Complete Guide to Buying Tents

When you set out on an outdoor journey, your tent becomes one of your most essential pieces of gear. Anytime we go on an adventure, we like to think of our tent as our home away from home – rain or shine, our tent is our outdoor sanctuary.

We’ve certainly bought our fair share of tents throughout the years, so we’ve got a pretty good idea of what to look for when searching for one. Your tent needs to fit all of your needs, from carrying to sleeping.

In this guide, we’ll share everything we know about finding the perfect tent for your next adventure, including tent sizes, types, styles, and parts to consider. 

Tent Size

The size of your tent isn’t just about comfort – it’s also about functionality. Think about all the room you need for your gear, changing clothes, or even just to stretch out. 

Smaller tents usually range somewhere around 20-40 square feet, while larger tents can be anywhere between 50-100+ square feet.

Our experiences have taught us that it’s usually better to choose a tent size slightly larger than the bare minimum for comfort’s sake. The only time this isn’t true is when you need to be careful of your tent’s weight. 

Tent Height

Nothing’s worse than feeling claustrophobic in your tent. Greater tent height allows for easier movement in your tent. If you like standing up or stretching inside, we strongly recommend going for a taller tent, such as 6 or 7 feet in height. You’ll likely come to appreciate this after a long day hiking or climbing. Otherwise, most tents are around 3-5 feet in height.

Tent Weight

On backpacking trips, every ounce matters. You want to pick a lightweight or ultraweight tent if you have a lot of hiking to do, and consider the smallest size you can manage. These tents are usually between 3-5 pounds depending on size.

If you plan to take a vehicle, though, you can be a little more flexible. We recommend a larger, more durable and comfortable if you’re bringing a vehicle. Some of these tents can weigh up to 20 pounds if you’re bringing the whole family!

Tent Capacity

Capacity has to do with the number of sleepers a tent can accommodate. But remember, while a “2-person tent” fits two, there might not be much room for gear. We usually size up if we’re camping for longer periods or have significant equipment to stay as comfortable as possible.

Here’s some more information about each level of tent capacity:

Solo/1-Person Tents: Lightweight and compact, perfect for solo adventurers who prioritize weight savings. However, this limited space means very little room for gear or sprawling out.

2-Person Tents: Popular choices for solo travelers who want extra room for their gear or couples who don’t mind close quarters. But we warn you – if both occupants have a lot of gear, it can get tight.

3-Person Tents: Offer more elbow room for two people with gear or can accommodate three snugly. Ideal for two adults and a child or pet. They’re heavier than 2-person tents, which can be a concern for backpackers, but are still doable in a pinch.

4-Person Tents: Suitable for small families or groups. It’s also a top choice for two campers who want ample space. Their size and weight make them less suitable for backpacking but great for car camping.

5-Person and 6-Person Tents: Ideal for larger families or groups, and often have room dividers for privacy. Generally, they’re too bulky and heavy for backpacking. They also take longer to set up and require more ground space.

8-Person Tents and Larger: Best for large families or groups, and often have features like multiple rooms or larger vestibules. Definitely not recommended for backpacking, as these tents are the heaviest and require a significant amount of ground space and setup time.

green large tent indoors woman and tables

Tent Seasonality

Tent seasonality has to do with the range of weather conditions a tent is designed to handle. Picking the right tent for the season can make your adventure a delightful experience or a battle against Mother Nature. As always, remember that your safety comes first!

These are the different types of tent seasonality:

2-Season Tents: These tents tend to be lightweight and usually pretty good for ventilation, often having only a single wall of nylon. They’re mostly ideal for late spring to early fall, in temperate climates where the weather is relatively calm, as they’re not extremely water- or wind-proof. They’re not really sturdy enough to handle strong winds or heavy rainfall, and aren’t insulated enough for really cold temperatures. 

3-Season Tents: These tents are the most common choice with campers. They’re designed for spring, summer, and fall to give you some flexibility. With a balance of ventilation and warmth retention, these tents are usually thicker and more water- and wind-proof, and can usually handle moderate rain and wind. However, they’re not suitable for heavy snowfall or very harsh winds. 

4-Season Tents: These tents are built for year-round use. They can handle snow loads, fierce winds, and cold temperatures better than other types. They are usually completely waterproof and made of durable material like Gore-Tex. They also have stronger poles, fewer mesh panels, and reinforced walls for better insulation and protection. This also means they’re heavier than other tents, and not a very good choice in hot temperatures.

Expedition/5-Season Tents: These tents are designed for the most extreme conditions, such as high-altitude mountaineering or polar expeditions. Typically these tents keep the inside around 25 degrees Fahrenheit above the outdoor temperature. They come with the toughest waterproof and windproof materials, reinforced poles, and walls to resist fierce winds and heavy snow. This quality makes them the heaviest tent option and often the most expensive. We don’t recommend them for hot or even warm temperatures, as there’s little ventilation.

Tent Types

There are two main types of tents: freestanding and non-freestanding.

Freestanding Tents

As the name implies, these tents can stand without the aid of stakes, thanks to their pole structures. They’re great for easy moving after setup if need be. They also have an easier setup than non-freestanding tents, as they have a much simpler design. However, we still recommend staking freestanding tents down, especially if it’s going to be windy in your area.

Non-Freestanding Tents

Non-freestanding tents rely on stakes, guylines, or trekking poles to maintain their shape and stability. They’re lighter because they use fewer poles, but they take much more effort to set up. You also can’t use them in areas where the ground quality is poor, as they must be staked to work properly. Luckily, staking them also makes them more naturally wind-resistant.

Tent Styles

In addition to size, seasonality, and type, there are a few different styles of tent to choose from. Here are a few of the most common.

Tunnel Tents

Designed with a series of hooped poles, these tents create a tunnel shape. As a result, they have spacious interiors with a high volume-to-weight ratio. This style offers good wind resistance when pitched correctly (lengthwise to the wind), but they do require staking as they’re non-freestanding.

Dome Tents

Dome tents use two flexible poles that cross at the top and bend to be anchored at the tent’s base, forming a dome shape. They have a good balance of weight and strength compared to other styles. They also perform well in moderate winds, but not so much in extreme winds as they’re freestanding. 

Cabin Tents

Cabin tents resemble just that – cabins. These tents are tall with nearly vertical walls, and are often large and roomy. This tent style is quite comfortable with room dividers, large doors, and multiple windows. Their size makes them great for families. 

Pop-Up Tents

Pop-up tents tents spring into shape as soon as they’re taken out of their bags thanks to their flexible poles. These tents are the easiest and quickest to set up, but they’re not as sturdy or durable. Pop-up tents are best for casual use in mild conditions.

Tent Cost

There’s a wide range in costs for tents, but our motto is always: You get what you pay for. While there are budget options available, investing in a quality tent ensures longevity and a better overall experience. We’ve learned that the hard way!

There are many different factors that contribute to tent cost, including size, material quality, brand reputation, design intricacy, and specialized features. Here’s what you need to know about price ranges.

Budget Tents

These tents are suitable for occasional use or for those who camp in mild conditions. They may not hold up well in harsh weather or during frequent use. On average, they will cost anywhere between $30-100.

Mid-Range Tents

This bracket offers a blend of durability, comfort, and functionality. These tents are best for regular campers who need reliable tents but don’t require high-end features. These will run you anywhere between $100 and $300.

Premium Tents

Premium tents offer high-quality materials, outstanding durability, and features designed for specific conditions or purposes, like hail or intense winds. They’re often the first choice of serious adventurers or professionals. To get one of these, you should plan to spend anywhere between $300 and $800, sometimes even more.

Specialized Tents

Specialized tents are made for extreme conditions, high altitudes, or specific purposes like mountaineering or major expeditions. They come with the best materials and engineering and cost between $500 and $1500, though some may cost even more. 

Consider Parts of the Tent

When deciding to buy a tent, you want to look at all of the parts before making a final decision. Here’s what you should think about when it comes to each part of the tent. 

a solid base under your tent can really impact temperature and comfort inside the tent.

Tent Walls / Tent Materials

Your tent walls are your primary defense against wind, rain, and the occasional critter. The material used in the walls of your tent also determines the tent’s weight and packability.

There are two types of tent walls:

  • Single-wall: Has one layer of weatherproof material. Lighter and easier to set up, and offers great ventilation. However, they can get condensation more easily and aren’t as protective.
  • Double-wall: Features two layers: an inner breathable layer and an outer waterproof layer (often called a rainfly). This is our preference for most conditions, even though it’s a bit heavier and requires more setup.

You’ll also want to consider the different materials your tent walls can be made of:

  • Nylon and Polyester: These are the most common materials used for tent walls. Then, the walls are coated or treated to make them waterproof. These materials are lightweight, durable, and relatively inexpensive, so they’re a top choice for many campers. 
  • Cotton (Canvas): Cotton is a classic tent material, especially for larger or historic-style tents. This material is breathable and less prone to condensation, in addition to being naturally water-resistant (though it can still get heavy when soaked). Canvas is great for creating a cooler interior in hot weather and warmth in cold weather. However, it tends to be more expensive and can get mildewy if you don’t dry it well enough.
  • Cuben Fiber (now known as Dyneema Composite Fabrics or DCF): This is an ultra-lightweight material that’s been popularity in recent years for its strength and water resistance. However, it’s expensive and can be less durable against abrasion than other materials.
  • Gore-Tex and eVent: These materials create the waterproof membranes that are sometimes found in single-wall tents. They’re able to let water vapor escape while blocking rain to reduce condensation. As a result, they also tend to be on the pricier side.

Tent Floor

The tent floor is your barrier between you and the ground. The thicker the floor, the more heat your tent will keep in.

Tent floors are typically coated with a waterproof layer, like polyurethane (PU) or silicone. This ensures that moisture from the ground doesn’t seep into your tent.

Some tents have a “bathtub design” for the floor. Named for its resemblance to a tub, this design has the floor material continuing up the sides of the tent walls for a short distance before the main wall material starts. This design helps to prevent rain or splashes from entering the tent, especially during heavy downpours.

You also want to pay close attention to the seams of the floor. The connection between the walls and floor should be fully sealed and waterproof, so moisture doesn’t leak in. 

Tent Doors

Your tent door is your entry and exit point. There are two main types of tent doors:

  • D-shaped door: These doors are designed in the shape of a capital letter “D” when unzipped. They usually zip around the flat side of the “D,” for easy entry and exit.
  • T-shaped door: These doors have a horizontal zipper across the top and a vertical zipper running down the middle, forming a “T” shape. These offer flexibility in how you open the tent. For example, you can create a small opening at the top for ventilation without fully opening the door.

Make sure that the door design and position align with how you intend to use the tent. For instance, a family tent might benefit from multiple doors to reduce late-night disturbances, while solo campers might prioritize door size for ease of access.

We also advise checking the zippers – they should be smooth and robust. Plus, doors with zippers on both ends can be conveniently operated from inside or outside the tent. 

Tent Poles

Your tent poles dictate the shape, strength, and even the ease of setup for your shelter. The type of poles you have and their configuration can vastly influence your camping experience, from the tent’s weight to its resistance to wind and weather.

Fewer poles often mean easier setup, while thicker poles often mean sturdier tents but heavier carrying. There are several different materials your tent poles can be made from:

  • Aluminum Poles: Aluminum is durable, lightweight, and resistant to corrosion. Because they usually bend instead of breaking, they can be repaired in the field using a splint. However, they tend to be more expensive. Aluminum poles are our favorite for their blend of strength and lightness.
  • Fiberglass Poles: Fiberglass is usually found in budget tents and larger family tents. These are less expensive and can flex more than aluminum, however, they’re heavier and not as durable. When flexed too much, you also run the risk of shattering them (not fun!).
  • Carbon Fiber Poles: Carbon poles are often found in high-end, ultralight tents. These poles are extremely lightweight, yet very strong for their weight. This also makes them more expensive. However, they’re more prone to snapping than bending, which can make repairs tricky.
  • Steel Poles: Steel is typically used in larger tents or base camp structures where weight isn’t an issue. This is the most durable and strong of all pole materials. However, they can rust if the coating gets scratched off.

Tent Stakes

Tent stakes anchor your tent to the ground, keeping it stable in various weather conditions. The type of stakes you choose and how you use them can greatly impact your tent’s performance and durability.

Durable stakes are crucial in windy conditions. We prefer aluminum or titanium stakes, but other materials include:

  • Titanium
  • Carbon fiber
  • Aluminum
  • Stainless steel
  • Plastic 

The more durable your stakes, the more secure your tent will be to the ground. 

Footprint

While the tent floor provides protection, it can still be susceptible to wear and tear, especially when pitched on rough terrains.

Many tents have the option to use a separate groundsheet or footprint to add an additional protective layer between the tent floor and the ground.

While optional, we always use them to prolong our tent’s life.

small yellow tent simple camping with women

Final Thoughts

Choosing a tent is an essential step in your adventure preparations. When considering a tent, we recommend prioritizing your needs, whether that’s weight, space, or weather protection. After countless nights under the stars, we know the right tent can make all the difference. 

To make sure you’re ready for your camping trip, check out our Beginner Guide to Camping in the Wild!

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