Guy Gear

Tent buying guide

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.

WAIT! Although the following is still great advice, the Gear Guy is currently researching new models and writing an update to this article. Watch for his updated tips and reviews in the March 2015 issue of Boys’ Life.


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.

Comments about “Tent buying guide”

  1. Great AK Council Scout says:

    Check out the North Face Stormbreak for a solo tent. It’s about 3 pounds and ony 130 bucks.

  2. Me says:

    always make sure that your tent has room for you AND your gear; it is NOT fun to have wet gear/clothes. It is better to get a tent that is too big, rather than too small.

  3. Coop860 says:

    When we bought our tent we set up in the store. It said 2 man tent, but when we got in it was clear it meant 2men only! No gear, sleeping bag or pad. Instead get a 3 man tent for two people and definitely always try it out in the store

  4. Good ol eagle says:

    Mountain Hardwear Trango 3s for us. 2 boys per tent. Bomb proof 4 season utility. Handles heavy snow loads and severe thunderstorms with ease and NEVER leak a drop. ever. We buy ours used from expedition outfitters and have had a few several years.

  5. Sly Fox says:

    Heading out to a Boundary Waters Wilderness trek in northern MN; taking Eureka Timberline outfitters w/ 2 vestibules for each tent. These are great tents and can take on high winds and snow. the boys all prefer these tents (we have other brands too) when truly roughing it.

  6. Troop 1324 says:

    We have purchased more expensive tents and inexpensive tents in our troop, and cheap is the way to go. Our Coleman’s are ten years old — if you replace them every year that means you have Scouts who are not taking care of them. And the tent poles for the expensive tents break just as often as the cheap tents (which is not very often at all).

  7. Mr.Marco says:

    you should always go for marmots, they’re expensive, but they are definitely worth the space and the short time it takes to set them up

  8. scout says:

    One time it snowed inside of one of my troops tent so have air flow

  9. Anonymous says:

    Get the REI Passage 2 or the Kelty Salida 2.

  10. wassup says:

    Does anyone out there know of a well-ventilated, lightweight, inexpenive tent for Texas weather? ANYONE?!

    • Troop 0115 says:

      Who needs a Tent in Texas? I live there and I sleep under the stars. There is one down-side to doing that: The Bugs. I have a net sort of thing that I put under my on my sleeping bag.

  11. tent runner says:

    When I buy a tent, I look for the right size,wait,and easy to set up. Not some over sized big tent that takes up a 16×16 space. just to let you tent buyers now.

  12. Dusky says:

    More and more I see backpackers using hammocks. I toss a mosquito net over mine. Great sleeping comfortably in my ENO. Of course you have to cover your backpack with its rain cover.

  13. starscout99 says:

    wenzels are the best tents ever i’ve had mine for 5 years

  14. T-Man says:

    If your going solo use a two man, twosome three man and so on

  15. boy scout says:

    I would say a 1 person tent because they are light,small,easy to pack,and good for long hikes.

  16. Sly Fox says:

    Look for a tent with heavy zippers and aluminum poles, it will last you longer and actually cut weight over a fiberglass poled tent. Most importantly, the tent won’t lay down in a heavyer than usual wind. I perfer Eureka and Kelty outfitter grade.

    • Frogman1997 says:

      I always use my U.S. army issued pup tent ive camped in that in four feet of snow and on a philmont trek, the only downside is it does not have a floor so just bring a footprint for another tent to stake down and it can be split up into halves

    • boy scout says:

      I would do a light,easy to pack tent because then they could last longer

    • boy scout says:

      you would not need weight because the stakes are holding the tent down

  17. RedBeard says:

    I don’t suggest Coleman Brand for Scouts. You’ll replace them every year due to cheap fabric and poles.

    • Narmuriel says:

      Our troops Coleman tents have lasted for year, and only had minor issues, one pole break, and a small tear because of carelessness. We are not using higher end Coleman either. The 8X8 Coleman Trailblazers with vestibule. Camped in below zero in them, camped in Severe weather too, no problems at all. It all depends on how well they are taken care of.

      • wolfdad says:

        I would not recommend coleman tents. my experience is with a family sized tent, but the materials are the same. first year: very good, withstood a little rain – dry. Second year: leaked a little; puddles along the edges. Third year: moat at the perimeter; constant drip from four different spots in the middle. So if you want a good cheap tent that lasts about a year Coleman is the way to go.

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