Tent Basics

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Choosing the right tent can seem like a daunting task.  Over think it and your find yourself faced with five million options, but if you pick up the first impulse purchase, you could find yourself stuck with something that doesn’t meet your needs.  Tents have provided shelter for the human race since 10,000 years BCE.  So, it should come as no surprise that there are as many types of tents as there are forms of camping.  From one-man bivy tents to hammock tents to giant sized cabin tents, there’s certainly a tent to fit your family’s needs and desires.

This basic cheap dome tent from Wal-Mart has survived countless camping trips.

The first consideration when choosing a tent will be your budget.  Beginners who are still uncertain about commitment and those with a limited budget can go the cheaper route by purchasing from a chain store.  Wal-Mart and Target (this now includes Amazon) carry Coleman brand equipment as well as store brand options. As camping becomes more and more popular, the quality and selection at chain stores continues to increase.  If you’re ready for the investment, tents available from an outdoor retailer like REI, Big Agnes and Columbia will have superior construction from high quality lightweight material built to withstand tough conditions, designed for wilderness and exploration camping.

A large cabin style tent with room for everyone. The rain fly is off to help with ventilation.

You don’t need an expensive tent to go car camping.  A cheap tent can still provide you with dependable shelter and last a lifetime, just like their expensive counterparts, provided you take good care of them.   The differences between the two are their materials and construction.  While two tents may appear similar in appearance, their price tags may differ by hundreds of dollars. 

What’s the difference?

Seams:  If you compare the seams in a high-dollar tent to the seams in a cheap tent, you’re going to notice a big difference.  On the more expensive tent you will see a rubber lining along every seam that is actually solvent-free polyurethane tape, making the entire thing completely waterproof for life.  Cheap tents are usually not seam sealed, but you can purchase several different quality products that enable your cheap tent to be just as waterproof as the one that costs 400 bucks and apply it yourself.  However, these products typically need reapplied every couple of years or sooner. 

Zippers:  There is a big difference in the quality of zippers.  High end tents will feature heavy-duty bulletproof zippers.  Cheap tents have cheap zippers and it’s usually the cheap zipper that leads to the tent’s demise.  This can be remedied with a proactive approach.  Treat the zipper as gently as possible.  Don’t zip it too fast.  Don’t put any stress on the fabric when you’re zipping and never have anything up against the walls of your tent.  EVER!  This is one of the first rules I learned as a young child.  Don’t touch the tent walls. 

Poles:  Most tents these days use the “shock cord pole” system, which is a series of poles tethered together by bungee cords.  High-end tents will have a superior pole system made from super strong ultralight material like aluminum alloy. 

Your next consideration will be your occupancy needs and camping style.  In your educational pursuits you will notice that all tents are rated by occupancy (number of people you can fit inside.)  Many tents will display a diagram on their packaging that illustrates the sleeping positions of the occupants based on the occupancy rating.  Notice they are packed in like sardines.  The general rule of thumb is that a tent rated for two people is more comfortable for a single person, and a tent rated for three or four people will fit two campers comfortably.  Families of four will probably be more comfortable in a tent rated for six to eight occupants.  Eight to twelve and bigger can house a whole family with some elbow room. 

Just remember, the bigger the tent the more effort it takes.  Giant tents usually require more hands for setup.  They require more room for packing. 

Tents fall into two categories in the camping world: base camping and mobile camping.  Mobile camping includes wilderness camping or backpack camping, canoe camping, exploration camping, motorcycle camping and so and so on.  Mobile campers use lightweight gear that can be carried for long distances.  Winter camping is also popular among more extreme enthusiasts and requires a four-season tent. 

 The base camp is the main encampment where supplies, shelter, and communications are stationed for exploration, mountaineering, reconnaissance, and hunting.  From the central location of the base camp, explorers can backpack even further into the wilderness, spend a night or more out in the backcountry, then return to base for restocking.  Car camping is a form of base camping.  

If you’re browsing expensive tents and want something big enough for the whole family, base camp tents from an outdoor outfitter are where it’s at.  These tents are made to withstand the toughest conditions and large enough to fit your family’s needs.   In contrast, if you are shopping for a budget tent: they’re all considered base camp tents regardless of size, since they lack the lightweight features and durability needed for wilderness and mobile camping. 

Begin your search by browsing tents of all sizes and prices.  Read reviews.  Amazon carries all kinds of brands from every price range.  When you find something that sparks your interest, google the model and brand to find more reviews.  I highly recommend checking out Big Agnes.  They offer a huge array of tents for every possible need and use the highest quality materials along with unbeatable construction.  If you request one, they will send you a beautiful catalog filled with lots of information. 

Tent Shapes and Sizes

The most popular style of tent is the dome shaped tent with a frame constructed of flexible shock-cord poles.  The versatility of the design has made it useful for a wide range of sizes and uses.  From the ultralight backpacking tent to the giant family tent, dome tents are everywhere. 

Cabin tents and hybrid cabin-dome tents are made constructed with straight poles, or a combination.  Cabin tents range from modest to gargantuan in size.  Also known as wall tents, they’re the traditional style seen constructed of wood and canvas seen throughout human history. 

Tunnel shaped tents are also becoming popular as they offer more head room than dome shaped tents.  Tunnel-dome hybrids are also common now. 

Bivy tents are single person tents that are basically just sleeping bag sized tent with a breathable mesh covering over the head that can be zipped up like a tent.  Hammock tents are similar as they are one-man tents, large enough only to sleep in. 

Features and options

A vestibule is an extension of the rain fly and provides a place to store shoes and gear.

The more expensive the tent, the more features and options available.  Today, many tents come with LED lighting systems that run off of battery power and/or solar power.  Most every tent allows you to remove the rain fly.   Some rain flies are constructed with an extension called a vestibule where shoes and other gear can be stored out of the weather. 

Tent Terms to Know

Base Camping: the main encampment where supplies, shelter, and communications are stationed for exploration, mountaineering, reconnaissance, and hunting.   

Camp Dry:  A spray-on waterproof product that can be applied to tent fabric and numerous other fabrics. 

Footprint: The area a tent covers over the ground.  A footprint is also the name for the groundsheet placed between the tent and the dirt. 

Guy Lines/Guy Ropes: Little ropes attached to your tent for shape and stability.  When pulled tight and staked into the ground, provide added strength during windy conditions.  Tie colored fabric strips (add a glowstick after dark) to help add visibility and reduce trip hazards. 

Rain Fly:  Covers the roof of the tent.  Can be removed to make a sunroof/moonroof. 

Seam Sealant:  A waterproof treatment applied to tent seams.

Stakes: Pegs made of plastic or metal that are driven into the ground with a mallet to secure the tent to the earth. 

Vestibule: An extension of the rain fly that provides a place to store shoes and other gear.

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