5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Buying a Tent

Choosing a tent can be overwhelming. Camping expert Alex Dolan breaks it down - here are five questions to ask yourself when buying a tent.

A white tent looking out on a forest, lake, and mountains in the distance.

Photo by Amy Boissonneault

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Owning a tent might just be your gateway to enjoying the outdoors on a whole new level. Pack it in the car and drive to your favorite campsite for the weekend, carry it in your backpack as you hike into the mountains, or share it with friends and family while escaping the city. It can be your home away from home wherever you may roam. Owning a tent opens the door to countless adventures, but choosing that tent can be overwhelming – consider the following 5 questions when tent shopping.

1. What type of camping will I be doing?

The features you search for in a tent will vary greatly depending on the primary type of camping you plan to do. Consider whether you plan to drive to your favorite State Park campsites (this is often referred to as "car camping" or “frontcountry”), hike deep into the backcountry, or pack up your canoe/kayak/bike and head off in search of nature. When carrying all of your gear on your back, every ounce becomes noticeable as the miles start to stack up. A backpacking tent can be as simple as two hiking poles and a tarp. In fact there are some really cool tents out there that are designed to be set up using your hiking poles. This means you won’t need to carry tent poles, which are often the heaviest components of your tent. It is always great to have multipurpose tools that turn one piece of gear into many on a backpacking trip.

The Black Diamond - Beta Light Tarp Tent is one of these ultra-light tents that utilizes your hiking poles for set up. At a mere 1lb 8oz average packed weight, you’ll hardly notice it in your pack. While it does not feature a floor, you could pair it with the Black Diamond - Beta Bug Tent for ground protection and mesh if you are expecting mosquitos or other unwanted critter visitors that you want to keep out of your tent.

Car campers, however, have far more options as these aren’t issues they need to weigh (:wink:). Car campers are only limited by the amount of gear that will fit inside their vehicle, so they have the luxury of setting up a huge base camp to use as the hub of their outdoor adventures with a master chef's kitchen and a castle of a tent. Bring all the camp chairs you can find to make sure everyone has a seat around the fire.

2. Which seasons will I go camping? What type of weather will I encounter?

Most designs are three-season tents, intended for use during spring, summer, and fall. If you plan to do any winter camping, you should purchase a four-season tent to protect you from the elements. Anything made to be used in the snow should be a very high quality tent (this will undoubtedly be reflected in the price). The outer layer of a four-season tent will be protecting you from sub-zero temperatures and high winds. It should create a cocoon of livable and comfortable interior space to ride out any winter storms.

Your best option for a summer camping tent will have lots of ventilation (mesh panels). A mostly mesh tent will allow more air to flow freely and keep you cool. Airflow will also allow your tent to dry more quickly should you allow moisture inside your tent. All campers should be prepared for bad weather, which means you’ll want a full rain fly that reaches all the way to the ground. Be aware that there are some tents on the market with only partial rain flies. A partial rain fly may keep the inside of your tent dry if you encounter a few sprinkling showers but anything more and you will likely end up with a wet tent interior. A wet tent means a wet sleeping bag, which means… you probably won’t be getting much sleep. Some tent designs sell the rain fly separately; check with your expert to know for sure.

Look for a tent’s waterproof rating and compare it to the season and climate you will be in. Waterproof ratings are measured in millimetres, generally from 1,000mm to 10,000mm - the higher being more waterproof. Something to keep in mind here is that a more waterproof tent will also carry more weight!

Two backpackers bundled up for winter conditions, wearing backpacks, and standing in the snow.

Photo by Amy Boissonneault

3. How simple is this tent to assemble?

Ease of use could be an important consideration depending on your own inherent technical prowess. The bigger the tent, the more complex set up can get. A cabin-style tent can get pretty complex, but it could make a good choice for a family camping tent as these styles are often a little more spacious. Some tents come with color coded tent poles. Some print the instructions right on the tent bag. Dome tents or freestanding tents are generally the easiest to set up. A tent that is not freestanding will require lashing to anchor points on the ground and/or above the tent. Lashing to anchor points requires at least some knowledge of knot tying. Remember, tying a lot doesn’t equal tying a knot. Before we get tangled up in the intricacies of knot tying, simply note that a simple trucker's hitch will get the job done in a wide variety of scenarios.

It’s generally best practice to test out setting up your new tent once or twice before you head off into the woods. Make a night of setting your tent up in your living room or in your backyard and work out any kinks in your gear that need to be straightened out before you find yourself unprepared in the wilderness. Remember there is no substitute for being prepared. Preparedness will not only keep you safe, it will provide peace of mind and allow you to relax and have more fun.

4. Who is using the tent?

Whether you’re solo trekking or taking the whole family along is a simple and important distinction when purchasing a tent. Backpacking type tents are smaller – expect to be shoulder to shoulder in your 2-person tent. Remember how much space your backpack will take up and consider utilizing your vestibule to store it while you are sleeping. Bringing the dog along? Make sure they have somewhere to curl up, too, whether that’s in the car or beside you in the tent. If you’re car camping, you have the luxury of extra space! When shopping for a family tent, for added comfort, go with a tent capacity of 2 more people than needed – 4-person family? Buy a 6-person tent!

5. What features do I like?

Vestibule: Backpacking? A vestibule is like your own little storage room in the outdoors. Store your hiking boots or backpack here to keep them dry. Some car camping tents feature a large screened-in vestibule that will help you keep dirt and bugs out of the interior of the tent and also be a nice place to set up some camp chairs and relax to get away from the mosquitos. Check out the Coleman Evanston Screened 8 Person Tent as an example.

Headroom and Floorspace: It’s worth taking note of these two specs when considering your future tent… especially if you’re tall! There are plenty of car camping tents that you’ll be able to fully stand up in. For backpacking tents, ensure you have space to sit up comfortably.

Doors: Do most of your camping with a partner or friend? You might benefit from a two-door tent so you’re not scrambling over each other to get in/out. This will also offer some extra ventilation on hot days or let your tent dry faster if you happen to get any moisture inside. The Sierra Designs - Clearwing 2-Person Tent is incredibly breathable and features two doors. It is nice to not have to crawl overtop your camping buddy if you have to get out and pee in the middle of the night or want to get up for sunrise while they sleep in.

Organization: Most tents come with at least a couple pockets or hooks inside. Consider what you’ll need to keep track of inside your tent and where you might store it. Pockets are great for your phone, car keys, toothbrush, etc, while a hook is perfect for hanging a light so you can read after the sun goes down. If your tent doesn’t have enough pockets, you can always purchase a gear loft for extra storage.

Footprint: To extend the life of your tent, purchase a footprint. This custom-sized piece of equipment goes underneath your tent, like a ground tarp, to protect it. Some tents are designed with durable floors to be set up without a footprint, while others come with a footprint included. Footprints are especially beneficial for lighter weight tents as they tend to be slightly less durable. Again, your tent may or may not come with a footprint, so check with your Curated.com expert to be sure.

Sitting in front of their tent, two hikers gaze out at a lake, mountains, and setting sun.

Photo by Amy Boissonneault

Now it’s time to get out there and explore your ‘backyard’. Remember, “pack it in, pack it out” and “always leave things better than how you found them”. Happy camping!

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Written By
I have years of experience planning and executing multi day river trips for up to twenty customers at a time, and I've spent countless summer nights living out of my Honda Element. I love moving from river to river, living wherever the water is flowing. ​ I have also toured the San Juan Islands via...

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