Choosing a Tent: A Beginner's Guide

Posted by Whole Earth | 06.21.2022

The view of the great outdoors from inside a tent



Choosing a Tent: A Beginner's Guide


Here's a quick guide to help you get started in choosing a tent. Answer a few questions. Do some research. Ask your tent-toting friends, and come visit us. We'll be happy to share what we've learned over the years.


Some initial questions:

How many people and pets? 

How many campers will be calling the tent home? How many adults? How many children?  Are you bringing the canine members of the family? Large dogs can take up a whole person's space in a tent so don't forget to add them in.

A canine camping companion


Backpacking or car camping? 

If you'll be car camping, weight is not a particularly important factor. However, if you're backpacking or carrying your tent to a walk-in site, weight may be a serious consideration. You won't want to carry an ounce more than necessary.


What time of year?

Most tents are three season tents, made for spring, summer and fall camping. If the weather will be warm, look for vents and mesh windows and doors to keep the air flowing through the tent.  Tents for winter camping are heavier, have fewer windows, and are made to withstand strong winds.


For sleep only or for refuge?

If your tent is for sleeping at the end of the day, smaller may be better. But if your tent will be your refuge during the day, for example getting away from the crowd at a festival, choosing a larger tent may be a wiser.      


Sitting or standing?

If you're comfortable sitting on the floor, headroom may not be an issue, but if you'd like to be able to stand up, be sure the tent can accommodate you. Check the peak height.


The tent

How big?

You might think a four person tent would work well for four people, but that's not always the case. A four person tent may find four adults in very close quarters. Add air mattresses or gear and someone may be sleeping in a hammock or the car. A four person tent may work well for two adults and two kids. For a group of all adults, adding one or two extra "persons" to the tent size may make all the difference in comfort for everyone. And if a large family dog will be joining you, add another person.


What's a vestibule?

Think of a vestibule as a combination closet and mudroom. It's a covered space just outside the door(s) of the tent where gear may be stored and you can remove muddy shoes and clothing before entering inside. Not all tents come with vestibules, but you can make a DIY one with a tarp.


Single wall or double wall?

Tents can be divided into single wall or double wall. A single wall tent tends to be lightweight, but may have a problem with condensation if ventilation is challenging. The double wall tent is a tent plus a rainfly.


And a rainfly is?

You could think of a rainfly as an umbrella for your tent. They're included with most tents, but if it's not, you'll still probably want one. Ideally the rainfly will reach all the way to the ground which will help the tent remain stable in strong winds. And you'll want a rainfly that can be rolled up to allow maximum ventilation in the tent during good weather. Go ahead and put the rainfly up when you pitch the tent. Rainy weather can blow up quickly, and you won't want to scramble to do it at the last minute.

A couple putting a rainfly on their tent.


What's a footprint?

 Most tents have a sturdy waterproof floor, but even so, you'll want to have a footprint to place under the tent. If it does not come with the tent, you can use a heavy duty tarp or plastic sheet. The footprint helps to protect the tent from rough ground, damp and dirt and using one can add years to your tent's life. And don't forget, your footprint should be no larger than the tent itself. If it's too large you run the risk of water seeping into the tent as it rolls off the rainfly.


Stand up and stay put?

Flexible, foldable tent poles create the frame which holds a tent upright. The tent may clip onto the poles or the poles may run through sleeves. Either way the tent is held in place with stakes. The rainfly covers the tent and uses guylines and stakes to keep the rainfly taut for ventilation, for directing rain away from the tent, and for keeping it safely pinned to the ground in wind.


A well-made tent?

A tent is an investment, so here are a few features to look for that are signs of a quality, well-made tent. Do the zippers operate smoothly, without catching? Are they waterproof? Look at the tent seams. Is the stitching tight and are the seams taped or sealed? Is the tent material tough but light and waterproof? Many tents are made of ripstop, a woven, reinforced material that stops a rip from spreading.  Also, tent poles made with aluminum are stronger than those made of fiberglass.


Pro Tips

Practice putting up your new tent before taking off on your first adventure together. You'll know what to expect and, should there be something missing or broken, it will be much easier to replace when you're close to home. It's also a good idea to pitch the tent at the beginning of camping season to see if there are any repairs that need to be made before you set off.  


Practice pitching your tent before your first trip.


When you're selecting your campsite, be sure to survey the territory. Is the site level? Avoid sites where water can collect. And, look up! Are there any dead overhanging branches that might fall during a strong wind? And be sure to set up on a dedicated camp site to minimize your impact on the land. Leave no trace!


Keep your tent as clean as possible while camping. Keeping shoes outside in the vestibule and cleaning dog feet before letting them enter the tent will make for a more pleasant camping experience. A small handheld whisk broom can make all the difference in keeping your tent clean. Trust us on this one!


Once you've returned home, thoroughly air and clean the tent. Any dampness or dirt can swiftly turn to mold or mildew. When the tent is clean and dry, carefully pack it into its stuff sack and store it in a cool dry place, preferably your gear closet.


Keep a camping logbook to record where you went, with whom, how long, and what you liked best about the experience. Also include lessons learned! Adding some photos is a nice touch, making the logbook a memory book as well.


These points should help get you started in choosing a tent. Take the time to do some research on manufacturer websites and read reviews. Ask your tent-toting friends what they would look for. Come visit us in one of our stores. We'll be happy to share what we've learned. And when it comes time to pitch your tent, videos may be helpful in answering those inevitable questions. Have fun!


Whole Earthling Sebastian on a backpacking adventure had his favorite tent.





My Bag (0)