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How to Choose a Camping Tent

The 2021 lineup of camping tents ready for testing and some outdoor fa...
Photo: Rob Gaedtke
By Rob Gaedtke ⋅ Review Editor
Wednesday May 5, 2021
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Buying a tent is a big deal. There are hundreds of options, they get expensive fast, and you don't want to be stuck with the wrong gear on a camping trip. The good news, we are here to help make this process as easy as possible. We will walk you through the major features of camping tents, what their purpose is, and help you understand if they should matter or not. Our goal here isn't to pick your tent for you (sorry, you still have to make that choice on your own) but to give you all the information you need to make your choice easier. In less than 15 minutes, you will be spouting off words like vestibule and guyline, you will understand the difference between a hub pole and straight pole setup, a single wall and a double wall, and you will know that six people don't really fit in a 6-person tent.

Considerations


Now we are big fans of narrowing things down, so let's start with the first and most important decision you will make in your tent selection — what kind of camping do you want to do?

There are four basic styles that tents are categorized in: backpacking (think lighter and smaller), car camping (think bigger and heavier), 4-season (think warmer and stronger), and specialty (think rooftops, portaledges, budget tents, ultralights, etc.). The vast majority of tents purchased are for car camping. If you intend to take your tent from the back of your vehicle to a campsite that is less than a football field away, you'll want a car camping tent, and you are in the right spot. We do have a few tents in our camping tent lineup that might also be capable (though not practical) of using as a backpacking tent or a shoulder season tent — even for dipping your toes into some mild winter camping. So, if you are on the fence or thinking that you might want to try something outside of just summer car camping, you still may be in the right place.

From here, we like to consider five key categories that we think are the most important in determining the overall performance of a camping tent: Space and Comfort, Weather Resistance, Ease of Use, Durability, and Family Friendliness. As you browse the tents we have reviewed, you will notice each one contains a section on how well they performed in each of these categories.


Space and Comfort


For most, this is the category that really matters, and rightfully so. When you are camping less than 30 feet from your car, weight and packed size aren't really an issue, so going bigger is a true option. And let's face it, if the weather is going to be bad, chances are you will simply reschedule. Plus, we all know that some creature comforts will be coming along as well. A Cooler, chair, blanket, portable grill, slackline, fishing gear — if it fits in your vehicle, it can be part of your camping experience. Same for a great tent. As you continue reading, think about what the term comfort means to you. For instance, some people are most comfortable inside, cozy and warm, while others enjoy totally open tents with outdoor awnings. Regardless of your definition of comfort, your tent should fit your needs and your style.

For us, we break down space and comfort to overall use of space, vestibule space, pockets, clips, storage, height/headroom, and how many beds/what size beds will fit inside.

Space and comfort are fully maximized in the Marmot Halo 6
Space and comfort are fully maximized in the Marmot Halo 6
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Overall Use of Space

In general, this means size. But all equal-sized tents are not actually equal, so we like to think about it more holistically. How comfortable the space actually feels, how the angle of the walls can make a big tent feel small or a small tent feel large, how big the interior space is in relation to the exterior space, etc. These things should be factored in with actual square footage to truly get a full picture of what your tent will feel like.

It's important to note that most tents are tight at their stated capacity. So, should you need enough room to spread out your baseball card collection, play board games, do yoga, etc., we suggest you either go with something above the number of folks in your camping group (unless some are children) or check out handy amenities like the size of the tent's vestibule. It's also prudent to investigate the headroom and door/window access of your potential tent so you know if it will be tall enough for everyone and whether star-gazing can be on the docket or not.

The headroom and pockets on the Kingdom 6 are impressive.
The headroom and pockets on the Kingdom 6 are impressive.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Vestibule Space

This is a huge contributor to the comfort of a tent. Think about your vestibule as your back or front porch. Wet shoes, backpacks, and sometimes larger items like coolers and bikes are much better suited in a vestibule than out on the camp table. This keeps them accessible, not in your actual tent, and still protected from the elements. Tents with bigger vestibules feel bigger. And should a storm come, many will allow you to cook and sprawl out while you wait out the storm.

Cooking up dinner in the Wawona's covered and spacious vestibule.
Cooking up dinner in the Wawona's covered and spacious vestibule.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Pockets, Clips, and Storage

This can also add to the comfort factor. It's always nice to have a spot — most likely a pocket — to place your phone, wallet, watch, glasses, etc., so they stay safe from trampling feet and don't get misplaced under sleeping bags. While the sheer number of pockets is one factor, so are their size and location. Some tents also have options like clotheslines to keep your things up and off the floor or come with removable or adjustable pockets so you can place them wherever you want.

Be sure to check out the number, size, and location of available...
Be sure to check out the number, size, and location of available pockets on your potential tent. We promise you'll be glad you have them.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Height/Headroom

This can be critical in making a camping tent livable for the whole family and allowing taller campers to stand up comfortably and reduce neck and back strain. If you've ever spent time in smaller backpacking tents, the ability to stand up and move upright freely around a larger (car) camping tent is a revelation. The angle/pitch of a tent's walls will add or detract from the amount of room you have and determine whether you're able to stand up only in the dead center or whether two can actually do the tango inside.

A look inside the Halo with ample headroom both in the center and...
A look inside the Halo with ample headroom both in the center and along the sides.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Bed Space

Camping has come a long way in the past 20 years. It is hard to imagine camping now without an air mattress. And why not? They are inexpensive and add loads of comfort to your experience. For many, especially those with back issues or sleeping requirements, the ability to bring an air mattress finally makes camping an enjoyable option.

Tent up, beds made, kids happy. The REI Co-op Base Camp 6 is a great...
Tent up, beds made, kids happy. The REI Co-op Base Camp 6 is a great family friendly option.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

We understand that comfort is in the eye of the beholder and that each person's take on the importance or value of tent features is different. But that is why we try to tell the full story of each tent, the good, the bad, and the indifferent, so you can decide what matters most and choose a spacious and comfortable tent.

Weather Resistance


Anyone who's spent a few nights outside will tell you that even on the warmest, sunniest day, things can get cold or windy (or both) in the evening. Night skies can turn from starry and bright to dark and wet fast. Being prepared for all types of weather is as crucial for a tent as your wardrobe. Extreme hot weather in a poorly ventilated tent can be nearly as bad as sleeping in a wet sleeping bag. We assessed each tent for performance in rain and wind as well as conditions you might encounter like warm beaches or the hot desert — after all, the joy of camping is the freedom it allows you to explore and adapt to a variety of landscapes.

When it comes to weather resistance, here are key elements to look for: hot and cold day options, rainfly coverage, how aerodynamic the tent is, stake and pole quality, and guylines.

Rain literally rolls off the rainfly on the Halo 6.
Rain literally rolls off the rainfly on the Halo 6.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Hot and Cold Day Options

The best tents are designed to handle lots of different weather conditions. Tents with large mesh ceilings, big windows, and vents will handle warm weather wonderfully. Also, staying away from dark colors can help if your favorite camping spots are exposed to the sun. On the flip side, large, full-coverage rain flys that extend down to the ground are going to help keep your body heat from escaping. Footprints and sleeping pads will also help keep the cold of the ground from reaching your body.

A good breeze will flow through the Wagontop as long as you keep the...
A good breeze will flow through the Wagontop as long as you keep the front vestibule open.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Rain Fly

It's crucial to make sure your tent has a fly built-in or included. If water starts pouring from the sky, trust us, you won't want to be without one. Be sure to keep an eye out for how big the fly is (it should create a larger footprint than the tent itself), as well as the angles and awnings it creates. A more sloped, aerodynamic shape will encourage water and wind to slide off the sides more easily instead of making puddles or slamming your walls around.

Staked and guy lined out, ready for whatever weather may come her way.
Staked and guy lined out, ready for whatever weather may come her way.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Ventilation

This is another key factor to consider. If you typically camp in warmer climates, the amount of airflow the tent allows can drastically affect the inside temperature. Large (mesh) windows and doors and well-placed vents all work in harmony (or should!) to help you only sweat it out over the grill. The tradeoff lies in storm resistance — more mesh, windows, and vents means more places for precipitation and wind to penetrate when things aren't so balmy and idyllic. The ironic part, however, is that ventilation is also critical in a storm. Sitting in a hot box while it is cold and wet outside leads to precipitation and, in some cases, gets you just as wet as a hole in your tent. Good tents attack this by adding ventilation near the ground as well as in the ceilings.

All buttoned up for the night. Note the access zippers on the...
All buttoned up for the night. Note the access zippers on the ceiling for easy access to the rain fly vents.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Poles and Stakes

These need to be high quality and durable. The design of your poles can determine a lot in regards to how much thrashing your tent can take. Poles that cross and tension will be better equipped to withstand heavy gusts of wind than those that don't. And many tents these days come with a hub system. These are typically strong plastic pieces connected to several strings of poles. In general, hubs add complexity in the pitch process, but the added room most of them provide is often worth the tradeoff. You also want to have (or purchase separately) thick, sturdy stakes that won't bend and are pleasant on the foot, hand, or rock used to push them into the ground.

Color-coded clips and poles make for happy tent pitchers.
Color-coded clips and poles make for happy tent pitchers.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Guylines

Guylines are cordage used to connect your tent to the ground further away than your main stakes in the tent. This is done for several reasons, the most important being wind protection. A tent with a rainfly on is basically a sail, ready to float into the wind. Most good fly's come with guyline attachment points and should be used at all times to help keep the tent on the ground. Another reason for the guylines is to add a gap between the main tent and the fly for better ventilation/airflow. Finally, guylines help keep the rainfly taut, allowing water to roll off instead of pooling up and inevitably finding a way inside the tent.

The unique sliding guyline on the front vestibule of the Halo 6.
The unique sliding guyline on the front vestibule of the Halo 6.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Ease of Use


There is no shame in admitting that you don't want to pitch a complicated tent — no one does. It is also ok to not want to read instructions or fight with your spouse just to get a tent set up — we sure don't want that either. So it stands to reason that a tent that is easier to use will, in fact, get used more often. And, being that the tent is one of the first things you will set up, your trip will start off on a better foot if it is easier to pitch. But setting up the tent isn't the only variable in this category — taking it down, packing it back into the bag, its overall size, and its weight all help determine how easy a tent is to use.

Relaxing after pitching the Coleman Cabin in 43-seconds. Plenty of...
Relaxing after pitching the Coleman Cabin in 43-seconds. Plenty of time left to look off at the other campers still unpacking their tent.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Some tents go up smoothly and quickly without any frustrating issues, while others push your patience to the limits. And some force you to give up and get out the instructions. Though not always the case, we do find that tents with hubbed poles tend to be more complicated and confusing to set up.

A dual hub system sure didn't help with the speed of pitching but it...
A dual hub system sure didn't help with the speed of pitching but it did help with height and strength.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

This can be a hard thing to assess when you're at the store or shopping online, so the best advice we can give you is to practice pitching your tent before you head out camping. This might seem like a waste of time, but it serves two purposes. First, you get to practice and make sure there aren't strange issues, and second, if you by chance received a defective tent or are missing parts, you will know before heading out into the woods. Test your tent first; you'll likely thank yourself later.

Setting up the pole structure of the Grand Hut - look a little like...
Setting up the pole structure of the Grand Hut - look a little like the canvas tents you sported as a child?
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Durability


Maybe you only need a tent to last a week for one particular outing (like a family reunion), or maybe you're looking for a tent life partner. Some tent manufacturers skimp on materials and stitching to lower the cost. Perhaps that doesn't matter for milder climates or infrequent users, but if you're an avid camper and you know your region of choice, this category is an important one to weigh into your ultimate purchasing decision. You can also look at this category like the investment potential for any given tent. While some tents may seem expensive, if they perform well year after year, you'll get more value than purchasing a cheap tent that you have to replace every year.

The Marmot Halo 6 sports quality poles, strong fabric, and...
The Marmot Halo 6 sports quality poles, strong fabric, and tight-knit mesh. All critical factors in the longevity of your tent.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Things to consider are the materials used for the tent, fly, poles, and stakes. Some things, like stakes and guylines, you can easily and cheaply replace, but if the main tent body is crap, you will be stuck patching it until you have to toss it. Look for tight, clean stitching and taped seams (or seam-sealed), robust and reinforced zippers, and a well-designed rain fly. Most tents these days do not include a footprint — get one, or use a tarp. Your tent will thank you, and you will help avoid a hole in your floor. Also, consider the return policy of who you are purchasing from, so if something breaks right off the bat, you can get a replacement or your money back.

The back side view of the Wawona after a night of howling winds
The back side view of the Wawona after a night of howling winds
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Family Friendliness


The final category we like to consider is family friendliness. Think of this as a final look at the above features but with a group of people, dogs, kids, and friends in mind. To properly assess this, you should look to see if it will sleep enough people comfortably (consider their mattresses), if it has storage options for everyone, and if there is a big enough vestibule that you can clean your or your dogs' muddy feet prior to entering the main tent.

The kids separated by the fixed, full-length room divider of the...
The kids separated by the fixed, full-length room divider of the NEMO Wagontop. The dogs clearly don't want the added privacy.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

You should also consider what happens to the group if a storm comes in and everyone is stuck hiding out inside the tent. Can you cook a meal or two in the vestibule, or will you be stuck spilling your boiling water on your sleeping bag? It may also be smart to think about privacy. Is the tent totally open mesh, or could someone stand and change with the fly off? Are there multiple rooms for siblings? If you have pets, will they be happy too? An important tip for people with dogs in their tents, check that the floor is thick and if your pet likes to scratch to get out, check what material the door is made out of.

Ultimately, for those traveling with many different personalities, bigger, more feature-rich tents seem to fit the family bill better. And don't underestimate the value of a bigger vestibule — it really does make the tent more usable for all.

Kids happy, parents happy, world happy.
Kids happy, parents happy, world happy.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Types of Tents


This is a review of camping tents. It's a broad category but typically designates a class of tent that is more spacious, fully-featured, comfortable, durable, and not as focused on being lightweight or compact as backpacking and mountaineering tents. Some people might call them car camping tents; others might call them family tents. These tents are typically intended for established campgrounds with parking pads rarely more than a stone's throw from where your tent will be. Still, there are many different styles, even within this category. For reference, let's discuss a few types:

Four-Season


A four-season tent is what you would think of as one that can stand up to most winter conditions as well as the more popular spring, summer, and fall camping seasons. Four-season tents are made a little burlier and usually have more streamlined shapes and a lower profile to be snowstorm-ready in the mountains and on expeditions. This is not the tent you would typically need — or want — if you're a fair-weather camper. Four-season tents also tend to be much more expensive and far harder to pitch. That's why the vast majority of the tents we tested in this category will work well from mid-late spring through fall. When the snow starts falling, it's time to put them away and start waxing your skis.

The REI Basecamp 6 claims to be a 3-4 season tent, though we've yet...
The REI Basecamp 6 claims to be a 3-4 season tent, though we've yet to test it any snow.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

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 tent. These consist of an inner tent body that is erected with two or more poles (and which has all the mesh windows and doors and zippers) and a rain fly that goes over the main body of the tent to keep out wind and water. Because the two components are (most often) completely separate, this means you can decide to use just the tent and feel more al fresco as it often will have lots of mesh so you can see and commune with nature and the stars at night. You can then deploy the rain fly overtop when things turn south or you want more privacy (and warmth) at night.

These tents might be free-standing, meaning they don't rely on stakes to hold their shape (though stakes ARE an absolute must to keep it from going anywhere), or they might rely on being staked out to help fill out and take shape.

Fully covered and looking for fun.
Fully covered and looking for fun.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Camping tents are designed to be comfortable, enjoyable shelters, used in situations where camping is the whole point of the trip. Since they are not intended for backpacking, there is no need for compromises in materials or campground comfort to lighten the load in your backpack. That's another reason to choose a traditional double-wall design. They are easier to ventilate and give 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 open ceiling gives a nice vantage point for stargazing when the...
The open ceiling gives a nice vantage point for stargazing when the sun goes down.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Single-Wall


Single-wall tents are typically used for mountaineering purposes. Overall, they are lighter and more compact than a rugged double-wall tent, even if intended for the same purpose. The only single-wall tent in this review is the Coleman 4-Person Cabin with Instant Setup. This means the tent body itself is fully waterproof. The tradeoff 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.

A top-down view of the small but fast Coleman Cabin.
A top-down view of the small but fast Coleman Cabin.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Six-Person vs. Four-Person


We've included a selection of both larger "6-person" tents as well as smaller tents deemed "4-person". The number stated on a tent is how many people can sleep in the tent in a sleeping bag, shoulder to shoulder. A good rule for car camping is to go up two. If you are a family of four, a 6-person tent is going to be perfect. If you are a couple, a 4-person tent will fit the bill nicely. Likewise, consider the amount of "stuff" you have and if it can be put in the vestibule or if it needs to be in the tent with you.

Looking in the back door/vestibule of an older version of the...
Looking in the back door/vestibule of an older version of the Wawona. Listed as a 6-person, there's probably ample room for 4-5 adults in sleeping bags, but it gets a little sardine-like above that. However, the massive, fully enclosed front vestibule is completely an option for heartier campers who can bunk right on the grass or ground (with a pad, ground cloth, or what-have-you).
Photo: Rick Baraff

4-person tents might not always offer the same features as 6-person tents, but some of the ones we tested actually come in different sizes. If you read about a tent that you love but wish it came in a different size, be sure to check the manufacturer's site — it very likely does.

Our final note is that if you enjoy the comforts of an air mattress, do yourself a favor and measure it, and then look at the dimensions of the tent you are considering. Many of the tents we tested would not accommodate three air mattresses.

A full and a twin air mattress just barely fit in this 4-person tent.
A full and a twin air mattress just barely fit in this 4-person tent.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Types of Camping



Car Camping


The tents in this review are best used for classic car camping trips where you drive to within a few feet — or at least sight — of your destination. While you could consider a few of the tents in this review as something to cram into a backpack for a good weekend trek with two or more mates (splitting up the carrying duties by handing off the components), you're almost certainly going to want a backpacking tent if you're planning to hike very far.

This said, some of the tents in our review actually come in their own backpack! The REI Kingdom 6 stuffs into a backpack with thick straps and a handful of pockets for each component. This is obviously very convenient for carrying other accouterments to your campsite at the same time or if you have a favorite spot that takes a little hike to reach.

The super handy, roomy, well-organized backpack-style carrying case...
The super handy, roomy, well-organized backpack-style carrying case of the REI Kingdom 6.
Photo: Rick Baraff

Family Camping


A good family camping-style tent should be solidly durable and well-made to withstand rough use. It should also be comfortable, versatile, and fun — a very subjective and fluid criterion — but you'll know it when you find it.

Durability is important as playful kids can strain a tent in highly unpredictable ways. Zippers and seams should be strong, tripping hazards should be at a minimum, and things should be tight and tidy overall. Comfort is of utmost importance, too. If parents are taking their kids camping, it's likely they had good camping experiences as kids themselves. That probably didn't involve being cramped in a too-small tent through a weekend-long rainstorm, nerves strained, and patience tested. Or who knows? Maybe it did! But you don't have to repeat that. Plenty of tents are tall, spacious, and have extra room for a little privacy, or perhaps even a time-out when the kids get too rowdy.

Versatility can also be an important aspect to consider in purchasing a family camping tent as well. Unless your camping plans are set in stone and as consistent as the tides (same campground, same spot, the same week, every year), your tent will need to handle a range of conditions.

The family enjoying an evening inside, yet outside thanks to this...
The family enjoying an evening inside, yet outside thanks to this great vestibule.
Photo: Rob Gaedtke

Basecamping


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 or longer), it's great to take a bigger tent and one that can absolutely handle all kinds of weather and terrain. There will be many factors involved in this decision, most outside the scope of this particular review.

This is not car camping... Here are two Megamid shelters from Black...
This is not car camping... Here are two Megamid shelters from Black Diamond used for kitchen shelters on the Gulkana Glacier in Alaska.
Photo: Lyra Pierotti

Walk-In Campsites


Many campgrounds have walk-in sites where you park your car and walk a few hundred feet into the wilderness to a slightly more secluded, quieter, and often more pristine campsite. Many of the tents in this review are walk-in-worthy (especially the ones that come in backpack cases!), but you'll certainly want to pay more attention to the weight and size if your destination isn't within shouting distance of the parking lot. The four-person options we tested are, for the most part, lighter than their six-person counterparts. Lighter tents will be easier to carry in, but so will tents with well-crafted carrying bags. We do our best to discuss the portability options for each tent we review.

The boulder-like Flex-Bow 6 comes in two cases because it's so...
The boulder-like Flex-Bow 6 comes in two cases because it's so heavy: poles in one, tent in the other. Leaning against the tree at back left is the Big Agnes Big House for size comparison.
Photo: Rick Baraff

Other Reasons to Camp with a Big Tent


Outdoor adventures like sea kayaking and river rafting (and dog-sledding and horseback riding) are a few other activities that may give you more packing freedom to bring a bigger and heavier tent. Keep in mind that with double-walled tents, you can separate the fly from the tent body and poles to cram these components into kayak hatches or dry bags or saddlebags.

Sea kayaks might have enough space in the hatches for a bigger tent...
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.
Photo: Lyra Pierotti

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 bigger tent with a little more room to move around and to save wear and tear on your nicer, lighter (and possibly more expensive) backpacking tent. In this case, you might select a more cost-friendly tent, knowing it's an "every once in a while" piece of equipment. It really just comes down to your desired level of comfort and your budget.

Are you looking for some camp food ideas? Check out the Best Camping Food article for our favorite meals and snacks!

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