Whether you're backpacking deep into the wilderness or car camping with your family, a tent is the ultimate portable shelter. Your tent will not only provide protection from the elements and keep out the bugs, it can also make you feel more at home in the great outdoors. With so many different brands, models and sizes to choose from, picking a tent can be a little daunting. Obviously you don’t want to overspend on features you don’t need. On the other hand, you don’t want to end up with something that won’t meet your needs.
Buying a new tent is a big investment, but if you take proper care of your investment, it should last for many years. In this tent guide, we’ll cover every angle to help you make an informed choice. Also, in the final section, we’ll provide a bevy of helpful tips and resources to help you maintain your new tent and prevent possible issues before they start.
Just like a lot of outdoor equipment, tents come in many styles and sizes. In this section, we’ll break them all down and explain the key elements of each.
Designed to be used during spring, summer and fall, three-season tents are the most popular and widely available style. Three-season tents are lightweight and built to hold up against windy and rainy conditions. Although they’re not designed to handle a significant amount of snow, most can manage a few inches without a problem.
Robust four-season tents are designed to withstand year-round conditions. This type of tent typically has additional poles that strengthen the tent walls, making them more resilient to strong winds, torrential rains and heavy snow. Four-season canopies have less mesh, allowing them to retain more warmth. Most are built using a dome design, which prevents snow from accumulating and reduces the chances of a collapse. Because they’re built sturdier, this type of tent will typically be heavier than a comparably sized three-season tent.
Some four-season tents can be converted to three-season mode by omitting additional poles and panels. Although they’re slightly less robust than true four-season tents, convertible tents are still a great option for people who enjoy camping year round.
Tents that don’t require the use of ropes or stakes for support are considered freestanding. Dome tents are the most common example.
The classic A-frame style tent has been around for hundreds of years. A-frame tents are typically fast and easy to set up. However, the shape is more prone to buckling in high winds, which is why the dome tent has become a much more popular alternative.
This modern, free-standing tent design uses flexible, segmented poles to maintain structural integrity. Dome tents are characterized by their rounded, dome-shaped canopy, which enables them to withstand heavier winds. Dome tents also offer more interior space than a comparably sized A-frame tent.
A double-wall tent combines a canopy and separate waterproof rainfly. The ventilated canopy allows moisture vapor to escape, preventing excess condensation from forming inside the tent. The external fly blocks wind, rain and snow. There is usually a gap between the canopy and fly, which allows fresh air to circulate. Most three-season dome tents are made using a double-wall design.
Rather than combining a vented canopy and separate rain fly, single-wall tents are constructed using a single layer of waterproof breathable material. Single-wall dome tents are lighter and more compact than double-wall dome tents. For this reason, single-wall tents are primarily used for setting up alpine base camps, when minimizing weight and bulk is extremely important. However, moisture and heat may cause more condensation buildup in a single-wall tent.
Large canvas tents that are designed for extended trips are called wall tents or outfitter tents. Unlike a dome tent, outfitter tents are not freestanding, and require a combination of large poles, stakes and rope to remain upright. Outfitter tents are heavy, bulky and take longer to setup. However, they offer ample interior space, and some canvas wall tents can even accommodate a portable wood stove.
Lightweight, warm-weather tents are designed primarily for ventilation and insect protection, rather than protection from harsh weather. This style of tent will have a canopy made almost entirely of mesh, which makes it ideal for hot and humid conditions. A rain fly may or may not be included.
These tents are designed to accommodate large groups of people. Some have multiple, divided rooms. High-occupancy base camp tents can be used in the backcountry and other remote locations, as long as group members are able to split the weight. Large, family-sized tents are generally intended for car camping only, since they can be quite heavy and bulky.
A bivouac or bivy sack is essentially a waterproof breathable sleeve designed to slip over a sleeping bag and pad, providing extra protection from wind, rain and snow. Unlike a tent, most bivy sacks do not have a pole structure and don’t leave any additional room inside for gear. However, some models do include a single pole that arcs over the user’s face, providing a little additional head room.
Designed to provide limited protection from the elements, a lightweight shelter does not have walls and typically has a detached footprint or no floor at all. Minimalist shelters designed for the backcountry are essentially rain flies that can be setup with trekking poles, stakes and guy lines, similar to an A-frame. Some shelters can also be strung between two trees. Sun shelters are designed to provide shade, and are usually not intended for overnight camping.
When you’re reading the description of a tent online, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the features. In this section we’ll explain every potential feature and spec you might encounter on our website.
The type of fabric used in the construction of the canopy, floor and rainfly is detailed in the specs tab. Typically, the canopy is made of ripstop nylon, polyester or mesh. The floor and rainfly are usually made of nylon taffeta or polyester.
All tents have at least one door. Tents that accommodate multiple occupants may also have a second door at the rear. Having two doors can be a nice feature, allowing you to store gear just outside one door and use the other for entry and exit.
External guy points are reinforced loops stitched to the outside of a tent’s wall or rainfly. These will allow you to attach guy lines, which are usually included.
Adjustable guy lines are strong cords that help anchor the tent to the ground and keep the canopy or rainfly taut. Guy lines prevent sagging and make the tent better able to shed rain and snow. Guy lines also add stability during high winds.
Floor area is a measurement of the square footage within a tent's interior.
Floor dimensions are measured in inches. The first dimension is length, followed by width. For example, a tent is listed as 100x70" is 100 inches from head to foot and 70 inches at its widest point.
Generally, the more poles a tent has, the more stability it will provide. However, depending on the shape, some dome tents are quite stable with only two poles. Four-season tents and mountaineering tents designed to withstand extreme weather typically have more poles than three-season tents.
Measured in inches, this is the size of your folded and rolled tent when it's stored inside the stuff sack. A measurement of 10x24" means that the tent's packed size is 10" in diameter and is 24" long.
This measurement refers to the total weight of the entire tent, including canopy, fly, poles, guy lines, stakes (if included) and storage bags.
This is a measurement of how much head room you’ll have in the center of your tent. Most dome tents designed for two to four people have a peak height between 42 and 48 inches. Some family and basecamp tents may be tall enough to stand up in.
Capacity determines how many people can “comfortably” sleep inside a tent. Be aware that most tent manufacturers leave very little additional gear space inside a tent at full capacity. If you plan on leaving any gear inside your tent, you may prefer the next size up. A three-person tent will accommodate two people comfortably with extra space for gear. Of course, that three-person tent will also weigh slightly more than a two-person tent of the same model. If the tent you are considering has a vestibule for additional gear storage, you may not need the extra room inside.
A vestibule is a covered area outside the main body of a tent that can be used for storage. In a double-wall tent, the vestibule is usually part of the rain fly, and therefore may not have a floor. However, it’s still a very handy space to keep backpacks and other items without taking up room inside the tent. Some tents even have two vestibules. Vestibule area is measured in square feet.
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After learning about the different types of tents and features, don’t worry if you’re still not sure what to get. In this section, we’ll cover all of the questions you should ask yourself to help you choose something that will meet your needs.
Tent poles usually connect to a tent in one of two ways: clips or sleeves. Each has pros and cons.
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After you buy a new tent, there are a few things you should know that can help your tent last longer and make your life easier in the great outdoors.
When a tent is stitched together, the sewing process creates thousands of tiny needle holes along the seams. If these holes are left unsealed, water can seep through and create a puddle in your tent. Depending on the brand, some tents may be sealed or taped at the factory. Others may only have taped seams on the fly and floor. Some are not sealed or taped whatsoever.
Unpack your new tent, and take a look at the interior seams. If they’ve been sealed, you’ll notice a clear layer of dried adhesive over the stitches. If they’ve been taped, you’ll notice a clear tape bonded to the seams. Be aware that taped seams are not as waterproof as sealed seams. If your tent seams are taped, it’s still a good idea to use a urethane sealer on the exterior seams for extra protection. If your tent isn’t sealed or taped at all, you’ll definitely want to seal it yourself.
At this point, you're probably wondering why anyone would pay good money for a tent that isn’t sealed. Well, some manufactures consider sealing an extra step, and only essential for extreme weather. Sealing your tent’s seams can be a hassle, but if you ever find yourself tucked inside your tent during a downpour, you’ll be glad you took the extra steps.
Some tent manufacturers provide a kit, which includes a tube of urethane sealant, an applicator and a small brush. If not, you can pick these up yourself online. Seam Grip by Gear Aid is a popular option. When you apply the sealer, be sure to overlap both sides of the seam by a few millimeters. Be thorough, and your sealant should last for several seasons.
Tip: To avoid globs of sealant on your new tent, pick up a precision syringe applicator with a curved plastic tip. These are available at most hobby stores in the model-building section, or online.
There two reasons why you should always stake down your tent: 1) Stakes will prevent your tent from blowing away in high winds and getting damaged. 2) Staking your tent and guy lines will prevent sagging, and a saggy tent is more likely to leak.
Properly securing your tent’s guy lines will eliminate sagging and make your tent more resistant to wind and weather. Tethering your rainfly with guy lines will keep it from laying against the canopy.
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Before setting up your tent, look for an even, level piece of terrain free of protruding tree roots and large rocks. Next, remove any smaller rocks, sticks, pinecones and other debris. Remember to bring a tarp or footprint, and place that down first. It’s usually best to avoid pitching directly under a tree, since a falling branch or dripping sap could damage your tent.
Tip: If you plan on sleeping in past sunrise, position your tent west of any trees. This will give you a little extra shade in the morning.
Over time, some damage is unavoidable. Holes and tears can be repaired in the field using adhesive repair tape or a tent repair kit. Most tents don’t come with a repair kit, so you may need to make your own. Here are a few other things to consider:
If your tent is dirty, muddy or dusty, it’s important to clean it before putting it back into storage.
Never put your tent away if it’s wet or dirty. Once your tent is clean, take the following steps before storage:
That’s it! Thanks for checking out our tent guide. We hope you found the information you needed. Have fun on your next adventure, and be sure to check out our other guides for more great info on having fun and staying safe in the great outdoors.