Are you interested in buying a tent?
Let me be the first to tell you that a quality tent is well worth the money. You don’t want to learn this the hard way.
Buying a tent for $20 from Walmart might seem like a steal. And, sure, it might hold up okay – until the rain hits.
Fast forward 20 minutes to a soaking wet sleeping bag. A trip that should’ve been enjoyable is now miserable. Don’t make this mistake, especially if it’s your first time camping with your family.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a complete newbie or a seasoned vet, a car camper or a backpacker, a solo camper or a family camper, buying the right tent is an investment you want to make. Not only will it keep the rain and wind out, it will last much longer, providing fun camping experiences for years to come.
Below is Beyond The Tent’s complete guide to buying a tent for camping and backpacking. Our comprehensive guide contains everything you need to know to find the best tent for your needs and preferences.
- Tent Buying Basics
- Buying a Tent for Camping
- Camping Tent Recommendations
- Buying a Tent for Backpacking
- Backpacking Tent Recommendations
- Tent Accessories
- Tent Care, Maintenance, and Repair
- Alternatives to Tent Camping
- Buying a Tent Checklist
- Additional Resources
- Resources Used
Tent Buying Basics
Buying a tent starts with evaluating your budget. You don’t need to buy the most expensive tent, but it is important to think of your tent as an investment. A good rule of thumb is to “always buy the best you can afford”, it will save you money in the long run.
Think about it like this: a cheap tent might work well when the conditions are pristine, but as soon as the rain or wind starts, you’ll be miserable.
Invest in a quality tent right off the bat and you won’t have to worry. Your tent will stick up to harsh weather (leaving you cozy inside) and hold up to all the abuse the great outdoors can throw at it.
You should also consider what you’ll be using your tent for and how often you’ll be using it. Family camping and backpacking require vastly different types of tents. In addition, camping in a rainforest like Olympic National Park requires a much different tent than camping in a desert like Death Valley National Park.
Keep your needs, preferences, and budget in mind as you go through our tent buying guide below. Now here’s how to buy a tent!
Buying a Tent for Camping
If a normal campground is your destination, a tent for car camping is for you. Consider the following factors when buying a tent for camping.
Camping Tent Capacity
Start your search for the best car camping tent by narrowing down your options based on tent size.
How many people will use your tent on a regular basis? Will you ever have additional campers staying? What about dogs? Will you store any gear inside?
It’s safe to assume that tent capacity ratings provide a snug fit. For example, a two-person tent will fit two people, but you’ll be sleeping close together.
In addition, there isn’t an industry standard for tent capacity ratings. What is considered a two-person tent by one brand is likely much different in size than a two-person tent from the next brand.
Other factors to consider include the size of the occupants. Children naturally take up less space than adults. Larger adults might need more space than the average adult.
And then there are sleeping habits. Some people are claustrophobic in small spaces, others toss and turn violently at night, and still others need a little extra elbow room to sleep comfortably.
Expert Tip: Size up your tent capacity by one-person to ensure everyone has enough space.
Camping Tent Seasonality
You have four main options when it comes to tent seasonality.
These are 2-season, 3-season, 3-4-season, and 4 season tents. Though you can buy 1-season tents, they’re little more than mosquito nets and shouldn’t be considered by most tent buyers.
2-Season Tent – Designed for good weather only. Won’t hold up to more than very minor wind and rain.
3-Season Tent – Designed for use in spring, summer, and fall (3 season). Will hold up to heavy rains and strong winds.
3-4-Season Tent – A little more rugged than 3-season tents. Will hold up to colder, wetter, and windier conditions (as well as moderate snow). Designed for early spring and late fall.
4-Season Tent – Designed for use in all conditions. Extreme weather conditions like snow storms don’t affect this tent. The choice of mountaineers for basecamp camping.
Expert Tip: A 3-season tent is the best choice for most car campers and family campers.
Camping Tent Weight
Tent weight isn’t as big of a factor when buying a tent for camping as it is for backpacking.
Yet it should still be considered. If you often camp at campgrounds that require a hike to access, a lightweight tent is a smart choice.
Expert Tip: Heavier tents aren’t always sturdier. Lightweight materials are often just as strong and durable.
Camping Tent Livability
Tent livability refers to the interior design of your tent. Even tents with the same capacity ratings have very different interior layouts.
Volume – The amount of space inside a tent. Steeply-angled walls mean less room (but also less weight).
Floor Dimensions – The layout of the floor space. Most car camping tents are rectangular but some are tapered to reduce weight.
Peak Height – The highest point of a tent. Use this as a starting point for how tall the tent is on the inside.
Wall Shape – The shape of a tent’s walls is generally the best indicator of its livability. The more vertical the walls, the more vertical space available.
Room Layout – The division of a tent’s interior space. Some family camping tents come with room dividers to create separate living areas.
Doors – How many doors do you need? While small families can get away with one, those camping in larger groups might want a tent with more.
Windows – Tent windows do more than give you a view of the great outdoors. They also let in light and improve ventilation. The light let in from windows can make a tent seem larger.
Ventilation – Packing a lot of bodies into a tent makes it get stuffy quick. Many car camping tents come with mesh windows, ceilings, and doors to allow for improved cross ventilation.
Other Camping Tent Factors
These are a few other factors to consider when buying a tent for camping.
Cabin/Dome – Two of the most popular shapes for large groups, cabin tents and dome tents are designed to accommodate a lot of people at once.
Cabin – Designed with vertical walls to maximize height and vertical living space.
Dome – Stronger and more durable than Cabin-style tents but offer slightly less vertical living space.
Materials – Don’t skimp on materials when you buy a new tent. In particular, look at high-denier materials that improve durability and weather-proofing.
Poles – The pole structure of your tent dictates how easy it will be to set up and tear down. Almost all family tents are freestanding (no stakes are required to pitch).
Rainfly – Never buy a tent, even if you plan to use it only in summer, without a rainfly. Two options exist: a roof-only rainfly for better visibility or an extended-rainfly for better weather protection.
Vestibules – Also known as a garage, a tent vestibule is an overhang outside your tent’s door to store dirty boots and other gear without getting the inside of your tent dirty.
Interior Loops/Pockets – Most family tents come with a smattering of interior loops and pockets. Ceiling loops give you the perfect place to hang a lantern and side pockets a place to store keys, cellphones, wallets, etc.
Camping Tent Recommendations
Here at Beyond The Tent, we’ve used dozens of car camping tents over the years. So we know exactly what to look for in a new tent.
A few of our favorites, broken down by type, include:
Best Camping Tent for Couples
The Coleman Sundome 2-Person Tent is a great choice for solo and couple car campers. The tent is spacious, easy to set up, and holds up well to rainy and windy weather. It’s also very affordable at just under $50.
Best Camping Tent for Families
Families love the Coleman Sundome 6-Person Tent.
A larger variation of the 2-person Sundome, the tent is more spacious yet just as easy to set up. It features a 10×10-foot footprint and a 6-foot peak height. The tent is 33% more waterproof than other tents in its class.
Best Camping Tent for Large Groups
When you’re car camping with a large group, there are few better options than the Ozark Trail 10-Person Family Cabin Tent.
Set it up and the first thing you’ll notice is its massive size. It features one center door plus two size doors so everyone can get in and out easily. This tent is so big you can fit three queen-size air mattresses inside!
Best 4-Season Camping Tent
The Big Agnes Flying Diamond Deluxe Tent is one of the best 4-season camping tents we’ve ever used.
The tent is extremely durable and rugged. With a 4-season design, it’s built to hold up to extreme weather conditions including heavy rain, snow, and wind. It fits 4 people. It’s the perfect choice for cold weather camping.
You can’t talk about car camping without mentioning the Tepui Gran Sabana Siberian Tent.
Built to hold up to 4 people, the 3-season tent mounts to the top of your vehicle via a roof rack. It’s strong, spacious, and convenient. You can set it up and take it down in under one minute. It’s a great choice for avid car campers or vehicle-based nomads, but be ready to spend a pretty penny for this luxurious tent!
Buying a Tent for Backpacking
Buying a tent for backpacking is a whole different animal from buying a tent for camping. Below are the most important factors to keep in mind while making your decision.
Backpacking Tent Capacity
The search for the best backpacking tent begins with capacity. How many people will be using the tent on a regular basis?
Most backpackers prefer a one-person or two-person tent because they’re lightweight. However, three-person and four-person backpacking tents are also available.
Compared to regular camping tents, most backpacking tents fit much more snugly. For instance, a two-person backpacking tent will be much smaller than a two-person camping tent, especially where height is concerned.
Expert Tip: Size up tent capacity by one-person if you like to have extra room at night (this will also increase weight).
Backpacking Tent Seasonality
You have three options for seasonality when it comes to backpacking tents.
These are 3-season, 3-4-season, and 4-season tents. 1-season and 2-season tents are almost never made with backpacking in mind.
3-Season Tent – Designed for use in spring, summer, and fall (3 seasons), these lightweight tents hold up well to moderate rain and wind. They’re not the best tents for camping in snow.
3-4-Season Tent – Constructed for more extreme weather than a 3-season tent, these tents can still be comfortably used in warm summer weather. They’re generally a bit heavier as they tend to incorporate additional poles for added strength in high wind and heavy snowfall.
4-Season Tent – Built for winter weather, this type of tent should be your go-to if you frequently camp in the snow. Because they can hold up to extreme weather including heavy snow, these are the best tents for mountaineers.
Expert Tip: Frequent backpackers often buy both a mild weather and extreme weather tent to handle varied conditions on different trips.
Backpacking Tent Weight
Backpacking is much more enjoyable when your equipment isn’t weighing you down. That’s why so many backpackers opt for lightweight tents to lighten their loads.
Ultralight backpacking tents now weigh only a couple of pounds. Yet they don’t sacrifice space, comfort, or space.
The weight of the tent you buy should depend on your needs and preferences. You must strike a good balance between weight, comfort, and durability.
Expert Tip: Be sure to evaluate your tent’s packed size in addition to weight as this dictates how easy the tent is to carry.
You can further reduce both weight and packed size by splitting up tent components between backpacking partners. For instance, one person carries the tent body while the other carries the poles and rainfly.
Backpacking Tent Livability
The interior design of your backpacking tent dictates its livability. Even tents that hold the same number of people can have very different interior layouts.
Volume – How much room is inside the tent. The best way to get a feel for this is to take an in-person look around the pitched tent.
Floor Dimensions – Most backpacking tents are tapered (shorter at the feet) to reduce weight.
Peak Height – The highest point of a tent. Most backpacking tents have a lower peak height than camping tents.
Wall Shape – Backpacking tents tend to have slanted walls to reduce weight. This translates into a smaller interior, which might affect livability for some.
Room Layout – Unlike camping tents, it’s extremely rare to find a backpacking tent with more than a single room.
Doors – More doors provide easier access. However, additional doors also add unnecessary weight to a backpacking tent.
Windows – Backpacking tents generally don’t have windows in the traditional sense. Instead, the outer layer of the tent consists largely of mesh while the rainfly extends overtop, reaching almost all the way to the ground.
Ventilation – Select a backpacking tent with an adjustable rainfly. Not only will this aid in ventilation, it also allows you to gaze up at the stars at night.
Other Backpacking Tent Factors
These are a few other factors to consider when buying a tent for backpacking.
Single or Double Wall – You have two main choices when it comes to backpacking tent construction: single-wall or double-wall.
Single-Wall – Tent body and rainfly come as one piece, reducing weight and improving ease of setup. The choice of mountaineers and others braving cold climates.
Double-Wall – Tent body and rainfly come as two separate pieces. Weighs slightly more than single-wall but is much more versatile. Most backpackers select a double-wall tent.
Materials – Quality tent materials are vital when you choose a backpacking tent. Most are now made from special nylon and polyester materials. Opt for higher-denier fabrics.
Poles – Investing in quality poles is a great way to save weight with a backpacking tent. Select high-strength, low-weight aluminum poles for the best in weight savings and overall strength.
Pole Hubs – Consider buying a backpacking tent with pole hubs to make assembly easier. All of the poles connect to a central hub that unfurls as you unfold the poles. Pole hubs also increase tent strength and durability.
Rainfly – A good rainfly is even more important for backpacking than for camping. Plan on buying a tent that comes with an extended rainfly that covers the entire tent.
Vestibules – Also known as a garage, a tent vestibule gives you an overhang under which to store your dirty boots and other equipment outside of your tent. There is a lot of debate right now about whether a vestibule is necessary for backpacking.
Interior Loops/Pockets – Interior loops and pockets give you an easy-to-access spot to store your personal items.
Backpacking Tent Recommendations
Here at Beyond The Tent, we’ve used dozens of backpacking tents over the years. So we know exactly what to look for in a new tent.
A few of our favorites, broken down by type, include:
Best Solo Backpacking Tent
The Big Agnes Copper Spur 1-Person Tent is a full-featured, freestanding, ultralight backpacking tent. Its packed weight is 2lb 8oz.
The tent is quick to pack, set up, and tear down. The interior is spacious with more than enough wiggle room for a solo backpacker. It’s designed for 3-season use and comes with an adjustable, fully-extended rainfly.
Learn more about the Big Agnes Copper Spur 1-Person Tent.
Best Backpacking Tent for Couples
The North Face Stormbreak 2-Person Tent is a 3-season backpacking tent perfect for two campers. Its packed weight is 5lb 14oz.
A highlight of the tent is its two-door design. Giving each camper a door makes getting in and out far easier. The tent comes with a lightweight polyester taffeta rainfly that keeps moisture out even in the wettest conditions.
Learn more about the North Face Stormbreak 2-Person Tent.
Best Backpacking Tent for Groups
When you’re backpacking with a group, you’ll want the MSR Papa Hubba NX 4-Person Tent.
Capable of fitting four campers, the 3-season tent’s packed weight is still only 6lbs 8oz. It’s one of the lightest group backpacking tents I’ve ever used. The spacious interior, two-door design, and two vestibules are key features.
Learn more about the MSR Papa Hubba NX 4-Person Tent.
Best Backpacking Tent for Mountaineers
The Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2-Person Mountaineering Tent is our top choice for one to two mountaineers. The 4-season, single-wall tent is dependable, rugged, and fully weatherproof.
Learn more about the Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2-Person Mountaineering Tent.
Need something slightly larger? Then you’ll want the top-rated The North Face Bastion 4-Person Tent. Spacious and able to hold up to the absolute worst weather conditions, the 4-season tent is perfect for mountaineers traveling in small groups.
Learn more about The North Face Bastion 4-Person Tent.
Investing in additional tent accessories when buying a tent can make the camping experience more enjoyable. A few of the most useful include:
A tent footprint is a rugged piece of material that goes on the ground underneath your tent. Unlike a regular tarp, they’re custom-fitted to your tent’s specific dimensions.
The job of a tent footprint is to protect your tent from rocks, twigs, and other debris as well as provide an additional layer of waterproofing. The lightweight design of tent footprints makes them essential for backpacking.
Select a footprint that matches your tent. For example, here is the Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2-Person Footprint (our top recommended mountaineering tent).
A plain old tarp is a cheap alternative to a tent footprint. It’s what I tend to use while car camping. It accomplishes much the same tasks (protection and waterproofing).
The main setback is the edges of your tarp will stick out from under your tent. In heavy rain, this causes water to pool between the floor of your tent and your tarp. Standard tarps are also heavy and bulky compared to tent footprints.
You can’t go wrong with the standard Stansport Reinforced Multi-Purpose Tarp. It’s cheap, durable, and available in a variety of sizes.
The OUTAD Waterproof Camping Tarp is a good option for those that prefer a tarp specifically made for camping.
Most tents come with one or two interior pockets. But many of us want more storage space than that. A gear loft can help you better organize your tent, giving you more space to tuck your gear away.
Look for a gear loft that matches your tent brand and model. Or buy a universal model like the MSR Tent Gear Loft.
A camping shelter provides additional coverage while camping. Set it up over your tent to provide a further barrier from the rain. Or set it up at the campsite for a nice place to relax in the shade.
Stakes and Anchors
Buy a set of stakes and anchors to help set up your tent in varied conditions. They’ll keep your tent put in strong winds.
Our favorite is the MSR Groundhog Stake Kit. They’re versatile and nearly indestructible!
Additional Tent Accessories
A few other tent camping accessories you might consider include:
Broom/Dustpan – Clean up small messes inside your tent with a tent broom and dustpan. We recommend the UST Blue Sky Gear Sweep Set.
Floor Mat – An inside/outside floor mat like Coghlan’s Inside/Outside Tent Mat can help you keep your tent clean. Take your shoes off on it before entering your tent.
Battery-Powered Fan – Keep your tent well ventilated with a ventilation fan like the battery-powered Coleman Freestanding Tent Fan.
Tent Repair Kit – Don’t let a rip in your tent ruin your trip. A tent repair kit like Coghlan’s Nylon Tent Repair Kit helps you make minor repairs. It comes with nylon patches, mesh patches, nylon thread, a sewing needle, seam seal, and more.
Seam Sealer – Nothing is worse than water getting inside of your tent. So invest in a seam sealer to give your tent’s seams an extra layer of protection. We prefer Gear Aid Seam Grip Repair Adhesive and Sealant, winner of Backpacker Magazine’s Editor’s Choice Gold Award.
Tent Care, Maintenance, and Repair
Buying a tent is a big investment. You don’t want to dish out money on a top-quality tent only to ruin it through improper care and maintenance.
Luckily, your new tent only requires basic care. Treat it well, maintaining and repairing it as needed, and it should provide years of memorable camping experiences.
Here’s the best way how to care for your tent to increase its lifespan.
Using Your Tent
Proper tent care starts with using your tent right. Here are a few of the best tips on how to use your tent the right way:
Read the Manual – Read the provided owner’s manual from cover to cover when you buy a new tent. It will fill you in on any special characteristics your new tent might have.
Pitch at Home – Don’t head out into the field without first pitching a new tent at home. Doing so ensures you actually know how to use it before you set up camp. Learning how to pitch a tent in the field isn’t very fun, especially if it’s raining.
Check the Bag – Never leave the house without first checking your tent bag to make sure all the components are there. Arriving at the campsite to realize you forgot the poles is one of the worst feelings in the world (believe me, I know!).
Find a Campsite – Whether you’re backpacking or camping, it’s always a smart idea to choose an established campsite. Clear out small rocks, twigs, or other debris from the campsite, but always adhere to the Leave No Trace
Pitch in the Shade – Pitch your tent in the shade if possible. Sun exposure causes a lot of premature wear to your rainfly. Keep your tent out of the sun whenever possible to prolong its lifespan.
Use a Footprint – A tent footprint (or tarp) keeps the bottom of your tent from getting jabbed or poked by debris. It also provides another layer of protection from water. Always use yours to increase tent life.
Keep It Clean – A clean tent is a long-lasting tent. We recommend taking dirty boots off before entering. Pack a camping broom and dustpan to clean up when you’re done with your trip.
Repack Your Tent – Shake your tent out before repacking it. Rocks or twigs that cling to it can rip holes once it’s packed. Don’t fold your tent or rainfly against the same creases each time. Doing so can cause them to become brittle and rip in the future.
Storing Your Tent
Proper tent storage is just as important as using your tent right. Here are a few of the best tips on how to store your tent the right way:
Clean It Out – Never store a dirty tent. I always take my tent out of its bag and shake it off when I get home.
Dry It Out – Make sure your tent is completely dry before storing it. Even if it didn’t rain on your trip, your tent could still be damp. I always hang my tent in a dry, shady spot (usually my garage) to air dry overnight. Even a hint of dampness invites mildew.
Store in Cool, Dry Place – Never store your tent anywhere it might come into contact with moisture. I store mine on a shelf in my garage because it always stays relatively cool and completely dry there.
Store Unpacked – If you have the space, it’s always a good idea to store your unpacked tent outside its bag. I keep mine in a loosely wadded ball on a shelf to further prevent mildew growth.
Cleaning Your Tent
A clean tent is a long-lasting tent. Here are a few of the best tips on how to clean your tent the right way:
Use Right Products – Clean your tent with a non-abrasive sponge, cold water, and an unscented non-detergent soap. Never use scented soap as the scent will attract bugs, mice, and other animals. Scented soap also breaks down the waterproofing on your tent.
Scrub by Hand – Scrub your tent very lightly with your non-abrasive sponge. Rinse it off with cold water.
Let Air Dry – Air dry your clean tent in a cool, dry area out of the sun. Your garage is a good bet.
NEVER MACHINE WASH – Machine washing your tent damages the waterproofing, stretches out the fabric, and pulls apart the seams.
Mildew is extremely difficult to remove from a tent. Your best bet is to prevent its growth by ensuring your tent is completely dry during storage.
Repairing Your Tent
Minor damage to your tent is remarkably easy to fix. Here’s how to go about a few of the most common tent repairs:
Leaking Seams – The wear and tear of camping can open up tent seams, letting in moisture. Use a special tent seam sealer, like Gear Aid Seam Repair, to reseal leaking seams.
Expert Tip: New tents that are not factory-sealed should be sealed manually with seam sealer before first use.
Reduced Waterproofing – A well-used tent loses its waterproofing over time. Use a spray-on waterproofing treatment, like Nikwax Tent and Gear Solar Proof, to add a new layer of weather protection to aging tent material and rainflies.
Broken Tent Pole – Make a sleeve out of duct tape to fix a broken tent pole. Alternatively, many tents come with a pole repair sleeve that acts as a sort of splint for the pole. If your tent didn’t come with a pole repair kit, we recommend the Gear Aid Tent Pole Splint.
Minor Rip or Tear – Once again, duct tape is the best way to quickly fix a minor rip or tear in your tent in the field. Another option is to use Gear Aid Tenacious Tape for Fabric Repair.
Major Rip or Tear – If your tent has a major rip or tear, it’s most likely time to buy a new tent. Another option is to send your tent to a repair center. I’ve used Seattle’s Rainy Pass Repair with success in the past.
Alternatives to Tent Camping
Tent camping isn’t always the most efficient type of camping. In certain scenarios, especially while backpacking, it’s beneficial to opt for an alternative shelter. I’ve done this to save weight and space as well as because alternative options were more suited for the location I was camping at.
Of course, the top tent camping alternatives include RVs, tent trailers, camper vans, and the like. But we’re not going to talk about those. Instead, we’re going to focus our attention on bivy sacks, hammocks, and tarps.
A bivy sack is like a smaller version of a tent. You zip yourself up inside with your sleeping bag to protect yourself from the elements. Though bivy sacks are lightweight, they have very little room inside. Most barely have enough space for to stow your gear.
Our choice of the best bivy sack for camping is the Outdoor Research Helium Bivy.
Hammock camping is all the rage these days. A big part of the reason is the quality of the latest hammocks. They’re lightweight and easy to set up if you’re camping somewhere with trees. If there aren’t trees where you’re camping, it’s difficult to use a hammock. I frequently use a hammock for camping here in the Pacific Northwest because it keeps me off the often muddy and wet ground.
Our choice of the best hammock for camping is the Eagles Nest Outfitters SingleNest Hammock.
Sometimes a tarp is all you need for shelter when you’re camping. They’re lightweight and versatile. You can hang it from trees for shelter, use it as a ground cloth for sleeping under the stars, or drape it over yourself as a rainfly.
Our choice for the best tarp for camping is the Eagles Nest Outfitters ProFly Rain Tarp.
Buying a Tent Checklist
Dissecting all the information related to how to buy the best tent can be daunting. So use our buying a tent checklist to ensure you cover all your bases:
- Budget – How much money do you have to spend on your new tent?
- Type – Will you be backpacking or car camping?
- Size – How many people will be using your tent?
- Seasonality – What will the weather be like when/where you’re camping?
- Livability – Do you prefer a more livable tent space or a lighter, more efficient design?
- Additional Features – Do you want any additional features like extra doors, windows, interior pockets, vestibules, etc?
Answer each of these questions when looking for your new tent to ensure your choice is the right one for you.
Finally, you’ll want to check out our tent reviews. We’re looking forward to doing more tent reviews in the future so check back often to see what’s new.
Thanks again for using our tent buyer’s guide as your resource for buying a tent!
Please let us know if you have any questions about buying a tent in the comments below. Or feel free to contact us directly.