How to Choose the Best Camping Tent

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

Last Updated:
Wednesday
May 9, 2018

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. Our goal is to help streamline that process and make things more clear.

We assembled five categories that we believe to be key when assessing whether or not a camping tent will meet your needs: Comfort, 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 about, and assessed each tent in each category.


Comfort


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 creekside home. It should suit your needs, from hanging out, reading, napping, sleeping, and escaping from wind, rain, sun, and bugs.

Size, in and of itself, allows for more comfort in a camping tent, as opposed to a backpacking tent. Your queen-sized air mattress won't fit in that three pound, two-person ultralight backpacking tent you have your eye on. In these tents, you'll have room for the mattress, your bags, maybe even a couple end tables. Family camping tents shouldn't leave you packed like sardines, constantly trying to step over, around, and usually on your tent-mates. These tents should give you more room for sleeping, playing games, doing yoga, or whatever other pursuits you see fit; and more room means more comfort.

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. Wall pitch can also determine whether you're able to stand up only in the dead center of the tent, or if you can move about more or less freely without having to duck or crouch.

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 means more holes and gaps for precipitation and wind to find their 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 the weather goes sideways, inadequate or inappropriate gear can quickly turn your perfect weekend into a total nightmare. That sweet tent you bought on clearance without doing any research might end up being a total waste of money, or worse yet, it might sour your experience so you shy away from camping, or even worse still, 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 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, 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 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. Some of these tents go up so easy you'd swear there was a magic wand in the packaging somewhere, others take a little more time (or a few rounds of practice).

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. Maybe you only need a tent to last a week, or maybe you're looking for a life fabric-laiden life partner.

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. Or maybe you don't live in a 4,000 square-foot home and are going to have trouble storing a tent that's only minimally smaller when packed than properly set up. Furthermore, like many of us trying to fit into old clothes, some tents require serious grunting, groaning, pushing, stuffing (and let's not forget the swearing) to fit back in their storage bag. Others will go back in the bag, but only with laser-precision folds or rolls. Still others (these are our favorites) go right back into their storage bags easily, no fuss, no hassle.

Livability, weather resistance, and workmanship will likely trump packed size and weight for most car campers, but that doesn't mean this category should be ignored. You never know when your well-planned trip might suddenly require a longer walk between car and tent site than you had originally anticipated.

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. Some people might call them car camping tents, others, 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 a number of different styles, even within this category. 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.


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 and typically a rain fly that goes over the main body of the tent to keep out wind and water. This also means you have can decide (typically based on the weather) whether or not to use the rain fly. These tents might be free-standing or self-supporting, meaning they don't rely on stakes to hold its shape. 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.

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. That's another reason to choose traditional double wall designs. They are them 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 Big Agnes Tensleep Station 6 offers expansive, yet private stargazing, with a mesh roof that extends down some of the upper wall.

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. The only single wall tents in this review is The North Face Wawona 6. The Wawona is fully waterproof, so the single wall plays two roles, tent and fly. 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. The Wawona mitigates this with strategically designed vents that keep water out, but still let the air flow.

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. Of course, this doesn't mean that you can't fit six people in these tents; just that, in most cases, you can expect it to be a little snug.

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.

Car Camping


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. Similarly, the Big Agnes Tensleep Station 6 has a double compartment storage bag (one side for the tent, the other side for the fly) and shoulder-length handles that makes packing up your tent at the end of your trip and transporting it a breeze.

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, and others would make great basecamp tents if you have porters or mules carrying your gear into a remote wilderness campsite, such as the Marmot Limestone 6. But others will be challenging enough just to haul out of the trunk.

Family Camping


A good family camping style tent should be solidly durable and well-made to withstand rough use; comfortable to ensure a positive camping experience; versatile to meet the needs of a wide variety of camping situations and experiences; 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.

Versatility can also be an important aspect to consider in purchasing a family camping tent. Unless your camping plans are set in stone and as consistent as the tides (same campground, same spot, same week, every year), it's likely that you may be asking your tent to handle a range of conditions. The Big Agnes Tensleep Station 6 has a large vestibule that can be configured in a bunch of different ways from sun shade, to full enclosure (with or without venting windows), to full-on veranda (some poles and guy lines required) making it ideal for changing needs or conditions.

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.

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.


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 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 and the Marmot Limestone 6.

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.

Walk-in Campsites


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 Big Agnes Flying Diamond 6, the Nemo Wagontop 6, the Big Agnes Tensleep Station 6 and the Coleman Carlsbad Fast Pitch 6 have large dual loop handles, and the Marmot Limestone 6 has a small handle.

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.
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, lightweight 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 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!




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