Are you looking for a new tent? The vast abundance of tents on the market can make selecting a tent overwhelming. Let us guide you through the process!
The Three Questions
There really is no “best” tent, but there is a “right” one for you. Before you start looking, determine which type of tent is “right” for you by answering these three questions:
- When will you be using the tent? Will you be using the tent in the summer? Then you should go with a 3-season tent. Are you going winter camping in snow? Then you should consider a 4-season tent.
- How will you be using the tent? Are you going car-camping or backpacking? If you’re going backpacking, and plan on carrying your tent over long distance, the tent’s weight should be your biggest concern. If you’re going car-camping, weight is probably not an issue.
- Where will you be using the tent? Do you expect occasional rain- and wind-storms? If protection against harsh elements is high on your list of priorities, you may want to consider a sturdy dome tent, or a cabin tent if you are only doing car-camping. If you’re traveling in dry and hot climates, a well-ventilated lighter tent may be a better option. If you are backpacking in snow, a light tunnel tent may be worth considering because it’s easy and quick to pitch.
Use this diagram to help you determine which type of tent will best suit your needs:
When: 3-season vs. 4-season
First and foremost you should determine if you need a 3-season tent or a 4-season tent.
3-season tents are meant for spring, summer, and fall camping – the “snow-free” seasons. 3-season tents are generally double-walled; the “inner tent” featuring mesh panels for optimal ventilation, and the “outer tent” being the waterproof rainfly.
Despite what the name “4-season” implies, 4-season tents are actually only meant for winter camping. A 4-season tent is not an “all-season” tent. 4-season tents are made with stronger, more durable, materials than 3-season tents. The frame and body shape is constructed with steep walls to withstand strong winds and heavy snowfall. 4-season tents come in both single- and double-walled models. Single-walled 4-season tents are generally lighter and meant for backpacking and alpine climbing. Double-walled 4-season tents are heavier, but warmer, and therefore better suited for car-camping and “base camping”.
Due to its sturdy construction and more durable materials, 4-season tents are usually more expensive than 3-season tents.
But wait, can I use a 3-season tent in the winter?
Sure you can! Most 3-season tents handle light snow just fine. There’s no need to go out and buy a bomb-proof winter tent if you’re only going to use it once or twice each winter – especially if you’re camping below tree-line. However, if you are expecting heavy snow, or if you plan on camping above tree-line, a sturdier 4-season tent would handle strong wind and heavy snow much better.
How: Are you traveling by foot or car?
Tents generally fall into one of two categories: Backpacking tents and Family (car-camping) tents.
Backpacking tents are meant to be carried over long distances, and therefore weight is one of its most important properties. 3-season backpacking tents generally weigh less than 4lbs. A 4-season backpacking tent of same size may weigh between four to 6 lbs.
Backpacking tents are typically more expensive than car-camping tents, because the materials used are light-weight and durable, ranging in price from $200 – $600.
Backpacking tents generally come in sizes 1-4 person.
Features and trade-offs to consider:
- Number of doors: if sleeping multiple people in same tent, one door requires those not sleeping immediately inside the door to step over the person sleeping closest to the door. This may not seem like a big deal, but because backpacking tents generally don’t offer any extra space to begin with, any maneuver inside the tent becomes a “team effort”. Two doors, one on each side, eliminates the “step over”-issue, however the additional door will make the tent heavier (extra zipper).
- Vestibule: a large vestibule is nice because it allows you to store backpacks and gear in a dry place. However, a large vestibule requires more fabric, and therefore makes the tent heavier.
As you can see, much of the above is a matter of personal preference. Adding a little extra weight may not seem like a big deal. But if you’re doing a long backpacking trip, including climbing and big elevation gains, ounces do matter!
The following brands offer high-quality 3- and 4-season Backpacking tents:
- Hilleberg (tunnel-tents)
- Black Diamond
- Mountain Hardware
- MSR Tents
- Big Agnes
Family tents, or “car-camping tents,” are not meant to be carried over long distances, and therefore tend to be significantly heavier than backpacking tents. Since you are transporting the tent by car, its weight doesn’t matter.
Family tents are usually large and roomy. Some even feature multiple “rooms,” separated by thin nylon walls.
The first thing you should consider when looking for a family tent is Sleeping Capacity – what is the size of your group? Before deciding on a number, consider the following:
- Do you need additional space for friends?
- How much gear do you need to store inside the tent?
- Do you have a dog, requiring extra space?
- Are you small or big people?
If you’re a family of four + dog, and you need extra space for gear, you should probably go with a 6-person tent.
Features to consider:
- Peak height: do you prefer to stand up when changing clothes, or do you enjoy the coziness of low ceilings?
- Number of Doors: multiple doors are convenient, but with kids playing around the tent, too many doors isn’t always a good thing.
- Vestibule: in case of rain, a large walk-in vestibule may allow you to both store gear and cook sheltered from the elements.
The following brands offer high-quality 3-season family tents:
Where: climate, elements, and location.
While dome tents are most common, depending on in what location and climate you’re going camping, and what elements you expect to encounter, there are other types of tents you may want to consider.
Dome vs. Tunnel Tent
Traditionally, tunnel tents offer more space at a lighter weight. Nowadays there is little difference in the weight-to-space ratio between tunnel and dome tents.
Most dome tents feature crossed-pole structure, providing better static load stability. Therefore, dome tents generally handle heavy snow and strong winds better than tunnel tents.
Dome tents are “free-standing,” meaning that they will stand up without support of guidelines. Because dome-tents are free standing, they are a good choice for rocky, exposed camp sites.
Tunnel tents are not “free-standing,” requiring the support of guidelines anchored in the ground or a nearby tree. Despite not being free-standing, tunnel tents are generally easier to pitch and quicker to set up and take down. Tunnel tents used to be the tent of choice for mobile winter adventurers and polar expeditions.
Tunnel tents generally have a larger vestibule than dome tents, providing more space for storage – or for cooking on rainy days!
While dome tents dominate the U.S. market, tunnel tents are more popular overseas, especially around Scandinavia.
I use a 4-season tunnel tent in early spring, late fall, and winter. The tunnel tent is a bright green North Face Westwind 2. It is slightly heavier than my dome tents because it is double-walled (no mesh). It is not free-standing, but it’s quick to pitch and holds up great in snow and hard rain.
The following brands offer high-quality tunnel tents:
Cabin and Canvas Tents
Cabin tents are generally larger than dome and tunnel tents. Cabin tents feature near-vertical walls, allowing you to stand up and move around inside the spacious tent. Because cabin tents are bigger than dome and tunnel tents, they are heavier, and therefore best suited for car- or family-camping.
Cabin tents are usually single-walled and made of either nylon or canvas.
Canvas tents retain heat better than nylon tents in the winter, and they stay cooler in the summer. Canvas is significantly more durable than nylon. Draped over a sturdy frame, a canvas tent is nearly indestructible for harsh weather and storms – as long as it’s anchored in the ground.
But due to the sturdiness of canvas tents, they are extremely heavy. Almost too heavy for car-camping! My Kodiak Canvas tent weigh over 80lbs. Therefore, pitching a canvas tents is a good workout compared to pitching a much lighter nylon tent.
Furthermore, canvas tents are more expensive than nylon tents. A good-quality nylon cabin tent cost $300-$500. A canvas tent of same size range from $600-$2000.
The following brands offer high-quality, reasonably priced, cabin tents:
- Nylon Cabin Tents
- Canvas Cabin Tents
Once you know what type of tent may best suit your needs, check the online reviews to find a good quality tent in your price range. Outdoor Gear Lab provide excellent reviews of tents in each category (backpacking, camping, 4-season).
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