“Most people think of a tent as a place for staying out of the rain,” says Eagle Scout John Mead, president outdoor gear retailer Adventure 16. ” The truth is all the natural elements are important to guard against. You want a tent that will keep out wind, snow, sun and flying and crawling critters, too. And a tent is a nice place for privacy.”
With so many things to consider we decided to ask Mead, an award-winning tent designer, to give us the inside scoop on buying a backpacking tent.
DESIGN: Tents come in many shapes like domes, tunnels and wedges. Some are freestanding, meaning they can stand on their own without stakes. Others require guy lines and stakes for set-up.
Dome tents are popular because they are freestanding and roomy, but they tend to be heavier than other designs. Wedges are usually lightweight but less roomy. Tunnels provide good space for their weight and are generally better in bad weather.
“Shape is most important if you’re camping in high wind, heavy rain or snowy conditions,” Mead says.
A good rule: The more poles a tent uses, the sturdier it will be.
Finally, some tent designs are easier to set up than others. Those with pole sleeves, hub-style poles and quick clips will be simplest to pitch.
SPACE AND WEIGHT: The best way to tell if a tent has enough room is to lie down inside. Solo tents usually have 15 to 25 square feet of space. For two- and three-person tents, add an extra 10 to 15 square feet per person. Some tents also have a vestibule that gives you extra space for storing backpacks, boots, even your dog.
“When backpacking, I always recommend taking a tent that can be shared with someone,” he says. “That way you can also share the weight. One Scout carries the tent body while the other carries the pole and rain fly.”
Aim for a tent that weighs no more than three to four pounds per person.
PRICE: “The biggest mistake people make when tent shopping is not matching the tent up with their needs,” Mead says. “Why buy a $500 tent if a $100 model will work just fine for what you’re doing?”
The price difference is usually noticeable in the quality and durability. In general the higher the price tag, the lighter-weight and more durable the tent and its poles will be.
BREATHABILITY: Airflow inside your tent is the key to comfortable sleeping. If you’re camping in hot conditions look for a tent with lots of mesh panels. For rainy conditions, make sure there’s plenty of space between the rain fly and the tent. Without proper airflow, you’ll roast inside.
Even if a tent is freestanding, Mead says it’s essential to stake it out properly. That way you’ll have enough airflow and avoid pesky leaks and condensation on the inside of your tent.
THREE-SEASON VS. FOUR-SEASON: Most tents are designed for three-season use, meaning they’ll work for everything except winter conditions. Four-season tents are sturdier and designed for camping in snow, but Mead says they are often heavier and less breathable.
TRY BEFORE YOU BUY: “Make sure you set the tent up in the store and crawl inside,” he says. “Most stores don’t set up all their tents because of space limitations. But insist on setting it up before you buy it. If they won’t let you, go to another store.”
Pitching it in the store will give you a better idea of how easy it is to set up. You can also make sure that no parts are missing.