How to Set Up a Tent

In this article, Camping & Hiking expert Micah D. gives the basic steps to setting up a tent so you can have an easy start to your adventure.

Photo by Scott Goodwill
Published on

Whether you are a new camper with your first tent or an experienced adventurer, setting up a tent can either be an enjoyable experience that tees up the rest of your camping trip for success or it can be a wildly frustrating experience that ends with broken poles, missing tent stakes, clips, and fasteners, and a disappointing start to what was supposed to be a relaxing time to unplug. In either case, learning how to set your tent up the proper way can save valuable vacation time and ease the stress of setting up your initial campsite. The goal of this article is to provide the basic steps, regardless of tent type, that if followed, will lead to an easy and pleasant start to your camping experience and outdoor adventure.

To make this easy, we’ve broken setting up a tent down into four succinct steps:

  1. Pre-trip Preparation
  2. Campsite Selection and Preparation
  3. Tent Preparation and Setup
  4. Staking and Guy Lines

Pre-Trip Preparation

Whether you are car camping, backpacking, or hiking, the best way to guarantee a successful tent setup is to make sure that you have everything you need before you leave the house and that you are intimately familiar with your tent and its construction.

So, before you head out for a vacation to one of the nation’s beautiful national parks, practice setting up the tent in the backyard or in your living room. Do this four or five times! There is nothing worse than getting to the end of a long day and fighting with your tent when you just want to relax. Your home is an extremely controlled environment, and by pitching your tent there, you will become well-versed in how it is put together and also find your personal shortcuts and tips. After doing this, no matter what the situation is upon arrival at your campsite, you are already at an advantage.

While you have the tent out in your home, verify that the tent is not torn or damaged, that the stakes and guy lines are ready, and that all of your poles are properly packaged with your tent. There is nothing more frustrating than being ready for bed only to find that you have forgotten your tent poles.

Campsite Selection and Preparation

An open tent lays on a flat bed of fallen pine needles. A green hammock hands from between two thin pine trees. The ground is littered with pinecones.

Photo by Laura Pluth

Almost as important as ensuring that you have all of the important parts of your tent is the selection of the campsite itself.

For starters, you’ll want to select an area that is relatively flat and as clear of debris as possible. Once you’ve found that flat spot, if there are pine cones, twigs, or rocks on the ground that could potentially damage your tent floor, go ahead and clear them out of the way (notice in the picture above how the site is flat, utilizes natural protection, and you can actually see the pine cones that were cleared from the area). You don’t want to discover that you’ve placed your tent on a rocky area or at an angle when you are in your sleeping bag for the evening, so clear it first!

Once the ground is relatively clear, you might want to start laying out your tent, but wait! Campsite selection is not just as simple as finding a flat clear area. Start to ask yourself questions like, Do I want the sun to come in first thing in the morning? Am I too close to a water source? Is the ground suitable for stakes? What is the weather forecast? When asking yourself those questions please remember the following principles when making your decision:

  1. First and foremost, choose a site that abides by the Leave No Trace (LNT) Principles. Their site will include guidance on how to effectively pack out your trash such as water bottles and plastic bags. LNT also calls for selecting a campsite that is on durable ground which doesn’t require you putting in significant effort to clear the campsite and set up your tent.
  2. Try to select a previously used campsite as they are often already cleared and flat. By using a previously used site, you are reducing your environmental impact.
  3. Do not set up a tent within 200 feet of a water source if possible – being close to a water source promotes condensation in the tent and you may end up with some critters in (or at least around) your tent.
  4. Keep your campsite small to reduce your impact on the land.
  5. Orient your tent towards the sun. (Or away from it depending on preference!)
  6. Set your tent up in a spot with natural shade.
  7. Set up your tent with high winds and driving rain in mind. If natural protection is available, use it!

Tent Preparation and Setup

Once you have found a perfect spot and selected and cleared your campsite, you are ready for the fun part! This can be done as a pair or as a solo camper. First, start by simply removing your tent and its associated components and doing a quick inventory to ensure that you have a footprint, the tent body, poles, and tent stakes/guy lines. Once you have confirmed your materials you are ready to begin.

Start by simply laying out your footprint, tarp, or groundsheet to provide protection for the tent floor. If you do not have a footprint, it’s okay. Though the ground is rough on the bottom of your tent, most are made to withstand some normal stress. You can stake out your footprint at this time if it is windy or if it makes it easier for you by simply driving the tent stakes into the ground through the eyelet or corner loops of your footprint with a small hammer or mallet. If it is windy, try to orient your tent so that the side of the tent is taking the brunt of the breeze.

Once the tent’s footprint is laid out, take your tent and spread it out across the footprint, ensuring that the top of the tent is facing the sky. Smooth the fabric out as much as possible, ensure that all four corners are fully exposed, and check that the tent is laying as flat as possible. Fully assemble your poles, starting with the end of the pole, and then insert them according to the instructions provided with your tent (which you honestly shouldn’t need if you have practiced).

Now, here is where it can get tricky depending on the type of tent you have as tents have all sorts of different pole configurations, so follow those instructions! Yes, even you experienced campers! Whether it’s a dome tent, backpacking tent, instant tent, or simply a survival shelter, the instructions will vary. Some tents have internal frames, some have external frames, some use hub poles, and others use standalone collapsible poles. However, regardless of the pole configuration, your tent-specific instructions will inform you of the proper pole placement. You will need to follow those specific instructions here in order to have the most rewarding experience! If you have sufficiently practiced setting up your tent at home you should be able to set up the tent without the instructions, however, the first few times in the wild you should have them ready just in case!

A couple of things to think about here before you go all out. For starters, your best option is to set the tent up during daylight hours. If there are high winds, feel free to stake down the tent and footprint before inserting the poles. Likewise, if it is rainy or there is other bad weather and precipitation, you may want to move as quickly as you can to keep the rain out of the tent. Some tents have a rainfly that can be used as a makeshift shelter or protective barrier to set your tent up under and reduce moisture so this may be an option for you. However, you do want to take your time with the poles. This can be frustrating as poles tend to come undone or seem too rigid to work. I assure you, take your time and you’ll be alright. Once the poles are properly inserted, the tent should be fully erect and freestanding. It will finally look like a tent at this point so you can safely attach the rainfly and get your gear out of the elements, but you are not quite done!

Staking and Guy Line Guidance

A black and red tent is set up in a forest. The rain cover is on and covered in raindrops. Red autumn leaves are partially obscuring the scene.

Photo by Manny Moreno

This step is especially important when heavy weather is present, but there are many advantages to doing this oft-skipped step correctly. With respect to the stakes, you’ll want to stake out the tent so that it is tight, but not so tight that it is pulling at your tent material, altering the shape of the tent, or pulling the stakes in the ground. Ensure that, if necessary, the footprint, tent, and rainfly are all properly attached to the stakes (not all rainflys run to the ground). Once staked out, we can move to the guy lines.

When moving to tighten the guy lines, your rainfly is often the best barometer for how well your tent is pitched and fastened. A taut rainfly means a good setup and stable tent, whereas a saggy rainfly means you may be in for a long night. On the first corner, tighten the guy line to remove about 75% of the slack, then move to the other three and tighten them down fully prior to moving back to the first corner and getting full tension there as well. Once you have tightened the last corner, you are done!

Congratulations on a successful tent setup, but be forewarned, even the best setup tents are vulnerable to changing weather conditions so heavy rain, wind, snow, etc. will affect the integrity of your tent throughout the night. The good news is, generally just a few quick adjustments on the guy lines from this point and you are back in business!

Once complete, simply repeat the steps if you move campsites and you are well on your way to a very rewarding experience! Reach out to a Camping & Hiking expert here on Curated for any questions or to find the perfect tent for your needs.

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Written By
What is up! My name is Micah and I am a highly experienced camper, backpacker and outdoorsman. I currently reside in the megalopolis of Huntsville, AL and have been camping, backpacking, and travelling since about the time I could confidently walk. I have recently been hiking mostly in the southeast...

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