How to buy a Camping Tent

My friends and acquaintances all know I’m a camping guy – the guy to ask if you’ve got a camping question. The number one query I get is “What kind of tent should I buy?” This question generally comes from dads and moms who haven’t done a lot of camping but now their kids are in scouts and they have to figure out something because the outing is in two weeks.

I always tell them I have a ton of tents and they can borrow one of mine. But it’s nice to have your own tent, and honestly they’re pretty cheap. One of my favorite tents is a $25 one-man backpacking tent I got on the clearance rack at Academy. It packs down to nothing and has so far proven to be indestructible.

How many people are going camping?
This is the first question. Is your spouse going? How many kids do you have (and how old are they)? In other words, how many bodies will be sleeping in this thing and how big are those bodies? As a general rule you want to take the number of people, add one and that’s the size tent you need. So, for 3 people get a 4-man tent. You can cheat a little with small kids. For example, if it’s just you and two kids under 8, you can get by with a 3-man tent.

What features should I look for?
Your tent needs a bottom, first of all. That may seem obvious but I’ve been asked. The best tents have a thick, tarp-like bottom that extends up several inches. This is to keep water out. I’ve also been asked if you should set-up a tarp underneath your tent. I say no, especially if you already have a tent as I’ve described. Get a dome tent. They’ll have open netting at the top which is nice for warmer weather and a rain fly – basically a rain cover you attach in case of bad weather. These rain flies may not look like much but the good ones work well. May I present to you, my tent, the Coleman Sundome 4-man tent:

The Coleman SunDome: A good, basic 4-man tent for $80.

I Don’t Know How to Set a Tent Up
I get this a lot. “Can you show me how to set it up?” Nowadays, setting these things up is super-easy. For my Coleman, you lay it out and put stakes in the four corners, then you put together two tent poles and push them through loops in the top to make an X. Lastly, you push the tent poles up to make the two support archs you see in the pic, clicking the ends of the poles into little doodads in the corners. That’s it. I do suggest you set it up once at home. That way, when you set it up in the woods, in the dark, you’ll have already done it once.

What Not to Do
Don’t buy one of those quick “pop-up” tents unless it’s for just you. They’re small, usually only big enough for one medium-sized person. If you do get one, try it out before you get into the woods. Don’t overpay for a tent. I know it’s tempting to get a $400 North Face 4-season tent, but unless you’re camping every weekend in Alaska it’s probably overkill. Finally, don’t get too big of a tent. I see this a lot. It’s you and one kid in a 6-man mess tent. Who doesn’t love more space? The problem is that the tent will be harder to set-up and tear down, and take up more room at the campsite and in your car when packed up.

Final Words
When you go camping, you need to be able to get a decent night’s sleep. In addition to your brand-new tent, you’ll also want a blow-up mattress, either with a battery or foot pump, and ample pillows and blankets (or sleeping-bags). If it’s your first time, or your kids’ first time, set the tent up in your yard and let them play in it for few days. You can even do a test night sleeping in the tent in the yard, where you can bail out and get back in your bed if needed. All these things will increase your chance for everyone to get a good night’s sleep that first time in the woods.

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