It was Sarah’s birthday, and in the tents we lit three candles stuck in a snickers bar and sang happy birthday just as the rain started to fall. This was the beginning of a four-hour downpour that would turn the red rock cliffs into waterfalls and the slick rock slopes into raging torrents. Two inches of water build-up under the tent have flashbacks to the 1980’s waterbed craze, but not everyone would enjoy the storm. Before the night was over some people would be dry, some would be in their cars and others would be salvaging the remains of their tents.
Before you buy a tent, you should take it to heart what kind of experience you want to have. For rookie casual camping anything will do. When the weather gets bad, and it will, head for your car, but you will miss out on some of the best moments. Here is what you need to know before you buy a tent.
There are five basic types of tents. The ultra light-weight, the three-season, the family tent, the 4 season or mountaineering tent and crap. Many places have several different categories of tents, but most fit in one of these categories. Also there are a couple of features that tents may have no matter what category they belong.
Fiberglass poles vs. Metal Poles
When it comes to the actual material, aluminum is much stronger than fiberglass. However, in tent poles they are about the same strength. The difference is it requires more fiberglass to make the tent pole instead of aluminum. Thie use of fiberglass makes the poles heavier, but they are just as strong.
Aluminum poles break when they are overloaded, fiberglass poles will shatter and break. Aluminum poles may crease and then bend which takes away their ability to support weight. Fiberglass poles are easier and much cheaper to fix. Fiberglass poles can often be repaired in the field if you have a blank pole with you. If an aluminum pole breaks, you have to send it to a custom shop for repairs.
The big difference is in the amount of weight you have to carry for the same amount of strength. A true lightweight backpacking tent will not have fiberglass poles.
Tarpaulin Floor vs Regular Floor
A tarpaulin floor on a tent is more rugged but is subject to cracking and is heavier. The fabric is heavier and usually a thicker weave, which will allow for moisture to seep in and more easily penetrate the bottom.
A nylon floor is not as durable, but it has a tighter knit, which makes it more waterproof, lighter and more flexible. It maintains its flexibility over time and isn’t subject to cracking like a tarpaulin floor.
Full Rainfly vs. half vs. three quarter vs. quarter
A full rainfly is one that comes to the ground. It doesn’t allow any room for wind or rain to reach the main wall or lining of the tent.
A half rainfly comes down to the halfway point of the tent. Occasionally it will reach down farther on some sides than the other, but as the name suggests it only covers about half of the tent.
A three-quarter rainfly will usually come almost to the ground on two sides, and the other two sides will usually be only a ¼ to a half. The shorter sides make it possible to access doors and ventilation.
A quarter rainfly is a rare thing. Quarter rain flys are usually only found on the cheapest of tents. A quarter rainfly is similar to a hat for your tent. It will keep the very top dry, but not much else. Quarter rain flys are used on tents when the top of the tent has ventilation or mesh, and they need something to cover the mesh when rain or wind comes up.
The worst the weather is, the more complete a rainfly should be.
The Types of Tents
Ultra-Light Weight Tents
For the backpacking enthusiast or long trek thru-hiker, these tents are a must. Some people choose Bivy Sacks, and some people choose shelters, others want a complete tent. The three things you want to consider is how lightweight a tent you want, how weatherproof and finally are you backpacking with a person or by yourself.
Pros: Bivys are lightweight, sturdy an ideal for a single person.
Con’s: Only room for 1, claustrophobic, and no weather protection for your gear.
Pro’s: The lightest and cheapest option available
Cons: They don’t offer complete protection from the elements or critters. Usually, don’t come with a floor, and they are open in some places.
Pros: More room, great protection from the elements, no bugs climbing on you at night. Usually room for another person and room for your gear.
Cons: Heavier and more expensive.
Three Season Tents
Three season tents are the most common type of tent for most outdoor enthusiasts. Three season tents will have 2 to 3 poles. They are significantly heavier than the lightweight tents, but many people choose a 3 season tent for backpacking because of price.
A three-season tent should have a full rainfly. It should come to the ground and should have vestibules (extensions away from the door that allow you to put gear under the tent). Depending on the environment you plan on using it in, will depend on how much mesh you have on the initial layer.
Colder environments and higher altitudes will probably want less mesh. Environments that are hot and cold may want a tent with a lot of zippable windows. Warm environments will probably want a lot of mesh. As long as the rainfly is a full level rainfly, you will still have protection from the elements.
Pro’s: Usually have these available in several different pricing options. Can be used for some winter camping.
Con’s: Can be heavy. Can be a little on the bulky side.
The Family Tent
The family tent is self-explanatory. They are usually the big cabin tents that hold eight or more people. They have steep sides, heavy poles and fold up to the size of a 40-gallon cooler. Their purpose is basically for car camping. They are ideal if you have a lot of people, plan on pulling up next to the camp spot, walking five feet and setting up your tent.
When it comes to bad weather, sometimes the tents will hold up, but most likely you will end up in the car. The tall steep sides are perfect for catching the wind, and the poles and framework aren’t strong enough to hold up to stronger gusts or long term storms.
Pros: Roomy. They are ideal for large groups. They may even have dividers that separate sections into different rooms.
Cons: Heavy, bulky, probably not element worthy.
Four Season Tents
A true four-season tent is an expensive thing and for most people an unnecessary thing. Four season tents almost always have four tent poles. They usually don’t have a rainfly, but a rainfly could be included.
Instead of a rainfly, they have one solid layer that is not very breathable. This will often lead to condensation build-up during the night during the winter and extreme heat during the summer.
Four season tents are strong and provide the best protection from the elements. Some four-season tents have been known to withstand wind speeds over 100 mph and 3 feet of snow.
Pros: Strong, Element Protection
Cons: Temperature control, Use only during winter, expensive.
These tents are also called single-use tents. They often have big seams, half to quarter rain flies, tarp floors and are a price point. These are the tents you find for cheap at places like Wal-Mart. They aren’t well made, and they target people who still believe that there isn’t a difference in tents. These tents are not bad if you plan on using them only a couple times, and right next to your car. If the weather turns bad you will probably have to pack up and go home.
My advice for buying tents
I believe in the 80/20 rule. It is uncommon to find a piece of equipment that works for everything you do. I will often advise people to use the 80/20 rule. Buy the piece of equipment that works for what you do 80 percent of the time. The exception to this is for people who do a lot of winter camping. Winter is a different beast and requires a separate tent if you are going to be doing backcountry stuff, and a car is readily available.
For Backcountry Winter Camping
A four-season tent is a must.
Winter Camping but close to a car and transportation routes.
A high quality 3 season tent will do.
A great 3 season tent. Aluminum Poles, non-tarp floor the lighter, the better.
Ultra Lightweight Backpackers
If you are traveling with someone, I would recommend a lightweight tent. If you are by yourself, then a Bivy is going to be the best option. A tarp is an option, but I am not a fan of bugs.
Car Campers/Family Campers
You have your option here. You can use a cheaper Wal-Mart tent.
Buying for Boy Scouts
Buying a tent for boy scouts is tricky. If you want your child to have a better experience, then you may want to go with a better, higher-priced tent. However, scouts are tough on gear, and you don’t want it to get ruined. Things you should consider are, will you be taking your child camping outside of scouts. If your child doesn’t like it, the better the tent, the more likely you are to sell it.
Bad weather can make a camping experience memorable and positive. However, sometimes you need the best equipment possible to make sure that it doesn’t turn out dangerous or disastrous. It is often cheaper to buy the right tent the first time than to buy several cheap tents. Figure out what you want to do 80 percent of the time then buy that tent.
If you are unsure about what you will be using a tent for, the outdoor adventure center, at most universities or colleges, rent them. Local gear stores also have rental centers. Rent a great tent, use it, and then decide.
Be sure to check out these other buying guides and advice articles:
David Johnson had his first adventure at the age of 7 on a raft on the Green River. For the next 20 years he was an on again off again backpacker. Finally in 2005 he started working for an outdoor recreation store that immersed him in the outdoor lifestyle. His enthusiasm, and proficiency, earned him a position to write outdoor columns for a local newspaper with a distribution of 300K. Now he is a frequent guest writer for numerous outdoor websites, and currently spends his free time, creature crafting, canyoneering or backpacking.