How To Choose A Tent
Shelter is one of the four tenets of survival, right up there with fire, water and food. It's a very important piece of gear, if you like surviving. From car camping to alpine mountaineering, when you're spending a night in nature, you'll need a home away from home. It's a lot easier than shopping for a home though, because almost everything is 1 bedroom, 0 bath. There are tons of different tents and shelters on the market, so I'm gonna walk you through all of the info you'll need to know to find the one that's perfect for you.
Match the gear to the activity.
The right tool for the job. That's something my grandpa used to say. He also used to say keeping onions under your bed prevented charley horses. So take it for what it's worth. But in the case of tents, it's accurate; certain tents perform better in certain situations. Whether it's a difference in fabric, architecture, weight or warmth, they all have features that allow them to excel in various conditions.
Key activities where tents are most frequently used include:
BACKPACKING – These tents are designed to be carried around for most of the day and for long miles. This means they are lightweight and pack down small. Dome designs are a popular option because they keep weight down by having slightly slanted walls which minimize amount of fabric and pole lengths.
CAMPING – Anything goes with camping tents. When I say "camping," I'm referring to car camping and to short hikes to close-by campsites. For these instances, weight isn't much of an issue, so go for a roomy tent with all the features you might ever want. Cabin-style designs have steep walls which maximize interior head room and overall space. Some of these puppies even have built-in interior lights.
MOUNTAINEERING – Mountaineering tents are typically bombproof shelters designed to withstand heavy snow loads, strong winds and chilly environments. Often set up above the tree line and fully exposed, they pack a set of features which allow you to sleep just as comfortably as if you were in your bedroom.
Season / Temperature
Be ready for the worst.
Your tent has to be able to fend off the nastiest conditions that you'll encounter. This is where season, climate and weather come into play. Tents are made for the following seasonal uses:
• 3 season
• 4 season
• 3-4 season
3-SEASON TENTS are the perfect tent choice for three seasons: Spring, Summer and Fall. You can’t get much more straightforward than that. These tents have:
• Double walls
• Waterproof flies to stop the rain
• Mesh bodies for ventilation
In nice weather, you can leave the fly off and just set up the mesh body for maximum airflow, full bug protection and a view of the stars. But keep that fly handy in case it starts to rain during the night.
4-SEASON TENTS aren't as straightforwardly named, they're really only designed for one season: winter. These tents have:
• Heavier fabrics
• Stronger poles
• Sturdier architectures
• Durability and protection for extreme weather
The poles are often run through sleeves or are set up inside the tent for increased strength. These tents also retain body heat with limited amounts of mesh and flies that go all the way to the ground. This means your tent will be warmer, but won't vent as well as a 3-season tent and will also lead to increased condensation. However, if you're heading out in winter storms or super low temps, you'll want the extra protection that a 4-season tent provides.
3-4 SEASON TENTS have versatile, hybrid designs that balance elemental protection with adjustable ventilation and warmth. Like a jack of all trades, and a good choice if you plan on using one tent year-round. That being said, they aren't the best choice for hot summer nights or for harsh winters.
How much room do you need?
People come in all different shapes and sizes. Except triangles, nobody comes in triangles. So don't put too much stock into tent sleep capacity, instead use it as a good starting point. One person (1p) tents are self-explanatory, they're good for one person. Two person (2p) tents, though, are trickier because they are often very snug for two people and sometimes function better as a one person tent with a little extra room. Another key factor is how much gear you're bringing along and how much time you think you'll spend inside. I own a 1p tent, but for a majority of my backpacking I take a light 2p tent.
If you're a tall person, congrats, the world smiles upon you. However, when tent shopping there are some disadvantages. If you're a bit over 6 feet tall, you'll have to start checking out the floor dimensions. Some tents just aren't long enough for giants. Tent height can also be annoying, but it shouldn't factor into your decision as most of your tent time will be spent lying down.
The 1st and maybe 2nd line of defense.
I touched on differences between the number of walls already, but now I'm gonna hammer it home. Your options are either single-walled or double-walled. There are benefits to each style of tent, but for most camping purposes, a double-walled tent is what you'll be looking for. Here's a little more info.
SINGLE-WALLED TENTS are most often utilized for winter camping and alpine mountaineering. They aren't nearly as versatile as double-walled tents, but they really shine in specific situations. When you're hunkering down for the night in a howling wind on a precarious outcropping, you'll appreciate the ease of setup, durable protection and warmth of a single, strong wall. This streamlined, simple design makes them lighter than a double-walled tent that could perform the same job.
DOUBLE-WALLED TENTS are the best choice for most types of trips. The two walls are an inner mesh body and an outer waterproof fly. The fly is secured onto the tent pole ends (either with grommets or clips), and usually requires a little staking and guying to give the tent and the vestibule their full shape. The fly is positioned off the ground enough to allow airflow into the mesh body for plenty of ventilation and minimal condensation.
Number of Doors
convenience and quality of life.
Number of doors and their orientation can be big factors in terms of quality of life at your campsite. Additional doors will mean more weight, but will also mean less crawling over people in the middle of the night. Nobody likes being crawled over, especially when they're trying to sleep. This becomes even more of an issue in snowy or rainy conditions when exiting/entering the tent requires putting on and taking off additional gear.
Weight / Fabrics
Find the best strength-to-weight ratio.
When sifting through tent specs, you'll come across a unit called denier which is often abbreviated as D. This is a measurement of fabric density and it correlates directly with weight and durability. The higher the denier, the heavier and stronger the fabric. So when you notice a weight discrepancy between two similar tents, check out the fabric weight. Ultralight tents usually use a low denier fabric to cut down on total tent weight. It's best to use a footprint with ultralight tents for this very reason, their fabrics don't put a premium on durability.
Tent smarter, not harder.
VESTIBULE - A tent's vestibule is the area outside the tent body that is still covered by the fly. It is a great place to store gear, keep wet items, or shed/add a layer before getting into/out of your tent. In snowy or rainy conditions, it can often fill up quickly, so make sure you have enough vestibule space to handle your gear and anybody else's who might be sharing the tent.
FREE STANDING - Free-standing tents will be able to stand on their own with just the tent poles. They are easy to set up and don't require guy lines running all over your campsite. This means less maneuvering around like a criminal sneaking past laser trip wires.
FAST PITCH - Some tents have a fast-pitch option, which means they can be set up using just the fly and poles to make a structured tarp. This is a cool feature that adds versatility to your tent, as it can be used for ultralight trips.
Think of these as tent enhancers.
FOOTPRINT - Also called a groundcloth, this puppy goes underneath your tent floor to protect it from being damaged by the terrain. It also gives you an extra layer of protection against wet ground. These are usually specific to models of tents as they need to match the tent shape. If a footprint is too big, it might collect rainwater which could pool underneath your tent and eventually seep through your tent floor.
GEAR LOFT - A gear loft is a mesh platform that hangs at the top of a tent and is an excellent place to store miscellaneous items such as a phone, a headlamp or lantern, or a small hedgehog. These are usually sold separately (the gear lofts, that is, and probably the hedgehogs, too), and are specific to certain tent models, so be sure to check that out.
STAKES AND ANCHORS - Stakes can be tricky to keep track of. It's one of those things where you lose some from time to time, but also find them at sites too. But if you lose more than you find, you might want to have a replacement or two on hand. There are also special stakes that grab harder in loose soil, sand or snow.
COMPRESSION SACK - If pack space is at a premium for your trip, get your hands on a compression sack for your tent. Just stuff your tent and fly in there and pull down on the straps to make it as small as humanly possible.
REPAIR KIT - It's not fun to think about, but there's a chance your tent might eventually run across a fabric tear or pole snap. Hopefully it's something small that can wait until you get home, but sometimes a snapped pole in the backcountry can be an issue that requires immediate attention. It's always a safe bet to keep a pole splint and a small fabric patch on hand.
Alternatives to tents
TARP - Using a tarp as a shelter is a good ultralight hiking option as they are substantially lighter and pack smaller than tents, but should only be considered by experienced hikers and campers. There are a lot of factors that can affect tarp usage, such as bugs, wind, rain (especially on uneven terrain), and frozen ground. These factors can all be overcome with proper set-up, but may be discouraging to novice hikers. Once mastered, though, tarps are incredibly versatile and can be set up in numerous ways depending on the conditions.
BIVY - Bivvies, or bivouacs, are lightweight, waterproof shelters designed to fit over a sleeping bag. They were originally intended to be used in emergency situations, but nowadays can also be used in combination with a tarp as a minimalist sleep system. There are serious drawbacks to this setup, however, mainly that most bivvies do not breath very well, so they build up condensation which will leave your sleeping bag pretty wet in the morning.
HAMMOCK - Hammock shelters have just caught on recently, and if you enjoy sleeping in a hammock, it might be a great option for you. Hammocks ignore rough, rocky and wet terrain and can give you a comfortable, level sleep regardless of the slant of the ground. You just need to make sure you’ll be around some trees. When used with a tarp, you and your hammock will be sheltered from the elements.
Now get out there already
With all of this information in mind, you should be able to narrow down your tent search to one that perfectly compliments your outdoor activities. There's a certain special feeling being a tent-owner. It's kinda like being a home-owner, but hundreds of thousands of dollars cheaper. It's just nice to know that you have the power to sleep comfortably no matter what you're doing.