So, because you’re cool, frugal, economical and efficient (and cool, too, did I mention that?), you’re looking into buying a tent for you and your family to camp in. Wonderful! You’ve now entered a world with literally hundreds of very different options from dozens of manufacturers, at prices from under $100 to $500 or more. Where do you start? How do you choose? In my experience, the best way to start choosing a tent is to ask yourself three questions; the answers to those questions will help to direct your purchases.
Question 1: How many people will be sleeping in your tent?
Tents are offered with these handy-dandy “person” ratings for their size. They’re super handy for comparing different tents, and having some idea of how big they are. The biggest thing for a tent novice to know is that the person rating equates to sufficient floor space for an average adult to set-up their sleeping bag… and that’s it. It takes into account nothing else: not gear space, not room for shoes, not even room to stretch without kicking someone else in the noggin’. And when you’re camping (especially backcountry camping, where everything is stored in your tent), that’s entirely unrealistic. A good rule of thumb is that every camper requires a minimum of 1.5 “persons” of space in a tent to be comfortable. So, a 3-person tent is good for 2 people plus their stuff, and a family of 4 should ideally be looking at a 6-person tent, or larger.
And when I say “requires a minimum”, I mean it, because once you start to look at tents larger than 4-persons, your options expand immensely. You can have separate bedrooms for parents & children. You can incorporate spaces for luggage or for hiding inside in case of poor weather that are separate from the places you’ll sleep in. Your tent can be more than just a place to lay your head, and can start to be a bigger part of your camping experience. While that sounds like a negative, it’s really not. Especially with small kids, and unpredictable weather.
Question #2: How will you get there?
So, now that you know how many people you’d like your tent to hold, you need to figure out how you’ll get it to your campsite. You can pursue backcountry camping, where (normally) you’ll strap everything you need to your back and hike it somewhere. Or you can go car camping, which means where ever you pitch your tent will likely be very nearby to where you’re parking your car.
Backcountry camping has significantly different needs from car camping, because you’ll need to schlep your tent on your back, and might have limited space to set-up a huge monstrosity of a family tent when you’re there. In that case, rather than getting a 6-8 person tent for a family of 4, getting two separate 3-person tents makes a lot more sense. You can even divide up the tent components between campers to spread the load out more. Contrast that with car campers, who have little to no incentive to save on weight when choosing their tent. If anything, car camping should give you the freedom to buy MORE tent than you “need”, more space to stretch out in, more features that add to the weight of the tent, etc.
Question #3: What’s your budget?
This is the final part of the equation, and probably the most vague. “Why is this tent $200, when that almost identical tent is $500?” The answer to this question is that more expensive tents are made with higher-quality materials, plain and simple. Fabrics that are lighter, breathe better, and/or are more durable. Poles that are stronger, designed to withstand more strain from the weather or simply repeated set-up-and-take-down cycles. The zippers will be higher quality (both lighter and more reliable), and even the waterproofing may be higher quality as well. With tents, you really do get what you pay for.
The thing about getting what you pay for is will you ever USE what you’re paying for? If you’re the kind of camper who sticks to well-tended campgrounds and weekends where the weather forecast is nothing but beautiful weather, you’ll probably never need an ultralight tent that can withstand gale-force winds, and can venture towards the lower end of the price spectrum. Even an average-priced tent should be totally sufficient for many years of happy weekend camping with your family. And in the end, even an expensive tent is cheap compared to a trailer. 🙂
Finally: one of the nice things about tents is that, because they’re relatively specialized, you’ll probably find yourself collecting multiple tents that will each serve a particular purpose. For example, I have 3 different tents: a light 3-person backpacking tent, an 8-person behemoth family tent, and a 4-person hybrid between the two. Which one I pick will depend on the adventure that we have planned, and who is planning on coming along.
So, go, explore the world of tents that are out there! This is the time of year when sporting goods stores (and Costco, don’t forget them) start rolling out their camping equipment, so go and see what’s available nearby to you!