How to Choose the Perfect Tent
Our Guide for Selecting Your Shelter. It's In-Tents! Haha. Get it?
A tent keeps you protected from the wind, rain, and extreme temperatures. Not only that, but it can be the source of fun and games and provide fun memories and bonding moments for everyone! So, needless to say, a tent is one of the most important equipment purchases new and experienced outdoor enthusiasts can make.
So you’ve decided you need to buy a tent? Great! Do you know which one you’re going to get? If so, then that’s awesome! Otherwise, if you’re not sure what you want, then this quick guide will hopefully narrow down your choices some!
What Will be Your Main Use?
How are you going to be using your new tent? This is the first question that will narrow your choices down drastically.
Car Camping - Will you just be driving into the campsite and setting up camp from there? Then the weight and packed size of the tent probably won’t be an issue here. You’ll probably have the most options to choose from if just car camping.
Backpacking - If you’re going to be hiking in for miles and carrying the tent in your pack (or split between a couple people), then you’ll want to look for lighter tents that pack small. Think 4-6 pounds or under. The longer you’ll be on the trail, the lighter you’ll probably want your tent.
Ultra-Light - When you’re counting grams and are looking for a total pack weight of 20 pounds or under, you're going to want to look into this category. These tents usually weigh less than 2 pounds and pack down to the size of a 32oz Nalgene or smaller for one or two-person tents. Although these tents will cost quite the pretty penny because of all the technology built into the tent to reduce weight.
Winter Camping/Mountaineering - Looking to camp in the snow or extend your camping dates into the winter season? Then these tents will be built perfectly for you. These are called 4-Season tents (more on this below). These tents are built with insulation and sturdiness in mind. They’ll keep you super toasty on those frozen nights and hold up to almost any storm that may come your way!
What Season Tent is Right for Me?
Not all tents are created equal. Each tent has a range of seasons that it can function properly within. This is, of course, location dependent. Temperatures for different areas of the world vary in the different seasons. Make sure you choose the right season for your needs!
3-Season - The majority of tents fall into this category. This essentially means the tent will function best in non-stormy conditions in the seasons of late Spring, Summer, and early Fall. Or you can think of it as above freezing temperatures only.
3+ Season - They are basically the same as 3-Season tents, but extend their seasons to include the full three instead of part of them. Think full Spring, Summer, and Fall seasons. These are usually insulated a little bit better and allow them to perform in temperatures around freezing.
4-Season - These tents are almost bombproof. Not only are they insulated very well to keep you warm in temperatures well below freezing, but they’ll also stand up in bad blizzards or harsh mountain storms. They are well suited for mountaineering and camping in very cold weather.
Who's Going to be in Your Tent?
Is it just you in your tent or your whole family? Four-legged friends included? You’re going to want to make sure you have enough room for everyone, or every thing, in your tent.
Tent capacity is measured in Persons, or “P.” 1P, 2P, 3P, etc… They can easily be found inside the tent name itself you’re looking at. For example: A Big Agnes Blacktail 4 is a 4-Person tent and a Nemo Hornet 2P is a 2-Person tent. Because that capacity is measured in people, that’s how many will fit inside with nothing else. Your gear will stay outside in a space under the rainfly, called a vestibule.
A 2-Person tent will fit just that, two people only. I usually “add” one person to my tent capacity than I actually need so I don’t feel claustrophobic and keep some gear inside with me; i.e.: one person in the tent, I’ll choose a 2-Person tent. Two people in the tent, I’ll choose a 3-Person Tent. The same logic applies to dogs too provided they sleep inside with you; I’ll add one person to my tent capacity for my two dogs to stay inside with me.
Once you get up to 4-Person tents and higher capacities, options for individual zippered rooms become available. This can give everyone in your party the privacy they need or have specific rooms for gear storage or changing clothes. You can even find tents that fit large groups of 20! You’ll usually find these types of tents at the base camp of Mt. Everest or other famous climbs.
What type/style tent is right for me?
There are so many to choose from; each with their own unique ability. From normal tents that you can buy anywhere and sleep in your backyard, to expedition-style tents that can withstand Mt. Everest. Tents come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, colors, and layouts.
Dome - This is your average tent design you’ll find. The walls are all slanted in towards the top to form a “dome” around you. Unfortunately, you can’t stand up easily in most of these tents. You’ll find these everywhere, from big box chains to specialty outdoor retailers. You can usually find them with up to an 8-Person Capacity.
Vertical Wall - These tents have grown in popularity as of late and usually offer a more modern looking design as well a more interior space. Instead of slanted walls, the walls with the doors are typically near-vertical. This makes it feel like the interior has so much more room to move around in and it makes changing clothes inside a breeze.
Cabin - Tents in this category can get really big! You’re typically looking at 4+ Person capacity here. I’ve even seen some that can sleep 12! These tents can come with multiple separate rooms for everyone to have their own space. You can usually walk around easily inside these!
Tarp Tents - The tarp tent is the shelter of choice for ultra-light backpackers. It usually requires 0-1 tent poles to set up and can even be used with your trekking poles. Think of it as just a super light rainfly. There are no walls to protect you from the elements, so they usually hug the ground pretty tight. Make sure to set up everything properly and have the right equipment to keep you warm.
Single Wall - Most tents are double-wall, meaning the tent body itself is one “wall” and the rainfly you place over it is the second wall. Condensation from your breath moves to the outer wall and condenses there. Single wall tents are basically Tarp Tents but with physical walls to keep the weather out. These tents sometimes have issues with ventilating and can build up condensation pretty easily, so make sure to keep that air flowing through! Otherwise you’ll get rained on inside your tent!
Rooftop Tent - Love camping outside but hate sleeping on the ground? Instead of a trailer or RV, look into a tent that goes on top of your car! The past several years have seen this variety of tent explode in popularity. The tent sits on top of your vehicle in either a hard or soft-shell covering. Then, it pops up with a variety of poles and usually comes with an open-cell foam sleeping pad to sleep on so there’s nothing to inflate. Almost anywhere can become a campsite with these tents!
Bivy Tents - These tents only fit a sleeping bag and that’s it! Usually there’s only a little space, no more than a foot or two, above your face. This is another lightweight option some solo backpackers use to save weight but don’t want to lay just under a tarp.
Features to Look Out For!
Once you’ve narrowed down your choice of tent to your main use, season, capacity, and style, there still may be a few to decide between. Take a look at these features which may help knock some tents out for you to make your decision easier.
Peak Height - Do you want to only be able to sit up in your tent? Or do you want to be able to stand up freely inside? The choice is yours, some people care about height, others don’t!
Materials - Pay attention to the material of the tent. Most tents these days use a synthetic nylon fabric, which is measured in Denier (grams of mass per 9,000 meters of a fabric’s thread). Essentially, the lower that number is, the lighter the material will be (and also more fragile). Some ultra-light tents use other synthetic fabrics as well. Canvas tents can still be found in some places, but have mostly been replaced by synthetic nylon.
Number of Doors - This is key for me. I like to have at least two doors if there is more than one person inside my tent. That way if my tent-mate needs to get up when nature calls in the middle of the night, they’re not having to get up and crawl over me to get out. It’s also nice to have multiple exit points so you don’t become a bear’s burrito snack in the middle of the night.
Vestibules - This is the space created between your main tent body and the rainfly. This is where the majority of your gear is supposed to be kept at night. That way the interior of your tent doesn’t get too congested with clutter. The sizes of these things can range from just enough to fit your backpack outside, all the way to adding entire 10’x10’ rooms to your tent!
Interior Accessories - A quick look inside your potential tent to see what it offers can help you decide.
- Lights - Some manufacturers are offering lights built right into the tent! Big Agnes mtnGLO tents work very well and look so cool!
- Pockets - Plenty of pockets on the walls can help keep your stuff organized while camping! You’ll never lose that knife, your keys, or phone again.
- Guylines - Some tents do not come with guylines built-in. Guylines are a crucial piece of a tent. If the weather turns for the worst without notice, you can stake these out to help keep your tent upright when the wind picks up.
Optional Add-On's to Consider
Footprints - Footprints for your tent are highly recommended to help your tent floor stay hole-free. They protect the floor from rocks, stick, or anything else rough from poking through if you step on them.
Gear Lofts - Used up all the pockets inside your tent? Use the roof of your tent for storage with a gear loft! It’s basically a mesh shelf that hooks onto loops inside your tent. You can store almost anything you want up there. We use it for our lighting storage so we can turn on a lamp as needed.
Lights - Look into Big Agnes mtnGLO string lights. You can string them up practically anywhere, plus, they come in a white bag that can easily be hung up to act as a lantern. Buying a lantern or two and just leaving them in your tent couldn’t hurt either!
Extra Stakes - Tents usually come with just enough to stake out the corners and vestibules. But if you need to stake out the guylines, you’ll need to purchase a few more! Also, the stakes that come with tents are usually not the best quality, so check out some that will hold up to more abuse for longer
Check Out Tents In-Person if Possible
If you get the chance to view the tent you’d like before purchase, we definitely recommend setting it up beforehand to see what it’s like in real life. Pictures online can make any tent look perfect, but seeing it in person lets you inspect every feature for yourself. Also, the more variety of tents you get to see in-person the more informed you'll be in making a decision.
I hope this guide helps narrow down your choices! Choosing the right tent for your needs and taking care of it properly can help it last for years. And the memories you make in those years will be more than worth it.
See you out there!
Here’s a handy flowchart from our friends over at GearJunkie that can help out too!