Waking up to the sound of chirping birds, lazing next to a shimmering lake all day and then cozying up in front of a roaring fire once the sun has set. Or, huffing and puffing along a challenging backcountry trail, finally making it to that view you’ve been waiting for and then quickly setting up camp so you can get some much-needed sleep.
Whichever type of camper you are, one thing’s for certain: you need shelter once it’s time to tuck in for the night.
Tents can range from affordable at around $200 to much more advanced at $600 and up. Finding your way through all the details is a job in itself, especially if you don’t know what you need or what to look for. When shopping for a new tent, the main point is to pick one with the features that you (a) need and (b) want.
Needs include protection from the elements, sleeping capacity and weight. Wants include things like comfort and livability; doorways; and niceties like extra loops and pockets for better organization.
Before you can dive into all this, though, you have to know when and where you’ll be camping, and the weather to expect during your trip.
Car camping is when you drive to a campsite, as opposed to walking to the campsite when you’re backcountry camping. You may drive to a campsite to hang out there for a long weekend or use the campsite as a jumping off point for nearby activities. When you go car camping, you have a lot of space for packing your stuff and you don’t have to worry much about weight limits, giving you the perfect opportunity to get a large, roomy tent you can spread out in.
On the other hand, when you go backcountry camping, you’ll be carrying everything on your back – every ounce matters and you need gear that takes up as little space as possible. The length of the hike plays a part, too. If you’re backcountry camping overnight or for a long weekend, you may be okay carrying a heavier tent. If you’re on a major, long-distance hike, though, you’ll want to save weight wherever possible.
If you’re going to be car camping, it’s best to choose a tent specifically for that – there’s no need to skimp on size and useful features when you don’t have to worry about weight. With a larger, roomier tent, you’ll be comfortable enough to sleep late, read, nap, stretch after a long hike, or get some cover when the sun’s strong or the rain starts coming down.
Pickup trucks make for some of the best camping, so if this is a possibility for you, check out our guide below:
If you are a fan of motorcycling road trips, there are some great tents specifically for you:
The temperature and weather conditions you’ll be camping in will determine which type of tent you need: 3-season, extended-season or 4-season. Many campers who head out in all types of weather own a couple of different tents to choose from.
Most of the time, you’re going to want a double-wall tent, which has the regular tent body and a waterproof rainfly that you can add to the outside of the tent. Sometimes, though, a single-wall tent is a better option, like if you’re in a high alpine setting where condensation can freeze to the outside of the tent. Single-wall tents may have better ventilation so that moisture can escape before freezing.
The most popular type of tent is the 3-season tent. These tents are lightweight thanks to light fabrics and few poles, and are appropriate for temperate conditions during the spring, summer and fall. They often have mesh panels that increase airflow and keep out insects – however, they can let in powdery sand, which is something to keep in mind if you’ll be camping on the beach.
When a 3-season tent is correctly pitched and has a taut rainfly on it – a rainfly is a waterproof outer layer for a tent – it can withstand a downpour or light snow. If you expect high winds, heavy snow or other types of harsh weather, though, a 3-season tent may not be durable enough.
An extended season tent, also referred to as a 3-4 season tent or a 3+ season tent, is a good choice if you’re going to prolong the camping season into the late fall. These tents are more durable than 3-season tents and can handle moderate snowfall.
The main functions of an extended season tent is to provide the right amount of ventilation, stand up to slightly harsher conditions than a 3-season tent, and retain warmth. Extended season tents have 1-2 more poles than a 3-season tent, and they also have fewer mesh panels in order to provide more durability and warmth.
While extended season tents aren’t appropriate for severe winter weather, may be a good option for campers who head to exposed destinations in high elevation late into the fall.
Also called mountaineering tents, a 4-season tent can be used year-round. Their primary purpose is to stay durable and stand firm during very harsh weather, especially if you’re above the tree line (which means you’re more exposed and at risk for things like avalanches) or are camping during the winter. These tents can withstand high winds and heavy snow.
The 4-season tent has more poles and heavier fabric than the 3-season tent. They have a rounded dome without any flat areas, which prevents snow from collecting on the roof. They also have a limited amount of mesh panels, and the rainfly extends almost to the ground. While this limits ventilation, it does keep you warmer and more protected in cold weather. If you use a 4-season tent while camping in mild weather, though, you could feel too hot and stuffy.
If you’re going to be camping in cold, dry weather, look for a lightweight, single-wall 4-season tent. These waterproof tents are more breathable and don’t come with a rainfly.
Check out the linked resource above on the main differences to consider if you are stuck deciding between the two styles.
Tents are made out of all sorts of specialized nylons and polyesters (not canvas anymore, for the most part), and tent material technology is always evolving.
Denier is the unit of measurement that determines the thickness of the threads or filaments of fabric. The denier is the fabric’s yarn weight in grams in a 9,000-meter piece of yarn. A high-denier tent and rainfly will be more durable, rugged and thick than a low-denier tent. However, comparing deniers in two different tents won’t tell you much about their durability unless the fabrics are identical.
When it comes to the floor of the tent, a high-denier fabric, along with seam tape, will reduce leakage.
When choosing a tent for beach camping, there are a few extra considerations: sand, sun and wind. You’ll want to start by selecting a tent for the appropriate season and weather conditions, including high winds. While you want a breathable tent, the mesh panels and/or rainfly should have vents you can close to keep sand out when the wind kicks up. The tent should also say that it’s UV-resistant.
If you know you will be heading into windy conditions, it’s worth specifically looking for a tent built for high winds.
Figuring out how much room you and the other campers need in your tent is just a start. You also have to consider the kind of walls the tent has and how much floor length there is.
You’ll need to think about how large of a tent you’ll need based on how many people will be sleeping in it. You also have to consider any extra space you might need, like for a pal who unexpectedly joins you and needs a place to sleep; your pets; or extra gear you don’t want to keep outside the tent. When it comes to backpacking tents, they range from one- to four-person capacity. The capacity is often in the tent name itself, such as The North Face Dome 2, which means it can sleep two people.
When it comes to space per person, there isn’t an industry standard for per-person dimensions; the size of the tent will vary by brand. When you look at the tent capacity rating, assume there’s going to be a close fit for however many people it says can fit – the snug fit is to keep the weight of the tent down. Ultralight tents have an even tighter fit. You want to make sure that you and other sleepers can sleep without touching the walls, which is where moisture builds up first.
If you need extra space, go with a tent capacity that has an extra person (or look for a plus-size tent). For example, if you’re going to be sleeping two people in the tent but you’re worried it’ll be too small, get a tent with a three person capacity. You’ll also want to upsize if any of the following are true:
Scaling up a size means carrying more weight for backcountry camping, which may be okay with you if it means better sleeping conditions. When it comes to car camping, though, there’s no reason to be uncomfortable – going just one size up could mean a much more enjoyable trip overall.
The following is a breakdown of our tent guides by size:
Most tent floors are rectangular. If you’re over six feet tall or you simply like having extra space to spread out, you’ll want to look for a tent that has a floor length of 90 inches. Typically, tents have a floor length between 84 and 88 inches. To save weight, look for a tent with a tapered floor, which provides extra room for your arms and shoulders, then tapers at the foot.
When it comes to floor area, it’s okay to refer to it to compare tents, but don’t choose a tent based on this alone. Floor area is simply the square footage of the floor space, which doesn’t give you insight into how efficient that space actually is.
If you want to be able to stand up in the tent while getting ready in the morning or changing into your pajamas, you’ll need a tent with a high peak. You can find the height of the peak in the spec chart when shopping for a tent. There are two basic types of tents to consider when determining height:
Cabin-Style: These types of tents have almost-vertical walls, which maximize the height and living space of the tent. Some cabin-style tents have extra niceties like an awning, room divider or vestibule door.
Dome-Style: These tents don’t have nearly as much room as cabin-style tents, because their walls are more sloped, which limits living space. The dome-style tent is what you’ll want for camping in harsh conditions, though, because they’re stronger than cabin-style tents and do a better job at blocking wind. Also, the more angled the walls, the lighter the tent will be.
Note that peak height is measured at the highest single spot in the tent, which doesn’t necessarily tell you how livable the rest of the tent space is.
While you may assume that a heavier tent is a more durable one, this isn’t actually true. The seasonality of the tent is the best determinant of what type of weather conditions it can withstand.
The minimum trail weight is the weight of the tent’s body, poles and rainfly, which are the bare essentials for most campers. Any additional tent-related gear you pack, like a footprint or stakes, will add to the weight. When comparing tent weights, though, this is a good spec to look at.
The packaged weight is how much all of the components of your purchase cost, which includes the body, poles and rainfly, plus the instructions, pole sack, stakes, stuff sack, etc. What you’ll end up carrying will probably fall somewhere between the packaged weight and the minimum trail weight.
The packed size, which is how much space the tent will take up in your backpack, is a good indicator of how easy it will be to carry. If you’re hiking with a partner and you’re going to share the tent, consider breaking up the components to lessen the load. For example, you can carry the tent body while your partner carries the poles and rainfly.
If packing size is a big consideration, which it is for backcountry campers, test the tent ahead of time or read reviews from users to find out how well it packs up into its storage bag. Some tents are notoriously difficult to get back into their bags.
There are ultralight designs and materials that can still be strong enough for inclement weather. These tents can start as low as one pound per person. While they’ll have less space per person and come with fewer features, ultralight tents are often made with premium materials.
If you’re a minimalist camper and want to cut down weight as much as possible, there are a few bare bones options:
While a lot of tents are similar regardless of brand, it’s often the smaller features that make all the difference. Figuring out things like seasonality, space and weight are necessary starting points, but the details are what will improve comfort, convenience and livability.
If you have several people staying in the same tent, you’ll want extra doors to avoid bumping into one another – preferably one door per person. In this case, a cabin-style tent will be your best choice. Note that the more doors your tent has, the heavier and pricier it will be.
When camping in warm weather, ventilation is a major consideration and the size of the doors play into that. Big doors can help with airflow, especially in the afternoon when the sun is strongest.
If you’re going to be sleeping in the same tent with other people, you’ll want to make sure you don’t have a tent with noisy doors when you zip them open or closed. YKK zippers, which you’ve undoubtedly seen because they’re uber-popular, are durable and resist snagging, which can keep them quieter as you move in and out of the tent.
A footprint is a custom, fitted ground cloth that is placed under the tent floor. Footprints are created to perfectly fit the size and shape of your tent, which means they won’t gather water like a generic ground cloth will if it extends beyond the tent floor. If you use a basic ground cloth and it collects water, it could seep in through the tent floor.
Even with a durable tent floor, dirt, rocks, traffic and twigs can eventually wear it down. A footprint is a great way to protect the bottom of your tent, and it costs a lot less than replacing the entire tent.
Footprints are usually sold separately.
High quality tents will have guyout loops on the exterior, which are for attaching guylines. This will help you keep the tent fabric stationary when the wind picks up. If your tent came with a knot of cord, those are your guylines. Reflective guylines are helpful because you can see them when you shine your flashlight on them at night. Dome tents don’t always need guylines in order to stay pitched.
Tents have mesh panels in the ceiling, doors and windows to allow for both airflow and views. Cross-ventilation helps keep condensation at bay, so if you’re camping in heat and humidity, look for a tent with large mesh panels. You can also bring along a battery-powered fan to increase airflow. Look for a tent with mesh panels that have zippered panels you can close over them, which will be useful if too much cold air is getting inside.
Fiberglass poles may be less expensive, but they’re also prone to breakage; aluminum poles are more durable and stronger. The aluminum poles used in backpacking tents are low-weight and high-strength, and they’re often made by the Dongah Aluminum Corporation (DAC), a leader in the industry. The 6,000 series aluminum is common in tents, but the 7,000 series will be a little bit stronger. Aluminum poles usually have an elastic cord that connects the poles to one another, as well as a pin at the end of the pole that is inserted into a grommet.
Poles that have clips instead of having to thread them through pole sleeves are easier to work with. For balance, though, many poles have shortened sleeves and clips, which are still pretty easy to set up. Pole clips also allow more ventilation under the rainfly. There are also pole hubs, sometimes called pole connectors, that make assembly even simpler. Tents with pole hubs also tent to be stronger and more stable. You may also want to look for a tent with color-coded features to make setup a breeze.
The tent will likely come with stakes that match the weight of the tent – light tents come with light stakes and heavy tents come with heavy stakes. Depending on the condition of your campsite, consider bringing along extra anchors and stakes. If you’re in a pinch, you can also use rocks, roots or trees as makeshift stakes.
The fewer the poles, the quicker it’ll be to set up the tent. Today, many family tents are freestanding, which means they have a fixed pole system (that pole system also makes these tents heavier than non-freestanding tents, though). With a freestanding tent, you can pick it up to move it before staking it (and always stake it so it doesn’t blow away). Also, when taking it down, you can pick it up and shake the dirt off first.
The rainfly is a waterproof cover that fits over your tent’s roof. You should use it if you expect dew or rain, or if you need some more insulation to lock in warmth. The best rainflies have adjustable vents that can open or close as needed.
There are a few types of rainflies:
The color of the rainfly matters, too. Brighter, lighter colors will transmit natural light inside, making the interior of your tent brighter. This can make the tent feel a bit bigger than it is, and it’s also helpful if you’re stuck inside the tent all day long because of a storm.
The top center of most tents have a loop where you can hang a lantern. There may also be loops on the inside of the tent walls for hanging items, stringing up a clothesline or attaching an add-on gear loft, which is a mesh shelf for storing small, light items. You can also look for a tent with interior pockets to help you stay organized.
You can find a tent with an awning or shelter that attaches, or you may be able to purchase these as add-ons. If you want to store extra items in your tent or you need a space to store your dusty or muddy boots after a day of hiking, a vestibule or garage is something to consider. Keep in mind that these alcoves will stay dry, but they’ll be exposed to dirt –you can keep your boots and gear there, but you wouldn’t want to sleep there.
In order to keep your tent in good working order and to extend its lifespan, you’ll want to keep a few things on hand. While you may not be able to travel with these items if you’re backcountry camping, you can stash them in your car.
Your tent will probably come with taped seams, which means that any holes from sewing have already been sealed at the factory. If your tent has unsealed seams, though, you’ll need to use seam sealer on the floor and along the interior fly stitching. Make sure to do this before using your tent for the first time.
Every morning, you should remove the rainfly and hang it up to dry out.
If you’re shopping for a tent in a brick and mortar store, it’s okay to ask if you can set up a tent before buying it. You can assess the amount of volume inside to decide if you’ll be comfortable sleeping and getting ready for the day, and it’s also a good way to learn how to set up the tent ahead of time.
Also, a lot of people don’t realize that they may be able to rent a tent before buying it. Ask your outdoor shop if they rent certain tents out – it’s an excellent way to try out different brands before you find one you love.
Further Read: Where to Buy a Tent Online
You have your tent and you’re ready to head out on your camping trip. It’s a good idea to give setup a test run before you get to your campsite. Set up your tent in the backyard to make sure you have everything you need and that you can do it on your own (or with whoever’s camping with you). You may think it’ll be easy to get up once you reach the campsite, but if the sun’s going down, the weather is crummy or you’re just plain exhausted, it’ll be tough to figure out for the first time.
Below you can find an A-Z listing of all the reviews conducted here at AOG: