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When my husband and I set out to buy our first tent together, we headed out to our local sporting goods store with a short list of requirements: must have enough head room to stand up inside, fit an air mattress and be CHEAP! We picked a traditional, $30 no-fuss, easy-to-put-together square-shaped 4-man tent with a rain fly. We set it up in the backyard and slept in it the night we brought it home. It fit us, 2 dogs and a king-sized, blow-up air mattress quite well, with a little extra room on the sides. "No problem," we thought, stuffed it back into its carrying bag and let it sit until our camping trip a week later.

We headed out to the lake to begin a three-night camping trip. The weather was hot, sunny and dry all day. We swam, we grilled, drank a beer overlooking the lake at sunset and then made a camp fire for smores when it got dark. We crawled into our tent, expecting a fine night to match such a fine first day. At some point during the night, I woke up to a drip...drip....drip....drip...on my face! A storm had blown in and it was raining cats and dogs outside! We had the rain fly up, but our tent was still leaking. Unfortunately, the leak was only on my side of the tent and by the time we caught it, it had leaked into my duffle bag and soaked all of my clothes. I spent the next 3 days and 2 nights in my swimsuit and a pair of my husband's boxer shorts. Not exactly comfortable!

Though we had all the best intentions to get a tent that fit our budget, could fit us and the dogs and have a tall center point, we didn't take into account many important factors you should consider when buying a tent. After considering how much you can spend on the tent, start looking at these factors:

  1. How many of you will be camping? Always pick a bigger tent than how many people will be sleeping in the tent. A two-man tent holds two people with no gear inside and not much room for moving around. For a one-night stay this might be fine, but if you're going out for a few nights or a week, you will want more room.
  2. When are you doing your camping? Tents are also made for different seasons. If you are doing only warm-weather camping or only winter camping, your tent needs will be different.
  3. Where will you be camping? Do you mountain climb or go hiking? Will you be primitive/walk-in camping or car camping? Weight and size will be an important factor in picking out your tent.

You can find tents in polyester, nylon and canvas. Polyester tents have better UV-resistance and hold out moisture better than nylon, but nylon is lighter weight. Canvas is very durable, but quite heavy. The tent's poles are usually made of either fiberglass or aluminum. Fiberglass poles are more flexible and durable than aluminum, but aluminum poles are stronger and hold more weight. The more poles a tent comes with, the more stable the tent will be.

Seasonal Tents:
There are 3 basic types of seasonal tents: 3-season, 4-season and convertible. Most leisure campers will want a 3-season tent. These tents are good for summer, fall and spring camping, but are not rated for winter camping. A 4-season tent has maximum weatherproofing, but may not have enough ventilation for summer months. A convertible tent is a 4-season tent that converts to a 3-season tent.

Tent Shapes:
Tents come in a huge variety of shapes. The typical ones are

  • Dome tents are tents that use poles that crisscross over the top and are good for windy areas.
  • A-Frames have steep-pitched walls, curved ridge poles, are easy to set-up and lightweight, but are not particularly wind or wet-weather friendly. The steeper the walls, the roomier the tent gets. A-frames also offer increased ventilation and help reduce humidity in the tent.
  • Cabin tents offer lots of room and have vertical walls. Cabin tents are usually heavy and not easy to set-up, but may be perfect for a larger family who goes car camping.
  • Mountaineering tents are usually more expensive tents that are designed especially for severe weather conditions.
  • There are also modified A-Frame tents, umbrella tents, hoop tents and wedge tents.

    Tent Features:
    Tents are either single-walled or double-walled. Single-wall tents are made of waterproof material and will not come with a rain fly. (The rain fly is a cover for your tent and can help prevent your tent from leaking). Single-walled tents are not particularly good for hot weather camping.

    Double-walled tents are heavier than single-walled, but are usually less expensive and will use a rain fly.

    If you choose a tent with a rain fly, it should be made of coated polyester or nylon and wrap around the tent. Pay attention to where the rain fly lays over your tent. You should look for a tent with a rain fly that has maximum space between the fly and tent. This allows for less chance of leakage. Also the lower the rain fly reaches to the ground, the less ventilation you will have in your tent. Ideally, the rain fly should cover all seams of the tent (seams are any point where your tent can leak), but not cover the ventilation windows. A tent with double-stitched seams will help prevent leaks as well. To be extra safe, seal the seams with waterproofing before you go out camping.

    A lot of tents these days will be "free-standing" tents. This means that the tent will not need to be staked down, but it is still a good idea to purchase a tent that comes with optional stakes. My cheap tent came with plastic stakes, but it is a good idea to buy metal stakes instead of using the included plastic ones. Staking down your tent provides better stability.

    Consider the dimensions of the tent. Not only do you probably want more space than just how many bodies can fit in there to sleep, but how tall is the tent at its highest point? Will you comfortably fit in it sitting down? If one of you or both of you or all of you are 6' or taller, make sure pick a tent that has enough floor space to stretch out while lying down!

    The floor of your tent should rise up a few inches onto the walls of the tent. There should not be seams along the bottom of the tent. Remember, seams are where water can get in! Even if you pick out a tent with a tub floor, you should also buy a tarp to put between the tent and the ground. The tarp will not only protect the tent's floor from rips and tears, but it will also prevent water from building up and seeping into your tent. Buy a tarp no bigger than the tent's floor. The tarp should not poke out. If you buy a tarp too big, it has the potential to gather water and start leaking.

    Since I camp in Texas, a tent with a lot of ventilation is very important to me. In the summer, we can stay in the high 90's, even during the night. Look for mesh doors, windows and roof panels that will increase the ventilation in your tent. The mesh on the tent should be tight, no-see-um mesh to keep bugs out. Some tents offer "vestibules". The vestibule is an area that extends outside your tent that will cover your gear if you choose not to store it inside.

    From my experience, the biggest and cheapest tent isn't always your best bet, you also need to consider weight, construction quality, and season. When setting your budget for your camping trip, your tent should get the highest priority. Write down your requirements and then start shopping around within your budget. Remember:

    1. Size/Weight
    2. Material
    3. Shape
    4. Poles
    5. Rain fly
    6. Ground tarp

    And have a wonderful, comfortable and non-leaky camping season!