Last year we bought a new tent; our first joint camping purchase! Being the thorough people we are, we did our research before any money was spent. Below is an abbreviated guide to choosing the tent for you, based on what we learned.
Car camping vs Backpacking
What type of camping will you be doing? If you don’t expect to backpack (which requires a light and mobile tent) you may want to buy a larger 4 person tent. A larger tent will be more comfortable, provide some standing room, and have the extra space to invite friends to join you.
We didn’t put much thought into buying a tent for more than two people. However the first time we used our tent while car camping, I can say that I was a bit envious of the adjacent campsites with the large tents that could be easily walked in and out of.
If you expect to ever use your tent while backpacking, minimizing the tent’s weight should be a high priority. The best way to minimize weight? To buy a tent that offers no more space than you really need and that is made of light weight materials. If you have multiple people in your group, you can always distribute the weight of the tent throughout multiple backpacks.
There is one big expectation to my suggestion of buying a larger sized tent for car camping, and that is if you expect to camp in cold weather. In cold weather, an overly large tent may not stay as warm as a smaller tent when heated by your body temperature.
Rainfly and Footprint
No matter what tent you choose, I suggest buying both a rainfly and a footprint. (They are not always included in the cost of a tent, so make sure you check before you buy.) A rainfly is the outer most layer of a tent (often separate from the tent) which protects the tent from rain. Most tents sold at outdoor stores come with a rainfly which utilizes the same poles and stakes as the tent, but a rainfly can also be as simple as setting up a tarp with some rope. Instead of a rainfly, some tents are ‘single wall tents’ or tents whose window’s have a zip-up panel to keep the water out, but these seem to be less popular today and I understand condensation can be an issue with them.
The footprint of a tent is like a tarp that goes between the ground and your tent floor. The primary purpose of a footprint is to protect the floor of your tent and to keep it dry from ground water. If your tent doesn’t come with a specialized footprint you can use a tarp, however make sure that the tarp does not extend as far as the rainfly. The water draining off of the rainfly should go into the ground and not onto the footprint.
I think the coolest thing about a tent, rainfly, and footprint is the versatility it gives you. Hiking in a dry climate? Leave the rainfly at home. Hiking during a season without bugs? You can use just the rainfly and footprint and leave the tent at home.
Vestibules and Doors
I have found multiple doors and vestibules on a tent to be a great amenity. A vestibule is the covered space outside of a tent created by the rainfly. I love vestibules! They give you the perfect amount of extra, dry space to put excess gear bags and shoes that you don’t want to halt into the tent. If you have a small tent, this extra space can be especially beneficial.
Multiple doors are also a nice amenity to have in a smaller sized tent. Having two doors allows both people in a two-man tent to have their own entrance eliminating the need to crawl over each other to get in and out of the tent at nighttime.
Material and Poles
If you are harsh on your tent, the material the tent and poles are made out of may be very important to you. Likewise, if you plan to backpack a lot and really need to keep your weight down, you might want to look for lightweight fabrics and materials. For us, these items weren’t as important. As long as a tent has good reviews for being waterproof and insulating/cooling it would likely suit our needs.
We ended up buying a REI Half Dome 2 Plus. The Half Dome and Half Dome Plus had good reviews and fit our most important criteria. It was small enough that we can do some backpacking with it, but the ‘plus’ gave us the bit of extra space a tall guy like Jon needs to be comfortable. It was a reasonable price for the amount of camping we do, and it has two doors, two vestibules, and a few gear pockets. One con we’ve had so far is that the footprint is sold separately. Our REI store was out of the footprints, and our first camping trip with the tent happened before we were able to have one shipped to us. Overall we’ve been very happy with this tent.
If you are like us and want a solution that offers lightweight materials for backpacking, but also want a solution that maximizes comfortability and space, then your best bet is to get two tents. We have found that there are no tents that offer both characteristics as they are on opposite sides of the spectrum. By increasing comfortability, you also increase the weight and size of the tent. If you don’t want to empty your wallet, your best option may be to compromise and get a tent somewhere in the middle, like we did.
There are a lot of tent guides and reviews online, my favorite resources were;
- REI Learning Website – Backpacking Tents:How to choose
- REI – Tents for camping: How to choose
- REI- go to a store and talk to a person! That’s what we did and they were very helpful.
- Backpacker – Tent Buying Guide
- Serra Trading Post – The Tent Guide