Knowing how to shop for a tent can be daunting, especially if you're new to camping. And in this time of social distancing, camping has become a newfound favorite hobby for many who want to enjoy time with friends and family while staying outside. It can be a welcome break from daily life and a chance to unplug and reconnect with nature. On the other hand, it can also be wet, cold, and exhausting (sometimes it’s all of the above). Having the right tent can help bring more of the good stuff and avoid some of the bad.
“Think of your tent as your home in the outdoors,” says Gabi Rosenbrien, a product development manager at outdoor gear company Nemo. “You want it to keep you warm, dry, and comfortable.” Above all, that’s what we’re looking for in a tent: a home away from home.
Just like searching for the perfect home, there are a ton of tent options, and it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. You want to be sure you’re investing in the right tent for your needs. The family car campers with two kids and a dog are going to want a way different tent than the solo backpacker, but that doesn’t mean one tent is necessarily better than the other; they’re just meant for different conditions.
With this in mind, we think of tents as falling into three main groups:
Car camping: Car camping is when you drive up to your campsite, so you don’t have to worry so much about the weight and volume of your gear. The key things to look out for here are comfort, space, and ease of setup. Many people will use family or backpacking tents for car camping too, so there’s plenty of overlap between these three categories. “I usually like to balance space and weight for a comfy, but not superheavy setup,” says Emily Reed, an outdoor writer, photographer, and videographer with years of former outdoor buyer’s guide experience.
Backpacking/thru-hiking: Since you’ll be hiking with all your stuff, weight is key when it comes to backpacking. But it can be a fine line to toe between weight, size, and performance. A little extra weight may be worth it for more durability or space. For that reason, we’ll test the weight, but we’ll also be looking for good weight-to-performance and space ratio.
Group/family camping: “If you want to fit your whole family inside [your tent], space and durability is going to be a priority,” says Reed. Unless you’re family backpacking (kudos to you), don’t worry too much about weight, and focus more on space, durability, and ventilation (four humans and a dog breathing in a small space all night can get damp and stuffy real quick if there’s not enough airflow). Rosenbrien also recommends “a standing-height shelter” for more comfort.
All of these groups will follow some main criteria, but the specific use will help tell you what features are most important. With all that said, we talked to a variety of different tent experts, from tent designers to hard-core thru-hikers to tent testers, to get the dirt on what features to look out for and how to test for them. With their expert direction, we’ve established these criteria to use when testing tents for our own product reviews; you’ll want to consider these features in your own tent-buying journey. Here's how to shop for a tent.
Tent Evaluation Criteria
When testing, we evaluate tents we review by using them in the situation they’re made for as detailed above.
This measurement is most important for backpackers. You don’t want to be lugging around a 20-pound tent on a backpacking trip, but there is a limit to lightweight. “It doesn't matter if your tent weighs less than a pound if it leaks water on the trail,” says Reed. “So look for tent materials with ripstop nylon additives to help prevent tears.”
Along similar lines, more tent space generally leads to a more comfortable camping experience, so sometimes it’s worth taking on a little extra weight for more room.
If you’re looking for a lightweight tent, aim for a tent you can at least sit up in. “The average person’s head is about three feet above the ground when sitting down,” Rosenbrien notes. If weight isn’t your highest concern and you plan to spend more than a few days at a time in your tent, you may want to go for a heavier tent that you can stand up in.
For our testing method, we’ll measure overall weight, packed size, floor space, vestibule area (extra space the rainfly covers), height, and total interior volume.
A good tent should last you at least four or five years with moderate use. You’ll want a fully waterproof layer, taped or treated seams, and sturdy materials. Rosenbrien also recommends looking for aluminum poles and nylon or polyester fabrics.
To test durability, we’ll note the materials and spend at least two nights camping in the field with the tent, ideally more. Unfortunately, this won’t perfectly measure long-term durability, but it’ll give a good idea for overall durability.
Ease of Setup and Takedown
A tent that’s easy to set up and take down makes a world of difference for new and experienced campers alike. “[With a quick setup,] if you find yourself in a storm, you can quickly throw up your tent and get in without everything getting wet,” says Deirdre Denali Rosenberg, a wildlife photographer and Backpackers gear reviewer.
To test this, we’ll practice the tent setup beforehand (which you should always do before adventuring with a new tent), then time how long it takes to set up and take down the tent. We’ll time how long it takes with one person and with two (or up to however many people the tent is supposed to hold).
One of the least pleasant experiences to have while camping is waking up to find a puddle in your tent or having water drip on you all night. Unless you plan to entirely cancel your camping trip if there’s even a 5% chance of rain (no judgment, you totally can), you’re going to want a tent with a good rainfly or integral waterproofing. Even if you have no intention of camping in wet conditions, let’s be honest: shit happens. Good waterproofing means that even when you do get a sprinkle (or downpour), it’s not going to ruin your camping trip.
To test a tent’s waterproofing, we aim to spend at least one night in the tent in rainy conditions, although this is not always possible. We’ll also do a “hose test." This means we’ll hose down (or use a similar method) the pitched tent for at least 15 seconds with moderate water pressure and see if any water gets in.
Usability and Comfort
“The biggest thing I look for when testing a tent is ease of use and attention to small details,” says Reed. Think internal gear lofts to keep headlamps or glasses, a drying line, color-coded poles and clips for setup, and a double door.
Most of this part of the test will come from testing in the field. If we reach for a nonexistent headlamp pocket in the middle of the night, we’ll make a note. If we’re in love with an easy-open stargazing roof, we’ll make a note.
All of our experts emphasized that when it comes to price, your tent isn’t the place to skimp. “If you try to use a cheap tent and it breaks in a storm, you suddenly have nowhere to live,” says Rosenberg.
At the same time, depending on what you’re looking for, your tent doesn’t have to break the bank. Yes, you can definitely find tents that are $800 or even $1,000 (especially if you get into rooftop tents), but you can also find quality tents in the $100–$300 range. You can find cheaper, decent tents, but then you’ll want to take a good hard look at the materials and potential trade-offs.
“I always recommend going to a store and setting up tents before buying,” Reed says. But that’s not always possible, especially in pandemic times. In that case, Reed recommends buying from an outdoor retailer with a good return policy, so regardless, you won’t get stuck with a tent you don’t like.
How SELF Tests Tents for Review
Spend at least two nights in the field doing the activity the tent is made for.
Time setup. Practice setting it up beforehand, then time how long it takes when you know what you’re doing. Take notes on ease, speed, and how many people you needed to set it up. Time for one person, then time again for two, and again up to the number of people the tent is meant for (ex: four people setting up a four-person tent).
Time takedown and packing up. Same rules as for setting up.
Ideally, spend at least one night sleeping in the tent in the rain.
While the tent is fully set up, hose it down using moderate water pressure for 15 seconds and note if any water gets in. If so, how much?
Weigh the whole tent and measure the width, length, and height of the tent.
Ask yourself how this tent compares to other tents you’ve used. How comfortable is it? What extra features does it have? How easy is it to use? Is there anything you wish you had?
Experts Consulted for These Guidelines
Emily Reed, freelance outdoor writer, photographer, and videographer and former outdoor buyer’s guide tester
Deirdre Denali Rosenberg, wildlife photographer and Backpackers gear and tent reviewer
Gabi Rosenbrien, Nemo product development manager
Product Reviews Using These Guidelines
Originally Appeared on SELF