Updated on July 24, 2022
The tent is the biggest and perhaps most complicated purchase of all the gear needed for a family camping trip. Tents come in a wide range of sizes, shapes, colors, materials, and more features than you can begin to imagine. So how to choose a tent for your next camping trip? Our tent buying guide breaks it down into 3 simple steps to quickly get you out on your next camping adventure.
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How to Choose a Tent in 3 Simple Steps
Whether you are new to camping or an experienced camper, these tips can help you narrow down the perfect tent for you.
Step 1. Choose the Size of the Tent
The first step in choosing a tent is to narrow it down to the right-sized tent, which means both the square footage and the height.
Tent sleeping capacity is simply based on how many sleeping bags can fit in the tent. It does not mean the number of people the tent will hold comfortably. Also, consider how you want to sleep. Families camping with teens may consider 2 smaller tents rather than one large tent.
|As a rule of thumb, subtract 2 from the sleeping capacity to get to that “comfort” sizing. A 6-person tent will sleep 4 comfortably (with gear). If you want more space for items like side tables or organizers, go even bigger.|
As a rule of thumb, subtract 2 from the sleeping capacity to get to that “comfort” sizing. A 6-person tent will sleep 4 comfortably (with gear). If you want more space for items like side tables or organizers, go with an even larger tent.
Still, sleeping capacity is not standardized across manufacturers. The Alps Mountaineering Taurus 6-Person Tent has about 30 sq ft more floor space than Kelty’s 6-Person Wireless Tent. Most manufacturers provide the square footage of the tent floor. In addition to using people-capacity for size, compare this across your final choices.
|Maximize floor space by using cots over air mattresses or pads by storing gear underneath the cot.|
How to Choose a Tent Height
Height is also a factor and depends on preference. Look for a peak height that is tall enough to stand in, or be prepared to crawl or stoop throughout the tent.
The shape of the tent determines how much of that height is usable. Cabin (like this 6-person tent from Outdoor Products) and tunnel tents have more standing room than dome (like Coleman’s 6-person dome tent) or A-frame tents.
Cabin and tunnel tents have the most flexibility in standing space with little to no sloping in the tent.
The peak height in A-frame, geodesic, dome, and teepee tents may allow only a small area that is tall enough to stand in.
|Cots and other bedding with height can have limited placement in tents with sloped walls, like dome or A-frame.|
Step 2. How to Choose a Tent Based on Your Budget
If you’re trying to keep the cost of your camping trip down, focus on good basic tents. Tent prices can range from well under $100 to several hundred dollars. Size, brand, pole construction, tent weight, and material all factor into the price of a camping tent.
There is typically a tent for every budget, so the next step is to focus on the tent features that are most important to you.
|If you’re just starting out, go for lower-priced tents. You’ll learn what really matters to you in a tent and will be more confident in your purchase when you’re ready to upgrade.|
- Dark Room technology blocks 90% of sunlight so you can sleep in past sunrise; it also reduces temperatures inside the tent for a comfortable night's sleep
- Stay dry thanks to the Weather Tec system with its tub-like floor, patented corner welds, and protected seams to help keep water out
- Strong frame has been tested to withstand 35+ mph winds
- E-Port makes it easy to bring electrical power inside your tent
- Measures 10 ft. x 10 ft. with 6 ft. center height; fits 2 queen-size airbed
Step 3. Select the Most Important Tent Features
There are many different features of camping tents, and how to choose a tent from all the options can quickly get overwhelming. Below is a list of the most common features people consider when choosing a tent. Quickly narrow down the possibilities by selecting the most essential features for your family.
Number of Doors & Windows
Most tents have 1 or 2 doors, but some tents have more.
Why this may be important: You may want 2 (or more) doors if you don’t want to worry about which way the tent is facing when you set it up. More doors are also a benefit if you wish to separate exit/entryways for restroom breaks in the middle of the night.
The number of windows (and size of windows) can vary greatly. Some have full stargazing ceilings, while others have no windows at all. The no-see-um mesh material of windows allows for cross breezes and stargazing but less insulation in colder weather and less privacy.
Poles can be made of fiberglass, aluminum, or steel.
Fiberglass poles are lightweight and are the most affordable option but can splinter easily.
Aluminum tent poles are also lightweight but are less prone to damage. However, these poles can pose a safety risk in a thunderstorm and will rust over time.
Tent poles made from steel are the most durable but are also the heaviest. Exceptionally large tents, or those made with heavy material (like canvas), use steel poles.
Our recommendation: most affordable tents come with fiberglass poles. Even though they can splinter, it’s unlikely you will be left without a place to sleep for the night, as the tent can be propped up enough to get through the night (we know from experience!). They are easy and inexpensive to replace.
|Fiberglass tent poles are a better fit for many budgets, but the risk of broken poles can be worrisome. You can always buy a replacement ahead of time, so you are immediately prepared for any damage at the campground.|
Ease of Zipper
Some tents highlight one-handed zipper operation, and this feature is great when your hands are full with the little ones.
Ease of Setup
Instant (poles come attached to the tent and simply need to be connected) and pop-up (folded up and secured into a bag) tents are a breeze to set up. In contrast, a standard setup tent can take more time and people to pitch.
- Instant 60 Second Setup; Sleeps 6 people; Fits two queen air mattresses; Center Height: 72".
- CORE H20 Block Technology and adjustable ground vent.
- Features a "T" style door and awning, gear loft with lantern hook and large wall orgnanizer to keep items neat and off the tent floor.
|Focus your search on instant tents when only one person is setting up the tent.|
A vestibule is an added area usually in front of the tent. This space is covered on the top and sides but not on the bottom. These are also called a gear garage, screen room, or front porch. An excellent spot to store your gear (but not food!) out of the elements but not in the tent. Also great for escaping light rain without being fully inside the tent.
They vary in size, so verify the dimensions if this feature is essential. The vestibule in our Kelty Trail Ridge is only large enough for shoes, while our Wawona 6 from The North Face has plenty of space for 2-3 camp chairs.
|Keep In Mind:|
|Large vestibules can add more weight and bulk to the tent, but they can be a great alternative to packing a separate canopy to protect from rain or direct sun.|
Integrated pockets for storing phones, glasses, headlamps, and other valuables that are easily lost in a tent (or can be otherwise hard to find in the dark). They are generally small (at best, these may fit a pair of flip flops) but great for organizing small items.
Number of Rooms
Larger families may want additional privacy offered with separate rooms within the tent. Rooms are often created by hanging room dividers included with the tent and are a common feature in large camping tents.
- 【Spacious for 10 Person】Unique 18ft x 9ft x78in, well fitting 10 sleeping bags or 3 queen air mattress, ideal for family camping.
- 【Easy up Tent】Attach FRP poles onto the cabinet tent completely by J hooks, no trouble of inserting poles through sleeves. Patented foot sleeves make it conveniently to set up this family tent more securely and windproof. No particular skills are needed. Two persons can set it up in 8 minutes. Bigger carry bag size at 25.6x10.2x10.2 inches will let you feel relaxed and easy to repack the tent.
A very excited puppy once tried to claw her way through the mesh of our Kelty. We contacted Kelty for recommendations on how to best fix the hole, and they offered to do the repair at no cost to us.
Tents tear, zippers break, and poles snap, so a good warranty (or company that stands behind their product) may be necessary, especially with more expensive tents.
This feature is significant if you will be carrying the tent for any distance. Tent size, material, and pole construction factors into the tent’s weight.
Pay attention to the weight if you’ll ever consider backcountry camping with your tent.
It’s Murphy’s Law – no matter the forecast, it seems to always rain when you are camping. If you camp in areas where this happens often, look for tents with high waterproofness: the tent’s ability to stay dry. Tent manufacturers give a lot of technical specs on waterproofness but little explanation.
All tents will keep you dry in light rain. However, there are marked differences between the tents’ ability to stay dry in long or heavy rain. If you plan to stick it out in heavy downpours, consider a tent rated “best” for waterproofness. Marmot’s Limestone is a highly rated tent with a high waterproof rating.
- 6 person, 83.8 square foot lightweight tent ideal for group or family camping; includes seam taped, full coverage weatherproof rain fly
- Catenary cut fly and tent body to increase air flow, keeping occupants cooler and drier
- Color coded "easy pitch" poles and clips for quick and easy setup
- Zone pre-bend construction creates vertical walls for roomier interior; front double door for easy entry and exit
- One D-shaped door, one vestibule
2-3 season tents are the most common for car campers because they allow for flexibility in a range of temperatures and inclement weather.
When to look at a 1- or 4-season tent: if you plan to camp exclusively in certain climates.
1 season tents are best for warm, dry weather when you want to keep cool while camping. They are breathable, but that also means not very insulating or waterproof. 4 season tents, on the other hand, are very insulating and weatherproof. These can keep you warm and cozy through the night at the campground but can be stuffy in warm temps.
Single Wall vs. Double Wall Tents
Single-walled tents have an integrated rainfly, so you never need to worry about last-minute sprints to get the fly on when an unexpected rainstorm comes in. The thicker walls can make a tent stuffy in hot weather.
Double-walled tents have a separate rainfly for the waterproof layer. The thinner walls in this type of tent are more breathable and give some flexibility in warmer weather.
We recommend double-walled tents for flexibility in the rain, heat, and cold weather.
- A CAMPER'S RETREAT. Virtually a portable chateau, this durable, single-wall tent boasts room for six people with ceilings high enough to stand. Large windows for expansive views and exceptional airflow, and a color-coded easy-pitch design.
- SPACIOUS DESIGN. This family tent features a large double-door front vestibule and a rear door and vestibule. Full stand-up height makes maneuvering around a breeze. Two large windows provide great visibility and breathability on warm days.
- INTEGRATED STORAGE. Internal dry lines, hang loops and a hook-and-loop lantern loop offer everyday conveniences when you're out camping. A tablet pocket plus extra mesh pockets help keep your essentials handy.
- WATERPROOF CONSTRUCTION. The single-wall design is fully waterproof and makes for easy pitching. This tent's fly, canopy and floor are made from durable polyester with a PU-coated, water-resistant finish. Large top vents help prevent condensation.
- DETAILS. Stuffsack: 10" X 27" (25.4 cm X 81.3 cm). Packs into a duffel-bag style stuffsack. Weight: 20 lbs 15 oz . Floor Area: 86.11 square ft. Peak Height: 80". Heavy-duty, 14-mm pre-bent poles provide more interior space. Footprint sold separately.
Where to Buy the Best Camping Tent Brands
Where to buy a tent is almost as important as knowing how to choose a tent. Whether you decide to buy direct from the manufacturer or from another retailer, there are plenty of buying options for the best camping tent brands.
REI carries top camping tent brands such as Kelty, Eureka, and Marmot, in addition to REI branded tents
Cabela’s also has its own line of tents and a great selection of heavy-duty canvas tents.
Find Coleman, Kelty, Eureka, and Field & Stream branded tents at Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Target has store-branded tents (Embark) and a selection from brands like Core and Klymit.
Walmart sells a variety of camping tent brands, including their own line of tents (Ozark Trail)
While REI is probably our favorite place to shop for tents, Amazon is a close second with its large selection of tents.
Tent Terminology Explained
Manufacturers and retailers may describe or refer to other standard tent features. Understanding what these mean can help make your tent selection easier, so you know how to choose a tent for your family.
A footprint is a custom-fit protective layer between the tent and the ground.
Footprints can be purchased separately if a tent does not come with one. If it’s not included, any tarp underneath the tent works just as well and is a cheaper alternative to a footprint.
Rainfly (or fly for short)
A separate layer over the tent protects from the elements, specifically the rain. The fly is more waterproof than the tent material itself to keep the tent dry inside.
Sometimes called the ground cloth, this is a layer (usually just a tarp) between the tent and the ground. This extra layer protects the floor of the tent from damage or water.
It’s not a custom fit like a footprint, but any tarp as big (or bigger) than the tent itself will work.
The ropes or strings are used to secure the tent to the ground. The lines are attached to the tent and held in place with tent stakes.
The tent’s floor is the most durable part (footprints or ground covers are still recommended), but water can seep into a tent at the seams where the walls meet the floor. Tents with tub floors have these seams a few inches off the floor (creating a tub shape), reducing the risk of leaks in heavy rains.
Tent windows are made from breathable mesh enough for breezes and rain to come through but prevent the tiniest bugs from getting into the tent.
Storage space at the top of the tent. A mesh or other lightweight material ties to the top of the tent for organizing lightweight gear.
Tents are secured by pinning the guy lines to the ground with stakes. Car camping tent stakes are generally made from steel, while lighter weight aluminum stakes are found with backpacking tents.
Some tents are set up by first securing them to the ground with tent stakes, then standing up with the tent poles. Freestanding tents don’t require stakes for setup, and this allows for repositioning or moving the tent without taking it down.
Tents that are not freestanding are less common and are used more often by backpackers to reduce the tent weight. This one from River Country uses trekking poles (not included with the tent) to keep it upright, so the only additional gear needed are stakes to secure it in place.
- Super Fast and Easy set up! Great for Hiking, camping, or adding to your survival bag, this compact tent will fit into your backpack without filling it up.
- Has a protected vestibule for all your gear.
- This Tent includes 9 ultralight red aluminum stakes.
- 2.8 lbs, 48 inch center height,
What tips do you have on how to choose a tent for family camping? Let us know your suggestions in the comments!
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