How to Choose the Best Camping Tent

Coleman Carlsbad Fast Pitch 6
Article By:
Lyra Pierotti
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Saturday

A car camping tent can be a serious investment, with prices ranging from the high $200s to over $600. That's quite a range for a category of tents with highly varied applications. It can be daunting to wade through the details, weigh the pros and cons, and figure out just what is worth the money--and more importantly, what features will make or break your camping adventure.

We assembled five categories that we believe to be key when assessing whether or not a camping tent will meet your needs: Livability, Weather Resistance, Ease of Setup, Workmanship, and Packed Size. You will see an explanation of each category in each tent review. Here, we explain just how we tested, thought, and assessed each tent in each category.


Livability


One of the biggest benefits of a camping tent over a backpacking tent is that it's bigger, generally designed to be more durable, and gives campers more space to hang out during the day or night. The best camping tent should give campers more than just shelter: it should be your portable log cabin in the woods, your beachside cottage, your creek side home. It should suit your needs, from hanging out, reading, napping, sleeping, and escaping from wind, rain, sun, and bugs.

Ceiling height can be very important in making camping tents livable for the whole family, allowing taller campers to stand up comfortably and reduce neck and back strain from a weekend of crouching.

If you'll be camping in warmer weather, ventilation is an important feature for when the noontime sun slips overhead and the greenhouse tent effect is in full force. Large windows, more mesh, and big doors help, as do specially designed vents. The trade-off lies in storm resistance: more mesh, more vents, more windows mean more holes and gaps for precipitation and wind to find its way in.

Weather Resistance


What's your ideal camping experience? If you're anything like our reviewers, you probably envision sunny days, not too hot, light afternoon breezes, cool evenings by the fire, and sleeping out under the stars. For all the glory of a perfect weekend of camping, if weather goes sideways, inadequate or inappropriate gear can quickly turn your perfect weekend into a nightmare. That sweet tent you bought on clearance without doing any research might end up being a total waste of money, and worse yet, it might sour your experience so you shy away from camping, or even worse, make a miserable experience for impressionable young campers.

We assessed each tent for performance in rain and wind, but also for conditions you might encounter or warm beaches and in the hot desert: after all, the joy of camping is the freedom it allows you to explore and adapt to a variety of landscapes, much like our nomadic ancestors.

Ease of Setup


It's the weekend, end of a long week. You've been excited since Monday to get out of town and pitch a tent by a babbling brook. Friday rolls around, and it turns out everyone else in town had the same idea. Traffic is awful, plus you forgot to buy propane so that means yet another detour through the crowded city streets.

Finally, you arrive at your favorite campsite. It's 9pm and pretty dark. Your headlamps are buried and you're hungry. One person is getting the stove set up so you can have dinner in the next hour, you hope. That leaves one person for the tent setup.

Sound like a familiar situation?

We set up these tents solo, in pairs, and in wind, rain, and total darkness. This section gives you a glimpse into our experiences, so you can match your need for easy setup to the rest of the tent's features.

Workmanship


This category gives us a good gauge of a tent's long-term durability. Some tent manufacturers skimp on materials and stitching to bring down cost, and maybe that doesn't matter for milder climates or infrequent users. But if you're an avid camper and you know your regions of choice, this category is an important one to weigh in your ultimate purchasing decision.

Packing Size


Watch out, some tent makers go a little wild knowing that a camping tent will often be driven to the campsite and require little to no schlepping. This still doesn't mean you want a Bosu-ball sized bundle of tent to find room for in your trunk, and it certainly doesn't mean you want to wrestle with 80 pounds of poles, fabric, and stakes when you roll up to your campsite after a long week.

Livability, weather resistance, and workmanship will likely trump packed size and weight for most car campers, but be sure to check this category before committing to a tent that you'll be carting around and possibly carrying a short distance to walk-in campsites.

Types of Camping Tents


Erecting the Nemo Wagontop 6  thinking "Whoa  this camping tent is bigger than some apartments I've lived in!"
Erecting the Nemo Wagontop 6, thinking "Whoa, this camping tent is bigger than some apartments I've lived in!"

This is a review of camping tents. It's a broad category, but typically designates a class of tent which is more spacious, fully featured, comfortable, durable, and not as focused on being lightweight or compact like backpacking and mountaineering tents. For reference, let's discuss a few types of tents…

Four Season



A four season tent is what you would think of as a winter tent. This is a burly, snowstorm-ready tent that is at home in the mountains and on expeditions. This is not the tent you would typically select if you're a fair weather camper that goes out only in the summer months and pitches a tent by the river or at the beach for some rest and relaxation. There are only two tents in this review listed as four season tents.

The Big Agnes Flying Diamond 6 is a sturdy, weather resistant tent which can withstand winter use. The dome shape will slough off snow, the low profile resists winds, and the generous guy lines give you many options to anchor the tent in the snow. It is probably not one you're going to take out for winter mountaineering trips, due to the size and weight, but it will be more than adequate for a family snow camping adventure.

The other listed four season tent is the Kodiak Canvas 6-Person Flex-Bow. On the website, Kodiak says the tent is for "use year-round, but not designed for extreme winter mountaineering or heavy snow accumulations." Different people have different opinions of what is or is not extreme, and someone from Colorado has a very different perspective on heavy snow accumulations compared to someone who has spent a winter in Washington's Cascades. Given this caveat, and the fact that there is no vestibule and minimal guy lines on the Kodiak, we greatly question the claim that this tent is made for year-round use--that is, unless your version of four-season camping is spending some of the winter months in the desert.

Double Wall


Most of the tents in this review are double wall tents. This is probably the type of tent you think of when you imagine a camping specific tent. It has an inner tent body which is erected with two or more poles. It might be free-standing or self-supporting, meaning it doesn't rely on stakes to hold its shape. The Mountain Hardwear Optic 6 is a self-supporting tent, and one of our favorites in this review. A tent can also be tunnel style, which must be pulled tight and staked out at either end to stay upright. The REI Kingdom 6 is technically a self-supporting tent, but it has a shape similar to tunnel tents, which do very well in wind if oriented appropriately, and which tend to be simple, spacious, and lighter weight for their size.

Single Wall


Single wall tents are typically used for mountaineering purposes. Overall, they are lighter weight and more compact than a rugged double wall tent intended for the same purpose. There were no true single wall tents in this review. The Kodiak has no fly, so technically it has just one wall, but it is made of canvas which, being a natural fabric instead of a synthetic polyester or nylon, is a pretty different thing. The trade off with single wall tents is that they can be harder to ventilate and the material does not breathe very well, so they tend to accumulate condensation.

Camping tents are designed to be comfortable, enjoyable shelters, used in situations where camping is the point of the trip. Since they are not intended for climbing or backpacking, there is no need for compromises to campground comfort in order to lighten the load in your backpack. As such, the tents in this review are mostly traditional double wall designs, making them easier to ventilate, and also giving you the freedom to pitch only the inner tent to keep bugs out and allow you to drift off to sleep while gazing at the Milky Way.

The Mountain Hardwear Optic 6 had our favorite design for stargazing, offering a broad, unobstructed view of the sky if you pitch only the inner tent. Yet the taller overall design meant we still enjoyed some privacy and wind protection without the fly installed.

Best Uses for Camping Tents


This is a very broad category of tents. To streamline our review, we looked only at six person tents. This allows for much better comparison between brands and types of tents. Most of the tents in this review also come in four and eight person versions which may better suit your needs. You will also find simple camping specific tents for two people, which will be cheaper, smaller, and typically easier to handle. Six person tents are a good general purpose tent, which will be comfortable for families of four, but still reasonable for one or two people who want more space and the opportunity to offer tent space to friends for more social camping trips. For this, the tents which have two rooms, such as our Editor's Choice, the REI Kingdom 6, and our Top Pick, the Big Agnes Flying Diamond 6 are a great option.

Car Camping


All packed up for an epic car camping weekend.
All packed up for an epic car camping weekend.

This is not car camping... Here are two Megamid shelters from Black Diamond used for kitchen shelters on the Gulkana Glacier in Alaska.
This is not car camping... Here are two Megamid shelters from Black Diamond used for kitchen shelters on the Gulkana Glacier in Alaska.
The six-person camping specific tent is an excellent choice for most car camping needs… unless you're a family of eight. The tents in this review are relatively large and heavy. This is not the tent you want to cram in your backpack to hike 50 miles through the mountains on a week long backpacking adventure. Some of these tents, in fact, are their own backpack! The REI Kingdom 6 stuffs into a bag with backpack straps. Very convenient for carrying a short distance to your favorite camping spot, but not for a longer distance trek.

The tents in this review are best used for camping trips where you drive up and park next to your tent site. Some are light and compact enough that you might consider taking them backpacking, such as the Eureka Midori 6, and others would make great basecamp tents if you have porters or mules carrying your gear into a remote wilderness campsite, such as our Top Pick Mountain Hardwear Optic 6 or the Marmot Limestone 6. But others will be challenging enough just to haul out of the trunk, such as the 68 pound Kodiak Canvas 6-Person Flex-Bow.

Family Camping


A good family camping style tent should be quite durable and well made to withstand rough use; comfortable to ensure a positive camping experience; and fun, a very subjective, know-it-when-you-see-it kind of criteria.

Durability is important as playful kids can strain a tent in highly unpredictable ways. Zippers and seams should be strong, tripping hazards should be a minimum, things should be tight and tidy overall. The Marmot Limestone 6 is a well crafted and simple tent that will stand up to a wide range of uses and abuses.

Comfort is of utmost importance, too. If parents are taking their kids camping, it's likely they had good camping experiences as kids themselves… And that probably doesn't involve being cramped in a too-small tent through a weekend-long rain storm, nerves strained and patience duly tested. Our winner, the REI Kingdom 6 is tall, spacious, and has two rooms for a little privacy, or perhaps even a time-out when the kids get too rowdy.

Fun is also an important consideration when looking for a family camping specific tent. This is a very fluid criterion, and will mean different things to different families. As reluctant adults with and without kids, we enjoyed the Big Agnes Flying Diamond 6 tent. It has two rooms, and one is smaller than the other giving a cubby-like feeling that kids seem to love. It is shorter, which takes away from the comfort factor, but adds to the fun because it feels more like a sleepover shelter and is fun to crawl around in.

Basecamping


The tents in this review are not quite up for this kind of basecamp use  but note the amount of double wall and tunnel design tents here on the Kahiltna Glacier  basecamp for Denali expeditions in Alaska.
The tents in this review are not quite up for this kind of basecamp use, but note the amount of double wall and tunnel design tents here on the Kahiltna Glacier, basecamp for Denali expeditions in Alaska.


If you are lucky enough to be going on a basecamp style camping trip, with porters or mules carrying your gear into a beautiful backcountry destination where you'll stay for a week with friends and family, it is great to take a bigger tent. This review has lots of great options for your base camping needs. Some are more mountain-ready, like the Big Agnes Flying Diamond 6, the Mountain Hardwear Optic 6, and the Marmot Limestone 6. And some will break your poor mule's back, like the Kodiak Canvas tent.

Walk-in Campsites


The REI Kingdom 6 is great for walk in campsites with the very handy backpack straps on the carrying case.
The REI Kingdom 6 is great for walk in campsites with the very handy backpack straps on the carrying case.
Many campgrounds have walk-in sites where you park your car and walk a few hundred feet out of the parking lot to a slightly more secluded, often quieter campsite. These can be beautiful, peaceful, wonderful camping experiences. Most of the tents in this review are great options for walk-in sites, but you'll want to pay more attention to the packed size category. Lighter tents will, obviously, be easier to carry in, but so will tents with well-crafted carrying bags. The REI Kingdom 6 has a carrying bag made into a backpack, an excellent choice for walk-in site camping. Several others have reasonably easy bags to carry. The Mountain Hardwear Optic 6 has a nice shoulder sling, the Big Agnes Flying Diamond 6, the Nemo Wagontop 6, and the Coleman Carlsbad Fast Pitch 6 have large dual loop handles, and the Marmot Limestone 6 has a small handle. The Eureka Midori 6 has a plain stuff sack, but it is small and light enough for an adult to throw it under his or her arm and walk it in.

Other Reasons to Camp with Big Tents


Sea kayaking and river rafting are two other activities which may give you more packing freedom to bring heavier and bigger tents. Keep in mind that you can separate the fly from the tent body and poles in order to cram these tents into kayak hatches.

Sea kayaks might have enough space in the hatches for a bigger tent  which would be a great way to go on a family kayak camping trip. Here we land on an island in the Puget Sound.
Sea kayaks might have enough space in the hatches for a bigger tent, which would be a great way to go on a family kayak camping trip. Here we land on an island in the Puget Sound.

If you're lucky enough to fly in to your campsite  like we do on expeditions in Antarctica  you can take a bigger  heavier tent. Here  we chose expedition-ready four-season tents  but in milder climates  you'd be stoked to be dropped of with a nice  big camping tent.
If you're lucky enough to fly in to your campsite, like we do on expeditions in Antarctica, you can take a bigger, heavier tent. Here, we chose expedition-ready four-season tents, but in milder climates, you'd be stoked to be dropped of with a nice, big camping tent.

Even more rare camping options might include those where you are flown in by airplane. In these situations, light weight is probably still a concern. For our reviewer's Antarctic field camps, they flew in rugged four season tents and industrial strength group shelter tents designed for mountain expeditions. In milder climates, we could imagine using the strong and tall tents in this review, notably the Mountain Hardwear Optic 6 and the Marmot Limestone 6.

Do You Need More Than One Tent?


If you already have a tent for backpacking, do you need another one for car camping? If you car camp a lot, it might be worth it to have a little more room to move around, and to save wear and tear on your nicer, lighter backpacking tent. In this case, you might select a more inexpensive car camping tent.

Looking for some camp food ideas? Check out the Best Camping Food article for our top 10 meals and snacks!

Lyra Pierotti
About the Author
Lyra Pierotti is a mountain guide based in the Puget Sound, whose work takes her from Alaska to Antarctica and many places in between. She enjoys ocean sports as a balance to her passion for climbing, and is proud to announce that she has grown up adequately enough to keep her first pet alive for more than a year: her sourdough culture.

 
 

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