The really confusing part about tent shopping is that everyone and their baby sister Tricia makes a tent and calls it the best newest hottest most slam dogginest tent on the market. With a little guidance and inside knowledge, it can be way simpler than thought.
The accepted norm is 2 people and gear go in a 3 person tent. Beyond that, if you have more than 3 people, just keep adding on 2-4 person tents till everyone is housed. Its very worthwhile to know that the way tentmakers measure their tents are with 6 foot people laying shoulder to shoulder. Like sardines. That's why lots of the quality tents have vestibules and covered areas for your gear and shoes and stuff outside the tent, because if you put 2 people in a 2 person tent, there is literally no (comfortable) room for gear. It allows for much more privacy and keeps the infighting of 7 people in a tiny fabric room to a minimum. Also a great option to keep the snoring jackhammers away from everyone else.
The reality of the matter is that people who want to sell gear make up a lot of features to sell their stuff. The other reality is that people who have used a ton of gear can see right through all those “premium features” and see what's important and what isn't. Now if you already know what is important to you, just go ahead and scan the bullet points.
I mean it seems obvious, but why do you need this tent? Is it to go in your camping gear collection for your annual 3 day sortie, or to be used in harsh weather conditions all day every day? If you are a first timer, you probably don't want to drop fat stacks on a really nice tent. You might get out there and promptly decide that we have houses for a reason, and everything else is just a side effect of too many illegal and restricted substances.
Size matters and price matters. I know, real shocker. But what to do with that basic knowledge in an area that is saturated with SO MUCH FREAKING information is a whole other conversation. We have boiled it down to a good, better, best system. We won’t send any garbage your way. That's it. End of story. But in the good gear category there is a lot of spread from gear that will work, to the ultra premium gear that the Everest climbers use. So unless you have bottomless income, take the hint and buy some solid gear that will make the cut.
This is one of those harder things to test, because often times, well you actually destroy the thing you are testing. The most common places I’ve seen tents fail is zippers, where the bottom gets torn, and sewn seams unravel. Most of my experience with this, to be fair to the manufacturers, is anecdotal and comes from failures I've either seen or heard about. But if you’re doing a quick once over on a tent, the 3 primary things I look for in the durability department is the zippers, rip resistance and tent basin material, aka the bottom of the tent.
The zippers I have no mercy on. Whip them fast. Try to get stuff stuck in them. If it has tiny zippers or weak handles, I usually chalk it up as trash. “Saving weight” is only useful if it survives. If the zippers snag for no reason, Same result.
Not all fabrics are created equal. Some of the cheaper tents can rip in a stiff breeze. Other tents have terrible stitching that falls out after the slightest use. Unfortunately the only way to really determine this is by experience, knowing an unhealthy amount about the fabrics and destructive testing, which is surprisingly expensive. Lucky for you, it Turns out we have a lot of experience and love to push boundaries. There's a ton of names and brands of good fabrics, and even some decidedly “bad” fabrics can be put together in such a way that you end up with a really solid product.
Now if it passes the zipper test and the durability test, then I move to checking the basin material, or more simply put, the part of the tent that makes contact with the ground and keeps water out. Here I am looking for thickness, and weight. Both of these lend themselves to being much more rip resistant and makes the tent much more likely to be waterproof on its own without any external assistance from tarps or waterproofing sprays. A final addendum to the durability section. Look at the stitching. If you find anywhere on the tent that has a single width stitch, RUN. Double is my recommended bare minimum, Triple is optimal.
In all my years of camping I've seen plenty of well placed and penalty of horribly placed tents. When you plan poorly and the rain comes during the night, there's one of the 2 things that can happen. Waking up at 3:45 in the morning late in November to discover you were in a low spot, and all that rain that your tent majestically deflected and puddled under the tent, is rapidly seeping into your sleeping bag, and spoiling your slumber. It’s not a great feeling. (Personal experience there… )
While where you place the tent matters. A lot. (and we’ll get to it in depth in a hot sec, hold on) it also matters how the tent is made. Some tents are barely waterproof, some are very waterproof on top but a freaking sieve on the bottom. Figuring out how waterproof each tent ACTUALLY is and why it is the way it is ranks as probably the hardest part of tent shopping. You need to focus on Plastic or liner thickness. Without referencing NASA statistics, Most liners range from the basic requirements for waterproof all the way to boat levels of waterproof. Basic waterproofing which will block direct rain but may suffer from water seeping through the material and getting transferred by contact. The other end is the really thick liners that are so heavy and so waterproof, you might question why this material even needs to exist. You will always want a thicker liner on the bottom of your tent, because in the event you do get a pool of water under the tent, the weight of your body will increase the pressure the water is under and allow it to move through a waterproof line that it normally wouldn't be able to.
But if you buy a tent on the cheaper side, you definitely want to waterproof your tent with any canned waterproofing spray you can buy locally. This seals the fabric walls of the tent and you can get seam sealer putties that seal the seams of your rain fly and basin because, even though it looks sealed, a stitching hole is still a hole. Short version, spray everything on the outside, and put putty in every sewn seam you can find. In the end, it will make it more water resistant, and definitely make you happier while you slumber.
Once you have picked out your home away from home, set it up in your own home and take the time to become familiar with it. Believe it or not, just like all other areas of life, you need to practice in order to be effective. No matter how good you are at setting things up or building IKEA furniture in record time, setting up a tent at the house (and checking to make sure all the parts that are supposed to be there are) will save you lots of time, energy, gray hair and swear jar money once you are setting up the tent for real. Set it up, Take it down, and pack it. Put a hose on it and see if any water ends up inside. Think of all the things you would rather not find out for the first time in the woods and test them to see if you have what you think you have.
You might be wondering why this is the last item on the basics list. That’s because if you don’t know why you need it, it isn’t worth crap in the durability department, and it can’t hold water (or more importantly, keep it out) then it doesn’t matter if it sets up in 5 minutes - it’s trash.
Ease of setup is a significant consideration, because oftentimes, tents aren't set up under ideal conditions. I've gotten to the point with my tent, rather quickly, that I can set it up in the dark. That's the mark of a really simple and well designed tent. That's our gold standard. Some tents have strange poles and hard to find structural points, all of which makes them an absolute nightmare to construct. Nothing will piss you off faster than trying to figure out an overly complicated tent with only your headlamp.
It’s hard to know how easy a tent is going to be to set up staring at it online, but here are a few suggestions
If it doesn't have these, chances are the manufacturer has never camped before in their life and won't be able to tell water from dirt, or you will drop half the value of the tent on getting the necessary accessories to make your tent useful, which in reality is just the manufacturer lying about how expensive it is.
Footprints, also called ground tarps, are small tarps made for your tent. The other, and cheaper option are your average tarps. Not “exactly” the right size, and not at premium, they still do the job with resounding success. The short version is that tarps reinforce the bottom of the tent by keeping groundwater and runoff from seeping up through the floor. If the tarp is larger than the tent, fold the edges not covered by the tent outward, and underneath itself (yeah, it's hard to explain -- See diagram/ Video) to prevent water from pooling.
… You can even (and in my opinion should) consider replacing the cheap easily bendable stakes with upgraded steel dagger-like stakes. They don't bend, they usually are coated in a bright color so you don't lose one stake a trip and end up with 1 stake after 3 trips. They also usually come with spares, which ARE pretty nice. Some sort of pounding device like a hammer or the back of a hatchet can be convenient at times, but it's definitely not necessary.
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