How to Choose a Tent – Complete Guide

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Choosing a tent can feel like a daunting task. A good fit for one person might cause misery for another, simply because of a change in season or a difference in environment. So, before you hit “Buy Now” on the highest rated tent on Amazon, I urge you to stop for a moment and consider your needs.

What style of camping are you going to do? Are you only camping during the summer? How many people will be sharing the tent with you?

These are just a few of the questions you should be asking yourself. But don’t worry; we’ll be walking through all of these and more as I share with you the complete guide on how to choose a tent.

Key Takeaways:

  • Consider Your Needs: Identify the purpose (camping, hiking, festivals) to choose the right type of tent.
  • Capacity Matters: Pick a tent size slightly larger than your group to accommodate gear and provide comfort.
  • Seasonal Suitability: Select a tent designed for the seasons you’ll be camping in (three-season, four-season, etc.).
  • Weight Conscious: Balance durability with weight—lighter tents for backpacking, sturdier for car camping.
  • Ease of Setup: Look for tents with straightforward setups, especially if you’re a solo camper.
  • Weather Resistance: Check the rainfly quality and ventilation for protection against different weather conditions.
  • Durability and Materials: Consider material features (like denier) for the tent body, and go with aluminum or steel poles when you can.
  • Budget Considerations: Find a tent that meets your requirements without breaking the bank.

Style of Camping

man in gray jacket standing next to a blue tent

Before you even start looking at tents, you need to figure out what style of camping you’ll be doing. Are you going backpacking, car camping, or taking the whole family on an adventure? Pitching a tent in the truck bed? Setting up for a weekend of glamping?

Different types of camping call for different tent features, so let’s dive into some details.

If you’re into backpacking, portability is key. Look for a lightweight tent that’s durable and weather-resistant. The MSR Hubba Hubba is one of my favorite options when backpacking. With a weight of 3.25 pounds, a freestanding design, and two doors with two vestibules, I prefer it over something “ultralight,” like the Big Agnes Tiger Wall.

Author’s Note: If you don’t mind carrying a (slightly) heavier tent, my go-to for backpacking is the REI Co-Op Half Dome 3+ person tent. It’s a good size for me and my wife to stretch out inside, while maximizing headroom and gear storage.

For car camping, you should prioritize comfort and space over other features. There’s no need to worry as much about the tent’s weight, so consider one with more room and extra amenities. A family tent like the REI Co-Op Skyward 6 is a phenomenal option for car camping. With a 15.5 pound weight and a cabin-style design, it provides plenty of internal space and a large vestibule for a more luxurious camping experience.

But, if you’re not interested in purchasing a $400 tent, Coleman has a few good options for car camping as well. Just take a look at the Coleman Evanston or Steel Creek for ideas.

canvas tent in a forest in maine

Along the same line of thought, you may also consider glamping, which is almost like an enhanced version of car camping. Focused on luxury, a glamping setup will often feel like a replica of your home bedroom, sporting some combination of a real bed, a dresser, rugs, and seating. Nowadays, glamping tents are almost exclusively made out of canvas, thanks to the durability and waterproof nature of the material.

Author’s Note: My favorite tent for glamping is the White Duck Regatta. I’ve used it all over the USA, including states like Minnesota, Maine, Colorado, and Utah, and I’ve never had a single complaint. Not only is it strong and reliable, but it’s also easy enough to set up by yourself. Check out my full review on it here!

You’ve also got tents designed for camping in your car, whether that’s in the bed of a truck or on top of the vehicle. If you have a truck, getting a truck tent can be a fun way to gain some elevation and get off the hard ground. If you don’t have a truck, but you still want that elevation, there are plenty of SUV shelters that attach to a roof rack. Just be aware that these are often quite heavy, expensive, and difficult to put together by yourself.

Seasonality

canvas tent in the winter among trees

Most people (myself included) like to camp during the warmer months, for obvious reasons. However, my true preference is alpine camping, where the days are warm and the nights are cool – almost too cool.

And that’s why the seasonality of your tent is an important factor to consider. Seasonality refers to the tent’s ability to handle varied weather conditions and temperatures throughout the year. You’ll often find tents classified by season, including 3-season tents, extended season tents, 4-season tents, and mountaineering tents. There are 1 and 2 season tents out there as well, but they’re so rare, we won’t cover them in more detail here.

3-Season tents are lightweight, versatile, and designed for usage during spring, summer, and fall. They typically offer good ventilation due to a wide array of mesh panels, making them ideal for camping in mild to moderate weather conditions. However, the extensive use of mesh makes them a poor choice for colder temperatures, due to the lack of insulation.

Author’s Note: Once in awhile, you’ll come across an “extended season tent.” They’re built to handle light snow and colder temperatures, but they can work in warmer climates too, as long as it’s not too hot.

Typically, these tents feature additional poles for stability and improved weather resistance. Throw in the fact that they still have a strong focus on ventilation, and you’ve got yourself a tent that works especially well for late fall and early spring camping.

4-Season tents are created to withstand harsh winter conditions and higher altitudes. They’re tougher, heavier, and boast lower ventilation than 3-season ones – a good thing, when it comes to winter camping. They also have a more robust construction, usually sporting reinforced poles and snow skirts for added durability. Keep in mind, though, they’ll almost certainly feel too stuffy for midsummer camping.

Mountaineering tents are top-of-the-line tents for those who venture into the most extreme conditions. You’ll occasionally hear them referred to as “5-season tents,” and they offer the best protection in high-altitude, high-wind, and heavy snowfall scenarios. Mountaineering tents are an investment, so they might not be suitable for casual campers but rather those planning expeditions in extreme environments.

The Bottom Line

So, how do you know where to start? My recommendation is to carefully consider what season, climate, and overall environment you’re likely to camp in.

If you predominantly camp in the summer months, a 3-season tent should be perfect for you. However, if you love camping in colder weather or plan to camp at high altitudes, investing in a 4-season tent or a mountaineering tent could be essential. Still, I use my 3-season tent in the mountains all the time, so it really depends on the location and time of year you’ll be camping.

My general advice is to go with a 3-season tent; it’s what will be most suitable for 95% of you. And on the off chance that you need something a little warmer, there are ways to insulate a 3-season tent, as opposed to buying a 4-season shelter.

Size

multiple tents spread out on the grass

The next step in learning how to choose a tent is to consider the size you’ll need. The first thing I consider is the number of people I plan to accommodate, including their gear (and pets, depending on circumstances). It’s good to think about how much interior and exterior space will give the optimal level of livability, space, and comfort.

Different tent sizes offer different advantages and disadvantages. For example, a 1-person tent is lightweight and easy to carry, but it offers minimal interior space. On the other hand, a larger 8-person tent provides ample room for a group or family but can be heavy and challenging to set up.

Measuring your sleeping pad or mattress and comparing it to the floor area of a tent can help you confirm that you have enough space for a comfortable sleep. Most tents have their square footage listed in product descriptions that you can find online, so if you know the size of your sleeping gear, you can easily figure out how well it will fit in a certain tent.

Certain tent shapes, like cabin tents, will also provide more vertical space compared to their dome shape counterparts. I’ll talk more about shape a little further into the article.

Author’s Note: When talking about tent size, it’s worth noting that these shelters are generally smaller than advertised. For example, a 3 person tent is more suitable for housing 2 people, a 6 person tent is a good choice for 4-5 people, etc.

Weight

For some styles of camping, like backpacking, the weight of a tent becomes a more prominent concern. If you’re carrying your shelter long distances, it’s no fun to be overly burdened by something excessively heavy.

There are various weight ranges when it comes to tents, with advantages and disadvantages to each. Ultralight tents are minimalist and weigh as little as possible, often around 0.9-1.5 pounds per person. These are perfect for backpacking, where the amount of weight you’re carrying plays a critical role during the trip.

Lightweight tents, weighing between 1.8-2.5 pounds per person, are versatile and suitable for both backpacking and car camping. Lastly, heavier tents prioritize comfort, durability, and larger living spaces at the expense of increased weight, making them better for car camping or base camp situations.

To choose the right tent weight for your trip, consider your preferred mode of camping and the distance you’ll be traveling. If you’re hiking or biking long distances, a lightweight tent is essential to minimize fatigue. If you’re car camping and not worried about carrying the tent long distances, I’d recommend opting for a heavier tent geared more toward comfort.

Weatherproofing

mesh tent with blue rainfly in a forest

Rain, snow, wind, heat, cold, humidity… These are just a few of the potential weather conditions you can expect to face while camping. So when you’re choosing a tent, you’ll need to make sure it’s got your back when it comes to weather resistance.

One factor to consider is the tent’s design, such as single-wall vs. double-wall construction. They look exactly like the names imply: single-wall tents only have one layer of material comprising the tent body. Double-wall tents are made up of a mesh body, along with a rainfly tossed over the top.

As you might expect, single-wall tents are typically lighter and offer excellent weather protection but can suffer from condensation issues in humid conditions. Double-wall tents provide better ventilation, reducing condensation, but they’re often heavier.

Next, consider the tent’s fabric and waterproofing features. Waterproof and water-resistant fabrics prevent moisture from soaking through, but high durability may come at the expense of added weight. Still, it’s a worthy tradeoff. Even if the tent is a few ounces heavier, you’ll be glad you went for something completely waterproof when a storm rolls through.

Next, it’s crucial to pay attention to seam treatments. Seams can be a weak point for water ingress, since it’s a gap where the material was synthetically closed. Consider tents with seam sealing, seam tape, or no-seam options to improve your odds in rough weather.

Author’s Note: If you decide to go with a double-wall tent (the most commonly used choice), don’t forget to examine the rainfly. Full-coverage rainflies give the most protection, while partial-coverage options may provide more ventilation but less shelter from the elements.

Lastly, test the weatherproofing on your tent before you take it out for the first time. If you have a yard, set it up there and spray it with the garden hose until it’s fully soaked. No water inside? You’re good to go.

If there is water inside, you can usually pinpoint where it came in from, and take measures to reinforce that area against future leaks. I suggest applying seam sealer or waterproof spray to vulnerable areas, and storing it properly to ensure longevity and reliable protection from the elements.

Tent Shape

four different tent shapes and styles

Tents come in all different shapes and sizes. It’s hard to say that any one is better than another because, frankly, it’s like comparing apples to oranges. A tent that works great for a certain environment won’t necessarily work well in another. So when it comes to choosing a tent, consider how the shape will affect the interior space, stability, and aerodynamics of the shelter.

Here are some of the more popular tent shapes, along with their pros and cons.

Dome tents are simple, relatively spacious, and stable. They offer decent headroom, they’re easy to set up, and their curved design makes them more resistant to strong winds. Dome tents are perfect for beginner campers and those looking for a versatile design for various weather conditions.

Cabin tents have vertical walls, providing significantly more usable interior space than dome tents. They’re an ideal choice for family camping, though they tend to be heavy, bulky, and the straight walls act as wind-catchers.

Geodesic and Semi-Geodesic tents are a more advanced version of dome tents. Their interconnected pole structure provides extra stability, making them suitable for harsh weather conditions and rough terrains. However, they can be more challenging to pitch and might be a bit more expensive, so you’ll only really see them used as 4-season tents.

Author’s Note: I’m going to give hammock tents a quick cameo here, because in my opinion, they’re still a type of tent. Though they’re small, and mostly designed for single person use, hammock tents are ideal of lightweight backpacking. They’re also a fun way to get off the ground, away from rocks, roots, animals, and water.

Tunnel tents are long, narrow, and easy to pitch. They typically offer a lot of interior space and good headroom. However, their shape provides less stability and ventilation compared to other tent designs. They’re not a very common style of tent, but they can work well for families or groups who need more living space.

Ridge tents are simple, traditional, and usually have a triangular shape. They offer good stability and wind resistance but may have less headroom and floor space compared to other designs. Ridge tents are suitable for those looking for a classic camping experience.

There are more tent shapes to speak of, but these are going to be the most common. Regardless of what shape you choose, it will only work well if it’s tailored to your personal preferences and camping needs. So, take your time, weigh the pros and cons of each design, and find the one that suits you best.

Tent Materials

I think it goes without saying that the material of your tent should be an important consideration. I own a few tents, some made out of synthetics, others made out of canvas, and let me tell you… Their individual performance varies drastically.

Synthetic Fabrics

side of a tent with condensation buildup on the mesh

Most tents nowadays are made from synthetic fabrics like polyester or nylon. These materials are lightweight, water-resistant, and relatively easy to care for, which is why they’re so popular. The thickness of these materials (or any material, in general) is measured in denier (D), and higher denier values indicate more durable fabrics. Generally, polyester tends to be a bit heavier and more water-resistant than nylon, while nylon is lighter and more breathable. On top of that, UV exposure can degrade nylon fabric faster than polyester, so I tend to lean more toward polyester.

Canvas

man in hat and sunglasses sitting in a canvas tent

Canvas tents, typically made from cotton, have been around for ages. If your grandparents went camping, this is probably the tent material that they used, since synthetic materials weren’t widely used until the 1960s.

The main advantage of canvas is its breathability, which helps reduce condensation and increases comfort in humid conditions. Canvas is also known for being robust and long-lasting; however, it does tend to be heavier and bulkier than its synthetic counterparts. So you’re interested in backpacking, you’ll want to steer clear of this material.

In bad weather, cotton canvas will absorb water whereas synthetic tent materials repel it. This isn’t a bad thing, since the absorbed water will eventually cause the cotton fibers to swell, making the tent more water-resistant over time. Nonetheless, canvas tents generally require additional treatment for adequate water resistance, such as waxing or applying a water repellent coating.

Poles

orange and black tent poles tent on ground grass autumn leaves

Now, let’s talk about tent poles. These are what provide structure and stability to your tent, ensuring it remains sturdy in various weather conditions. Overall, you’ve got three choices when it comes to material: aluminum, fiberglass, or steel. Each one has its advantages and drawbacks, so let’s go ahead and explore them individually:

Aluminum poles are known for their strength, durability, and lightweight nature. They have become the go-to choice for many backpackers and campers due to their flexibility and rigidity. They’re my personal favorite pole type, because they work well in strong winds and can withstand a fair amount of stress without bending or breaking. That being said, they can be a tad expensive, which is why many casual campers will often opt for the next material in our list.

Fiberglass poles are popular due to their cost-effectiveness and flexibility, which appeal to many campers (especially those on a tight budget). However, compared to aluminum poles, fiberglass poles are generally less durable and may be prone to cracking or shattering, especially in cold weather or under heavy loads. They’ve my least favorite poles for that reason (fiberglass splinters are terrible), though I do recognize that they have their place in the camping world.

Steel poles offer the advantage of being incredibly sturdy and durable. They’re the heaviest of the three options, but they can handle snow loads and high winds better than anything else. You’ll often find them in large, family-sized shelter or glamping tents, since the weight of the fabric and strain from the wind would likely snap any other pole type. That being said, there’s no way around it: you can’t backpacking with steel. But for car camping and glamping, there’s nothing better.

Structure and Setup

tent poles hubbed orange and black

When choosing a tent, it’s important to consider the pole structure. The pole configuration greatly impacts the tent’s shape, complexity, ease of setup, stability, strength, weight, and cost (just a few things, right?), so let me walk you through different types of pole structures and their characteristics.

Single-pole tents are lightweight and easy to set up, but they have limited headroom and stability. Just imagine a tent with a single pole that supports the tent’s center, acting as a sort of “spine,” and you’ve got the right idea. You’ll only find these used among solo backpackers, for obvious reasons.

Double-pole and cross-pole tents offer more stability and headroom compared to single-pole designs. These configurations use two poles that cross each other, forming an “X” or “T” shape. More robust and capable of withstanding harsher weather conditions, these are a much more common style for car campers and backpackers alike.

Hubbed-pole tents have interconnected poles that create multiple intersections for extra strength and stability. While these tents offer increased headroom, they tend to be heavier and more challenging to set up. That being said, these models usually have more spacious interiors, making them ideal for family camping trips. The REI Co-Op Half Dome 3+ tent is one of my favorite hubbed pole tents, and goes up in a breeze once you get the hang of it.

Author’s Note: Though not as common, you’ll come across ridge-pole and hoop-pole tents from time to time. Ridge-pole tents require two poles that run parallel along the tent’s length, while hoop-pole tents consist of curved poles that create a more rounded shape. Both styles offer excellent strength and can withstand challenging weather.

Before assembling your tent, I can’t stress enough how important it is to make sure to follow the instructions provided. This is especially true if you don’t have much experience setting a tent up. To help you out, most shelters have color-coded poles that make the process easier and less confusing. As long as you match the pole ends with the correct grommets, you’ll be able to create a solid structure in no time.

Clips

orange clips on a tent pole in a field

It might sound cheesy, but when I’m setting up my tent, one crucial aspect I pay attention to is the tent clips. These small but mighty components ensure proper attachment and tension of the tent fabric to the poles, but let’s be honest… They’re one of the first things to break, if you aren’t careful.

Now, different types of tent clips do exist, which mainly include plastic, metal, or hook-and-loop clips. Plastic clips are quite easy to snap on and off, but they can be prone to breaking or cracking over time. On the other hand, hook-and-loop clips offer easy adjustment and a secure grip but may snag or wear out faster.

Occasionally, you’ll find metal clips that tend to be more durable than their plastic counterparts, but they can be heavier and may cause corrosion if not cared for properly. The pros and cons usually lean in favor of the plastic clips, as long as you take care of them properly.

Now, let’s talk about using your tent clips effectively. To begin with, always make sure you align your clips with the poles. Avoid using excessive force or twisting, as it might damage both the clips and the poles. It’s also a good idea to check for any loose or missing clips before you pack up your tent; this can prevent compromised stability or ventilation issues the next time you go camping.

Grommets

tent pole going into a grommet on grass

Grommets are small holes that help secure the tent poles and provide tension for stability. There are different types of grommets, such as metal or plastic, and as you might expect, each has its own set of pros and cons.

Metal grommets are known for their strength, security, and long-lasting durability. However, they’re also on the heavier side, sharp, and can be prone to rust. That being said, if having a solid tent foundation is my top priority, I won’t shy away from metal grommets – in fact, they’re what I go with most often.

On the other hand, plastic grommets are lightweight, smooth, and rust-proof, making them a popular choice. But keep in mind that they might not be as durable, since plastic can be weak, brittle, and prone to cracking. For lightweight camping adventures and shorter trips, plastic grommets could be the way to go, but for the most part, I’d stick with metal.

Now, how do I best use these grommets? First and foremost, I always insert the tent poles carefully to avoid unnecessary force or friction. This not only helps protect the grommets but also extends the lifespan of your tent poles as well. If I notice any damaged or worn grommets, I’ll usually make a note to replace them as soon as I can.

Doors

open door on a tent in the field

Never underestimate the power of a good (or bad) tent door. For better or for worse, this is the part of a tent that greatly affects accessibility, ventilation, and privacy – all of which are directly connected to your overall sense of comfort.

To start, there are a couple of different door shapes and sizes to consider. A larger, D-shaped door (like you see in the image above) can make entering and exiting your tent much easier while also providing ample space for gear. However, the tradeoff is having less privacy, unless you want to stay covered up with the rainfly. On the other hand, smaller, T-shaped doors offer more privacy, while being slightly more difficult to enter and exit.

And then you’ve got the number of doors to think about. Tents with only one door might be lighter in weight and more straightforward, but it could be less convenient, especially when sharing a living space with others. The person sleeping farthest away from the door will have to crawl over everyone else to escape for a bathroom break, which isn’t ideal for anyone. That’s why I recommend tents with two doors; not only do they allow for easier access, but they also provide better ventilation and additional options for entry and exit.

Zippers

zipper on a tent door

Few things frustrate me more than a zipper that’s constantly snagging. I know most of my fellow campers out there feel the same way, which is why I wanted to talk about these painful (but necessary) tent features.

First, let’s cover coil zippers. These zippers are known for their smoothness, flexibility, and quiet operation, which is why they’re the most common option for camping tents. However, they do have some downsides, such as being weak and prone to jamming.

On the other hand, tooth zippers are strong, durable, and resistant to dirt, so you’ll find them on most glamping/canvas tents. But keep in mind, they can be noisy and prone to snagging. Some tents also come with waterproof zippers, which provide an added layer of protection against the elements.

Regardless of the type of zipper you end up with, it’s important to perform regular maintenance. For example, you’ll want to keep your zipper lubricated to ensure smooth operation, usually by rubbing the length of the zipper with soap or wax.

Also, make sure to clean your zipper regularly with a brush or cloth to remove dirt and debris that may cause it to jam or snag. Should you experience any issues with your zipper, don’t worry! You can usually repair it with a zipper repair kit or pliers.

Rainfly

man putting a blue rainfly on a tent

A rainfly is an essential part of a tent, as it provides both weather protection and ventilation. To put it simply, a rainfly is a waterproof cover that goes over your tent to shield it (and its occupants) from the elements. The type of rainfly you choose can greatly impact the overall comfort and dryness of your camping experience, since it acts as the first line of defense between you and nature.

There are two main types of rainflies: full-coverage and partial-coverage. As their names imply, full-coverage rainflies cover the entire tent, providing the highest level of weather protection. On the other hand, partial-coverage rainflies don’t completely cover the tent, leaving some areas exposed to the elements. This allows for better airflow and ventilation, but it can also mean less water and wind resistance.

That being said, when it comes to water resistance, full-coverage rainflies are the clear winner. They’ll keep your tent and its contents dry, even in heavy rain, which is why I’d recommend going with this option 98% of the time. Partial-coverage rainflies are more suitable for light or occasional rain since they don’t offer the same level of protection. In gusty or windy conditions, full-coverage rainflies also hold up better thanks to their superior wind resistance.

In terms of ventilation, partial-coverage rainflies have the edge. Their design lets air circulate more freely, preventing stuffiness and condensation inside the tent. Full-coverage rainflies might offer better protection from the elements, but they can sometimes feel stuffier due to decreased airflow. On the plus side, full-coverage rainflies can provide better insulation in colder weather.

Ventilation

blue tent ventilation opening

Ventilation isn’t just about keeping your tent cool – it’s about maintaining proper airflow, temperature, and condensation levels inside your tent. Without it, the moisture from your breath will condense on the roof of your shelter, eventually forming droplets large enough to fall on your body. Not to mention, without good airflow, the air inside the tent will grow stagnant very quickly.

So, how can you achieve a proper level of ventilation? Mesh panels are a good place to start, offering high airflow and good condensation control, though you’ll notice a lack of insulation and privacy. On the other hand, vents provide better insulation and privacy, but they have lower airflow and higher condensation levels. My recommendation is to get a tent with both mesh and vents – if you want more privacy, just toss the rainfly on. You can still keep the vents open even with the rainfly.

To improve tent ventilation further, I often adjust the rainfly and open some doors and windows to get a nice cross-breeze. My camping fan has been a lifesaver more times than I can count as well, providing even more airflow on those really hot days.

Vestibules

blue tent vestibule on a tent on grass

I have to say that one of the most overlooked features to consider when choosing a tent is the vestibule. Campers think about weather protection, they think about how easy it will be to set a tent up, and they think about overall space and comfort, but they rarely consider storage. Especially outdoor storage.

A vestibule is an extension of your tent, providing extra space and shelter for your gear and shoes. There are a few varieties that you might come across, such as the front, side, and garage vestibules. 

Front vestibules are easy to access but might block the entrance of your tent. On the other hand, side vestibules extend from either side of the tent, usually providing more room and multiple access points. And then you have garage vestibules, which are larger – often large enough to fit bikes or chairs – but they add extra weight and bulk to your tent setup.

Author’s Note: Having trouble deciding on a tent vestibule? Start by determining your priority: quick access, privacy, or gear storage. For quick access, you’ll want a front vestibule; for privacy, you’ll want a side vestibule; for storing lots of gear, a garage vestibule is the way to go.

Now that you’ve chosen your ideal vestibule, it’s important to know how to make the most out of the space provided. To keep it clean and dry, I suggest storing wet gear near the front, away from the tent entrance. This allows for better ventilation and helps maintain a dry and comfortable living space inside the tent.

Another tip I’ve found useful is to organize your gear by category in the vestibule. For instance, group your cooking supplies together and keep camping chairs in another area. This way, you can easily locate the items you need without rummaging through your belongings.

Internal Storage

phone in a mesh pocket in a tent

Now that we’ve talked about external storage, let’s get into internal storage. It’s an essential factor that affects the organization and accessibility of your gear and belongings inside the tent.

Pockets are small, easy to reach, and convenient for holding essentials like a flashlight or phone. However, they usually have limited space and visibility. In contrast, shelves, lofts, or hooks offer more room but may be harder to reach (and there’s a chance that they’ll be unstable).

To make the most out of your tent storage system, I’d recommend sorting your items by size, frequency of access, and priority. Organize small items in zippered bags or containers, and keep valuable belongings secure and within reach as much as possible.

For me, I like to use the loop hanging from the center of my tent to mount my camping fan/light. The pocket closest to my head is reserved for my phone, wallet, and keys – though I keep my wallet and keys sealed in a Ziploc.

In the pocket closest to my wife’s head, she’ll store a flashlight and bear spray, if we’re in bear country.

Footprint

gray footprint tarp under a tent

No, I’m not talking about the mark you leave in the ground as you walk. A tent footprint is basically a tarp that forms a protective barrier between the tent’s floor and the ground. Its main purpose is to shield the tent from damage caused by rocks, sticks, or other rough surfaces while also providing some added insulation and keeping the tent clean.

A well-chosen footprint can significantly increase the protection and longevity of any tent, which is why I make sure to never leave home without mine. If you’re looking for a broad overview, here are some of the main functions and benefits of using a tent footprint:

  • Preventing abrasion: A footprint can safeguard the floor of a tent from wear and tear caused by rocks, sticks, and other debris. This increases the durability of the tent and helps it last longer.
  • Adding insulation: It also adds an extra layer of insulation between the ground and the tent, which can help keep occupants warm and comfortable.
  • Keeping the tent clean: Using a footprint also helps keep the bottom of a tent clean and dry, making it easier to pack up when it’s time to break camp.

Author’s Note: Sizing is crucial when it comes to finding the right footprint. Hopefully your tent already came with one, but in case it didn’t, you’ll need to buy an all purpose tarp and cut it down to size. The dimensions of the footprint need to fall just shy of the dimension of your tent floor – ideally by an inch on all sides. If the footprint extends past the floor of your tent, it will catch rain water, which may build up and leak into your shelter.

Style of Tent Floor

gray tent floor autumn leaves

There’s more than one type of tent floor? Yep, there are several, including bathtub, flat, raised, or suspended floors, and each has its own pros and cons.

Bathtub floors are made of a thicker, more waterproof material that curves upward into the sides of the inner wall of the tent. This design prevents water from seeping in and offers protection from the damp ground and small insects. However, since this construction cuts into places that would normally have mesh, it can add weight to the tent and might be less breathable than other options.

Flat tent floors are precisely what they sound like – floors that are level with the ground. They are lightweight and easier to set up but may allow water to pool if there’s inadequate drainage. With this type of floor, it’s even more important than usual to make sure your tent is properly pitched.

Raised and suspended floors lift the sleeping area off the ground, offering better protection from dampness, insects, and uneven terrain. If you’re having trouble visualizing it, just imagine a hammock – this is a type of suspended floor, though some people might argue that a hammock isn’t actually a “tent.”

I disagree.

Regardless, this style does have a couple of downsides. For starters, it tends to be more complicated to set up, and it may require additional hardware for installation.

Author’s Note: When deciding on the style of tent floor, you should consider factors such as weather, location, and your personal preferences for comfort. Regardless of which style you choose, they have one thing in common – the need to select and prepare a suitable campsite.

As a rule of thumb, to get the most out of whatever tent floor you choose, take a moment to clear your campsite of any debris before pitching the tent. This includes things like rocks, sticks, and other potential hazards. Then, aim to pitch your tent on level ground, ideally where water won’t collect during heavy rain.

Stakes

black mallet silver stake beaten into the ground

In your pursuit of learning how to choose a tent, you can’t neglect the feature that keeps your shelter from flying away.

Tent stakes.

There are various types of stakes available, made from different materials and sporting different styles. Some common options include aluminum, steel, plastic, and titanium stakes. Here’s a quick comparison to help you decide:

  • Aluminum Stakes: Lightweight, cheap, easy to bend
  • Plastic Stakes: Affordable, definitely not as durable as metal stakes
  • Titanium Stakes: Strong, durable, expensive, hard to bend
  • Steel Stakes: Heavy-duty, suitable for hard or rocky ground

When it comes to using tent stakes, there are some practical tips worth following. Always insert them at a 45-degree angle, pointing away from your tent. This angle helps increase their holding power and ensures your tent stays secure in various weather conditions. Make sure to follow the stake manufacturer’s instructions and drive them into the ground using a mallet (or a rock, if one isn’t available).

Remember to also attach your guylines to the stakes, allowing the tension to be distributed evenly across the tent, providing extra stability during windy conditions.

Author’s Note: As a rule of thumb, the stakes that come with any tent tend to be of poor quality. If you’re serious about camping and you want to use good tent stakes, my best recommendation is to buy your own set, instead of using whatever comes with your tent.

Guylines

guylines extending from a canvas tent

Guylines, or guy lines, are cords/ropes that attach to the tent, providing extra support and stability, particularly in windy conditions. You’ll tie one end of the cord to loops spread around the body of the tent, pulling them taut and staking the other end into the ground.

I often camp in the desert, where the winds really like to pick up at night. Guylines are what give me peace of mind and allow me to sleep comfortably, knowing that my tent isn’t going to collapse under the pressure of the next gust! Of course, the same could be said for any biome that experiences a lot of wind. Alpine camping in particular comes to mind.

When selecting the right number and length of guylines, I keep it simple and refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for my specific tent. Some tents come with guylines, while others may require you to purchase them separately.

In order to use guylines properly and securely, here are some steps you can follow:

  • Attach one end of the guyline to the tent’s “guy out loops,” which are usually found near the corners or along the tent’s walls.
  • Secure the other end of the guyline to a stake, rock, or tree to provide support and tension. I try to angle the guylines at a 45-degree angle to the ground for the best results.
  • Avoid creating tripping hazards by placing the guylines in visible and strategic locations. If they are difficult to see, I use brightly colored guylines or attach reflective markers to make them more noticeable.
  • Periodically check and re-tighten the guylines during your stay to maintain constant stability and prevent sagging.

And there you have it. Long story short, guylines are often overlooked by many campers, but when the weather takes a turn for the worse, you’ll be glad you came prepared.

Ease of Use

I ran a survey recently where I asked campers a number of questions – one of which was “What tent feature do you value most?”

The results are shown in the chart above. Needless to say, I expected the top answer to be something like water resistance, weight, or even price.

Not ease of use.

It makes sense when you think about it, though. Ease of use affects how quickly and efficiently you can set up and take down your temporary home. Backpackers and hikers understand the importance of a tent that’s user-friendly, especially when relocating or dealing with challenging weather conditions.

Overall, the main factors that influence a tent’s ease of use include the pole design, color coding, clips versus sleeves, and whether the tent is freestanding or non-freestanding. Pole design can vary, with some options having more elaborate and intricate systems. Color-coded poles and attachment points make it much simpler to match the correct pieces, speeding up your setup process.

Tents with clips often provide a quicker setup, as you can easily snap them onto the poles, while sleeves require you to thread the poles through fabric tunnels. However, sleeves can provide better stability in windy conditions, so take some time to consider if the tradeoff is worth it for you.

Freestanding tents can be set up without the need for stakes, allowing for more flexibility in campsite selection and an easier pitching process. Non-freestanding tents aren’t quite as user-friendly, and can be a pain to set up in certain weather conditions.

For beginners, or those who don’t camp often, a simple and straightforward tent design with color-coded components will make a camping experience more enjoyable. But if you’re an experienced backpacker or constantly on the move, a tent with increased stability and ease of adjustment may be more beneficial to quickly adapt to diverse terrain and conditions.

Meet the Author!

By the age of 20, Spencer had already tackled some of the most famed mountain ranges in Europe, Asia, and North America. His mission is to help others accomplish their own outdoor-related goals, even within the time constraints of a 9-5 job and a busy life schedule.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *