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Guide to Tents

by Alicia MacLeay
December 12, 2005

How to Choose a Tent

Like campers and backpackers, tents come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and styles. Tents provide not only a place to sleep, but protection from the elements (and mosquitoes and other critters), a sheltered spot for you and your gear, and a little privacy and sense of security in the great outdoors. Since you’ll depend on your tent for shelter, be sure to choose a good quality one that fits your outdoor needs. Having the right tent can mean the difference between sleeping peacefully amid the pitter patter of a summer shower and making a soggy, middle-of-the night trip back to the car or to a local motel.

When Will You Use the Tent?

In what seasons and conditions will you use your tent? Knowing when, where, and how you camp will help you select the right shelter for you and your adventure. Choose a tent that can handle the most severe conditions you expect to encounter, but don’t buy more tent than you truly need.


Most tents are classified by sleeping capacity—solo, two-person, on up to expansive six- and even eight-person family models. So you need to know how many people you’ll typically be camping with to select the right size.

  • How much space each person—and their gear—needs can be subjective. For those who only need a minimal space to sleep a bivy sack or hammock will do just fine. Others want room to sit (or even stand up), spread out their gear, and make themselves at home. Most campers and backpackers fall somewhere in the middle.

  • Not sure what two- or three-person really means? A tent's stated sleeping capacity usually does not include much (or any) space for your gear and there’s no sizing standard between tent manufacturers. However, most manufacturers provide size specifications for their tents. Look for the dimensions of the tent’s footprint or floor space. Then lay out your own ground pad(s) and sleeping bag(s), measure them, and compare that to the tent manufacturer’s floor space to determine if you’d be comfortable. You’ll also want to consider how much headroom there is if you want to be able to sit up and how much storage room any vestibules provide.

  • If you or any of your tentmates are on the large size or will have extra gear (as in winter) that you need to keep in the tent, consider going up a tent size. Two people might consider a three-person model for the essential extra room it provides. You’ll also want to consider how much time you’ll spend in your tent. Is it for sleeping only or will you be spending a lot of time hanging out at camp?


While you may be thinking, “why not just get the bigger tent?”, remember—the bigger the tent, the heavier it is. If canoeing or car camping, weight may not be a major factor. But, if you’ll be backpacking, climbing, or cycling, every ounce you carry matters. Choose a tent that will fit you and any gear you need to bring into the tent or vestibule and that you’ll feel comfortable in. But don’t overdo the size at the cost of added weight or your back won’t forgive you.

Tent Designs

  • Freestanding tents can stand alone without stakes or guy lines and can be easily moved or have dirt and other debris shaken out without being disassembled. They still need to be staked out though or a strong wind could blow your campsite right off the mountain.

  • Most four-season tents utilize a rounded, geodesic dome design, which makes them stable and able to withstand heavy snow loads and wind. They also provide decent interior space and headroom, should you find yourself snowbound inside one for a few days.

  • Tunnel tents are narrow and rectangular. Many three-season models come in this design. Since their rain flies lie flatter, they are not designed to handle heavy snow loads.

  • Large family cabin tents with high ceilings and nearly vertical walls are very spacious and provide plenty of space for people and their belongings. They can be good for families staying at campgrounds, but are very heavy, harder to set up, and not very weatherproof.

Other Considerations

  • A footprint or ground cloth under your tent will prolong its life. Some tent manufacturers make footprints specifically for their tents. You can make your own though by cutting a piece of clear plastic or Tyvek a few inches smaller than the footprint of your tent. Making it smaller than the tent prevents it from catching rainwater and funneling that water under your tent.

  • Practice setting your tent up in the backyard before you take it into the backcountry. You’ll want to know how things fit together and if you’re missing a pole before you arrive at a wooded campsite in the dark.

  • Once your tent is set up in the backyard or garage apply seam sealer to its seams, paying special attention to the floor and rain fly. Seam sealing will help keep moisture from rain and dew outside. Some tents come with factory-taped seams. Although they offer more protection than unsealed seams, these should still be seam sealed for maximum waterproofness. Be sure to carefully follow both the tent manufacturer and seam sealer’s instructions and have adequate ventilation during the sealing process. Depending on how often you use your tent and the quality of your seam sealer, you may want to repeat this process yearly.

  • A gear loft or tent attic added to the ceiling of your tent can provide extra storage room and better organization inside the tent.

Now head over to Trailspace’s tent user reviews and product descriptions to find the right tent for your next outdoor adventure. Soon you’ll be happily ensconced in your home away from home with nothing to worry about but your tentmate’s snoring.