How to choose a tent

What kind of tent is right for me?

When choosing a tent think about what you’ll be using it for. It might be for anything from minimalist ultralight hiking through to a family camping set up with the kitchen sink. Of course budget and style are important but there are other things to consider when making your decision.

Size – Choose a tent that is a suitable size and has enough space for what you need. Tents have a capacity rating but these are often ‘snug’ tight fits – there’s no industry standard and you may find anything from 50cm to 70cm width per person. Think about what you need and like … make sure you have enough room for your friends, your gear, and even tossing and turning in the night.  Consider the height of the inner – will you be standing or is crawling in on hands and knees ok? Another consideration is length of the tent … is it long enough so that when you lie down your head and feet won’t be touching the tent walls, remember that walls often come in at a sharp angle so the floor space might not give you as much space as you think.

Seasons – What kind of weather conditions will you usually be camping in? You’ll need a tent that can comfortably face the challenges nature throws at us. Tents are usually categorised as 3 or 4 season tents.

3 season tents – most tents would fit into this category – suitable for spring, summer and autumn camping. They usually have lots of mesh ventilation to help with airflow but keep the bugs out. They’re made to handle rain but are not built for extreme conditions like storms, heavy winds or snow.

3-4 season tents – made to handle summer trips but also early spring and late autumn too. They have more in the way of strength (more poles) and balancing ventilation and keeping warmth inside when needed (less mesh). They’re good for windy, high elevations and offer more protection against the elements.

4 season tents – made to handle extreme wind and snow, often used on mountaineering trips. They can be used in any season but designed to stand firm in worst winter weather at higher altitudes.  They often use more poles and heavier fabric, with round aerodynamic domes to perform well in high winds and prevent snow build up and offer less in the way of ventilation as keeping warm is the priority.

Water resistance – Most polyester tents are applied with a polyurethane coating and taped seams which prevents water from getting in and makes them waterproof.

Make sure the tent is able to handle rainy weather that you may encounter. Tent fabrics are given a mm rating which measures a column of water held up to the fabric (hydrostatic head). A 1500mm rate fabric is generally considered waterproof and means a 1500mm tall column of water can be held up against the fabric before water leaks through (that’s a lot of water). For floors a higher rating would be advisable as they sit on wet ground with the added pressure of you pushing down as well ... usually 3000mm and above should be ok.

Tent fly – Depending on climate and weather conditions where you are the tent fly may offer full cover of the inner useful for where it might rain even on a summer’s day (like NZ) or partial cover where rain is more predictable (USA). 

Double layer or single layer – Tents usually have two layers … the inner and the fly. Inners are usually breathable polyester or mesh covered by the outer fly. It’s best to maintain a gap between the two layers to improve ventilation and minimize effects of condensation. Single layer tents are just the fly and more popular with hikers wanting a light weight shelter. Condensation build up in single layer tents may be a problem as any condensation inside the tent might be in direct contact with you, so it’s best to maintain good ventilation to prevent the build up of condensation.

Fabrics – There are different fabrics available that have their pros and cons. Polyester is commonly used for its good performance and affordability, Nylon for light weight and strength but is more expensive. Cuben fibre for even lighter weight and greater strength but high cost. Canvas is a blend of cotton and polyester good for more durable tents but is bulkier and heavier.

Poles – How many poles are there? Do they create greater strength or increase internal space? Fibreglass poles are commonly used but are heavy. Aluminium poles are becoming more common and provide a good balance of strength and lighter weight. Steel poles are often used with large family tents and canvas tents. Inflatable air poles are on the rise due to improvements in design and quick easy set up. Maybe a popup tent which makes setting up a breeze.

Setting up – most tents are pretty simple to set up these days but some are easier, quicker than others or require 2 or people such as family tents. They may be free standing or require stakes to help them stand. On some tents inners are set up first and then the fly is placed over the top while on other tents the fly is set up first then the inner is hooked up inside.

Ventilation – mesh is often used for tent inners, on doors and windows to keep out insects but ensure that there’s enough ventilation options to allow airflow to maintain comfort levels inside the tent.

Vestibules – the front or rear entrance storage areas covered by the fly. Consider how much space you need to store your gear.

Doors – think about how many entrances you require? What shape and design are they and do they allow easy opening and access. Doors on inners may be double layered with zip up fabric or mesh option.

Stakes and guy rope – are guy ropes and stakes included and of what quality and number.

Internal features – some things to consider are storage pockets, gear lofts, ceiling loops or hooks for lighting, power inlets, vents that can be opened or closed in bad weather.

Weight and packed size – How much does the tent weigh? Is it easily carried around when hiking or to and from the car? How small a tent packs down to may be important of you’re carrying over long distances.

Thinking about the above will help point you in the right direction in finding a tent that’s suitable for your needs or looking further into tents that fit a more specific type of camping.


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