There is no better way to test a tent than to live in it. We took each of these contenders out on trail and tested them all the way around.
There are many features that we take into account when we talk about comfort. In addition to the amount of space you have lying down, some elements make a tent more livable. We, of course, note how much room we have when we sleep. Assessing whether some of the more restless sleepers among us could count on enough space at both ends and side-to-side with another person in the tent. We also care deeply about the volume profile of a tent. That is, a tent may claim a peak height of 45", but we want to know if that pinnacle is reached in one tiny spot in the center or if we can comfortably sit up with another person and have enough room for our heads and shoulders all around.
Other features we look out for include the size, shape, and orientation of the doors, as well as the size and shape of vestibules, and location, and number of storage pockets.
Ease of Setup
We time how long it takes for each tent to go up straight out of the bag and assess how intuitive each model is. Then we do it again and again to see if we run into any of the same issues. Fully freestanding tents are largely the same in terms of how the main tent pitches. More often than not, it is the fly and its geometry that can be less straightforward. If we get to camp in the middle of a rainstorm, we want to know that we can get the tent up fast while keeping at least some of our gear dry.
There are a few primary ways that weather is going to wreak havoc on a tent; precipitation, wind, and condensation. In the field, we wait for the rains to come and assess any weak spots in the fly or tent, taking note of any seepage through materials, seams, and zippers, or fly doors that get us soaked every time we enter and exit the tent. In a controlled setting, we also hose down the tents for a few minutes and assess the same (sometimes we are field testing in climates where rain just doesn't come).
Strong wind is actually one of the more problematic conditions for weather. We rely on field testing, but we also use our experience to assess pole structure, setting up the tent and flexing it in every direction. Then we put on the fly, tension it as best we can, and determine if there are any spots in the vestibules or elsewhere that are susceptible to whipping, sagging, or total failure.
Condensation is largely a factor of campsite selection, but some tents offer much better ventilation than others for when condensation does occur.
Durability is about the type and thickness of fabrics, as well as how those materials are distributed across the tent. We look at pole diameter and material, as well. We do not intentionally test our tents to the point of failure. Again, taking into account the overall architecture of each tent, we look at high tension and/or high wear areas before and after testing and use our experience to project how a tent will perform in the long run.
Weight and Packed Size
Weight and packed size are pretty straight forward. We weigh each tent, taking its packed weight (everything that comes in the bag). We also look at the manufacturer's packed size dimensions as well as do a little stuffing of our own. On trail, we almost always ditch the bag so we can get a better feel for how a tent packs in and around other items in our packs.
There are a lot of different elements to consider when purchasing a new tent. This is extra true in the case of budget models; you want to make sure that the model you are buying is inexpensive but reliable, not just…cheap.