How to Buy the Best Tent for You

One day in July 2007, I had to buy a tent basically overnight, for a spontaneous camping trip. I knew nothing about tents or camping gear, but in 6 hours, I went through a lot of information about camping, ultralight camping, shelter types, tents, tent fabrics, hammocks, pole materials, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, how to join two sleeping bags in one, and sleeping pad connectors. I'll summarize my findings below.

This article is about amateur camping. If you want to camp in the winter or in areas with extreme conditions, you probably know already what you need, or will camp with people who do. If you are a first time camper, this guide may be very useful to you, especially if you plan to camp solo or as a couple, and you want to be flexible between backpacking and car camping.

So what tent is right for me?

There are a number of good guides about picking a tent, of which I found informative an analytic tent buying guide at Dick's Sporting Goods, and a verbose tent buying guide at Outdoor places.

Picking a tent boils down to when you plan to use it, how big you want it to be, and how light. You'll want a "3.5-season" tent, and generally one person larger than the number of people that will occupy the tent. Tents tend to come in 2 materials: "nylon ripstop" (a fabric that doesn't rip when punctured) and nylon tafetta (a fabric pleasant to the touch). I'm not sure what ripstop feels like, but if you plan to have fun in the tent, you'll want tafetta, and a tent that is at least as tall as your torso (let's pick 1m (~40") tall) and probably as large at the base as your bed (188x140cm (74"x55") for a double bed). Unless you're an exhibitionist or in the middle of nowhere, the tent should not be transparent, or should have a non-transparent rainfly. For added romance, a moonroof or mesh area at the top of the tent is nice. Speaking of mesh, the best is called "no-see-um", and pretty much all modern tents have it.

If you read about the tent types in the guides above, you'll see that the best kind of tent for general usage is the freestanding dome tent, which you can set up anywhere, without having to impale the ground with stakes. If you can stake the tent, do it, otherwise you risk transforming your tent into a very expensive kite. Depending on the surrounding geography, you can also anchor the tent to trees, cars or other things. If you plan to carry the tent beneath your backpack, its packed length should not be larger than the width of your hips. For me that was packed length <= 50cm (~20"). Finally, the tent should be as light as possible. Carbon fiber poles are still rare, so you'll want aluminum poles (fiberglass poles are the worst). The weight of a 2-person tent should not exceed 3 kilograms, or the tent is vintage.

Shopping for the tent

For the US market, the most informative tent comparison sites that I found were:

  • Ultralight tents at Campmor.com -- the most detailed information about tents: floor plan and section diagram; more specs than the manufacturer's page for The North Face. Not searchable by specs. Crap imperial measurements. Very good for comparison and elimination by tent features.
  • FindMeATent -- has some users ratings, reviews and photos
  • finally, REI -- very good comparison features and they also have //some// tents in stock at local REI stores, but it's best to have your dream tent shipped than settle for one that you can buy in-store. However, REI has an excellent 100% guarantee policy with no time limit to return the product.

Some of these sites may list tents that are not listed on the others. As with booking plane tickets, picking a tent implies a bit of voodoo, or a lot of research. Extensive tent reviews can be found at Backpackgeartest.org

Determining my top tent choices

So we're looking for a tent with the following characteristics:

  • two-person or three-person ("2P" or "3P")
  • freestanding
  • dome-shaped
  • wall material: nylon tafetta or polyester tafetta
  • at least 1m (~40" or 3ft 4in) tall
  • dimensions > 180x140cm (6ft x 4ft 7in)
  • packed length < 50cm (~20 in)

All you have to do is some nice mechanical elimination work. Go through the Backpackinglight and Campmor lists and eliminate all the tents that don't satisfy the criteria. Here are the best tents that I found at the beginning of July 2007:

  1. Big Sky International Summit Evolution 2P -- review; now seems to be superseded by the Big Sky International Revolution 2P -- this is an amazingly light 2P tent at under 1.5kg, with very good reviews for its older version. ~$400.
  2. Eureka Zeus 2 LE -- the next best tent, and very cheap at ~$110.
  3. Marmot Nyx 2P -- a light tent (2.3kg), available at REI. ~$260.
  4. Marmot Bise 2P, REI
  5. Mountain Hardwear Haven 3 -- this is the tent I ended up buying from REI because it was the only one from this list in stock in Northern California. Good quality but at 3kg feels too heavy for its volume, compared to the other tents.

Whatever tent you buy, have fun using it, and do the camping community a service and review it at http://www.backpackgeartest.org, or if you're short on time, drop a rating and a short comment at http://www.findmeatent.com.

I have the tent. What else do I need?

You should also get sleeping pads and sleeping bags. For extra fun, get a sleeping pad coupler and 1-person sleeping bags that can be joined for two-person, um, occupancy. The best sleeping pads out there seem to be the Therm-A-Rest ProLite 4. They can be coupled with the Therm-a-Rest Universal Mattress Coupler.

For choosing sleeping bags, see the very good sleeping bag guide at REI.com. I haven't selected sleeping bags yet, but a very good candidate seems to be the Big Agnes Yampa, which can “zip to another bag with opposite zipper configuration”.

Am I ready to go camping?

Pretty much. Camping tips are, however, outside the scope of this article. If this will be your first time camping, a good place to start is a designated campground. Don't go to KOA San Diego though, as you'll camp in the middle of other campers, without much to do but... camp.

Have fun!

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