Buying a tent can be a daunting task — there are so many different models, features, and purposes. To make it easier, we put together this handy tent buying guide to help you find a good shelter quickly so you can get off the computer and back outside.
Your first decision involves knowing where you’ll be going. Will you be car camping with lots of space and no weight limits? Or will you be backpacking, with limited weight and space? Below we’ve listed out tips for both types of tent camping as well as the best tents in those categories.
Tips for Buying a Tent
Rent It Before You Buy It
Many of the best outdoor stores let you rent gear. Try renting a few different brands, and you’ll easily see the differences and discover whether you prefer certain features. You might really like how one brand’s zippers feel or how another’s tent stakes hold when the wind blows. Since many tents are relatively similar, the little details can make all the difference.
Test Your Tent in the Backyard
You want to be able to set it up on your own. Can you actually set it up yourself? Do you need someone else to help? Are the poles easy enough to set up on your own? Learning the set-up process in your backyard will help you know what to expect at the end of a long day hiking when it’s dark and raining sideways. Pro tip: Have a backyard camping session just for the fun of it.
Tips for Buying a Car Camping Tent
Unless you’re driving a tiny smart car, the weight won’t be an issue, so go big. Most tents will have the recommended number of people in the tent name. When kids, dogs, friends, chairs, and all manner accessories need to go inside the tent, bigger is better.
The more people, the more exits you need. It’s easier to get in and out, especially when there are bodies strewn about at night. Camping gets really fancy when you have multiple rooms in the tent, each with their own exit.
Built with lightweight, waterproof materials, a rainfly covers the tent and keeps it dry. However, the rainfly on many car-camping tents doesn’t extend flush to the ground; it only covers the top and small portions of the sides. This is fine for dry weather and light rain, but as soon as the wind picks up, your gear is wet. Opt for a tent where the rainfly extends all the way to the ground if expect precipitation.
Vestibules and Garages
Vestibules and garages are covered areas outside the tent. The rainfly keeps them dry, but they are usually open to the dirt. These alcoves are the perfect place to store gear, dirty boots, or drunk friends because they’ll stay dry and hidden from visitors.
You get what you pay for with tent materials. No one wants rain dripping on their face after a long day road-tripping. The higher denier (thicker) fabrics are more durable and will last longer.
Tent floors can take a lot of abuse, but you can get a footprint to help it last even longer. Footprints are just extra tent material the exact shape of the tent to lay down underneath. Replacing a footprint is cheaper than an entire tent.
When it comes to poles, go for aluminum — it’s strong and light. Fiberglass is less expensive but will crack sooner.
Consider Sleeping on Your Car
If you’d prefer to just roll up in your car and sleep on the roof, consider a roof-top tent. These unique set-ups, which can sleep two to four people, sit on a frame on top of your car in a waterproof bag. Take the bag off, unfold the frame, and the tent pops up. Here are the best roof-top tents on the market right now.
Best Car Camping Tents
For Easy Setup: Kelty Late Start 4
No matter the time of day, the Late Start 4 from Kelty is extremely easy to set up. Two poles slide into pockets in each corner. Clips attach the tent body to the poles. Throw the rain-proof fly on top and snap four color-coded clips in the corners. The low peak height at 56 inches doesn’t allow for standing but it does allow the tent to stay out of the wind and it keeps the weight low. Even if you’ve got a late start on your trip, the Late Start 4 is a great option for sleeping up to four.
For a Larger Option: Nemo Wagon Top 8
If space is really what you need, then look to the WagonTop 8 tent from Nemo. The tent is basically a four-person tent with a massive living area that can sleep another four. The vestibule is 100% screened for those buggy nights and can be covered by the completely waterproof fly. If you don’t need the vestibule for sleeping, it’s big enough for tables, chairs, and evening card games.
For All Kinds of Weather: Marmot Limestone 6
One of the biggest differences between $100 tents and $500 tents is the waterproof fly. Basic tents just have a small water-resistant roof on top, but lack full rain-proof coverage. The Marmot Limestone 6 is 76 inches tall inside with a massive fly to cover it all to the ground. It’s got two large doors for easy exits in the middle of the night after all those hot toddies.
For Rooftop Camping: Tepui Low-Pro 3
If you’re on the move or just want to get off the ground, a rooftop tent is the way to go. From small lightweight units to beefy behemoths that can sleep the whole family, Tepui makes some of the best. The Low-Pro 3 is one of the thinnest tents, sitting on your roof at only 7 inches tall. The thin profile keeps gas money in your pocket and makes it easier to install on the roof. When you get to the campsite fold it open, pin up the window covers, and you’re ready for a top-level sleep.
Tips for Buying a Backpacking Tent
On the other end of the weight spectrum are backpacking tents. A 20-pound car camping beast is not an option when you have to carry it on your back with all your other gear. (If you want to lug that much weight, skip the tent and bring the beer.)
Backpacking tents are also rated for how many people can squeeze inside. The fit will be a lot more snug; you can usually expect space for a 20-inch-wide sleeping pad per person. If you like more clearance, then you may want to size up. Sleeping alone in a two-person tent gives you tons of room for gear.
Headroom, Legroom, and Armroom
Tents areas vary considerably. Some two-person tents barely fit two sleeping mats, while others could fit three. If you’re taller or wider than average, lay down in the tents to get a feel for the width. Some models are longer and wider and will be much more comfortable than your standard fare.
The rainfly on most backpacking tents goes all the way to the ground. Simply stake the tent to the ground, tie down the fly with the included lines and you’ll be ready to weather some pretty heavy … well, weather.
Three-season tents will cover you through mild conditions in spring, summer, and fall. However, violent storms or heavy snow will crush the lightweight poles of a three-season tent. If you’re planning on a winter trip or unpredictable weather, opt for a heavier four-season tent. More poles and less mesh creates a stronger, warmer shelter. Also check out our tips for camping in the rain while you’re at it.
Trying to set up a tent at the end of a long day, tired, wet, and hungry, you’ll wish there was a magic button for setup. “Hey Siri, set up my tent.” Like we mentioned before, nothing beats a backyard test. You can also ask the sales representative at your outdoor store to walk you through setup. If you can’t set it up by yourself, keep looking. Poles should be freestanding, so you can set it up anywhere and move it with ease, and color-coded, so there are no questions about what goes where.
With car camping, you can throw all your gear in the truck at the end of the day. Backpacking? You don’t have that luxury. Larger vestibules make the tent heavier, but when you’re stuck inside the thing during bad weather, the covered vestibules make all the difference. Again, make sure the fly goes right to the ground to keep your gear dry.
Tent Alternatives: Bivies, Tarps, and Hammocks
If you really want to go minimal, try a bivy bag, tarp, or a camping hammock. Bivies are waterproof bags that go around your entire sleeping bag, often with a small tent pole around your head. Packing down to the size of an insulated water bottle, these shelters will keep you dry but not much else. For space for two or just more comfort on the trail, stick with a regular tent.
Best Backpacking Tents
For Basic Backpacking: Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL 2
When it comes to full-size, free-standing tents that are ultralight, Big Agnes is pushing the limits of what’s possible. Gone are the days when ultralight backpacking meant leaving the tent at home. The Tiger Wall UL 2 uses thin fabrics and DAC Featherlite poles to make a two-person backpacking tent that actually has room inside for two people, and weighs just over 2 pounds. There’s also a carbon and Dyneema version priced a bit higher weighing 1 pound 6 ounces.
For Backpacking with the Family: MSR Papa Hubba NX
MSR has long defined backcountry comfort with their Hubba tent series. There are one-, two-, three-, and four-person models with the two-person Hubba Hubba included on many best tent lists. The same materials and tech go into the four-person Papa Hubba. Don’t worry about breaking the super durable Easton Cyclone MAX poles. And don’t worry about water leaking in with the longer-lasting Xtreme Shield System on the fly. There’s really nothing to worry about but finding the best campsite with the Papa Hubba NX.
For Ultralight Backpacking: Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo
After you’ve ditched your noisy tent mates, you can ditch the big tents, too. The Lunar Solo from Six Moon Designs is just enough for one person and weighs only 26 ounces. The 8.5-square-foot vestibule can store your pack and keeps you dry getting ready when it’s raining sideways. Use the optional carbon fiber pole to pitch or just an adjustable trekking pole that you’re already carrying with you.
For Backpacking in the Winter: Hilleberg Jannu
When the weather gets really bad, it’s time to bring out the big guns. Hilleberg is often the choice of polar explorers heading to the frigid temperatures and insane winds of Antarctica. The Jannu from Hilleberg can stand up to any weather you can throw at it. It’s strong enough to hold snow during a storm and will last through any wind. All that strength usually costs a lot in weight but the Jannu stays relatively light in terms of winter tents at 6 pounds 2 ounces.
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