Buying a tent can be a daunting task. There are many different models, features, and purposes. 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 is where you’ll be going. Will you be car camping with lots of space and no weight limits? Or will you be putting in the muscle power and backpacking, with limited weight, and space? Before we get into the specifics of car camping and backpacking tents, here are a couple of tips.
Rent It Before You Buy It
Many outdoor shops rent outdoor 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 poles are put together. 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 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 barbecue and bet on who can set up the tent the fastest.
Buying a Car Camping Tent
Unless you’re driving a tiny smart car, weight won’t be an issue, so go big. Most tents will have the recommended number of people in the tent name, like the Marmot Limelight 6 (one of our top picks for roominess). When kids, dogs, friends, chairs, and all manner accessories need to go inside the tent, bigger is better.
Our top gear pick: Marmot Limelight 6
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 real 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 right 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.
Our top gear pick: REI Kingdom 6
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.
Our top gear pick: Nemo Wagontop 8
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.
Our top gear pick: Eureka Copper Canyon 6
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.
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. For example, the REI Half Dome 2 sleeps two and the MSR Freelite 3 sleeps three. 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.
Our top gear pick: MSR Papa Hubba 4
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.
Our top gear pick: Tarptent Rainbow
The rainfly on most backpacking tents go 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.
Our top gear pick: Mountain Hardwear Trango 2
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’s 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.
Our top gear pick: MSR Hubba Tour series
Popular backpacking tents like the Hubba have good shoulder and headroom, and don’t sacrifice too much to be lightweight. If you need to count grams, some ultralight tents cut out all the extra space, resulting in a lighter, more packable tent.The Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 2 doesn’t have a huge amount of headroom inside, but it only weighs 31 oz. For more gear picks, check out our roundup of the best backpacking tents.
Tent Alternatives: Bivies, Tarps, and Hammocks
If you really want to go minimal, try a bivy bag, tarp, or 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 a 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.