The Top Guide for Selecting a Tent

Updated: Jan 14

Tents are my favorite piece of gear. Selecting one is exciting because it is an integral piece in the overall enjoyment and success of your adventures. I want a "cool" tent as well as one that is highly functional. There seems to be an endless amount of options. Whether you are camping at an established campground or in the backcountry this guide will help you get started.


Seasons: The when and where

3 Season - These are the most common tents available. They are aptly named for their capability in temperate conditions of spring, summer and fall. 3 season tents with a rainfly can handle rain, wind and light snow but will not offer the same protection in harsh climates or deep winter. In general they will have fewer poles, more mesh panels for ventilation and are made of lighter materials. Because these tents are the most common they come in a variety of shapes and sizes

4 Season - These tents are more common among mountaineers or adventures headed into sustained or severe weather conditions and heavy snow. They are designed to withstand strong, blowing winds and support the weight of snow but can be used in any season. Typically they use more poles and heavier materials to handle harsh environments. 4 season tents are built with less mesh panels and rainflies that cover the entirety of the tent to keep air flow at a minimum. While that is not ideal for warmer temperatures, it is a welcome refuge during inhospitable conditions. All four season tents are dome shaped to deflect wind and prevent snow build up.

Hybrid season/3+ - Not as common but gaining momentum, these tents are going for the perfect balance between the two types of seasonal tents. They are designed for extended trips or frequent campers. Typically this type of tent would be used by long distance or thru hikers as well as backcountry campers at high elevation. 3+ tents will have fewer or smaller mesh panels for ventilation, more poles for added strength and a full rainfly.


Capacity: Who's coming with me

Just like backpacks, but measured in bodies not liters, how much will your tent need to hold? Several factors should be considered in your decision. Will you be sharing the space with other campers? Will you be camping with dogs? How much gear will you have and will it be stored in the tent? Will you be carrying the tent miles into the back country or car camping at an established campground?

No industry standard for tent capacity exists. Dimensions can vary from tent to tent of the same capacity. Whatever the manufacturer labels as the capacity limit it's a safe bet to say it will be a tight space. If you desire room or get claustrophobic consider bumping the limit to one person more than the size of your group.

Capacity and size can be as small a 1-man tube tent or bivy without room to sit. Or large enough to sleep 10 or more that and resemble a small compound with multiple rooms. Ultimately it will come down to your personal preferences and comfort. If you are making your selection in physical store and there are floor models definitely get in it and get a feel for the capacity. Don't be shy and bring in some additional gear to get an accurate assessment.


Features: Comfort and functionality

Floor Space and Peak Height - Floor space is an important feature for taller campers or campers that store more gear inside and lack vestibule/storage space. Will you be able to sleep comfortably? When I look at peak height my main concern is that I will be able to sit up in the tent comfortably without my head hitting the ceiling or any gear storage. For others it will be if they can stand in the tent with the requirements. For me, floor space and height boil down to one question. "If the weather turned to the severe, would I be able to stay in this tent all day?"

This will also help you determine if a dome tent or cabin tent is best suited for your adventure. Most dome tents only allow for sitting while cabin tents have higher straighter walls for more space and height.

Rainfly - Rainflies are designed to fit over the top of your tent and provide protection against inclement weather. A full rainfly will surround the entire tent extending to a few inches above the ground. It will be waterproof, have more heat retention, wind resistance, privacy and add overall strength to the tent. Partial rainflies will cover the mesh paneling while still allowing in light and viewing. Expect minimal protection against rain and wind with partial rainflies.

Vestibules - This is storage space for gear usually created by the rainfly. Some tents offer built in vestibules. Typically vestibules are located by the tent entrances for convenient access to gear. For me its the best spot for dirty, stinky boots and socks.

Doors - For anyone that has ever had to crawl over a body to go relieve themselves in the middle of the night, two doors is the only way to go. If sleeping orientation does not effect your coming and goings one door is not a bad option.

Guyout Lines - These are lines coming off the tent or rainfly with loops on the end. Guyout lines help secure the tent and make the fabric more taunt. Properly staked lines will make your tent more sturdy in windy conditions and prevents fabric from flapping around.

Ventilation - Ventilation comes in the form of mesh panels. They are found near the top of the tent and includes mesh windows and doors. Good ventilation will prevent condensation and provide viewing from the tent. The more humid and hotter the environment the more ventilation you will want

Gear Storage - Mesh gear lofts, pockets and loops are located inside the tent to aid your organization of gear. Gear lofts are open air shelfs for quick access to frequently used gear like headlamps and maps. Pockets are in varying sizes for heavier or larger items you don't want falling on you from your gear loft. Consider these for books, knives, phone/gps or bug spray. Loops are for any item you may want to hang like lanterns or pocket radios.

Footprint - This is an extra piece of fabric placed underneath the tent for added protection from rocks, stick and other objects that may damaged the floor. In wet conditions it's an extra layer between you and the wet, cold ground. Footprints are slightly smaller than the tent floor itself to prevent water from collecting between the print and tent floor.

Tent Fabric - Measured in deniers this is the overall thickness of the tent fabric. High denier fabrics will be more durable. Denier may vary in a tent. Floors generally are made of higher denier fabrics as they take the most abuse. Seem fabric and stitching should be considered. Seems are high stress areas where damage and leaks can occur.

Tent Stakes - If you haven't yet, you will come to the time your tent stakes are or become complete garbage. Most tents come with a set but don't let that stop you from replacing them with a higher quality set if necessary.

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