Your essential guide to buying a tent

Camping can be a bonding experience that gives you memories you treasure for the rest of your life — but one way to guarantee your camping trip goes south? A sub-par or inappropriate tent. Tents that don’t fit all your equipment, let in rain or mosquitoes, or fall apart thanks to poor manufacturing might be an amusing anecdote in 20 years, but in the present they’ll just annoy you and fail to be value for money. If you’re not sure what to look for when buying a tent, worry not; this guide is here to help you out.

Girl putting up a tent surrounded by nature

First things first

It’s important to remember when you’re setting out to buy a tent that there aren’t standardised measurements for tent manufacturing. What one maker will classify as a two-person tent, another will call a one-person tent, and so on. Starting with size is a good way to begin. The best tents for families involve a lot of space, both for your own bodies and for the clothing and supplies you want to keep inside the space of the tent.

Packs, sleeping bags and supplies take up room. A good general rule of thumb is to size up from manufacturing recommendations: if a tent says it’s made for four people, consider it about right for two. A family of four or more will require a tent marketed for at least six. If you're camping with children or have teenagers who really want privacy, consider getting a tent with rooms or separated areas, so that retreat is possible. It’s also a good idea to buy a tent where everybody can sleep inside their sleeping bags without touching the walls, to avoid getting cold or dripped on in the night. Even with excellent ventilation, tents can still develop condensation on interior walls - and the opposite is also true; staying cool in a tent can involve choosing one made from a particular material as well as following best practise.


Sizing up

Before you go shopping, know the heights of everybody on the trip and what tent dimensions will actually look like on the ground. If you have a beloved tent that you’re replacing, know its measurements; if you’re a new initiate, do your research. Your 6’4” friend will thank you for not getting a tent that gives them hideous backache whenever they try to stand up. When you have those numbers in mind, look for certain important details on your tent choices: the peak height or highest point, so that you know how tall it really is, the floor dimensions and plan, and the volume, which is smaller if it’s got steeply angled sides. These will give you an accurate picture of the interior and how much space you’ll really have.

You also need to consider what kind of use your tent will have. Will you be hauling it from the car to sites regularly, taking it on hikes, or generally lugging it around? In which case you may want to make it a bit lighter or easier to carry. If, however, you tend to roll it straight out of a car into its resting place, you don’t need to worry too much about portability.


Group of campers packing away their tent next to lake


What seasons do you particularly favour for camping, and what conditions and surroundings do you enjoy? Wind, rain and snow can be dealt with, but you need to have the proper tent first.

Tents are generally classified according to season. Single-season tents are very flimsy and cheap, and won’t keep out any weather beyond a light breeze. Generally, 3-season tents are highly recommended for campers who don’t go out in snow or ice, as they can cope with cold, rain and winds. If you do want to have the option for serious winter camping, investigate 3-4 and 4-season tents, which are heavier, sturdier and designed to withstand mountainside camping in very cold seasons.


Sheets, poles and porches

One of the best, and most basic, tips for buying a tent is to know what the different components are and how they work. An inflatable tent, for example, is easier and faster to put up than a pole tent, which is constructed DIY-style using poles and hard work. The first option is better if you have young children with low boredom thresholds, but teens might enjoy the challenge of putting together an old-fashioned pole tent.

If you’re going somewhere with notoriously unpredictable weather, speed is of the essence in case a thunderstorm bears down suddenly. When it comes to materials, most tents these days are made out of synthetic nylon, and the lower the denier count, the lighter the material. You may have a choice of fibreglass or aluminium poles; fibreglass is more breakable, but either way make sure that your kit also includes spares in case of an accident.

It’s recommended that you get a tent with the groundsheet already sewn in firmly and professionally, so you don’t need to worry about struggling to put up a tent while a loose groundsheet gets wet or dusty. Rainflies over the top of the tent keep the rain off, so get a tent with a sizeable, dependable one. Tent camping with your family? Consider a porch area or similar waterproofed space. You can store wet gear in it, cook if the weather’s awful, and have a space under cover that’s distinctive from where you sleep.


Four friends putting up a blue four-man tent

Test the water

If you get a chance to sample an assembled tent before you buy, explore it thoroughly — don’t be shy. Tent sellers will expect you to do things like lie down to examine how much space you’ll have while sleeping. Once you’ve made a purchase, do at least one practise assembly before you get out into the great outdoors for real, to make sure that you’re not struggling with unfamiliar instructions on holiday. No matter where you’re going, always have a fully supplied tent repair kit with you, so just in case your well-researched, perfectly assembled tent does break, you’re prepared. Soon your newly purchased tent will feel like part of the family.


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