Choosing the right tent can make or break your adventure — and in some cases the proper selection is a matter of safety. It’s hard to know if you are choosing something that will have the same appeal several days into a trip. Selecting your new “home away from home” can seem overwhelming with so many comparable products on the market, but it doesn’t have to be. Luckily, we’ve been doing this for a while and can help you know what to look for.
DESTINATION AND ACTIVITY
Where are you going? If you’re headed to Bonnaroo, you’ll be able to get by with a significantly less technical tent than if you are planning to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail. Your car camping/festival tent can be inexpensive, spacious, and heavy, whereas you would never want to carry it in a backpack. Alternately, you probably won’t want to be crawling in and out of your backpacking tent at a music festival if you can help it.
How many people will be staying in the tent? Tent size is normally defined as 1-person, 2-person, 3-person, etc. The number of people camping—and your relationship to them—typically dictates the amount of space you’ll want. You probably won’t mind spooning with your significant other in a cozy 2-man tent, but would most likely prefer to give your buddy, Larry, some personal space when he’s snoring in your face all night. That 3-man isn’t sounding so bad now, is it? Sometimes a little space goes a long way, especially on your fourth night without a shower. After all, you can always divide up the tent parts amongst yourselves to save weight. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for a solo hiker to take a 2-person tent for extra room.
If you are heading on a backpacking trip, the “livable space” inside a tent is an important consideration, especially if you aren’t going to change your plans due to inclement weather. The tent floor dimensions are rarely an accurate representation of how much room there is in the tent. Many companies are now adding an additional bar across the top of the traditional dome style tents for extra head room. You’ll appreciate that internal space when you need to change out of wet clothes, sit upright, and move around your tentmate if the weather keeps you inside. On the other hand, a lot of space is not crucial if you plan on hiking “ultralight” or plan your trips around good weather and only plan to be in your tent when you’re sleeping.
When do you plan on going most frequently? If you’re headed into the backcountry primarily during the summer, you will probably appreciate a tent body constructed mostly of mesh. Typical three-season tents with lots of mesh—such as the MSR Hubba Hubba—act like free standing bug shelters and are perfect for keeping critters out on warm summer nights. However, tents with mesh bodies can feel drafty in the winter even covered with by rain fly.
If you’re headed into the mountains during the winter or rainy season, it’s important to analyze the tent’s functionality in heavy rain or snow. Make sure that the rainfly provides ample shelter for the tent body and comes close to the ground so that water doesn’t splash off the ground and into the tent. It is also typical for three- and four-season tents to have less mesh or the option to zip the mesh closed with solid nylon for increased insulation. Four-season tents are typically too well-insulated for summer and best reserved for winter camping trips and mountaineering.
A decently-sized vestibule can serve as storage for your pack and boots, a place to dump wet clothing during foul weather, or a dog house if your canine is coming along. There are two basic locations for vestibules: front/rear and side access. A single entrance in the front/rear saves weight and is convenient because you don’t have to crawl over anyone to get in and out. However, side doors usually require less scooting to enter and exit. And if the tent has two doors, you each get two separated vestibules.
Weight is usually an important factor for most people while choosing a tent. We have a saying around the shop: “Typically, the less there is of something, the more it costs.” The trick is to find a tent that both fits your budget and feels like home.
In order to achieve “ultra-lightness,” tents are made from the most expensive materials which are usually the least durable. Many “ultralight” tents also have the least amount of head room, floor space, and tightest vestibules, which won’t be a problem as long as you know what you’re in for and plan the rest of your gear accordingly. For instance, don’t be surprised when you set up your 2 pound 5 ounce Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 2 for $349 and realize it’s barely big enough for one person. But, hey, it’s a 2 pound 5 ounce tent, ideal for a thru-hiker with minimal gear.
It seems that most people prefer to spend a little less, carry the small amount of extra weight, and get a tent with more features, space, and creature comforts. You don’t want to find yourself worrying about the kids ripping the zipper off of the mesh fabric or Fido’s claws shredding the ultralight tent floor. Plus, depending on your budget, you can put the money you would have spent on the super-high end tent toward a new stove, sleeping bag, or ground pad. The Marmot Tungsten is a great value at $199 for the 2-person and only weighs 5 pounds 4 ounces.
POLES AND PITCHING
Practice pitching your tent at home before you leave for a trip. You want to be quick and efficient especially if it’s dark or raining. Take a close look at how the pole structure attaches to the tent floor and body. Metal grommets are standard for the tent floor, but some manufacturers like Nemo use plastic “Jake’s feet” which act like a ball-joint to keep the poles connected to the floor while you insert the poles on the other side. If you’ve ever experienced the poles coming out of the grommets immediately upon walking over to insert them on the other side, you’ll understand the value of a mechanism that keeps them in place. There are definitely tricks to maintaining tension so that the poles don’t come out of the grommets, which takes practice.
Also, look at how many poles the tent has. Several tents on the market like the Big Agnes Copper Spur and the MSR Hubba Hubba have a single-pole design (which means that multiple poles are connected into one system) allowing quick and easy set up. There are several tents that have unique pole configurations that can be hard to set up, especially if you’re not sure how the tent pitches.
Ultimately, the best way to conduct the research for your potential purchase is to come into our shop and set up all the options. Bring the people you’ll be camping with, set all the tents up, get inside, and lay down in it. There’s no better way to discover things that you like and don’t like about a tent than conducting hands-on research. You can look at all the data and dimensions and read reviews, but an in-person experience will win every time. Plus, you’ll get to play with tents, which is always a bonus for us.
Originally written by RootsRated for Rock/Creek.