this isn’t anything new, since the same thing happens at home where we’ll be sleeping only the smallest narrowest strip of our queen mattress. So, we are completely comfortable sleeping in our narrow two-person tent that would be far too small for bigger, need-their-space, or wiggly sleepers.

One nice feature for 3-4 or more person tents is double doors, so that people can get in and out of the tent without climbing over everyone. Think how brilliant it was to put doors on both sides on a minivan and you get the picture.

What do you expect to include in the tent? Think about how much gear—clothes, air mattresses, cots, backpacks, etc.– you camp with and whether it needs to be stored in the tent, in a vestibule or outside the tent. If you have a lot of gear, then clearly you may want a bigger tent. When I am on a bike touring, I have panierres and other waterproof bags that can store gear, so very little needs to actually be in the tent. In other situations, I bring a small lightweight tarp to cover backpacks and gear, allowing me to leave these things outside the tent. Tents with square or rectangular floor plans are the most space efficient, although circular floor plans can work well if you put taller adults in the middle and smaller kids on each side.

How realistically will the tent be used? This one is important for all gear buying purchases, because really, if you aren’t going to use your tent very often, or only close to home or for short trips, you shouldn’t invest in a tent in the same way that makes sense if you are using it often and for long trips where tent failure can ruin a trip. A less expensive tent may suit your needs.

Once you know how you will use a tent, you will be well on your way on how to choose the perfect tent for you, not the car-camping, Girl Scout troop leader with 18 cupholders in her minivan.

The point being, tents come in all shapes and sizes and prices. And there isn’t just one perfect tent for all persons and all occassions.

After considering all these things, here’s a few other things to think about when tent shopping:

  • Is the floor’s waterproof nylon material seamless and continue up the sides of the tent for 4-6 inches? Seams right at the edge are a good place for water to get in, so you want to make sure that the floor extends up a ways.
  • Does the tent close up tight, to keep out bugs and rain; while still having options for ventilation?
  • Do the zippers slide smoothly without catching on anything? Sticky zippers are a good way to get holes in tents, particular in the bug netting.
  • For larger tents, is there more than one door?
  • Does it have a footprint and decent stakes?
  • Okay, now you can think about hooks and pockets.

One final, but important, consideration: Does the set up make sense to you intrinsically? In other words, can you look at the tent and see how it is supposed to go together, or not? My father has a tent that gets me every time. It’s this round dome-shaped tent with a door and a window. But, for some reason—perhaps it is th the similarity between the door and window or the circle shape of the fly—nearly every time I set the darn thing up, I have the door of the fly lined up with the window of the tent. Arghhh. Of course, this might be a personal problem on my part, but I have generally found if a tent doesn’t make sense intrinsically, then there is a high probablility that it will be a problem when it is cold, rainy, and dark.

I’m not selling tents or promoting any gear here, but for anyone curious about what the green tent of “Girl in a Green Tent” is: It’s a Bibler Awahnee Tent, now sold and manufactured under the Black Diamond brand. It’s not cheap, retails around $650. At around 5 pounds, it’s not the lightest tent. You can sit (but not stand) in it. To us, sitting is more important. It allows you to change in the tent and if you get socked in on a mountain, you might be hunkered down for awhile. It is a rock-solid, dependable, rugged, all-season tent that comfortably sleeps two adults. Single-walled, it never lets the rain in, even if there’s a puddle outside or under the tent. You can even climb in and set it up from the inside, in a rain storm. Its large side door makes ingress and egress easy, especially for middle of the night bladder runs. And it is versatile enough to handle the diverse kinds of camping we do. We’ve used it multiple times a year for over a decade, including on long trips, so for us, the use justified the cost. Oh, and while it has pockets, it does not have hooks. I’ve just used its internal poles instead.

Leave a Reply