Choosing the Best Camping Tent – a Complete Guide

In my early days of camping, with far more youth than wisdom, my buddy and I thought it would be fun to camp at a primitive campsite, slightly above 8,000 feet, using nothing more than a simple lean-to for shelter. What a BIG mistake.  I was freezing cold that first night, especially when the wind would blow. Our simple lean-to provided almost no protection from the elements, especially the wind. But we were tired and decided to tough it out. What a long, miserable night that was. The next day we drove to a nearby town and bought a cheapo tent and eventually a good sleeping bag as well – lesson learned. That was the first and last time I went camping without a tent. Now, many years later, I always use the best camping tent I can afford.

The camping tent you choose can really make the whole camping experience so much better and easier. But choosing the best camping tent for your needs can be confusing. There are so many types, sizes, qualities and prices to consider. 4 man tents and larger are a popular choice for family camping. 1 and 2 man tents are great for backpacking.

Making the right choice is going to take a little research. I’ll provide that here, plus lots of personal tips to help you with the buying decision. To get started, we need to first talk about tent designs and the various components of a camping tent. Later, in this article, we’ll look at the three most important questions to ask yourself when shopping for the best camping tent for your needs. And finally, we’ll look at a practical example of selecting a tent.

Modern Tent Designs: sizes, shapes, types

Camping tents come in a variety of sizes, from lightweight one-man backpacking to multi-room cabin style behemoths. With a dazzling array of sizes, shapes and types of tents along with inconsistent usage of terms within the industry, it becomes difficult to put them all into strict categories.

Tent Sizes

When it comes to sleeping capacity or size of tent, most manufactures use terms like 4 person family tent, or 2 man backpacking tent. Use these numbers as a guideline only. You often end up wishing you had more room than what you thought you were getting. That two, three, or four-man rating often feels very tight by the time you add in sleeping bags, mattresses, extra clothing and gear. According to Backpacker Magazine, the average adult person needs about 20 square feet for sleeping comfort plus additional gear. So a four man tent should have about 80 square feet of minimum floor space. But that’s not the whole story. The shape of your tent can have a big impact on roominess as well.

Tent Shapes

The simplest tent is the A-Frame. It’s nothing more than two poles forming two triangles with a rope or rigid pole running down the center – like the old Boy Scout type of tent. The problem with this shape is very little headroom. Yes, you can sleep just fine in it, but will immediately run into the side walls when sitting up. Talk about cramped!

Modified A-Frame is a slightly roomier tent shape. Although rare, this shape does provide more inside headroom by using a half-circle shaped center pole to expand out the sides of the tent.

Hoop (tunnel) tents provide even more interior headroom by using two or more hooped poles to create a tunnel shape enclosure. Strong and lightweight, hoop tents are often used by backpackers.

Dome tents are by far the most common tent available. Their shape provides great headroom with relative ease of setup. Manufacturers achieve the dome shape by using at least two crossed flexible poles. Two pole designs look more like a wedge than a dome. Very often they are made using three flex poles, creating a true dome shape which provides more internal space in all directions. The rounded shape provides lots of extra areas for clothes and gear without cramping your sleeping space.

Cabin tents are the most roomy shape available for camping. Their near vertical walls and boxy shape provide ample room for sleeping, sitting and standing. Cabin tents are great for family camping or for those who really like a lot of standing room. Their heavy weight and larger size rules them out for backpacking though. They are often more complex to pitch (setup) as well.

Tent Types

Tents are categorized by type of recommended use – Car camping vs. Backpacking. Larger dome and cabin tents are intended for car camping. Since you won’t need to hand carry it great distances, weight and size is not much of a consideration. In contrast, if backpacking with a tent, weight and size is very important. Small dome, hoop and even simple A-frame tents are the best choice here.

Tents are also categorized by type of ground support needed – Freestanding vs. Attached. Freestanding tents don’t have to be tied to the ground with guy lines and stakes to remain erect. Most flexible pole tents are freestanding because the poles provide constant outward pressure keeping the walls taught. They are very easy to turn and adjust for best placement or move to another camp site all together. Just pick the whole thing up and go. They can also be turned upside down for cleaning – very convenient. In contrast, cabin and A-frame tents must be first attached to the ground using stakes through built-in loops along its outer floor perimeter. Then additional guy lines are often attached at the roof-line pulling it out keeping the walls from collapsing.

Coleman has a new type of tent called the Instant Tent 4, 6, or 8. The numbers refer to how many persons it will sleep. It’s basically a cabin tent with permanently attached external poles that expand and contract in length and have a pivot in the center of each pole that lock-out to hold the tent walls in place. They claim anyone can have it setup in 1 minute or less. After watching their How-to-videos, I would say they are correct. This is definitely the easiest tent to setup or breakdown I have ever seen. And the largest 8 person model weighs just under 38 pounds.

Tent components

Modern camping tents are made from a variety of strong, but generally lightweight materials. Withstanding the rigors of sunlight, rain, snow, wind and possibly small wild critters (we once had a small chipmunk stuck inside our tent – very funny story) has caused tent makers to come up with some very high-tech tent materials. Here are some you need to know about.

Poles – The frame of a camping tent is made of a series of inter-connecting poles and are available in either rigid or flexible styles. Rigid poles are larger diameter and have tapered ends. Each pole section is designed to fit into another forming a solid, inflexible tent frame. Groups of poles that belong together are usually color coded to help with assembly. In contrast, flexible poles are made of smaller diameter (2-3 foot) sections with joining end sockets and an elastic band, called a shock-cord, that runs through the center of each group of sections. Piecing these together is a no-brainer. Simply align one section to the other and the elastic band pulls them together to form one long pole – no guessing needed. There are four types of materials commonly used for tent poles:

  1. Rigid aluminum steel – These strong, but heavy poles are well suited for large family style cabin tents and shade pop-ups. My first years of family camping were with a rigid aluminum pole 10′ x 13′ cabin tent. Figuring out how to piece together all of the pole sections was often quite a challenge causing plenty of arguments, but added to the whole camping experience for sure.
  2. Fiberglass – This least expensive flexible pole material offers a very good cost-to-weight ratio. However, fiberglass tent poles can shatter if bent too far and sometimes tear the sides of tents. I’ve noticed they become more brittle with age and usage as well.
  3. Aluminum alloy – These flexible, high quality poles offer a great lightweight-to-strength ratio over ordinary fiberglass. The highest grade ones are made from anodized high-strength aircraft aluminum, but come at a steep price. The South Korean company, DAC makes poles for several tent manufacturers. Their Featherlite poles are found in many modern tents, especially backpacking types.
  4. Carbon fiber – The grand daddy of them all, this ultralight material is both strong and flexible. If a backpacking tent is in your future, you should strongly consider carbon fiber tent poles.

A word of caution: The shock cord used on flexible poles can snap the ends of each section together with a lot of force.  Manufactures caution against allowing this to happen (but it’s just so fun to do) and suggest using two hands to gently ease the sections together to avoid damaging the poles.

CanopiesThe shell or canopy of modern tents are made of either cotton canvas or synthetic nylon and polyester fabrics. All tents made or sold in California must be made of flame-retardant material and conform to California’s CPAI-84 specification (which is the most stringent and therefore the one that everybody else uses, too).

Manufactures will often give various ratings regarding the specifications of the fabric used for the canopy, rainfly and floor of their tents. Both Denier (D) and Tex (T) are used to describe the linear mass density of fibers. All you really need to know is the smaller the number, the finer the weave. So numbers like 70D/190T refer to the coarseness of the tent fabric. They often give a rating of “mm” to describe the water resistant qualities of the fabric. The number refers to the amount of water in a one inch column (measured in millimeters), which can be suspended above the fabric before water seeps through. Tent fabrics typically show numbers from 1000mm to 1500mm for fabrics used for walls and rainflys and 5000mm or more for floor materials.

The windows and top sections of most tents are made of a see-through mesh netting. Commonly called “no-see-um”, this netting provides ventilation while keeping pesky mosquitoes and other bugs out.

Cotton canvas tents, while not as popular, can be found from makers such as Springbar, Kodiak, and Trek. And although they are made of cotton, these are not the old-school tents that would leak if you touched the roof or wall of the tent during a rain storm. I was camping once as a kid with another family and got thoroughly scolded for accidentally touching the side of their old tent – ridiculous. Modern cotton canvas tents are now made of super strong, double woven cotton that is dry silicone treated to resist water and mildew while remaining breathable – so indoor humidity is kept within a comfortable range compared to synthetic fabrics. And yes, it’s OK to touch the inside when it’s raining. Cotton canvas tents don’t even need an external covering called a rainfly to stay dry inside and are therefore called “single-wall design”.

Tents made of synthetic materials such as Nylon and Polyester are by far the most common camping tent fabric in use today and are the best choice when weight and bulk are the most important consideration. Polyester is heavier than nylon, but tends to resist UV deterioration better. Nylon is stronger and lighter weight. Because each of these materials has its own advantages and disadvantages, tent manufactures often use a combination of the two to build their tents. Nylon and Polyester fabrics come in two weaves – Taffeta and Ripstop. Taffeta is a smooth plain woven fabric. Ripstop is essentially a taffeta fabric with reinforcement threads interwoven at regular intervals in a crosshatch pattern. These reinforcement threads are spaced roughly 1/4 in. apart and help to prevent tears and rips from continuing. Both nylon and polyester are often treated with a waterproofing polyurethane, especially when used for the tent floor and rainfly.

Floors – Tent floors are usually made of inexpensive polyethylene plastic on low priced tents. Higher quality tents use nylon or polyester fabrics coated with polyurethane to make them completely waterproof and are often more coarsely woven (oxford weave) to provide a less slick surface to stand on.. This combination maintains strength while keeping weight to a minimum. When choosing a tent, look for one with a floor that extends up the side at least a few inches and is made with fewer seams (every seam is a potential leak point). All seams should be fully taped from the manufacturer to ensure a waterproof seal.

Rainflys – Tents that come with rainflys are called “double-wall design”. The outer layer or rainfly is designed to act as an exterior rain barrier. All nylon and polyester tents have some portion of their top made of see-through screen mesh. They get very hot and humid inside otherwise because synthetic fabrics just don’t breath well. Rainflys are made of polyurethane coated nylon or polyester and come in both taffeta and ripstop weaves.  The most important feature, of course, is that it be completely waterproof.  They are often supported with their own or additional poles to prevent contact with the underlying tent canopy and attach to the tent or ground using built-in guy lines with hooks. I have found that rainflys can sometimes get noisy during heavy winds, so look for ones that have a lot of attachment points if flapping noise keeps you awake at night. Also, most tents come with rainflys designed to roll up during the day to let sunshine and air in – a great feature.

Vestibule – This is an additional covered section, usually without a floor, that fastens to the outside of the tent entrance and is typically used for the storage of shoes, boots, packs, and other small equipment. My wife appreciates a vestibule most as she is a stickler for keeping shoes and dirt out of the tent.

Footprint – Just a fancy word for ground tarp, this durable piece of plastic acts as a protective layer between the ground and your tent floor. Sharp rocks, pine needles, sticks and debris left from previous campers can poke and tear through the waterproof floor of tents. I highly recommend and always use a tent footprint. You often find tent dealers selling them as a popular tent option, but I have always used common and less expensive tarps found in the sporting goods department of Walmart and Target stores. I like to use one that is a foot or two over-sized in length to allow it to extend into the vestibule. Normally, you want the footprint to be just slightly smaller than the tent floor to prevent pooling of water under the tent during rain, so fold a larger tarp if needed. I usually take two or three along on a camping trip and find several uses for them.

Guy ropes & stakes – Guys ropes are used to keep your tent in place during heavy wind. Guy ropes are made of finely woven rope material and come with built-in tighteners on all but the cheapest made tents.

Many less expensive tents come with plastic stakes. I always end up replacing them with metal ones. Plan on doing this, or buy a tent with quality metal stakes. Plastic just doesn’t stand up to the pounding needed to drive them into hard ground.

Pockets & Gear Loops – Tents with plenty of inside pockets and loops are an absolute necessity. We use the handy built-in pockets to hold everything from wallets, combs, and eye glasses to flashlights, loose coins and everything else emptied out from our pockets at night.The gear loops are great for hanging portable, electric lamps in the tent at night. Many tents have one in the middle, at the highest point. Just don’t forget about the hanging lamp in the morning when you first stand up – ouch!

Zippers – Not much to say about zippers except they offer an opportunity for water to get inside of the tent, so all manufactures make tents with zipper covers.  The only problem with zipper covers is the zipper itself sometimes gets caught in it. I have found tents that make sharp turns with the zipper tend to get caught the easiest. This common problem is probably why you find many tents with large D-shaped doors. Definitely get a tent with a large door. It will likely have fewer zipper problems and is easier to get in and out of. Quality modern tents come with industry standard YKK brand zippers. This Japanese company makes zippers that are considered the best in the industry.

Three Questions to Ask Yourself

Ok, you have learned about various types of tents and what they are made of. Now you need to ask yourself a few important questions. How you answer the next few questions will make the tent buying decision much easier and ensure you get it right.

1. How will you use your Tent?

Modern tents for camping are available for a variety of uses. Knowing how you’ll use your tent is probably the single most important consideration.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you driving to a campsite in your car – car camping?
  • Are you backpacking into a campsite with your tent?
  • Are you using your tent as a base camp and going off-site for most of your activities?
  • Are you spending most of your time, day or night, in or around the tent?

Knowing the answer to these questions will help determine the style, shape and weight of your tent.

If you answered YES to the first question, then weight is of little concern when buying a tent. Size is only a factor as it relates to fitting inside your vehicle along with all the other camping related equipment. Cabin and large Dome tents are a great choice. However, be aware that some campsites are small and don’t provide a large enough flat area to pitch that extra-roomy 8 person casita. And some heavily treed campsites make it tough to pitch a tall tent as well.

If you answered YES to the second question, then a small, lightweight tent is the only way to go. You’ll have plenty of other necessities to carry when backpacking, so choosing a lightweight tent is a must. Small one and two-man Dome and Hoop (tunnel) tents are best for this type of use.

If you answered YES to the third question, then you should choose a tent mostly for sleeping comfort since that is its primary use. You really won’t need it during the day, so a tall cabin style tent with abundant headroom is nice, but not necessary. Ample room for sleeping bags and maybe some gear are the most important considerations. Popular Dome and quick Pop-up tents are perfect for this kind of use.

If you answered YES to the fourth question, then a large tent with steep walls and plenty of headroom is ideal. Four-man and larger family sized Cabin tents with multiple rooms work well when spending lots of time in your tent – like when it’s rainy. You should also look for a tent with a vestibule.

2. When do you go Camping?

Knowing what season or seasons you will be camping is another important part of choosing the correct tent. Weather conditions are often more extreme and unpredictable when camping. Your tent must be able to withstand any and all of these extremes – a tall order for sure.

Tent manufactures build and rate their tents according to those seasonal needs.

  • 2 season tents – ideal for mild weather conditions in spring and summer.
  • 3 season tents – probably the most popular choice for campers. Tents in this category offer good protection against wind, rain and pesky bugs. Ideal for all seasons except winter. They should not be used in snowy conditions.
  • 4 season tents – often called all-season, these tents are the absolute toughest of the group. This type of tent can survive the harsh winter conditions of snow, wind and rain. And because they are made of superior materials, they are usually the most expensive, sometimes exceeding $500.00.

Some manufacturers offer a hybrid 3-4 season tent. Designed for camping in early spring through late fall, these tents offer some protection against snowy conditions.

3. Where do you go Camping?

Tents have come a long way in recent years and work well for many types of outdoor environments such as arid hot deserts, snowy high altitude mountains, or sunny beach get-a-ways. The difference between various camping destinations is not only the type of weather you’ll encounter, but also the ground surfaces you will be pitching a tent onto.

So for example, if you plan on camping in the desert, normally hot and dry, frequently windy conditions cause lots and lots of dust. So, a tent that can keep out the dust is a must. No tent is perfect under these conditions, but a tent with strong, quality zippers and close-able windows helps to keep dust out. Cotton canvas tents are preferred by many desert campers because of their ability to keep dust out while remaining breathable and therefore cooler inside, especially when closed up to keep out dust. Think cotton shirts vs. polyester during the summer. And cotton canvas can better withstand the harmful UV rays that frequently damage synthetic nylon and polyester materials. Desert environments typically have less shade areas than densely treed mountain forest. Unfortunately, cotton canvas tents tend to be heavy and are great for car camping, but difficult to carry by foot. These are generally not an option for desert backpackers.

Camping at high altitudes can be the most extreme form of outdoor “roughing it”. I must admit I have never tent camped at an elevation higher than 9,000 feet, but know from others that you really need to be prepared. Typically, you are above the tree line and the ground can be very rocky and rough. Your exposure to the elements is also greater.  So temperature, wind, rain, and snow are much less forgiving. Tents for these conditions are usually hoop or low-profile dome style with full cover rainflys. They use high quality aluminum alloy or carbon fiber tent poles that won’t snap in severe winds.  And since you almost always have to backpack in to very high altitudes, you need a lightweight nylon polyester shelter. Often marketed using the term mountaineering tents, shelters of this caliber cost more, but are worth it.  Especially when the weather turns foul.

Beach camping requires a tent that can withstand wind and salty air. Not usually good for tall cabin tents made of cotton canvas and metal poles that can rust from salty air. Tents designed for beach use usually have a generous UV coating built into the nylon material. They often use fiberglass poles, and can be staked to the ground using built-in pockets filled with sand – Brilliant! They are easy to setup and take down (think constant wind), and are easily moved or rotated to block the ever shifting sun. Designed primarily for good weather conditions, beach tents are often just over-sized sun screens with plenty of flow through ventilation. Some come without a built-in floor which can get super hot on top of sand.

Putting it all together – an example

If you are like me, I almost always take my family camping in mountain areas, at moderate elevations, during the summer. We drive to the campground, look around a bit, and choose the best spot available. When choosing the ideal spot, we are looking for one that has a large enough flat area for the size of our tent. We also consider how much sun or shade the spot will get. During the day we mostly go out hiking and exploring often using the car to get to a trail head and return to our tent around dinner time. So, using the questions of how, when, and where as a guide tells me to look for a 2 or 3 season tent with enough room for four people to comfortably sleep, plus store extra clothes and shoes. We usually sit around a campfire or play games at the picnic table at night and then go in the tent just to sleep. It’s great to be able to stand completely up to change clothes inside the tent, so a tall cabin style is nice, but not really that necessary and they take up a lot of room to transport. We really just need a tent for sleeping and storage of cloths. Our 6 man, 3 season dome tent fit the bill perfectly and came with a rainfly and vestibule.

As you can see, camping tents have become high-tech haciendas capable of keeping you and your valuables safe, secure and comfortable in nearly any camping situation. The increasingly higher standards of modern campers have demanded it and manufactures have stepped up to the plate. Now-a-days a few hundred dollars can get you a very good tent that can last many years. So there really is no reason NOT to own one.

And, if you are camping with your family, be sure to check out Family Camping Tents – What you Need to Know before you Buy