Before buying any piece of gear, you’ll need to consider what type of camping you plan to do most of the time. Do you need a featherweight tent you can carry for miles into the backcountry, or would a heavier, roomier tent make more sense for all the car camping you plan to do with your family? Consider renting a tent before buying, so you can figure out what features and amenities best meet your camping needs. Many brick-and-mortar outdoor retailers offer gear rentals. A quick internet search for gear rental outfitters in your area will usually lead you to the right place.
If you only have the budget to buy one tent, but plan to do all kinds of camping, it’s best to opt for a lightweight backpacking tent. You might be sacrificing space and certain amenities, but your back will thank you for sacrificing those extra pounds of material on your backcountry trips. Ideally, a two-person backpacking tent should weigh no more than six pounds, including the rainfly and footprint. Often, the lighter the tent, the more expensive it is, and the less durable it may be in rough weather conditions or over its useful life.
If you plan only to camp in a campervan, or won’t do more than one backpacking trip per year, it might be worth buying a more spacious tent. Larger tents offer convenient amenities like extra vestibules for storing gear or additional entries. If you end up needing to pack it on backcountry trips, splitting up the weight between several people in your party can help lighten a single backpacker’s load. For example, one person can pack the rainfly and stakes, and another person can carry the tent body and poles.
On average, how many people will be sleeping in your tent? Do you prefer to have extra room to store some gear inside your tent or would you prefer to use an exterior vestibule for storage? Do you have a dog that will also be sharing the sleeping quarters? You should assume that the fit will be snug. For example, in a two-person tent, two adults of average size will be sleeping shoulder to shoulder. There are a number of reasons why you might buy a larger, three-person tent for two people: if you tend to get claustrophobic, if you want the room to accommodate more gear, if you need space for a dog or a child, if your tent partner is a larger person, or if you would simply like to have more elbow room. A tent’s shape can make it feel roomier. For example, you can stand up in some domed tents with high ceilings. But a bigger size means more—and often heavier—material, which isn’t ideal for backpacking. A taller tent is also often less wind- and snow-resistant.
Consider climate and conditions. You’ll be thankful for more ventilation materials like mesh when camping in hot or humid weather. During temperate months a three-season tent will provide the weather resistance to keep you dry, but may fall short when it comes to withstanding a sustained storm or harsh winds. Three- to four-season tents offer a better balance of ventilation, warmth retention, and durability. They’re a bit sturdier and warmer, because most come with one or two extra poles and less mesh. For snow camping, or any camping in extreme cold conditions, a four-season tent is optimal, as it will provide that extra resistance to cold, wind, and snow. Four-season tents are often made of more durable fabrics, and are therefore heavier to carry and can feel warmer and stuffier in mild weather. But if you encounter extremely inhospitable conditions, like fierce wind and snowstorms, you’ll welcome the extra warmth and won’t mind packing a few extra ounces.
Ease of use
Not all tents are created equal when it comes to how easy they are to set up or pack away. Always read the instructions before setting up a tent, and follow the diagrams. If the retailer allows for it, set the tent up a couple of times in the store. Some tents come with all sorts of poles, hooks, pockets, and sleeves, and it can be telling if you still struggle to set up the tent the second time you try. For example, it’s often easier to attach a pole to a hook than it is to slide a pole through a long sleeve of tent fabric. A large tent can be difficult to fold back up and pack away, so take note of how it was packed by the manufacturer before you start setting it up for the first time. Once you get caught in a rainstorm while setting up or putting away a tent, you’ll truly appreciate having chosen a model that has an intuitive design.