Nothing can ruin an outing as quickly as a leaky tent with poor ventilation — one that’s damp and hot as a sauna.
Pick the wrong tent for the job and your trip to the Great Outdoors might not be so great.
So to give you the inside line on buying a new tent, whether it’s a backpacking model or a group shelter for you and five fellow Scouts, we turned to world-renowned rock climber Tommy Caldwell, who spends more than 80 nights a year sleeping in tents. “On those expeditions, your tent ends up being your little home,” he says.
Here are the rules to pick the best “home” for your next outing.
Pick a design that fits your needs. Tents come in all shapes and sizes. Backpacking tents are most often shaped like domes, tunnels or wedges. Group shelters (or car-camping tents) are generally domes or rectangles with straight (or semi-straight) walls. Some tents are freestanding, meaning they can stand on their own without stakes, while others require guy lines and stakes for setup.
“You want the tent to be built for how you’re going to use it,” Caldwell says. “Mountaineers like dome tents because they’re the sturdiest and best in multi-direction heavy winds.”
Domes are also freestanding and roomy but tend to be heavier than other designs. Wedges are usually the lightest weight but not so roomy. Tunnels provide good space for their weight and are generally well suited for bad weather. A good rule: The more poles the tent has, the sturdier it’ll be.
Don’t underestimate the importance of space and weight. Though some people prefer tiny solo tents, Caldwell recommends picking a tent that’s at least big enough for you to sit up inside.
“I made the mistake once of going on a two-month trip with a one-man tent the size of a coffin,” he says, laughing.
Solo tents should have between 15 and 25 square feet of space. For larger tents, add another 10 to 15 square feet per person. When evaluating space, also consider the square footage of any attached vestibules, which are like little garages for storing backpacks, boots, even your dog.
Weight doesn’t matter as much for car-camping tents, but if you’re backpacking, obviously you’ll want the lightest tent that’s still large enough for your needs. Aim for a tent that weighs no more than four to five pounds per person. When backpacking with a group, the best strategy is to share a tent—and the pack weight — with your buddy. One guy carries the tent body while the other carries the poles and rain fly.
Don’t overspend. Why buy an ultralight, tricked-out $500 tent when the $150 model will work just fine? In general, the higher the price tag, the lighter-weight and more durable the tent and its poles will be.
Naturally, durability is important, says Caldwell: “I’ve trashed a lot of tents in my lifetime.”
And just think: That $75 tent might seem like a great deal now, but if it wears out and you have to buy a new one every season, where’s the savings in that?
Do not confuse seasons. Most tents are designed for three-season use. That means they will handle the temperatures and weather of spring, summer and fall. Four-season tents are sturdier and designed for camping in snow, but they are usually heavier and less breathable.
Look for breathability. Airflow is your friend.
“For camping in warm weather you’ll want a tent that’s going to breathe and be vented,” Caldwell says.
Look for a tent with plenty of mesh panels and vents that promote airflow. For rainy conditions, make sure there’s ample space between the rain fly and the tent.
Without proper airflow, you’ll roast and “get a lot of condensation that’ll create a little rainstorm inside your tent,” Caldwell says.
Even if your tent is freestanding, you still must stake it out properly for maximum airflow and to avoid pesky leaks and condensation. Unless you’re winter camping, stay away from single-walled tents (which are notoriously less breathable and lack mesh and large vents).
Try before you buy. “It’s always a good idea to set up a tent before you buy it,” Caldwell says. “Otherwise it’s hard to get an idea of what it looks like.” So pitch the tent and crawl inside. If the salespeople won’t let you, go to another store.
Besides checking for space, pitching it in the store will give you a better idea of how easy it is to set up. Tents with hub-style poles and color-coded quick clips will be simplest—and quickest—to pitch.