How to Buy a New Camping Tent

A single tent set up in the woods

TripSavvy / Lauren Breedlove

Ready to spend the night outdoors? Good news: you don't need too much to get started. Just a sense of adventure, a sleeping bag, a headlamp and, of course, a tent. For most people, sleeping in the great outdoors is just a little more comfortable when tucked into a cozy tent (though hammock camping can be its own adventure!)

Tents are generally somewhat simple, but there are a few major decisions you'll need to make before buying one—primarily, what kind of tent you want, how big you want it to be, and what features you care about having, since that'll greatly impact the price.

And don't forget, once you've bought the perfect camping tent, there are some basic things you can do in terms of cleaning and storage to make it last through years of use. A high-end tent can serve you well for decades, provided you treat it with a little extra care at the end of every trip.

Here's all you need to know about buying a new camping tent, along with some tips on how to select the perfect option.

Tent Sizes

When you shop for tents, you'll notice that sizing is by person. A one-person tent has enough room for one person in a sleeping bag to lie flat, but there won’t be much extra room for gear. If you’re on the smaller side, you may have room for your backpack in the tent with you. 

Two-person tents can fit two people side by side, but it’s assuming you don’t mind being directly against each other. They’re great for couples, but may be a little too close for comfort for casual friends. Three-person tents are good for two people if you want a little extra space, though some companies make 2.5-person tents, which are ideal for couples who want more room, or perhaps a couple with a dog.

Four-person tents will work for families with one or two young children, but if you have children who are elementary-school-aged or older, you’ll probably want a six-person tent to ensure no one gets kicked in the head or smushed into the corner in the middle of the night. 

If you’re car camping (parking directly next to your campsite in a campground), you don’t need to worry too much about your tent’s weight or size, though remember that choosing a tent significantly larger than you need will be colder (your body heat warms the air in the tent, so the less empty space there is, the better.) But if you’re backpacking, you’ll want to keep your tent as small as is comfortable to minimize how much weight you’re carrying on the trails. 

According to Terry Breaux, senior product designer at Mountain Safety Research (MSR), "When possible, it’s always best to crawl inside a few tents before purchasing one. Determine if it has enough interior space to sit out a storm or play cards with a friend."

Types of Tents

What type of tent do you need? Well, that depends on what kind of camping you’re planning to do. The most “technical” tents—those made for performance and extreme weather—are backpacking tents. These tents are built with both durability and weight in mind, with the goal of getting them to be as lightweight as possible.

Tents come in two types: freestanding tents, and tents that need to be staked in. Most backpacking tents will need to be staked in, as those tents require fewer metal frame pieces, which saves weight. However, they can’t stand up on their own, so they're not ideal for rocky terrain where you can’t drive stakes into the ground.

Many backpacking tents are telescoping (sometimes referred to as "bivvy-shaped," like a bivouac tent), which means they’re taller near the entry (where your head goes) and narrower by your feet to save weight. But it also means they’re fairly tight inside. 

If you’re planning on car-camping, you don’t need to worry as much about keeping your tent small and lightweight. Car camping tents are larger, often made with thicker materials, and may have additional features that add weight, like built-in lighting or zippered windows.

Tent Parts

Tents aren’t very complicated but there are a few key terms to know when you’re shopping around. 

  • Rainfly: The rainfly is the cover on your tent. Not all basic car-camping tents have them, but most do. The rainfly is a separate piece of material and provides cover from the elements while still allowing airflow into your tent, which helps avoid condensation. If it’s warm with good weather in the forecast, you can opt not to use the rainfly. This can be a nice choice for stargazing, especially if the top of your tent is mesh (which most are).
  • Vestibule: The vestibule is the area outside your tent but still under your rainfly. It’s where most people put their bags and shoes at night to cover them without taking up space in the tent.
  • Tub Floor: While most of your tent will likely be mesh, the floor is always made of a stronger, waterproof material. With many tents, this material extends a few inches up the sides like a bathtub. This helps keep water out in the case of rain or snow and means you don’t need to use a tarp or special mat under your tent to stay dry.
  • Poles and Stakes: The poles go in your tent to keep it open; the stakes go into the ground to keep it upright. Poles always fold up for easy storage.
A backpacking tent under an aspen grove in Colorado

Suzie Dundas

How Much Should a Tent Cost?

How much you'll pay for a tent depends on your priorities. If you just need a simple tent for car camping and aren’t worried about it being very light—or don't care about a brand name or warranty—you can find perfectly usable tents at big-box stores like Target or on Amazon. These tents are also good for music festivals and family camping. "Spending more on a tent typically gets one a lighter-weight tent compared to a lower-cost model. Some higher-priced tents are also designed for specific uses. Bikepacking tents will be light and compact for securing on a bicycle, while mountaineering tents will have more robust frames and fabrics to handle winter storms," said Terry Breaux.

You can find backpacking tents at a fairly low price (around $100), but they’ll usually weigh 5 to 7 pounds, which is a little heavy for most people to carry on long backpacking trips. If you’re just hiking a mile or two across mostly flat terrain, the costs savings may be worth the weight.

Backpackers who want a reasonably sized packed tent (around 18 inches long by 6 or 7 inches in diameter) and want it to weigh less than 4 pounds are probably looking at a tent in the $200-$250 range. And if you want an ultralight tent with a small packed size, expect to pay between $300 and $350. If you need a large, ultralight, durable, tent capable of using for winter camping that folds into a small package, expect to pay $500 or more.

What Features Do You Need?

Look for a rainfly if you plan to use your tent for backpacking or camping in any type of chilly conditions. The rainfly allows for the body of your tent to be mostly mesh, which helps with airflow (which keeps you dry in case of frost or condensation). If your tent doesn’t have a rainfly, it probably has windows or vents near the top and is likely better for backyard or drive-in campground use. 

Tent poles are divided into two categories: affordable poles made with materials like fiberglass, and more expensive poles (made from aluminum or, in high-end tents, carbon.) Fiberglass isn’t as strong as some metals, so tents with fiberglass poles will usually be a bit bulkier and heavier, and more likely to break or snap in heavy wind. Aluminum is a popular choice in backpacking tents, and carbon is the best choice for tents in high winds. Don’t spring for carbon if you’re just buying a tent for beginner campers in your local neighborhood park.

Guy lines and loops are attached to your rainfly and help keep it taught and secure in strong wind or weather. Get a tent with guy lines if you plan on camping in windy conditions. You can always opt not to secure the guylines if there's no more than a light breeze.

Zippers and doors: Most tents have just one main zipper to help keep weight down. But that can mean climbing over one another if someone needs to get out in the middle of the night. Look for a tent with a zipper door on both sides to make entry and exit a bit easier. 

Maintenance and Storage

“Keep it clean and dry!” said Daniel Cates, owner of Technical Equipment Cleaners. The California-based company cleans and repairs outdoor gear like ski clothing, sleeping bags, and tents. “The most common issue we address with tents is mold. After you get back from a camping trip, you should gently wash the tent and rainfly with soap and water and make sure its completely dry before putting it away,” says Cates. “Even the smallest bit of moisture can cause mold.” Cates also recommended storing it indoors in a room not subject to heavy temperature or lighting swings (so avoid the garage or basement).

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