The Ultimate Guide to Tents for Beginners

John Neefus


Min Read

How to choose a tent, where and how to set a it up, and how to take it down.

The Quick Version of this blog post

When home is 200 Miles away, it's often nice to have a stand in bedroom. Tenting, Hammocking, tarping, and bivvying are all ways to get some shut eye in the great outdoors; each have their strengths, and super secret knowledge to make everything go smoothly.

Anatomy of tent

Basic? Yeah. Seriously confusing if no one has explained it before? Also Yeah. 

Ground tarps

Tent actual



The fly.

Choosing a tent

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 trying to understand a woman's mind.

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. 

How to choose a tent setup spot 

There are several things to remember when choosing the exact spot where to set up your tent.  If possible, put your tent where it appears others had set up theirs, and stay 200 feet away from water to safeguard from flash floods. You’re also gonna wanna sweep away any branches, pinecones, and partially buried rocks; This is gonna save your back a whole lot of discomfort.

How to choose a tent


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.

Pro tip: 

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. 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. 

Setup Ease

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

  • 5 steps or less - probably not that hard
  • 5+ person tent that’s under $300 - probably a not good time. Maybe even horrible.  

Every tent should include these items;

  • Footprint 
  • Poles 
  • Stakes
  • Rainfly(s)  

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. 

Pro Tip:

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. 

Advanced tent choices 

  • Weight
  • Seasonal design and appropriateness
  • Shape
  • Height 
  • Ventilation and heat retention


Pretty straightforward. If you are carrying it on your back then you are gonna care about weight. If you don't care now, chances are you will after a mile or 2. Unless your goal is to workout and challenge yourself, give it some thought. A good rule is that when buying a good tent, the lighter it gets, the price will increase exponentially. Weight can be a drag, but if you are fixating over your tent weight, while ignoring your 3 cast iron pans, you might be as bright as your pans…

The unfortunate truth is that there are a few, and I mean a select few tents that are reasonably priced that are also light and well made. We search for those, and will let you know once we have tested them. But in the meantime, the real factor that influences this category the most is how much the weight reduction means to you and how much cash you can throw to lose a few pounds. #americandieting

Seasonal design and appropriateness 

For your average family summer trip, seasonal design is like heated seats. Nice, but not mandatory for the car to drive. What I'm saying is that having a tent suited to the season you are in can improve your experience, but at the same time, you won’t see a serious degradation of experience should your shelter be out of season. You are looking at maybe a 10% of overall comfort with a seasonal tent vs the out of season tent. Most tents are 3-season tents which means they’re fine for most uses. The real factor that changes everything is called Cold. It's this weird thing that happens in winter, or if you live in canada, most of the year. If you’re gonna camp in SERIOUSLY cold weather, then you need to do a bit more planning than just yelling YOLO and stomping the gas pedal.


Is it a box? Is it a fox? Will a dome be your home? Or will it be a tarp for your LARP? Jokes aside, There are two main structures of tents, domes and cabins, but if you’re new to tents the shapes aren’t really that important. Most tents will have 2-3 main poles to get it up, but as you buy bigger tents (4+ people) you start getting into wierd and wacky tent engineering. The honest assessment here is for 90% of people, you dont ever need to consider a tent for more than 4 people. But for the the people that actually care about shape and what it means, Here's a more detailed breakdown. 

Dome tents. I could describe the shape, but honestly, this isn't a Pre K classroom. These tents are very strong and are great at deflecting the wind which is great if you get caught in a storm. The downside to  a dome tent is that as they are tall in the center the walls are very much sloped which reduces the “living space” inside, assuming that's what you do in your tent, and not just… well… sleep. 

Now for cabin shaped tents. Their walls are nearly vertical which offers maximum standing room and living space. Some even come with fun features like room dividers and an awning with mosquito netting. Cabin tents are usually more complex and heavy, but the amount of “wasted” floor space is next to nil. They are significantly better for long term camping in a single location. If you find a tent that hits all of your other criteria, but is dome instead of cabin or vice versa you’ll probably be fine. There’s a reason it’s one of the last things on this list. 


Now height is measured from the highest point in a tent, which can be misleading if you are expecting a lot more working space. You don't usually get a lot of inside space in a tent, unless you are doing the 1 person in a 4 person tent thing, which is cool if you aren't carrying your gear. I've just learned to do everything in a tent from a sitting position or from my back. (it's also wayyyy more comfortable) Height is really only a consideration if you are picky about how you get dressed. You can get dressed quite easily in any tent, if you lay on your back and dress from that starting position. Now if you Havta havta havta stand up to get dressed, then you might want to consider a tent that allows you to stand at full height.


Most of the moisture that ends up on the inside of the tent is moisture that you bring with you. Your body gives it off while you sleep, your gear has some inherent moisture as well. In addition to that, the temperature difference of your hot body warming a tent and the temperature difference of the outside air causes condensation to form inside your tent. That's why you don't want to get in a ziplock bag with poles. You need airflow with most tents, and that airflow helps to control the moisture build up. Your tent is not meant to be a 75 degree climate controlled living room, but a slightly warmer shelter from the elements. Learning to ventilate your tent is one of those things that seems intuitive, if it's hot, open flaps, if cold, close the vents, but it also isn't that difficult.

All that said, you get into more extreme situations, you want your tent to have good thermal retention. This can be achieved through thicker waterproof liners, more rain fly covered area, and less ventilation. For your average Joe, this isn't as important. But you start getting into Montana mountains in the winter, it gets much more important. I'll put out a bunch more info on this type of thing in my cold weather camping article (coming soon)

How to setup a tent 

Remember that pro tip about setting up the tent ahead of time in your house? Yes? No? Well if you did, then this is going to be SUPER easy. If you didn’t… here’s what you need to do. In general, because there are TONS of different setups for tents. But you can at least get the basic idea (or you could watch this video if, like me, you’re a visual learner) 

First off, put down the ground tarp or additional waterproofing material to protect against groundwater so you don’t have a sleeping-in-the-woods-on-a-leaking-water-mattress nighttime experience. If possible, put your tent where it appears others had set up theirs, and stay 200 feet away from water to safeguard from flash floods. You’re also gonna wanna sweep away any branches, pinecones, and partially buried rocks; This is gonna save your back a whole lot of discomfort.

If it's windy the first thing you'll want to do is stake down the corners to keep it from blowing away. Carefully lay out your poles and put them together and run them through the sleeves in your tents. It's always helpful to have one person holding up the middle while another person goes around and sticks the ends of the poles into their respective positions. Once you have the main body of the tent set up it's time to put on the rain fly. You're gonna wanna figure out which side of the fly goes near the door and line everything up by draping it on top. Check for any additional poles that may need to be threaded through the rain fly. Now usually there are either some clips or little bungie's that hook into the stake rings in the 4 corners of your tent. Lock those in where they belong and then put stakes in those strings that are attached to the fly. Those are called Guy lines, and serve 2 major purposes; First is that it helps to better anchor your tent, but it also opens up little channels between the rain fly and the tent. This increases the airflow inside, which helps to control moisture build up and keep the tent from getting stuffy.

How to take a tent down

All camping trips must come to an end and require you to take down your tent. The first part of disassembly and packing is taking off the rain fly and hanging it up somewhere to dry. Chances are that your tent is going to be slightly damp. Now you've reached the packing stage, or for me, stuffing everything I have into the main compartment and compressing it as much as possible. Why pack well when I have to put it up and clean it at home, right? So your tent is empty now, except for a few leaves, sticks, and piles of dirt. You can either sweep them up and get em out if you have a broom, or you can pull your stakes and then flip the tent over your head and start shaking it like its one of the sand people’s spears. (sand people gif). Now that you are debris free, it's time to deconstruct. Remove and fold your poles, and pile your stakes near your bag. Fold you tent into thirds, in a hot dog style fold. Then toss your rainfly on top and fold it in a similar way so that they line up. Grab your tent poles, place them at one end and begin to roll. This ought to make a nice tight bundle that will fit nicely in the bag. Now most tents can be folded like this to fit, but some tent bags are dumb and require you to improvise and find your own way. You can see this process in action in our tent setup videos and see some of the folding and stuffing styles.

Never put your tent away wet as mildew can quickly form in a weeks time. You really don't want to unroll your tent on your next camping trip and have it look like it snowed inside. Really not fun and you just sort of get that odor all over you…. yeuglh

And there you have it. Now you have a rough idea of how to deal with tents (or at least you know more than you did before you started reading). But the only way to get really comfortable is to practice. 

Tent Maintenance

Bit of advanced science here. Most campers don't really have a clue about this, but the principles are pretty simple.  Here are the major rules of keeping your stuff nice. 

  • Don’t let your tent mildew. 
  • Don't rip your tent
  • Don't let your tent leak

OK. If you have mildew, you need to clean it. Use Soap and water and a little bit of spray lysol for odor and finishing work. Definitely don't use bleach, unless you are going for that norwegian snow camo look. On top of that, most tents aren’t really designed to be chemical resistant, so if you use some harsh stuff you can actually damage the tent material. Lysol is a bit of a gamble, but sometimes it really just NEEDS it. Finally, Cleaning a tent often wears down any waterproofing spray and seam sealer, so if you use cleaning chemicals, then it's a good idea to refresh your rainfly’s waterproofing and respray your tent basin (bathtub, floor)  from both the outside and inside. This will help mitigate any unwelcome surprises in the middle of the night.

Now if you do manage to rip or tear your tent, you will need to use either the patch kit included in your tent bag, or you will need to go buy one. It's never a terrible idea to keep a kit with you, because fixing holes when you spot them can keep them from getting catastrophically big. 

Step one. Make sure you have enough patch material. 

Step two. Clean the area. Soap and water followed up with rubbing alcohol makes the surface good for the sticker to adhere to. If you have waterproofing spray on the area or its dusty, then there's a good chance the patch will fall off and not stick long term. It might go without saying, but let the area dry after you clean it. Wet surface and adhesive don't generally vibe.

Step 3. PATCH IT. 

Step 4. Waterproof it again. Spray cans work well.

Yeah, that's mostly it. I know… hours of scrolling and “that's all”. But the goal is definitely to try to fill in any knowledge gaps you might know you have or didn't even know existed. Go out, get wild, and be safe, warm, and dry

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John Neefus

Our CEO. Sometime comedian. Joker occasionally. Always hilarious.

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