Investing in a camping or backpacking tent is a big deal. It’s what keeps you protected from the elements when you’re sleeping outdoors. Whether you prefer the conveniences of established campgrounds or the ruggedness of the back-country, choosing the right tent is crucial.
However, if you have been on the hunt for your first tent or are looking to upgrade your current situation, you may have noticed that there are literally hundreds of different types and styles of tents on the market.
Don’t worry, we’re here to help. Our goal is to make your tent buying process as simple as possible.
In this camping tent buyer’s guide, we are going to take a deep dive into the world of tents and hopefully clear up any questions you might have.
The last thing you want is to wind up with the wrong set-up on your next backpacking or weekend camping trip.
Let’s jump in…
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- What Kind Of Camping Will You Be Doing?
- Tent Sleeping Capacity
- What Time Of Year Will You Be Camping?
- Different Types Of Tents
- Key Features To Consider When Buying A Tent
- In Conclusion
What Kind Of Camping Will You Be Doing?
The very first question to answer is what kind of camping will you doing, primarily? This will help determine what tent will best suit your needs.
The most popular “type” of camping with a tent is car camping. Don’t let the name mislead you. You aren’t actually sleeping in the car.
Car camping typically involves staying at established campgrounds, or state parks. Another way to look at it is your car, or other vehicle, will be in close proximity to your campsite.
These campsites will generally have the options for water and maybe electricity. If this sounds like your idea of the perfect camping trip, then the weight of the tent shouldn’t be an issue.
On the other hand, if you will be trekking deep into the wilderness, then a more suitable option would be a tent that is very lightweight.
Tent Sleeping Capacity
The next thing to consider before choosing a camping tent is the number of people that will be sleeping in the tent. There isn’t an industry standard when it comes to tent sleeping capacity.
When a tent states that it is a 4-person or 6-person, this is how many “average-sized” people the tent will fit tightly.
I would recommend paying more attention to the overall tent dimensions rather than the sleeping capacity.
If you or anyone in your crew tosses and turns, is claustrophobic, or just wants more room to sleep, consider going with a larger tent.
In addition, consider things like cots, air mattresses, pets, and any camping gear that will be inside the tent and choose a tent that will accommodate these things.
For those that will be using a tent primarily for hiking or backpacking, a 1–2-person tent is a great option. If you will be camping with the entire family, a larger 8–10-person tent would be a better fit.
I know it seems like a lot to think about, but trust me, it will all be worth it in the end.
What Time Of Year Will You Be Camping?
The most popular times to head to the campground is during the spring, summer, and early fall. Winter time is generally considered to be the camping “off-season”.
However, there are the rugged, die-hard campers that don’t believe in a camping off-season. These people will camp in a tent regardless of the weather. They don’t let things like snow and freezing temperatures put a damper on their outdoor adventures.
When buying a tent, choose one that will be a good fit based on the times of year you plan to go camping.
3 Season Tents
3-season tents are the most popular choice among campers. They are generally lightweight and are designed for the warmer temperatures in spring, summer, and early fall.
These camping tents will also feature multiple mesh panels to maximize ventilation and airflow while helping keep bugs out of the tent.
When set-up properly with a rainfly, these tents can withstand a rainstorm, but are not designed to handle heavy winds or snow.
3+ Season Tents
Extended season, or 3+ tents are built with more robust features than the 3-season tents mentioned above.
These tents are a great all-around choice for camping. They are suitable for camping in the summer months, but they can also withstand harsher, colder weather conditions.
They will have more poles and fewer mesh panels than the 3-season tents which makes them sturdier while providing good heat retention as well.
4 Season Tents
4-season tents are designed to withstand some of the harshest and coldest weather you can throw at them.
These camping tents feature more poles and thicker materials than the two models listed above. Plus, they will typically have a rounded dome top, or a teepee type roof to prevent any snow from accumulating.
Since the rainflies come closer to the ground, the 4-season camping tents tend to get a bit stuffy due to lack of airflow and ventilation. But, when the temperatures drop, you might find the lack of airflow is quite beneficial for keeping things warm.
Different Types Of Tents
As we mentioned above, there are many different types of camping tents. The list below doesn’t cover every single type of camping tent available, but it does cover 12 of the most common styles.
Dome tents are arguably the most popular type of camping tent, especially for beginners.
Setting up a dome tent is easy and straight forward. Two flexible poles cross over the top of the tent and are connected to the floor of the tent.
Dome tents are a great all-weather choice, and the unique shape provides ample wind and rain resistance. However, the larger models do not fair so well in high winds.
These tents are available in a range of sizes with sleeping capacities from one person up to around 8 people.
The main drawback of this type of camping tent is the limited headroom you typically find in the smaller options.
Best For: Beginners, Solo Campers, Car Camping, Backpacking
- Minimum Headroom In Smaller Models
Cabin tents have near vertical walls which maximizes the total interior space, including headroom.
These tents are available in many different sizes and some even have wall dividers so you can have multiple rooms inside the tent.
Setting up a cabin tent can be quite difficult and usually requires at least two people. You’ll also need to bring along a hammer or mallet to drive in the tent stakes for the guy wires.
While these tents are a great choice for mild weather, they do not hold up well to high winds.
The main drawback to cabin tents is their weight and the difficult set-up process, but they are more spacious and provide more headroom than most other types of tents.
Best For: Car Camping, Large Families
- Plenty Of Headroom
- Some Models Have Separate Rooms
- Can Be Difficult To Set-Up
A-frame, or ridge tents, have been around for many decades and get their name from their shape. Although they aren’t as popular as some of the other types of tents listed, they are still available.
A-frame tents are not much more than a basic shelter from the elements, and do not provide much space inside. However, if you and your sweetheart want to spend a cozy night camping together, an A-frame tent is a great choice.
In the past, this type of camping tent used a canvas or thick fabric stretched over a ridge pole that was supported at each end. Stability of the tent was obtained by properly placed guy lines and tie-downs.
Much hasn’t changed as far as the design of the A-frame. But in order to stay relevant with the camping needs of today, they are made with much lighter material.
The biggest drawback of this type of tent is the overall space inside, and of course, the minimal headroom.
Best For: Couples, Solo Campers, Hiking, Backyard Camping
- Easy To Set-Up
- Excellent In The Rain
- Sturdy (when pitched properly)
- Minimal Interior Space
Tunnel tents are an excellent choice for large families or those who camp with a group of people. They provide ample living space as well as headroom.
Multiple flexible poles loop from one side of the tent to the other to form the tunnel shape. Properly anchored guy wires provide adequate stability. However, there can be issues when the tent opening is facing strong winds head-on.
Larger tunnel tents have dividers that can create multiple rooms or can be removed to make one large room. In addition, the space in the middle can be used for storage, sleeping space, or a sitting area.
Setting up a tunnel tent can be quite easy, depending on the size. However, the larger the tent, the more guy lines that will need to be anchored.
The main drawbacks to the tunnel camping tent are the lack of wind resistance when the opening is facing strong winds and the amount of guy lines that are required for the larger tent sizes.
Best For: Car Camping, Family Camping
- Multiple Rooms Option
- Lots Of Headroom
- Guy Lines Can Be A Tripping Hazard
- Not Ideal When Facing Wind Head-On
Pop-Up tents are one of the easiest types of tents to set-up. The flexible tent poles are built-in which allows the tent to be coiled up for storage. To set it up, simply pull uncoil the tent and BOOM, it’s done. The tent literally sets itself up.
While this may seem alluring at first, there are some downsides. Like the saying goes, “if it sounds too good to be true…”.
This type of camping tent is great if you’re going to a festival or if you’re backyard camping with the kids. The thing is, these tents are lacking in the stability department and if they’re not tied down, they can, and will, blow away. Plus, they just aren’t made very well.
But hey, it can’t be that bad, right?
If your idea of a great camping tent is something that takes little to no effort to set-up, and only plan to spend a few nights a year camping, then a pop-up tent might be for you.
Best For: Festivals, Backyard Camping, Car Camping
- Easy Set-Up
- Very Unstable
Backpacking tents are designed to be sturdy, lightweight, and able to withstand the elements. If your camping adventures take you miles into the wilderness, carrying a heavy tent on your back or in your backpack just isn’t feasible.
To keep the weight as light as possible, backpacking tents are generally made for one or two people. However, there are some larger options available.
Fewer poles and ultra-lightweight materials are some of the main characteristics of these types of camping tents. Other key features of these tents are the lower peak height and small overall square footage.
The main advantage to backpacking tents is the portability, allowing you to set-up camp wherever the trails take you.
The drawback of this type of tent is the lower headroom as compared to other camping tents.
Best For: Solo Campers, Backpacking, Hiking
- Can Be Stashed In A Backpack
- Limited Space
For minimalists looking for the most basic shelter, look no further than the bivy sack. These tents are not much more than a waterproof shell with breathing holes.
Bivy sacks typically have one pole that crosses the tent at the head to provide just enough room to keep the material off of your body. There are larger bivy tents that feature two poles for added comfort.
These tents are extremely lightweight and easy to set-up which makes them an ideal choice for backpacking, hiking, or even cycling.
But, if you are even slightly claustrophobic, this tent may not be a good fit. If that’s the case, a slightly larger backpacking tent might be a more suitable option.
There are many benefits to the bivy sack, especially for those who take their adventures well off the beaten path. However, the main drawback to this type of tent shelter is the extremely small size.
Best For: Solo Campers, Hiking, Backpacking
- Extremely Portable
- Tight Sleeping Quarters
Geodesic tents are very similar to the dome style camping tents, but they have more poles, are much sturdier, and are designed to handle the colder winter temperatures.
The round shape and overlapping poles provide excellent rain, snow, and wind resistance. In addition, these tents are typically freestanding, which means they don’t rely on guy lines and stakes to keep them in place.
Since these high-quality tents are mainly focused on stability and strength, they are generally priced higher than other types of tents.
The main benefits of this type of tent are their high-quality, their ability to withstand colder climates, and their extreme durability.
Of course there are drawbacks as well. The price point for some of these tents can be high, and they can be difficult for beginners to set up.
Best For: Cold Weather Camping, Small Families, Car Camping
- Extremely Stable
- May Be Difficult To Set-Up
Rooftop/Truck Bed Tents
I decided to combine rooftop and truck bed tents into the same category because of their similarities. While rooftop tents can be mounted on almost any vehicle, truck bed tents are reserved for pickups.
These tents are a popular choice for those who like to take their camping adventures off-road and don’t want to worry about finding the ideal place to pitch a conventional tent. Your vehicle is literally your campsite.
Truck bed and rooftop tents can be difficult to set up and getting out of them in the middle of the night to answer nature’s call could prove to be a challenge. In addition, if you plan to move sites for any reason, the tents will have to be taken down and packed away beforehand.
What I like the most about this type of tent is you don’t have to worry about snakes or other creepy crawlers getting into your tent at night.
Best For: Off-Road Camping, Overlanding, Couples
- Your Vehicle Is The Campsite
- No Ground Contact
- Risk Of Falling
Teepee tents are designed with one pole in the center of the tent with a tarp or other material draped over and staked to the ground.
This type of camping tent is typically lightweight (depending on outer material) and can even be staked using trekking poles.
The center pole design makes for a simple set-up but can make for awkward sleeping arrangements. In addition, the slanted walls tend to hinder the indoor living space.
If you prefer to camp in the cold winter months, a teepee tent is a great choice.
Best For: Hot Tent Camping, Winter Camping, Backyard Camping
- Some Can Be Used With Wood-Burning Stove
- Cold-Weather Camping
- Pole In Center Of Tent
- Pitched Walls
Canvas Bell Tents
Canvas bell tents are often referred to as a luxury shelter. This type of tent has glamping written all over it and is definitely not suitable for hiking or backpacking.
The canvas cover offers breathability in the warmer months and excellent heat retention during the winter months. In fact, many canvas bell tents are equipped with a stove-jack making them ideal for hot tent camping.
Like the teepee tent mentioned above, there is a pole in the center of the tent. But instead of the walls being completely slanted, they are vertical at the bottom which gives the tent a roomier feel.
Canvas bell tents are at the higher end of the price spectrum due to their extreme durability and build quality.
The major downside to this type of tent is the weight. There are lightweight options that sleep 2-4 people, but the much larger 8-10 sleeping capacity models can be extremely heavy.
Best For: Cold Weather Camping, Large Groups, Wedding Parties
- Excellent Heat Retention For Winter Camping
- Ability To Add Wood-Burning Tent Stove
Inflatable tents are relatively new to the camping gear industry, but they are quickly gaining in popularity due to the use of the latest technology.
Instead of flexible aluminum or fiberglass poles, this type of tent uses inflatable beams, or tubes. These tubes are filled with air using a pump and are stabilized by using guy lines and tent stakes.
Inflatable tents are a great choice for beginners since the set-up is super easy. In fact, one person can set one up in a matter of minutes if needed.
As you can imagine, with an air tent there is the possibility of puncturing one or more of the beams, which would be a disaster if you’re miles from anywhere. However, most models do come with a repair kit.
While it does have its downsides, these tents are generally lightweight, available in multiple sizes, and they are very packable.
Best For: Beginners, Family Camping, Car Camping
- Quick Set-Up
- Comes With Repair Kit
- Risk Of Puncture
Key Features To Consider When Buying A Tent
Now that we have been through what type of camping, sleeping capacities, what time of year, and looked at the different types of camping tents available, let’s take a look at some key features to consider when buying a tent.
Tent prices can range from around $50 to well above $1,000. It all depends on what you’re looking for and what your needs are.
Naturally, the more recognized tent brands and the higher-quality tents will be more expensive. But there are plenty of great options that are very affordable in the lower to mid-price range.
The peak height refers to the tallest point inside a tent from the ground. If you wan the added headroom and the ability to stand up when you’re changing clothes or walking around, choose a tent with a tall peak height.
Tent Floor Length
If you or someone in your camping crew is tall, pay special attention to the overall dimensions of a tent and consider one with a longer floor length. The typical floor length of a tent is between 84” and 88”. However, there are models available that offer floor lengths or up to 90 inches.
When choosing a tent, consider how many doors you need. Think about how many people will be sleeping in the tent and how easy it will be to enter or exit the tent without the need to crawl, or step over other campers.
A tent with multiple doors, like a cabin tent, will have more options for coming and going in the middle of the night.
A rainfly is an additional layer that can be put over the roof of the tent to keep rain and dew out. Plus, when the night temperatures get a little chilly, a rainfly helps to retain heat inside the tent.
Most tents come with a rainfly. However, there are two main types, roof-only and full-coverage.
The full coverage rainflies will offer more protection from wind and rain while and roof-only rainflies are good for allowing more natural light into the tent.
Number Of Tent Poles
The number of tent poles is a fair determination of how difficult or sturdy a tent will be. Naturally, the more poles, the more difficult and time consuming it will be to pitch. However, stability is greatly increased with the number of poles the tent has.
A vestibule is an additional awning that attaches to the tent to give you extra storage space for any gear you want to keep dry. These can be integrated into the tent design or purchased separately as an add-on.
The key to controlling condensation in a tent is ventilation. Many tents offer multiple mesh panels that not only allow for maximum cross-ventilation but help keep those aggravating mosquitoes and gnats out as well.
If you will be primarily camping in the hot summer months, consider a tent that has large mesh panels.
Interior Storage/Gear Loft
Interior pockets and gear lofts keep things off the floor. In addition, lantern hooks or straps are added in many tents to provide a place to hang a small battery powered light.
Tent footprints are an optional item (typically sold separately) that goes on the ground underneath your tent. These are especially useful for preventing sticks, rocks, and other debris from puncturing or ripping the tent floor.
These footprints are sized to fit the overall floorspace of your tent. Ground cloths, on the other hand, are sized generically much like tarps. With a ground cloth, or tarp is used, they usually stick out past the tent floor which results in water being trapper and in turn, runs under your tent getting the floor wet.
The key to choosing the right camping tent is determining your needs, your budget, what climate you will be camping in, and how difficult a tent is to set-up. There are so many types of tents on the market and the ones listed in this article are just a small sample of what’s available.
For beginners, the easier a tent is to pitch, the better. Choosing a tent that is hard to set-up will only lead to aggravation and frustration. And nobody wants to spend time with a grumpy camper. Don’t ask me how I know…