The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of gear

How to Choose a Camping Tent

Coleman Carlsbad Fast Pitch 6
By Rick Baraff ⋅ Review Editor
Friday May 15, 2020
Our Editors independently research, test, and rate the best products. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Learn more

A car camping tent can be a serious investment, with prices ranging from moderate to wallet-shriveling. On top of that, the offerings have highly-varied features and 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.

Considerations


We assembled five categories that we believe to be the most important in assessing the overall quality of a camping tent: Space and Comfort, Weather Resistance, Ease of Set-Up, Durability, 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 for each category.


Space and Comfort


This is probably the biggest upside to car camping versus backpacking. With car camping, "roughing it" can officially be put in air quotes. In this day and age, you truly do not have to go without in the great outdoors. Cooler, chair, blanket, portable grill, slackline, fishing tackle — if it fits in your vehicle it can be part of your comfort in this category. Same for a great (or at least the right) tent. It should be more than simply a place to sleep or get out of the weather. It should truly feel like your home away from home with features that meet your individual and group/family needs.

Roomy 10' x 10' floor of the Coleman Sundome 6.
Roomy 10' x 10' floor of the Coleman Sundome 6.

Size

This is a big part of comfort for two reasons. First, the point of larger car camping tents is so you can bring more "comfort" stuff, right? Your queen-sized air mattress isn't going to fit in a basic backpacking tent. And if you're going to be camping for a few days, you'd probably like to be able to change your clothes, which means bigger luggage bags, more personal stuff, and the need for more space. The second point correlates to the first. Car camping is often about bringing more people along, too, right? So comfort will have tons to do with whether you and your tentmates are constantly packed in like sardines, climbing over and stomping on each other and your possessions. Size = comfort = relaxation. That's as much math as you probably need for car camping.

It's important to note that most of the tents we review are tight at their stated capacity. So, should you need enough room to spread out your baseball card collection, play board games, do yoga, or whatever other activities you might want, you'll be advised to either go with something above the number of folks you figure on piling in (unless a number of them are children) or check out handy amenities like the size of a 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 tall mesh ceiling of the Copper Canyon.
The tall mesh ceiling of the Copper Canyon.

Ceiling Height

This can be critical in making camping tents 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.

Storage Space

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.

Ventilation

This is another key factor to consider. If you typically camp in warmer climates, the amount of airflow you can get blowing through your tent can drastically affect the inside temperature, and thus comfort level. 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 possibly penetrate when things aren't so balmy and idyllic.

Naturally, we realize that everyone defines comfort a little differently, and tent features can be more valuable to some than others. That's why we try to give you the full spectrum and explanation of the features of each tent, and then let you decide what matters the most.

Weather Resistance


Of course, anyone who's spent a few nights outside will tell you that even on the warmest, sunniest day, things can get cool or windy (or both) in the evening, and night skies are not always starry and bright. Being prepared for bad weather is as crucial for a tent as your wardrobe. That bargain tent you bought on clearance without doing any research might end up being near worthless when precipitation starts to fall, making you shy away from camping, or, even worse, creating a miserable experience for impressionable young campers. 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.

Rain collects on the Marmot Halo 6P.
Rain collects on the Marmot Halo 6P.

Rain Fly

It's crucial to make sure your tent has a fly included. If water starts pouring form 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 that the tent itself), as well as the angles and awnings it creates. A more sloped, aerodynamic shape will encourage water and wind to more easily slide off the sides instead of making puddles and slamming your walls around.

Poles and Stakes

These need to be high quality and durable. The design of the poles can also 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. You also want to have (or purchase separately) thick, sturdy poles that won't bend in half the moment you try to push them into the ground.

Vents

Vents help create more breeze so you can stay comfy, but they also can be crucial to staying dry. If things get wet and you have no airflow, the tent can get uncomfortably clammy and your wet gear will have a hard time drying. And wet = cold.

Vestibules

While a vestibule isn't necessary a make-or-break feature in regards to weather, having one can really improve the overall experience. Not only do they give you a place to hang out when the weather gets nasty, vestibules also provide a place to store your wet and muddy gear so you can enjoy the inner part of the tent more fully.

Footprint

A designated footprint tarp will not only help protect the bottom of your tent for the long haul, but it will also give you an extra layer of security if things turn nasty outside. If your tent ends up sitting in a puddle or on an ant pile and there's one tiny hole somewhere, you might end up miserable. Granted, the footprint may not save you from a wet sleeping pad or bug bites, but it sure can help.

Ease of Set-Up


It's 9 pm and pretty dark. Finally, you arrive at your favorite campsite. Your headlamps are buried at the bottom of your duffel, 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 set-up.

Sound familiar?

We set up all our tested tents solo, in pairs, and in wind, rain, and darkness to determine just how feasible the above situation is and to hopefully give you the info you need so that you can have your tent up efficiently with a minimum of swearing.

Goes up in about the same time it took to snap this picture!
Goes up in about the same time it took to snap this picture!

This section gives you a glimpse into our in-field experiences so that you can understand as much as possible about a tent's structural features and quirks. Some of these tents go up so smoothly and quickly that your kids might swear you had a magic wand. Others take a little more time (or a few rounds of practice) due to multiple poles or the potential to put pieces on in the wrong order or backwards (like a rain fly). The perfect tent is a balance of ease with function and amenities.

This can be a hard thing to assess when you're at the store or shopping online, so the main thing to make sure your new tent includes is clear and well-written instructions. We also recommend practicing in your backyard before heading out into the woods — this might seem annoying at the time, but you'll likely thank yourself later.

A variety of camping tent styles and shapes.
A variety of camping tent styles and shapes.

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. Maybe 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 for 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.

Things to consider are the materials used for the tent, fly, poles, and stakes. Some things, like the stakes, you can easily and cheaply replace, but if the main tent body is crap, there's nothing you can do except invest in a good patch kit. Look for good stitching and taped seams, robust and reinforced zippers, and a well-designed rain fly and footprint. Also consider the return policy of who you are purchasing from so if something breaks right off the bat, you can get your money back.

The diverse range of car/family camping tents we tested.
The diverse range of car/family camping tents we tested.

Packed Size


Some tentmakers 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 to wrestle with something overly heavy or poorly packaged. Consider the size of your car, the agility of your camp crew, and how far you usually like to set up your tent from cars and other people.

Just as getting it into your vehicle and to your site is a factor, so is the reverse (site --> car --> home). Like many of us trying to fit into old clothes, some tents require serious grunting, pushing, stuffing (with a few choice words thrown in) to fit back inside their carry/storage cases. Others go right back into their storage bags easily with little fuss and no hassle. It may seem odd to consider the bag your tent packs into when purchasing, but it's something you'll have to use time and time again so it should be well-designed and easy to use.

All this said, comfort, weather resistance, and durability will likely trump packed size and weight for most car campers.

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

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 like 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 or even for most of the audience of this review. 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.


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 just use the tent and feel more al fresco as it often will have lots of mesh through which to see and commune with nature and the stars at night. Or you can deploy the rain fly overtop when things turn south, or you want more privacy (and warmth) at night.

These tents might be free-standing — a.k.a. self-supporting — 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 like the Kodiak Canvas 6-Person Flex-Bow. A tent can also be tunnel-style, which must be pulled tight and staked out at either end to stay upright (for instance, the two sides of the Coleman Elite Montana 8). The REI Kingdom 6, our Editors' Choice, is technically a self-supporting tent, but it has a shape similar to tunnel tents, which do very well in the 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 backpacking, there is no need for compromises in construction (in theory, though the amount you pay will sometimes determine otherwise) 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.

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 that may be intended for the same purpose. The only single-wall tent in this review is The North Face Wawona 6 in which the tent body itself is fully waterproof though it has several windows and vents also built-in. With an attached vestibule, it's a tent and fly all-in-one. 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. The Wawona 6 mitigates this with it's strategically placed vents that keep water out but still let the airflow in.

Six-Person vs. Four-Person


We've included a selection of both larger "6 person" tents as well as smaller tents deemed "4 person" (plus one 8-person tent). These, in theory, hold the amount of people stated, though this typically means you have to sleep like sardines in a can. We recognize that families come in all shapes and sizes and that not all of them need the expansive real estate of some of our six-person tents. If you typically camp with only two or three people or your larger family has a bunch of pint-sized members (kids, toddlers), a larger six-person tent might be overkill. Larger tents are bulkier and, in many cases, more challenging to put up simply due to their size.

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

Finally, and you'll see this reiterated throughout our reviews, the stated capacity of a tent is often going to be somewhat-to-very cramped. A six-person tent is going to be more comfortable with four adults; a four-person tent more reasonably accommodates two or three. This is because the manufacturers simply measure this "metric" by determining the average shoulder width and height of an adult in their sleeping bag (sans pads, pillows, etc.) and then seeing how many times this 2-D person-shaped lump can fit into the floor area of their tent. It's not exactly three-dimensional chess, which is actually what it is to get your crew into any tent.

This is how "they" determine the person size of a tent...
This is how "they" determine the person size of a tent...

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 adventure with two or more mates (splitting up the carrying duties by handing off the components), you're almost certainly going to move over to the backpacking tent review for something you'd want to hike 20 miles through the mountains with.

This said, some of the tents herein 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, as do the Big Agnes Big House 6 and Big Agnes Bunk House 4. This is obviously very convenient for carrying other accouterments to your campsite at the same time or if you have a favorite spot that you like to hike a little way in to.

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 criteria — 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. 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, the same week, every year), your tent will need to handle a range of conditions.

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 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.

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.

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 packed 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 and every tent in this review.

The boulder-like Flex-Bow 6P 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.
The boulder-like Flex-Bow 6P 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.

Other Reasons to Camp with Big Tents


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.

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.

If your car/family camping outing is all about being outside and the only time you'll be hunkered down inside will be with your eyes shut and ZZZ's coming out of your mouth, you might be just fine in a smaller tent without lots of amenities or views. Or alternately, if you love the challenge of only taking the bare minimum on that backpacking trip but revel in all the fun toys in your garage (like that pedal-powered blender and the 50-quart cooler and the two-foot thick blow-up mattress and your card table and boom box), then you'd probably want to check out something fun, easy, and large. Be sure to consider all variables and what really brings you joy before making a final decision.

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.

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

  • Share this article: