How to Choose the Perfect Camping Tent

“It always rains on tents. Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds for the opportunity to rain on a tent.”  (Dave Barry)

So true Dave. One of the most important items on your camping list should be a good quality tent. This post lists things to consider before buying your new tent, and some tested, highly rated tents to choose from.

Tent by lake

How do you pick the perfect tent for camping? Choosing the right tent can be a difficult decision. It would be great if you could take each tent you’re interested in buying out for a test weekend…but, since you can’t, you have to make a decision another way. It can be a tough choice, with so many makes and models to choose from. We hope this article will make your decision about your new home-away-from-home a little bit easier.

Some people choose by looks – Hey, that one looks nice! I think we may have done this once…not the best way to choose. There are a few basic guidelines you should follow to pick the perfect tent.

We’ve been camping for many years and have owned quite a few tents – some good, a few not so good. We started out with a pup tent, just barely big enough to stretch out in, impossible to sit up in, with no room for anything but ourselves. After settling down, we upgraded to a large, family-sized cabin tent. We needed lots of room for us, two children, and two dogs – with lots of storage space and a canopy on the front for wet clothing and muddy shoes.

A few tent mishaps come to mind as I write, which I feel a need to share with you. While camping in the highlands of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada we woke up in the middle of the night with a wet tent lying on our faces – heavy rain and strong winds outside. Needless to say, we were a bit wet – I think we slept in the car that night…

We camped in Dinosaur Park, Alberta, Canada during at the end of a drought. Thinking it wouldn’t rain – it hadn’t for over a month – we decided not to put the fly on the tent so we could look at the stars before going to sleep. Big mistake – the stars were great, but we woke up through the night to a torrential downpour – drenched again. We threw everything into the trunk of our car and drove to an all-night diner where we spent some time with a group of happy farmers at three o’clock in the morning.

While hiking the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada we camped on a beach, waking up to the (very close) sound of the ocean – I guess we misjudged the high tide line. I could go on, but it’s time to go tent shopping…

Tents, mountains, lake

What do you look for while shopping for your new tent? Do you need a tent for the whole family? Are you a biker or backcountry hiker? Will you use it just once a year or hundreds of times? Do you want a tent with large windows and doors, with a rain cover that doesn’t block the view? One room, separate rooms, one door or two? Do you need a weatherproof vestibule for outside storage? Consider the following before buying your new tent:

  • Affordability: Before you begin your search for the perfect tent, decide on a price range to suit your budget. Costs range from less than $100 to over $1,000.
  • Size, comfort, sleeping capacity: A tent always seems to be too small. To be comfortable in your tent, you may need more room than you think – you might even want separate bedroom areas. You will likely need storage space for clothing, supplies, toys, dog food, etc. Manufacturers usually specify the per-person size of their tents – consider buying one at least one person-size larger. It’s nice to have lots of room, especially if you have children and/or pets. You may need more than one door – midnight bathroom breaks, crawling over the rest of the family to get out can be a nuisance.
  • Weight and packed size: Do you plan to do any backpacking, or are you strictly a car-camper? Do you have limited space in your vehicle? Do you plan to use walk-in sites, or do some wilderness camping? Consider this carefully unless you plan to buy more than one tent for different purposes.
  • Quality and durability: To put it simply – buy the best tent you can afford. Do you want a tent that will last for years, or one that is left with the rest of your waste after just one trip? If you camp with children and dogs, you’ll need a well-made tent built with rugged construction. The poles, zippers, seams, and tie-down connections need to be strong. Your tent may be transformed into a play area with children and dogs bouncing off the walls.
  • Weather-resistance: This one’s obviously important. You will encounter wind and rain at some point during your tenting days – make sure the tent you buy is designed to withstand the elements. If you plan to camp during the winter consider purchasing a 4-season tent, designed for high winds and snow.
  • Style: Do you want to be able to stand up while dressing, or are you okay with limited headspace? Larger dome and cabin tents are designed with spaciousness in mind. Dome tents are generally easy to set up and have sloping walls to resist wind. The slopes create less standing-up room inside. Cabin tents generally take longer to set up, but are more spacious with almost vertical walls.
  • Ease of set-up: Let’s say it’s getting dark when you arrive at the campsite – and it’s starting to rain. You’re tired, the children are getting antsy – you just want to set up the tent and be done with it. Instead, there are poles scattered over the campsite – and you used the set-up instructions to start the fire at the last campsite. You realize you forgot to charge your flashlight batteries as you experiment with the dozens of possible pole connections – it rains harder. It might be a good idea to shop for a tent offering fast and easy set-up, with colour-coded poles.
  • Double or single wall: A single-wall tent has no fly/rain cover. The material is not very breathable, so condensation can be a problem. They are lighter, so are well suited for hikers. Double-wall tents require a weather-resistant fly, installed after the tent has been erected. They are easier to ventilate through built-in windows with screens. The extra material and poles make this type of tent heavier and more suitable for car-camping.
  • Hammock camping: Hammock tents are becoming quite popular – it might be something to consider. Not for the whole family – unless each family member has their own hammock – swinging from the trees sounds like fun. You may need to learn how to tie a few knots.
  • Technical stuff: You may see number and letter ratings in the specs for some tents. What do they mean? “D”: Denier ratings represent the thickness of the tent fabric’s fibres – the higher the number, the stronger and heavier the fabric. “T” represents thread count. Along with the “D” rating, this determines the fabric strength. “mmH2O”: this is the waterproof rating, the higher the number, the more rain resistant. For comparison purposes, an average umbrella has an mmH20 rating of about 400.

Tents on mountain above the clouds

Miscellaneous considerations:

  • Weatherproof entry/vestibule awnings for storing your camping equipment, muddy shoes, etc.
  • Interior loops for hanging lanterns and storage compartments.
  • Pockets for organizing books, flashlights, etc.
  • Reinforced exterior rope guy loops for extra stability in windy conditions.
  • Freestanding tents can be moved without taking them down and don’t require pegs for set-up – although pegs give more stability.
  • Tents requiring pegs for set-up are generally more stable in windy conditions.
  • Space for sleeping pads, an air mattress, or an inflatable bed with room to get around would be nice.
  • Ventilation mesh is important for hot, humid nights – and being able to look at the stars with the fly off is a bonus – as long as it doesn’t rain.
  • If buying your tent online, write down the measurements and outline the tent size on your floor with masking tape. Put your inflatable bed or sleeping bags inside – do you have enough room? Take into consideration the sloping walls of dome-style tents.

Learn how to tie a few simple knots that are easily untied – you’ll need to tighten and reposition your tent’s guy ropes occasionally. If you’ve decided to buy a hammock tent, you’ll definitely need this skill. It’ll make setting up your camping tarp much easier too.

Happy camping!

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