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    Camping Tent Buying Guide

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    Buying a new camping tent can be challenging even if you're an experienced camper. Technology is constantly changing and, consequently, so are your options; if you haven't been tent hunting for a while it can be hard to know what's out there. And if you're new to the world of camping, the process can be even harder. There are so many different types and styles of tent that it can be difficult to know exactly what you might need. So if you're having trouble deciding what kind of camping tent might be right for you, take a look at the following guide. Once you know a little bit more about your choices it will be much easier for you to find the perfect shelter for your outdoor adventures.

    Part 1: What Kind of Tent Do I Need?

    There are three basic kinds of camping tent. Each one is designed for a specific style of camping so the kind of outdoor activities you enjoy will dictate which type will be best for you.

    Family Tents

    Family tents are designed for large groups of campers who are more interested in capacity and comfort than weight efficiency. They generally feature relatively vertical walls and the most spacious floor plans. It's also common for them to offer more than one sleeping compartment or removable room dividers. A few are even wired for electricity.

    All of this convenience does come at a cost, however. Family tents are fairly heavy and have a large pack size. If you're driving to your campsite and don't plan to move much during your trip, the extra bulk isn't really going to matter, but if you plan to hike with your tent the additional weight can be a serious inconvenience. Make sure you consider what you're likely to be doing before you decide to purchase this type of tent. Here's some more information about the two most common varieties:Cabin-style Tent
    1. Cabin-Style Tents - These are shelters are almost like miniature houses. They're tall with almost vertical walls and provide a substantial amount of maneuvering room. Many models are actually large enough for the average person to stand up in. Cabin tents can typically accommodate at least four people.

    2. Dome TentDome Tents - This tent category encompasses a wide range of sizes and styles; you'll find ones designed for serious backpackers as well as ones suitable for large families. Dome tents are stronger than cabin-style shelters and offer superior wind resistance, making them a better choice if you're going to be camping in harsher conditions. They're also usually lighter and easier to transport. However, it's important to keep in mind that while these tents can be fairly tall, their sloped walls mean that they will provide less usable space than comparably-sized cabin models.

    Backpacking Tents

    These tents are ideal for campers who intend to do a lot of hiking and change campsites frequently. They're typically smaller and lighter than family tents, making them much easier to carry. Most also feature quick set ups and are significantly sturdier than the average family model. You won't find many creature comforts, though, because they add unnecessary weight. Of course, each shelter has its own balance of comfort and portability, but if luxuries are your priority this probably isn't the type of tent for you. Below are some of the most popular backpacking options.
    1. A-Frame Tents - This is one of the simplest and oldest types of camping tent. They're typically inexpensive and easy to pitch, but the extreme slope of their walls minimizes interior space. Wind can also pose a problem for this type of shelter because its shape isn't very aerodynamic. Overall, A-frame tents are best suited for mild conditions.
    2. Dome Tents - As previously mentioned, this category of tents includes both family and backpacking tents. The models designed for hikers and other outdoor adventurers are lighter and more compact. Generally, dome tents provide good stability and weather resistance and don't require staking. They're also one of the most spacious backpacking tents.
    3. Tunnel Tents - Tunnel tents, also known as hoop tents, are also a good choice if you're looking to maximize interior space. They are often lighter than domes because they use fewer poles and less fabric, but they're not as strong. You'll almost always need to secure this kind of tent with stakes and more care is required when selecting a campsite.
    4. Ultralight Tents - Ultralight tents are a good choice for campers who want to minimize weight, but are unwilling to completely give up the comfort of a more standard shelter. They do, however, require a lot of special care because their fabrics are much more delicate. You'll need to be very mindful of sharp objects when selecting a campsite and take extra care when setting up your tent.
    5. Bivouac Sacks - Bivy sacks aren't so much tents as they are weatherproof shelters for sleeping bags. They're designed for minimalist backpackers who want to do everything possible to reduce their pack weight. You can't sit up in them and there's definitely no room to store any gear. If you're at all claustrophobic you're going to be better off with a more traditional tent.

    Mountaineering/Expedition/Winter Tents

    Expedition TentIf you're going to be camping during the winter or in extremely harsh conditions, your only real option is an expedition tent. These shelters are typically lower to the ground and completely rounded in order to increase stability and prevent snow accumulation. They do weigh more than other varieties of tent, thanks to their stronger fabrics and additional poles, but dealing with the extra bulk is well worth it if you are going to be camping in extreme weather.

    Because of the kind of construction required to handle such tough conditions, most mountaineering tents have similar design features. There are different sizes, of course, and some models offer vestibules for storage, but most fit into dome or geodesic category; you don't have the variation you see with family and backpacking tents. The key thing to look for in a mountaineering tent is a four-season rating. This indicates that a shelter is suitable for year-round use.

    Part 2: Tent Size and Specifications

    Finding a tent that meets all of your size requirements can be challenging because there are so many factors to consider. The number of campers, the amount of gear you plan to bring, and your personal preferences are all going to affect how big your shelter needs to be. The following information can help you determine a starting point for your search and evaluate a tent once it's caught your interest.

    Sleeper Capacity

    A tent's sleeper capacity refers to the maximum number of people that can sleep in it at one time. All camping tents have one so it can be a useful guide when trying to find a shelter. However, this doesn't mean you can assume that if you wanted to house three people, a three-person camping tent would automatically be the right size for you. This is, in part, because there is no official industry standard for what a three-person tent is so one manufacturer's three-person may be significantly smaller or larger than another's. Also complicating matters is that the fact that a tent's sleeper capacity is determined by how many people will fit into it while lying down; the space calculation doesn't really account for equipment or supplies. Therefore, you need to consider your personal circumstances when deciding what capacity to look for. If you prefer to have a bit more elbow room, need to store a lot of gear, or intend to bring a small child or pet, you may want to think about going up a tent size.

    I've Found a Tent - How Do I Know it Will Measure Up?

    Unfortunately, the only way to be 100% certain that a tent is perfect for you is to take it on a camping trip. It is possible, however, for you to get a pretty good idea of what a shelter's interior space is like by looking at the following key features and specifications.

    Peak Height
    Regardless of whether you're getting a large family camping tent or a compact backpacking one, the peak or center height will have a major impact on how comfortable it is for you to use. If you want to be able to stand while inside your tent or want a lot of maneuvering space while seated, you're going to be very unhappy if you get model with a low ceiling. This is particularly true if you're a taller camper. It's important to keep in mind, though, that the peak height refers only to the tallest point of a tent's roof. As a result, a tent could have a relatively high peak height, but still have very little usable space near the roof because of the slope of its walls. If having a lot of headroom is important to you, make sure you look for a tent with gently sloping walls as well as a tall peak height.

    Floor Dimensions
    Most manufacturers list the floor dimensions of their camping tents in terms of length and width. These numbers can be very useful in determining how much space a tent offers - as long as it has a square or rectangular base. The problem is that shelters feature many different shapes. Some backpacking models are tapered at one end in order to save weight while other varieties use hexagonal designs for extra stability. In those cases looking solely at the floor dimensions can actually be quite misleading because the width is measured from just a single point.

    Therefore, it's much more helpful to look at a tent's floor dimensions in conjunction with a floor plan. Even if the floor plan doesn't provide a tent's width at every single point, it will still allow you to develop a better understanding of its layout and whether or not it would be a good fit for you. It will also let you know how much of a tent's floor space can actually be used for sleeping if it has a vestibule. Usually manufacturers make floor plans readily available, but if you're having trouble finding one for the tent you're interested in, try asking your retailer for additional information.

    Floor Area
    The floor area really can't give you an accurate idea of what a tent's interior is like either. It's true that it lets you know how much floor space there is, but it doesn't tell you how that space is laid out or how much of it is being used by a vestibule. Nor does it account for the slope of a shelter's walls. If you were to look only at the floor area of a dome and an A-frame tent you might think they were equally spacious, but, in reality, the A-frame's steeply sloped walls mean that it actually offers a lot less maneuvering room. So while it's a good idea to look at a tent's floor area, it's important to make sure you also consider the slope of its walls.

    Part 3: Tent Ratings

    The conditions you're going to be camping in make a big difference in terms of the type of tent you'll need. So big a difference, in fact, that all camping tents feature a season rating. These ratings indicate the times of the year and, consequently, the conditions a tent is appropriate for. Use the following information to determine the season-rating you'll want for your shelter.

    Three-Season Tents

    Tents in this category provide ideal protection in moderate spring, summer, and fall weather conditions. Structural strength varies from model to model, but all are capable of effectively withstanding rain and wind. Some can handle light snowfall, but they're not a good choice if you're going to be in areas prone to heavy snow. Nor are they suitable for use in severe storms or wind.

    In terms of sizes and styles, three-season shelters offer the biggest variety. This is partially because they are the most popular, but also because they are used in less extreme situations. Designers can incorporate extras or variations without worrying about compromising performance.

    One feature that should be present in every three-season tent, though, is ventilation. Even if it doesn't seem that warm outside you'd be surprised how quickly things can become uncomfortable inside a tent that doesn't have adequate airflow. An insufficiently ventilated tent is also more likely to have condensation problems. Most three-season tents have at least a few mesh panels, but there are some that offer full screen rooms and mesh roofs. Make sure you pick a model with the appropriate amount of ventilation for the kind of temperatures you'll be camping in.

    Extended-Season Tents

    These tents fall in-between three-season and four-season models. They can handle moderate snowfall as well as the more mild conditions of spring, summer, and fall, but aren't quite tough enough for extreme winter conditions. Generally, this type of shelter is a good option for backpackers who enjoy camping in colder weather and higher elevations.

    Structurally, extended-season tents are really modified versions of their three-season siblings. They still feature mesh panels in order to promote proper ventilation during the summer, but typically don't feature as many as three-season shelters in order to conserve heat. Similarly, they often feature more poles than a standard three-season model in order to enhance strength. Of course, this does make them heavier, but the extra bulk is worth it if you need the weather protection and they still weigh less than four-season varieties.

    Four-Season Tents

    As mentioned earlier, four-season tents are ideal for mountaineering and expedition-style camping. They're extremely tough and are suitable for use year-round. If you're planning to camp in extreme weather, there's absolutely no question that one of these is the way to go.

    However, if you're primarily going to use your tent during spring and summer and will only occasionally encounter cold temperatures, you may be better off with an extended-season model. Some of the structural features that make this kind of shelter such a good choice for extreme weather actually make it less comfortable in mild conditions. For example, four-season tents don't feature many mesh panels. In the cold this allows your tent to remain warm and cozy, but during the summer it can make your tent hot and stuffy. Tougher fabrics and additional poles also make this kind of shelter significantly heavier than the other varieties so you're not going to want to carry the extra weight unless you truly need the protection.

    Part 4: Construction Materials and Features

    A camping tent's construction and design features affect everything from its weight to the types of conditions it's suitable for. Read on for more information about some common tent materials and structural elements.

    Poles

    Camping tent poles are most commonly made of fiberglass or aluminum. The one that's right for you will depend upon the type of camping you plan to do as well as your budget.

    Fiberglass
    Fiberglass tent poles are less expensive than aluminum ones so they're a good option if you're looking to save money. Keep in mind, though, that fiberglass poles are usually heavier and consequently less convenient if you're an avid hiker. They're also more prone to breakage and don't handle extreme weather very well; you wouldn't want to use them during the winter. Overall, a tent with fiberglass poles is best suited to light, casual use in mild climates.

    Aluminum
    Aluminum tent poles can be found in many high-end tents and they're generally preferred by backpackers. They're lighter, stronger, and more durable than fiberglass ones. Some of them are even suitable for four-season use. Of course, this superior performance comes at a cost. Because they are harder to make, aluminum poles are more expensive than fiberglass ones so you may want to think twice about investing in them if you don't do much hiking or camp only in mild conditions.

    If you do decide to use aluminum you'll have a variety of options. These poles come in quite a few thicknesses, diameters, and weights. Most important, though, is a pole's grade. This is because aluminum needs to be combined with other metals in order to make it receptive to heat treatment (which is intended to increase a material's strength and resistance to wear). The resulting alloys each have different properties and are classified in a numbered series based on the elements they contain. Aluminum camping tent poles generally fall into one of two series:
    1. 6000 Series Alloys - Alloys in this series contain silicon and magnesium. Tent poles made with alloys from this group offer a good balance of strength, stability, and corrosion resistance.
    2. 7000 Series Alloys - Zinc is the element used to create these alloys. Poles made with these are extremely strong and lightweight, and are generally more flexible than 6000 series poles of the same thickness and diameter. If you're looking for superior performance you're going to want tent poles constructed with an alloy from this series.

    Fabrics

    Tents are rarely constructed with only one type of material. Tops, floors, and rainflys all perform different functions and the fabric that is best for one job isn't necessarily appropriate for the others. Below is some basic information about the two most common fabrics.

    Nylon
    Nylon is the tougher of the two main camping tent materials. It's also slightly lighter and better able to resist abrasions so you'll find it used for tent canopies and floors more often than polyester. The most common varieties are ripstop nylon, a material reinforced with a second thread at regular intervals in order to prevent tears from spreading, and taffeta nylon. Both are waterproof and easy to maintain, but ripstop nylon is a little bit lighter so it might be a better choice for you if you're concerned about weight.

    Polyester
    Polyester tends to be more water-resistant than nylon and generally retains more of its strength when wet. It's also known for its ability to withstand UV rays so it's a popular choice for rainflys. You'll sometimes see it used to make tent walls, but it usually isn't the material of choice for floors because of its inferior abrasion resistance.

    Coatings
    Many tent fabrics, particularly those used to make floors and rainflys, are treated with a waterproof coating. The most common one is polyurethane, but some ultralight tents use silicon because it also increases the tear-strength of their lighter fabrics. Silicon isn't technically as good of a waterproofer, though, so some manufacturers will apply a coating of polyurethane to one side of a rainfly and a coating of silicon to the other.

    A Note About Denier: Camping tent fabrics are usually described as having a certain denier. Denier is a measurement of fabric thickness determined by measuring the weight of 9,000 meters of a fiber in grams. If, for example, 9,000 meters of a particular fiber weighs 210g, its denier would be 210. And because a higher denier indicates a higher weight, materials with a higher denier are going to be tougher. However, it's important to note that you can't always assume that a higher denier indicates superior strength if you're comparing two different fabrics. Because every material has its own strength to weight ratio, it's possible for a 230D fabric to be stronger than a 330D one.

    Doors

    The number of doors your tent has definitely isn't as important as the kind of materials it's made of, but it's something you should think about. Having more than one door (some large family-style shelters feature as many as three) can be very convenient. If, for example, the members of your camping group keep different schedules, having a second or third door makes it much easier for everyone to come and go as they please. Multiple doors can also be helpful during inclement weather; if one door is buried in snow or facing into the wind, you can simply use a different one. And, because many doors feature mesh panels, having more than one can help facilitate proper airflow.

    The only real drawback to owning a camping tent with multiple doors is weight. Every additional door makes a shelter a few ounces heavier. In most situations you probably wouldn't even notice the extra weight, but when every ounce matters you may want to stick a tent with only one door.

    Part 5: Set Up Considerations

    Freestanding Vs. Non-Freestanding

    Camping tents can either be freestanding or non-freestanding. Freestanding models can technically stand without any stakes, though using stakes is still recommend in windy conditions. This makes them simpler to pitch and allows you to easily adjust their position at a campsite. You can literally pick up a freestanding tent and move it around until you find the perfect location. Similarly, cleaning your tent when you break camp can be very convenient when using this one of these shelters since you can simply tip it over and shake out any debris.

    Non-freestanding tents rely on stakes to maintain their stability. Generally, this translates into a more complicated set up where you need to carefully consider the type of ground you're going to be resting on; snow and sand can pose real problems when pitching this type of shelter. The trade-off is that they are often lighter than freestanding tents and can sometimes fit into tighter spaces.

    Types of Pole Connections

    The method used to connect a camping tent's poles and canopy affects both the difficulty and speed of set up. There are two basic types:
    1. Tent Pole SleevesPole Sleeves - Pole sleeves are exactly what they sound like; they're long sleeves of fabric that you feed a tent's poles through. This kind of connection provides excellent stability in high winds and generally reduces the amount of stress on the shelter fabric because it distributes the fabric tension over a larger area. However, a shelter using pole sleeves takes longer to set up and threading the poles can sometimes be quite challenging, particularly in inclement weather. Pole sleeves can also impede airflow between the rainfly and tent body so they're more likely to have problems with condensation.


    2. Tent Pole ClipsPole Clips - These are plastic fasteners that attach a tent's canopy to its poles. They're easier to use than pole sleeves and can, consequently, make set up faster. Clips also allow for better ventilation and are lighter than sleeves. Unfortunately, they aren't as stable in windy conditions so this is yet another instance where you have to give up some strength in order to reduce weight.
    Many camping tents use both pole clips and sleeves in order to provide a balanced combination of stability, ventilation, and convenience.

    Design

    Generally, the fewer poles a tent has, the easier it is going to be to set up. The extra poles and components many shelters use to increase their strength and interior space also make them more difficult to set up. Assembling more complicated tents is also going to take longer, even once you've become familiar with how they work. If you're looking for simplicity and speed, a simpler tent is definitely the way to go; just remember that you're going to have a hard time finding ones that are as strong or spacious as the ones with involved pole structures.

    Part 6: Accessories

    Even if you're traveling light, you still may want to consider getting a few tent accessories. Here is some information about the most common types.

    Footprints

    A footprint is a piece of material placed underneath a tent's floor to protect it from rocks, dirt, and other abrasive objects. It's considered superior to a generic goundcloth because it's custom-fitted to your tent, making it much less likely to catch water that can then flow underneath your tent and seep through small tears.

    Of course, it is an extra expense, so you'll have to decide if your tent is going to get enough use to make one worthwhile. Keep in mind, though, that repairing or replacing a footprint is going to be less expensive than dealing with a damaged tent so investing in one of these ground coverings may save you money in the long run.

    Fans and Lights

    If you're getting a family tent and are more interested in comfort than a light pack, you may want to consider getting a portable fan or light. There are ones that are battery-powered and ones designed for tents wired to use electricity. Just remember that if you're getting a power-ready tent you're still going to have to buy a power pack in order to use corded accessories.

    Part 7: Important Terms

    There is a lot of jargon in the camping tent industry and manufacturers, for the sake of brevity, don't always explain them when describing their product's features. Below is a little bit more information about some terms you're likely to come across during your shelter search.

    Pack Size - Also known as packed size, this term refers to the total amount of space a tent and all of its components is going to take up in your pack. This number is always good to look at, but it's particularly important if you're going to do a lot of hiking with your tent. The more compact a tent is, the easier it's going to be to travel with.

    Pack Weight - This is the combined weight of the canopy, poles, and any other components that come with your tent. You can use it to help determine if you'll be comfortable carrying a particular tent. Generally, backpackers need to pay more attention to this number than those going on a family camping trip, but even casual campers should keep a tent's pack weight in mind because they'll still need to move it around periodically.

    Minimum Weight - This is the weight of a tent's essential components like the canopy, rainfly, and poles. It can be helpful when comparing the weights of different models because every shelter comes with slightly different extras.

    Vestibules
    - A vestibule is a covered area designed to provide storage for your shoes, bulky packs, or dirty gear that you'd rather not have inside your tent's living area. Often these are simple extensions of a shelter's rainfly, but some cabin-style family tents provide them in the form of attached screen rooms. Many shelters come with them, but their sizes vary greatly so be sure to check a tent's specifications if you're going to need a lot of storage space.

    Rainfly
    - A rainfly is a waterproof cover for your tent. You'll find ones meant to cover mesh roofs and full-coverage models that extend almost to the ground. The latter are the most reliable so you should look for a shelter with a full-coverage rainfly if you're going to be camping in anything but the mildest of conditions.

    Bathtub Floors - Bathtub floors are made with a single, seamless piece of material that climbs several inches up the side of a tent before connecting with the walls. This design allows them to be more waterproof than other varieties of floor because their seams are above the ground and will therefore have less contact with water.

    Tent Gear LoftGear Loft - A gear loft is a shelf, typically made of mesh, that can be suspended from your tent's roof to provide extra storage. Some tents come with them, but most often you'll have to buy them separately.

    Pockets - Many tents offer internal storage pockets to help you organize small items. The number a shelter has will vary greatly depending on its size, general style (ultra-lightweight or family camping), and manufacturer.

    Guylines - Also referred to as guy lines, these ropes are used to anchor your tent to stakes. They attach to your shelter at guy points or guyouts. Most guyouts are either reinforced areas or loops on your tent's exterior.

    Part 8: A Stress-Free Hunt

    There is a lot to think about when buying a camping tent, but the selection process doesn't have to be intimidating or unpleasant. Now that you've got some basic information, you'll have no trouble finding a tent that satisfies your practical and budgetary requirements.
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