You already know why a reliable party tent is an essential part of any outdoor social event. But all of that knowledge doesn't make the selection process any easier. In fact, it actually makes it even more stressful because you know exactly what can happen if you don't make the right choice. That doesn't mean you need to panic, though, or bring out your trusty Magic 8 Ball. The following guide can help you sort through all of the different tent types, sizes, and styles in order to find one that will work for you.
Part 1: Basic Tent Types
The category of party tents is one of the most broadly defined in the tent and canopy industry. Strictly speaking, almost any shelter you can throw a party under can be considered a party tent. But within that huge sea of weather protection, there are actually only four different types of tent. Take a look at the descriptions below to determine which one will be a good fit for you.
Pop Up and Instant Canopies
Instant canopies are the least expensive type of party tent. Designed with an emphasis on convenience, they use accordion-style frames that can be set up in just a few minutes without any tools. They're also extremely light and are compact enough to be easily transported in a storage bag.
But that doesn't mean that they're a good choice for every situation. For example, instant canopies don't usually come any larger than twenty by twenty. So if you're looking to host a larger event you'd probably need several, which could cause logistical as well as budgetary problems. They're also not designed to be left up for long periods and can't handle the same kind of abuse as the other types of party tent. If you're looking for a real workhorse, a pop up may not be the right choice for you.
For more detailed information about pop up canopies check out our Pop Up Canopy Buying Guide
Pole tents, as their name suggests, are supported by perimeter and center poles. They rely on the tension created by stakes or other tie downs to keep the roof tight and stable. As a result, they're lightweight and relatively easy to set up, even in larger sizes. They're also the most cost-effective when it comes to covering large areas; a pole tent is always going to let you protect more ground for less money than a frame or tension tent.
Another reason for the popularity of pole tents is their versatility. They come in a huge range of sizes, including everything from a modest 10-foot by 10-foot all the way up to a gargantuan 100-foot by 310-foot. Their tops also come in a large selection of colors and styles, making it fairly simple to find one that has the look you want.
There are, however, a few downsides to using a pole tent. The biggest one has to do with placement. Because this type of shelter relies on tension to keep the top from collapsing, you've got very little flexibility when it comes to staking. You need to allow, on average, an extra six feet of space on all sides of your tent to accommodate the required staking. That means that you can't install them right up against a building or in any other area where you don't have enough clearance. And, unless you don't mind making a bunch of holes in the floor, they're definitely not suitable for use indoors.
Their center supports can also present problems. For one, they often interfere with visibility, which can be an issue if you're holding an event where all of your guests need to be able to see clearly. Secondly, they can make it challenging to incorporate larger objects, such as a dance floor, into your layout, and there are going to be some floor plans they just won't fit in to. If you're planning to host an event that requires very specific set up, a pole tent may not be the best choice for you.
Rather than rely on the tension from stakes, frame tents use a tubular metal structure to support their canopies. This allows them to work without the support of center poles and gives them much more placement flexibility than pole tents. You can use them right next to buildings as well as indoors. They also work well as semi-permanent structures.
All of this flexibility comes at a price, however. Frame tents are usually significantly more expensive than both pole and tension shelters and are considerably heavier. They also require a lot more work to set up; a frame tent can easily take four times longer to put up than a comparably-sized pole model. And, because it uses very specialized hardware, losing or damaging just a single component will make your frame canopy useless until you can get a replacement from the manufacturer. It's simply not possible to create temporary replacement parts the way you can with a pole tent.
Even the available size range is affected by their design, since there's a limit to how wide you can make a structure without adding internal supports. Forty feet is generally the largest width you'll find for a frame tent. There's no limit on how long they can be, though, and they typically have the same color selection as other types of shelter so there's still a good chance you'll be able find one that works for you. The real question you have to ask when determining if you want to buy a frame tent is how much you're willing to trade for some extra flexibility. If your practical needs are the priority and you're willing to deal with the additional costs and work involved with using one, a frame tent might be a good option.
Tension tents are very similar to traditional pole tents. They use perimeter and center poles for support and rely on tension from tie-downs to keep the roof in place. Consequently, they share the portability and installation simplicity of standard pole-based structures. In fact, the only real structural difference between tension and other pole canopies is the size of their peaks. Tension canopies have much taller peaks than other shelters - they're actually often referred to as "high peak" tents - and can therefore offer a more dramatic and elegant look. You'll find them at many formal and business events.
This striking design also has some practical benefits. Those tall, aerodynamic peaks actually improve wind resistance and drainage, allowing tension tents to withstand harsh weather better than other varieties of shelter. If you're looking for something you can leave standing for long periods, one of these may be the way to go. Some models are even suitable for use as permanent structures.
Of course, because tension tents are form of pole tent, they have the same kind of limitations. You have to leave a fair amount of clearance for staking and you can't use them right next to buildings or indoors. And even though these canopies may have a spacious, open feel, they still have center poles that can interfere with visibility and certain layouts.
There is also the matter of cost. Due to the nature of their construction, tension canopies are more expensive than regular pole tents. They're not usually as expensive as frame structures, but prices can be fairly close depending on the manufacturer and model. Once again, you'll need to decide if the structural and aesthetic benefits are worth the extra cost.
Part 2: How Big Should My Tent Be?
There is no simple way to answer that question. In fact, because your space requirements are so closely related to your individual situation, it's not really possible to calculate exactly how big your shelter should be. You can, however, get a rough idea of how much space a particular event might need and use that to determine an appropriate tent size. If your event is relatively simple and doesn't involve a lot of extra furnishings, allowing somewhere between 10 to 12 sq. ft. per guest is usually reasonable. If, however, your party calls for a more complicated set up or you'd like to get some more specific figures, here are a few guidelines you can use to come up with a space estimate:
- Auditorium-Style Seating - If you're hosting a speech or another type of event that where your chairs are going to be lined up in rows, it's a good idea to allow 5 or 6 sq. ft. per chair. Be sure to keep in mind, though, that if you're using particularly bulky chairs or have guests that require more space to maneuver, you're going to need more space.
- Events with Meals - If you're planning to serve a meal, the amount of room you'll need will largely depend on the dimensions of the tables you choose as well as the number of people that will be seated at each one. Try to allow at least 12 sq. ft. per person when using round tables and 10 sq. ft. per person when using rectangular ones. It's also important to consider the type of service you plan to use; dinners with table-side service are going to require additional space in order to ensure that your servers will have enough room to work.
- Extra Furniture - If your event requires additional furnishings like a dance floor, buffet table, or bar, you need to take the dimensions of these items into account when calculating how much space you'll need.
- Caterers, DJs, and Bands - Caterers, DJs, and bands all come with a fair amount of equipment. If you're hiring any of these for you event be sure to ask each provider how much space they'll need before deciding upon a tent size.
Part 3: Construction
Party tents are made with a variety of different materials. Use the descriptions below to determine which ones are right for your situation.
Frames and Poles
Regardless of which type of shelter you choose, you've really only got two options when it comes to your party tent's supporting structure: aluminum and steel. The most significant differences between these two materials have to do with strength and weight. Aluminum is more likely to bend than steel so steel poles and frames are going to be stronger than aluminum ones of comparable quality. Steel is also significantly heavier than aluminum, which can be helpful if you're going to be using your canopy in windy conditions, but inconvenient if your primary concern is portability.
It's also important to consider the difference in the way these two metals resist corrosion. Both steel and aluminum corrode. However, when steel deteriorates it creates damaging rust whereas aluminum forms aluminum oxide, a hard substance that actually helps prevent further corrosion. Steel tent poles and frames are usually treated to prevent rust, but that doesn't guarantee that you'll never have any problems. You'll have to decide if this potential issue is serious enough to affect your interest in steel.
And then, of course, there is the matter of cost. Party tents made with aluminum are sometimes more expensive than steel ones, but the large range of types and gauges of steel mean that there's no true rule. Prices vary quite a bit from manufacturer to manufacturer so you'll just have to see what is available in your price range.
When it comes to tops, there are also only two types available. Here, though, your options are going to be dictated by the kind of party tent you choose. In some instances you may not have any choice about the material your top is made of. But it's still a good idea to know what's out there.
The least expensive material used to make party canopy tops is polyester. It's most commonly used with pop up tents, though you'll occasionally see it offered for pole and frame tents. In general, all varieties of polyester are durable and water-resistant, but each fabric's overall strength depends on its thickness. The thicker the material is, the tougher it's going to be. You can determine a top's thickness by looking at its denier. The higher the material's denier, the stronger it's going to be. Keep in mind, though, that a top with a higher denier will also be heavier so if you're looking to maximize portability a thinner top may your best option.
Vinyl tops, which are actually made of polyester that has been given a vinyl coating, are also quite common. If you're planning to buy a pole, frame, or tension tent, this is probably going to be the only type of top available. Many manufacturers prefer them because they provide better UV protection and weather resistance than standard polyester tops. They're also very easy to clean and most have been certified flame resistant. However, they are more expensive so if you do have a choice of top materials you'll have to decide whether the improved performance is worth the increase in cost.
A Note About Denier:
Denier is a measurement of fabric thickness. It's 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 440g, then its denier would be 440. That's why a 350 denier polyester tent top would be stronger than a 250 denier one. It's important to keep in mind, though, that you shouldn't always assume that a higher denier indicates superior strength if you're comparing two different materials. Because every material has its own strength to weight ratio, it's possible for a 250D fabric to be stronger than a 375D one.
Part 4: Customizing Your Tent
A party tent is naturally a focal point for any event. If you're planning to use your shelter for business you may want to take advantage of its visibility by adding custom graphics or a logo. It's usually possible for you to add your own image to all sides of the peak, the valances, as well as any sidewalls and siderails you may order. Many companies will also include customized table covers as part of their custom graphics packages. Of course, the more you want to customize, the more you'll have to spend. And variables like graphic size and the number of colors per image will also affect the overall cost so it may take you some time to balance what you want with what you can afford. Most retailers will provide you with a quote and complimentary rendering in order to help you determine what will work best for you.
Part 5: Accessories
When it comes to accessories, you've got quite a few options. They range from items that are purely structural to ones that are designed to make using your tent more convenient. Below are some of the most common types.
Sidewalls, also known as side walls, allow you to enclose all or part of your canopy. They provide an easy way to give your shelter privacy, a more formal appearance for events like weddings, and additional weather protection. The last of those can be particularly important if you're planning to hire a band or DJ since they use sensitive equipment.
The type of sidewalls you'll be able to get is going to depend on the kind of tent you're interested in. If you're planning to buy a pole or frame tent, you'll typically find sidewalls that are opaque and clear as well as ones that feature faux windows or mesh. If you intend to invest in a pop up, you'll be able to get partial sidewalls in addition to the styles listed above. Keep in mind, though, that offerings vary from manufacturer to manufacturer so your tent choices may be limited if you want a specific type of sidewall.
Stakes and Anchors
Most party tents come with the equipment required to anchor them. There may be times, however, when your installation requires stronger anchoring than can be provided by the stabilizers in your tent package. You might also need to buy replacements periodically since anchors are subjected to pretty rigorous wear. Here is a little bit more information about each stabilizing tools and some related accessories.
- Stakes - These will usually come with your party tent. They're extremely easy to use and suitable for most situations. If you've chosen a pop up canopy and are interested in taking it to the beach, though, these aren't a good choice; they can't get a good grip in the sand. You'll usually find them in sets, though it is possible to buy them individually.
- Anchors - These are very similar to stakes, but they generally provide a stronger hold because you have to twist them to get them into the ground. They are a good choice if you're going to be using your tent in areas prone to high winds, but they're still not suitable for use at the beach. Some tents come with them so be sure to check what yours includes before ordering any.
- Weight Bags - These are only available for pop up tents. They rely on additional weight rather than a physical connection to the ground to ensure your shelter's stability, making them an appropriate choice for almost any location, including the beach. Using them is as simple as attaching them to your canopy's legs and filling them with sand or rocks. Their capacity varies, but most bags hold somewhere between fifteen and thirty pounds.
- Stake Caps - Stake caps are designed to make your tent's stakes safer to store and handle. They simply slip right over the sharp end. You'll almost always find them in sets.
- Stake Pullers - A stake puller is a tool designed to simplify the task of removing tent stakes from the ground. There are manual models that allow you to pull out stakes with just few pumps of a handle as well as gas-powered ones that do all of the work for you. These are particularly helpful if you've got a large tent that you set up and take down frequently.
- Ratchet Sets - These are used in place of your party tent's ropes. They're much easier to work with than ropes and, because they can be tightened by a single person, will save you a lot of time during set up. They can also help you reduce the number of wrinkles in your canopy's top because they provide greater tension during set up.
Repair and Patch Kits
Even well-made tent tops and sidewalls can get small tears, but that doesn't mean you have to immediately replace them. Repair kits, also referred to as patch or splice kits, allow you to easily fix minor damage. They typically include several pieces of tent material, an adhesive, and instructions. The most important thing to consider when purchasing this type of kit is the brand. If you buy a kit from a manufacturer other than the one that made your shelter, there's a good chance the included patch material won't match your top even if it is listed as the same color. Some companies will actually produce separate kits for different models so if you don't see one for your tent, it's a good idea to ask about compatibility before ordering.
Your tent's maintenance needs are going to vary depending on its construction materials, but almost all tops and sidewalls require some sort of regular cleaning. It's not necessary to use products made specifically for tents, but it's very important that you follow your manufacturer's recommendations and use only cleaners appropriate for your tent's materials. Some canopy companies offer their own lines of cleaners and protectants.
Storage and Carry Bags
Many party canopies come with these, but if the model you're interested in doesn't, you may want to consider investing in one. They make transporting your shelter much more convenient and can make it easier to keep all of the parts safe when they're not in use. There are quite a few kinds, including soft models with ties and hard-shelled ones with wheels. Pop ups generally use storage bags that aren't suitable for pole, frame, or tension tents so make sure that you look for a bag specifically designed for your type and size of shelter.
Part 6: Other Things to Consider
You're now equipped with the basic information you need to select a party tent. Before you start your search, though, there are a few more things you should consider.
Many towns and cities require you to get a permit before installing a party tent, particularly if you've got a larger model. This is mainly to ensure that your event meets fire safety standards. All you'll usually need is a permit issued by your local fire department, but some municipalities have additional requirements. It's best to find out what your local government's policies are before buying a tent in order to make sure you'll be able to obtain all of the necessary permits.
These documents certify that a tent's fabric is flame-resistant and meets certain fire codes. If a shelter doesn't have a flame or flammability certificate it's really not a good idea to buy it. For one, you have no guarantee that it's safe to use, and, two, making the arrangements for your event can be very difficult without the proper paperwork. Getting a permit to set up your tent, for example, can be impossible without a flame certificate. Even if you're planning to use your tent for an indoor function, such as a business conference, the event organizer may require a certificate before allowing you to participate.
No one really wants to think about bad weather ruining their outdoor event, but even the strongest party tent can't offer the same level of protection as a solid building. In the event of extreme winds or lightning, your tent can become unsafe and must be evacuated. Therefore, it's a good idea to prepare an emergency weather evacuation plan beforehand.
Waterproof vs. Water-Resistant
Party tent tops are either waterproof or water-resistant. Waterproof models are completely impervious to water, usually as a result of receiving a special treatment or coating. Water-resistant tops, on the other hand, are capable of handling a lot of exposure to moisture, but are still vulnerable to water penetration and can suffer related damage. The type of top a shelter has largely depends on its style. Instant canopies, for example, tend to have water-resistant tops while pole, frame, and tension tents often have waterproof ones.
Why? Most waterproof materials simply can't handle rapid installation and frequent use as well as water-resistant ones. So for pop up tents, which are constantly being put up and taken down, the additional protection simply isn't worth the potential reduction in durability. For pole and frame tents, however, wear becomes less of an issue because set up is slower and therefore gentler. These types of shelters are also more likely to be left standing for longer periods, making moisture resistance more important.
Part 7: Making a Decision
Regardless of whether it's for personal or business use, a party tent is a major investment. But now that you've got some basic knowledge, it's an investment you can make without fear. Or wanting to tear out your hair. With just a little research and planning, finding the right shelter for your outdoor event really can be a simple, stress-free process.
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