There is something primal about camping—it helps connect us back to the natural world. In most of our everyday lives we are removed from the natural world. We sit in air conditioned offices typing on computers and talking on cell phones. The natural world goes on without our notice. But spending time outdoors, sleeping away from our homes and beds, helps bring us back down to ground (literally and figuratively).
However, having a nice tent can mean the difference between connecting to the natural world and becoming its victim. It is worth learning about the many features of a camping tent that you may want to consider when making a purchase. Tents range widely in price, and how much you spend can correlate highly with what you get in this case. Below are some features to know about.
Free-standing vs. not
A free-standing tent is one that will support itself. If you are camping in rocky areas, such as in the mountains, or in sandy areas, it can be difficult if not impossible to pound stakes into the ground or get them to stay. If the stakes are essential to making the tent stand up, you could be very frustrated. However, even free-standing tents should be staked out whenever possible. This allows the tent to be taut which maximizes its weather proof properties and keeps the tent from blowing away in winds.
Tents come in a variety of standard shapes, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. The simplest structure is a tarp. A tarp is a large sheet of material with many anchors for tying to, and it is tied to whatever in the area can be attached to; trees, mostly. A well set up tarp is extremely weather resistant, but having no floor and sides means that there is no protection against insects. Being eaten alive while you sleep is no fun. And if you are camping in an area without handy trees nearby, setting one up is a challenge.
Basic A-frame tent
The standard A-frame tent, or slight modifications on the A-frame style, can still be found. They often require being staked out in order to set up, and their high, broad sides mean they do not stand up well to winds. They work best in benign weather conditions and camping in your backyard.
Dome tents feature arched ceilings created by poles that crisscross the tent in one of several common configurations. They often have more ceiling height and the curved sides can usually withstand a bit more wind.
Tunnel-shaped tents remind me of something like a parking garage for you to sleep in. They are elongate, sometimes not much larger than your sleeping bag. Being low they can withstand wind, but often do not have much living and storage space. However, they are not always free-standing and may require staking.
Wedge shaped tents are modified tunnels. They slope such that they are higher on one end and low at the other. This gives more ceiling height which can add comfort, and they can be very wind resistant if set up with the low end facing the on-coming wind.
There is more to the living space of a tent than just the floor space. Floor space and configuration are something to be considered, but remember that we exist in three dimensions. Wall heights and ceiling heights greatly influence how much space there is inside the tent in which to move around. Curved walls cut into the space inside. If you have ever tried to get dressed inside a tent without enough interior room you will appreciate this fact. As I get older, more interior room is becoming more attractive.
In my experience, take the number of people the tent is supposed to sleep with a grain of salt. Realistically, I assume one fewer than advertised because when you are camping, you do not just take up the footprint of a person in a sleeping bag. You have your clothes, a bunch of miscellaneous small equipment like flashlights, snacks, eyeglasses, and other personal items. This is especially true if you are backpacking. It is one thing if the car is a few feet away, and you can stash stuff there, but if you are carrying everything, it has to go somewhere when you sleep.
A 2 person tent can fit two without any gear, or one person with some inside storage space. A 3 person tent can accommodate two people. The rule of “one fewer” is less critical as the tent gets larger. A 4 person, 6 person, or 8 person tent might be able to fit the number advertised easier than a 3 person tent can fit three. Also, if the tent has a vestibule this helps a great deal as not everything will need to go inside (see below).
In many conditions you want to be able to ventilate your tent. This is true in both hot and cold weather conditions. In hot weather, you want to have air movement to help keep things cooler. In cold weather, you want to ventilate to help avoid condensation inside the tent, which in the long run will make your sleeping area wet, and less able to keep you warm. Many tents have sections of mesh screen, either in windows or in a chimney opening at the top of the tent to provide ventilation.
A rain fly is a crucial part of a good tent. It is basically a second skin, another layer of fabric that you set up over the top of your tent, providing a double wall of weather proofing. Many inexpensive tents offer a rain fly that only partially covers the tent. A partial cover means that ventilation is easier, but I would highly recommend a full rain fly if you expect to encounter wet conditions. Ideally, the fly will come all the way down the sides of the tent as well.
High-end tents sometimes are designed to be used without a fly, being single walled. The material of the tent is intended to be both breathable and weather proof. These tents are lighter, but might not be as weather resistant, especially in extreme weather conditions. Their appeal is mostly their reduced weight (see below).
Often the rain fly is designed to overhang the opening of a tent to form a small vestibule or porch. I have seen vestibules on some tents that are laughable in being so small as to be completely useless. A real area outside the tent opening that is protected from the weather can be critical for providing a space to take off wet boots and storing your pack and gear, under a roof, but not taking up valuable interior space.
Most tents have a built in floor. However, it is best to not rely on the floor alone to keep you dry. A ground cloth is any material that you place under the tent during set up that provides a barrier between the tent and the ground. A sheet of heavy duty plastic works well. Many tents have pre-made ground cloths you can buy. The ground cloth should be a few inches smaller in all directions than the tent floor so that it does not hang outside of the tent. If any part of the ground cloth is exposed during a rain, water runs off the tent, hits the ground cloth, and can run right under the tent, soaking you from below.
The tent poles provide the skeleton for the tent, with the poles either sliding through a sleeve channel in the tent fabric or by clipping to the poles with plastic clips. The poles themselves come in fiberglass, aluminum, or carbon fiber material.
Fiberglass poles are the most inexpensive, and are not as durable as the other two. They usually are supplied with less expensive tents.
Aluminum poles are used for most quality backpacking tents. They are strong and durable, while also being light. Carbon fiber poles are super light and strong, but are not as durable as aluminum. They are included in high-end tents typically.
When the poles slide through sleeves, the structure is usually stronger and more wind resistant. Plastic clips provide for easy set up, but only provide a few points of attachment between the tent and its skeleton, which can be a problem in more extreme weather.
Weight may not be an issue if you are using your tent mostly for camping from the car, but if you backpack at all, every ounce counts. You will pay more for a lighter tent, but your will appreciate it on the trail, believe me.
There is on one perfect tent for every situation. But by knowing some of the things to consider, you can make a more informed decision. Happy camping.