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How to Choose the Right Tent

How to choose the right tent

There are a lot of tents out there—as of this writing, OGE has over 140 tents available to buy. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, shopping for one can be intimidating.

So, let’s try and break this into manageable chunks. It’s easy to throw technical terms out there and hang you out to dry in a sea of ambiguity—to butcher a metaphor—but we won’t. We’ll answer your questions, and help you choose the right tent to fit your needs.

Types of Tents

What kinds of tents are there? Which one should I get?

Tents can be broken up into 3 categories at their most basic: backpacking tents, camping tents, and mountaineering tents.

Types of Tents

From right to left: A backpacking tent, camping tent, and mountaineering tent

If you have to hike any appreciable distance to your campsite, you should get a backpacking tent. Backpacking tents are made to be light enough to carry long distances (they should ideally weigh around 2 lbs per person) and compact enough to easily fit inside a pack.

If you are driving straight to your campsite, or setting up a basecamp, get a camping tent. Camping tents throw caution to the wind when it comes to weight, often coming in around 4-6 pounds or more—with large-capacity family camping tents weighing up to 20 lbs. They are designed with an emphasis on livable space and comfort.

If you are going on a high altitude mountaineering expedition, or planning on camping during the winter, get a mountaineering tent. Mountaineering tents are often single-walled (more on that below), lightweight, and designed to withstand high winds and snow-loading.

The first step in buying a tent is deciding what activity you’re going to use it for the most, and moving on from there. Keep in mind that, while you can backpack with a mountaineering tent, and camp with a backpacking tent, you can’t really backpack with a camping tent, and you really shouldn’t try mountaineering or winter camping with a backpacking or a camping tent.

Once you pick out the type of tent you want, then you can start getting into the more granular details.

Space and Livability Concerns

Should I get an (n)-person tent?

2-person tent floor plan

The floor plan of an MSR Elixir 2-person backpacking tent

1-person, 2-person, 3-person, 8-person; this is the size of a tent at the surface level—how many people, taking up approximately 25 inches of space (about the width of a sleeping pad) will fit inside.

A good rule of thumb when shopping for tents is to go up one person to maximize your comfort: 1-person tents are usually tight for one person, 2-person tents are usually tight for 2, etc.

However, if you’re backpacking, and want to save as much weight as possible, then you should try to deal with the tight space. It’s all about striking a balance between space and weight.

How will I know I have enough space in my tent?

Taking a look at two tent specifications in particular is the best way to tell if you’ll have enough space: Peak height and floor area.

The peak height is the amount of height—measured in inches—that the tent has between the floor and its highest point. This, along with your height, is an important number to pay attention to in regards to livability. It denotes whether or not you’ll be able to sit up, crouch, or (in some cases) stand inside your tent.

Peak height of tent

The peak height of an MSR Elixir 2 Tent

The floor area of a tent is measured in square feet, and is easy enough to surmise from tent specifications online. If you’re at home, you can even measure out the same area as a tent and judge if it will be large enough for you to be comfortable in. If you’re taller, make sure you have around 2 extra feet in the tent lengthwise, so your head and feet don’t touch the ends of the tent—they’ll get wet with condensation overnight.

Remember, the best way to see if you’ll have enough space in a tent is set one up and get inside. If you can, head to your local gear store, and the employees there should be happy to set up any tent you’re interested in. OGE’s camping section in particular can often be a maze of tents, all of them set up to help us guide customers towards choosing the right one.

Tent Construction Questions

What’s a double-walled tent? A single-walled tent? Which do I want?

Inside a double-walled tent

A double-walled tent from the inside. The mesh tent body being separate from the fly greatly reduces condensation.

The most common type of tent construction, double-walled tents consist of the tent body, which includes the floor and (usually) mesh walls, and the fly, which is the waterproof part that goes on the outside. They offer better ventilation, and so have less issues with condensation, but they don’t retain heat or resist wind as well as single-walled tents.

With a single-walled tent, the tent body and fly are combined—into a single wall. They are used most often when mountaineering and winter camping, activities which need less ventilation, and more warmth retention and wind resistance. Since the tent body and the fly are one piece, single-walled tents (especially ones for mountaineering) are usually lighter and more packable than double wall tents.

If you’re not planning on winter camping or mountaineering, get a double-walled tent.

What’s the difference between a 3- and 4-season tent?

A 3-season tent is best for mild conditions: spring, summer, and fall. They’re not suitable for winter camping. They are almost always double-walled tents.

The term ‘4-season’ is kind of a misnomer, because 4-season tents are really only suitable for cold weather camping—they aren’t very breathable, so you wouldn’t necessarily want to use them in warm weather. They are almost always single-walled tents.

Should I get a freestanding tent? A non-freestanding tent?

A freestanding tent uses tent poles for its structure, and can stand up on its own without stakes. A non-freestanding tent can’t stand up without staking it out.

Non-freestanding tents either totally forego tent poles, using trekking poles for structure, or they significantly pare down their tent poles. This saves a lot of weight, so you’ll mostly see them used by ultralight backpackers. Since they must be staked out, more care has to be taken when choosing a campsite.

MSR Flylight 2P Tent

The MSR Flylight uses trekking poles, stakes and guylines to stand on its own. It’s more work to set up, but it also only weighs 1 lb 9 oz.

Most tents are freestanding, because it’s convenient. They’re easy to set up, you can move them around your campsite, and you can set them up in places where staking the ground is difficult—like the beach, or a tent platform. If you’re interested in having the lightest pack on the trail, though, get a non-freestanding tent.

There are lot of different pole configurations. What’s the best?

The configuration of a tent’s poles is the biggest factor in how easy it is to set up: A dome-style tent, like the Nemo Galaxi or Marmot Tungsten, uses two poles to make an ‘X’ shape, and is among the easiest style of tent to set up.

As tent designers make attempts to increase the livable space inside or save weight, the pole configurations can become more complex. The Nemo Wagontop Tent, which emphasizes livability and comfort overall, looks like this:

Nemo Wagontop Tent

It’s basically an apartment that you can pack up.

While the Big Agnes Fly Creek, which aims to be as light as possible, looks like this:

Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 1 Tent

Note the single pole forming a “spine” along the top of the tent to increase peak height as much as possible.

There isn’t necessarily a “best” type of pole structure. It’s more important to balance ease of setup (you may have to set up by headlamp at night or in the rain) with livable/interior space and weatherproof-ness.

What should tent poles be made of?

Most tent poles are made of aluminum and are varying weights and thicknesses. Some poles are still made of fiberglass to reduce cost, and some manufacturers are starting to make carbon fiber poles to reduce weight—at a premium price.

Aluminum poles are the safest best for durability and longevity without costing or weighing too much and are relatively easy to repair in the backcountry.

Avoid fiberglass poles if you can help it, as they can splinter relatively easily.

Tent Features and Terms

What other kinds kind of features should I look for in a tent?

No-see-um Mesh: This is the kind of mesh that is used in just about every tent sold today. It is fine enough to keep out even the smallest of flying insects, such as black flies, gnats, and—no-see-ums. Depending on your needs you may want more or less mesh built into your tent. More mesh means better ventilation, stargazing opportunities, and cool breezes on warm summer nights, but can get chilly in the shoulder seasons.

Bathtub floor: If the material of the tent floor extends up the wall of the tent, it’s got a bathtub floor. Always look for this feature, because it protects you from rain, wind, and wind-blown rain getting into your tent during storms.

Tent Footprint: Typically sold separately, a tent footprint is a piece of durable, waterproof fabric that is cut to the same dimensions as a tent’s floor. By setting your tent up on top of it, a footprint increases the lifespan of your tent by protecting the bottom from sharp rocks or twigs on the ground. If you don’t want to purchase your tent’s specific footprint, substitutes (called groundsheets instead) can be made from durable plastic or a piece of tyvek.

Guylines: These are lines attached to the tent fly that can be staked out to make the tent more resistant to wind, help shed water during prolonged rainstorms, and less likely to take off during a fierce storm. They are usually reflective so you can see your tent more easily at night.

Vestibules: A tent’s vestibule is the area just outside a tent’s door that is covered by the tent fly when it’s staked-out. Vestibules are great spots for keeping your pack and muddy shoes dry (while still keeping the inside of your tent clean), and for cooking with a stove in bad weather.

Door configuration/number of doors: Tents will either have one or two doors. If they have one, it will be oriented either at the front of the tent or on the side, and if there are two doors, they’ll be oriented on the sides.

If you’re backpacking by yourself, a tent with one door will suffice. When backpacking with a partner, it’s better to get a two door tent, so you’ll each have your own vestibule for your gear, and won’t have to climb over each other in the middle of the night when nature calls.

Packaged weight/Trail Weight/Fast-pitch weight: A tent’s packaged weight is the weight of everything you bought at the store—instructions, extra guylines, stakes, the bag it comes in, etc. The trail weight is the important number, it’s the weight of everything you need to successfully set up the tent on the trail. Fast-pitch weight (or fast-fly weight for Big Agnes tents) is the weight of just the tent fly, footprint, poles, and stakes. Not every tent can be set up this way, however.

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