The Ultimate Guide to Tents

4-person tent (regular)

Our mission is to get people outdoors, not sell gear. That's why our guide starts with the core function that needs to be addressed, then helps you evaluate your options holistically, since sometimes you may not need any gear & can use what you have at home. We want you to think critically about what you need, which is personal to you with no right answer (some people go venture outside naked without any gear, survive & have a great time).

Core function: You might think, isn't the entire point of camping to be sleeping outside? While some people do "cowboy camp" like this, the reality is that all creatures big & small seek shelter, particularly to sleep! A good shelter provides protection from wind, rain, sun, other creatures, as well as the peeping eyes of others.* Even when cowboy camping you should have a shelter as an emergency! Unfortunately, camping in a regular car (not a recreational vehicle RV) is illegal in many areas & subject to fines, so we wouldn't recommend it!

*Even though tents don't serve primarily as insulation, it does trap some dead air (see the insulation section of our sleeping bag for more info), so it will add a little bit of warmth, by some claims, it will feel ~10% warmer.

Is either the core function or the outdoor-specific gear made for it an essential?

Yes, a shelter is one of the 3 key essentials for any trip .

For rationale, read our 'what you really need' protip

What to use & how to choose

Key factors

Cool zippers, new waterproofing, etc... sometimes it's easy to get lost in all the hype (over-spending happens on features). Our guide focuses on the fundamental factors you should always keep in mind (thus, this short list is similar across all items). Then only at the end do we have some questions to get you thinking about other minor features.

We highly recommend reviewing Type or Style first, where we review what you can use to address the Core function--a regular item you have at home may work! The other factors are secondary & depend strongly on the Type or Style you've picked.

While we encourage you to use regular items wherever possible, as an outdoor gear shop, we only carry outdoor-specific products

Type or Style

We've organized the most commonly used items people use to address the Core function below, with example images, characteristics, features, etc.

Our category name Easy Pop-up Camping Multi-use Technical Specialist* Canvas Luxury
Example qualities & features Example images Easy Pop-up tent Camping Multi-use tent Technical Specialist tent Canvas Luxury tent
Example names or uses Instant tent, quick-pitch tent Dome tent, tunnel tent, ridge tent

Geodesic tent, mountaineering tent (4-season tent/ winter tent)**

See Other products section for more examples

Bell tent, canvas tent, glamping tent, event tent, circus tent, Burning Man tents
Example brands Coleman, Quechua, Ozark Trail Coleman, Quechua, Ozark Trail, ALPS Mountaineering, Eureka, The North Face, Marmot, Mountain Hardwear, Big Agnes The North Face, Mountain Hardwear, Black Diamond, or more boutique or specialized brands like SlingFin, Tentsile, Tepui Kodiak, Springbar, Meriwether, Stout
How to pitch it (set it up) You know those laundry hampers that just... instantly spring open? Yup, same idea Build the poles, then run them through connection points on the fabric
1-3 poles, 1-5 minutes to set up, guying-out may be a good idea 3+ poles, 1-10 minutes to set up, guying-out is a good idea 1+ pole(s), 10-20 minutes to set up, usually requires guying-out
Set-up size Designed for sleep only; snugly fits the number of people it's designed for & usually doesn't get to standing height until the capacity is 6+ persons Can get large enough to fit real furniture inside & be as big as a hotel suite with 10+ft/3+m tall ceilings!
Usage & durability over time Generally not strong or durable, especially in high winds Strong & durable, but exact specs depend on the product; strongest can be used for easier mountaineering trips Strong & durable, but exact specs depend on the product Very strong & durable given purpose as luxurious, outdoor hotel

Common materials

More info about mesh in the Anatomy section

Nylon fabric Canvas fabric
Affixed metal poles Separate metal poles
No mesh Generally lots of mesh Depends No mesh
Effect on secondary factors Price $30-200 $80-700 $400-1000+ $500-1000+

Size

When folded down. Info on weight below

Due to its nature, can't compress down very well; usually cannot fit into a backpack of any size Usually fits into a backpack, can be small enough to fit into a side pocket! May be able to fit into backpack Generally requires a car, largest capacity may need a truck
Rationale Less technical, less durable, and/or less material More technical, more durable, and/or more material

Why we do/don't carry it

= we rent

= we sell

There may be issues with durability & already at a low price

Standard for most outdoor uses

Mountaineering tents only for rent for people summiting peaks; extremely limited availability, please call to reserve

Much more expensive relative to the improvements in comfort (it's priced like a hotel)

*Our Technical Specialist category is meant to be a catch-all bucket for any number of tents designed for very specific technical purposes, but that still have the general shape of a tent (i.e., an enclosed shelter). For examples, see Other products section

**When you hear 4-season tent or winter tent, you might be tempted to think this is what you need in December. But this is a misnomer, for example, if you're camping in a tropical country in December, it is probably not going to snow. In fact, even in California, unless you're actually going mountaineering, camping in the winter doesn't usually require a special tent. That's why we prefer to call these tents mountaineering tents, to make the difference more obvious!

A tent for Burning Man

For background information, you may want to read our Burning Man policy first, especially if you're considering renting! The needs that people have when going camping or backpacking vs. Burning Man are completely different, resulting in very different feature requirements & ideal tent types (see above for overview of all types).

Regular camping or backpacking Burning Man
Tent should provide...* Roomy space (e.g., standing height, good amount of space per person)

Tents largely used to sleep at night, therefore many are not standing height & have small areas, see other charts on this page

Tents are places to rest & hangout during the day as well

Good shelter from the sun

Again, main use for tents is sleeping, so sun shelter is less important

The desert is hot in the day! Tents provide respite when you want to hangout & relax

Enclosed space to protect from dust

Most camping & backpacking environments aren't very dusty

If you've done any research you know the dust on the Playa is intense!

A sleep-under-the-stars, one-with-nature experience

That's why you're camping right?

Seeing out means dust can get in!

Low weight & size for easy carry-ability

Particularly for backpacking

So many supplies already need to be brought in for Burning Man, your tent will probably be smaller & lighter than your costumes suitcase!

Resulting features of ideal tents
  • Lots of mesh to optimize for low weight & size and the sleep-under-the-stars experience
  • Thin fabric (low opacity) to optimize for low weight & size
  • Minimal mesh to prevent dust from entering, in fact, ability to fully seal & enclose during dust storms is ideal
  • Completely opaque fabric to keep out sun
  • More fabric & more opaque fabric (i.e., thicker) means tents are heavier & larger
Ideal tent type Camping Multi-use Canvas Luxury

Why we do/don't carry it

= we rent

= we sell

Standard for most outdoor uses

Too-limited of a use case relative to high price

*Again, personal preference matters more! Some people do want to hangout in a spacious roomy tent during the day when camping (especially for music festivals) and would prefer a Canvas luxury tent in that case, too!

We know, Canvas Luxury types are pricey! But so is Burning Man... the incremental price of a good tent, split among people, is worth it. If you only plan on going once, it's worth it to give yourself the best experience. If you plan on being a seasoned Burner, it's worth it because you'll use it more times!

You may have noticed that Easy Pop-up tents also have no mesh, maybe that will work? Unfortunately, those tents, as we have noted above, are also not very durable, and the Playa gets very windy! That's why it's not a good strategy to buy something cheap to throw away at the end of the trip--that cheap tent may not get you through the week! And if you get a bunch of cheap tents as backups, you'll probably have spent your share of a nice Canvas Luxury tent anyway. If you're going this route, you may as well check out our Borrow program (at most, you'll lose the deposit).


Price

One of life's certainties is the trade-off between price & quality. This creates an inherently unfair situation. If you save money today by buying something lower end, you'll end up replacing it more frequently, spending money & time each instance so that at the end, you probably haven't actually saved anything. On the other hand, if you decide to invest in something higher end, you'll need a lot more upfront money, and you need to be able to use the item frequently enough to make it worthwhile.

We developed our rental program to address this unfairness. We don't sell lower end items. But for our higher end items, we offer them for rent at up to 90% off retail price, generally well below the cost of buying even the cheaper option. That's a win-win!

It may seem like the price & quality trade-off is disappearing, because you can find a cheap version of almost anything for tens of dollars that still has good reviews (assuming the reviews are real). Remember 2 things:

  • Many reviews are written after only a trial use, first use, or infrequent use: We've seen entire review videos of gear done at home, which is very different than actually being outdoors!
  • The point of gear is to give you a good experience because you've already spent money to be on vacation from work! Don't let quality issues affect your relaxation

For gear specifically, the quality issues center around performance & durability.

Performance

  • The tent was bigger or heavier: A 1lb or 2kg difference may not matter on a 3 hour hike, but it might on a 6 hour hike! Not to mention you might need to spend more on a big enough backpack to carry it
  • The tent wasn't very waterproof or durable: Wind & rain often come together, and affect each other. E.g., if the poles bend so much that the tent rainfly touches the body, this allows water transfer (see this section for more info). If a pole just snaps in the wind, everything will crumble! Fabric-wise, lower end items tend to be made with polyester, which is less durable than nylon (more info in our clothing protip); and of course, if the fabric tears, performance is compromised. Finally lower end items may not have or may have less effective waterproofing treatments

Durability

Maybe you are the average person that goes 1-2 times per year, you don't mind the hassle of replacing gear that doesn't last, and you also don't care about the performance differences. Then use our borrow program & get free gear where available! Or for a little more, use our rental program.

Methodology notes on prices shown on this page

Capacity (size)

How many people are you going with? Who will share a tent? These questions are important when considering what capacity (measured in persons) you need. Rule-of-thumb: each person is allotted ~25in (~64cm) of width in a standard tent (standard single sleeping pads are therefore about ~20in [51cm] wide)*, subject to a minimum for 1-person tents. On the length side, standard tents are always long enough to fit individuals' heights, at around 7 ft / 2.1 m long.

Camping Multi-use style*

Person capacity

1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10+
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Largest mattress that will fit Twin Queen King Multiple depending on configuration
Usage & durability over time

Better

Sits lower to the ground, picks up less wind, generally doesn't require guying-out (unless semi-freestanding, see Usage section)

Worse

So tall that it picks up all the wind, usually requires guying-out & poles can still bend after only 1-2 uses

~Width

30-40in

(76-102cm)

50 in

(127cm)

85-100in

(216-254cm)

120in

(305cm)

More shape configurations, difficult to estimate; definitely larger
Height

35-40in

(89-102cm)

40in

102cm

50in

127cm

75in

183cm

Generally all standing height, at least 6ft (1.8m)
Effect on other factors

Price

Regular weight**

$80-200 $80-250 $100-500 $150-600 $200-800

Weight

Regular weight**

3.5-5lbs

(1.6-2.3kg)

5-8lbs

(2.3-3.6kg)

9-18lbs

(4-8kg)

13-25lbs

(6-11 kg)

20-40lbs

(9-18kg)

Size Can fit into various types of backpacks (ultralight models may fit into regular backpacks) Usually requires at least 60L hiking backpack, think of a large duffel bag May not even fit the largest hiking backpack, depending on how it's designed. Sized like a large carry-on luggage Usually designed to be carried separately. Sized like a standard suitcase
Rationale Smaller capacity = less materials Greater capacity = more materials

Why we do/don't carry it

= we rent

= we sell

On our Catalog page, the 1-person tents are actually 2-person ultralight tents, because that's how people tend to use them. True 1-person tents not really worth it (it's not that much smaller or cheaper), especially compared to a bivy sack (see Other products section).

Even number sizes (2-, 4-, 6-person tents) to simplify while maximizing options & versatility

There may be issues with durability (usually large tents are made by the same brands that offer the less durable Easy Pop-up style tents) & can be harder to pitch

*We only compare Camping Multi-use type tents, since these are most common

**Since as you'll see in the Weight & Size section, there are no lightweight 6-person tents

Weight & Size (Compactness) for Backpacking

If you're thru-hiking 20+ miles (32+km) per day, every advantage counts! In this case, size refers to compactness. You can carry more gear in the same size backpack if all of it is very compact, or for more weight savings, you can get a smaller size pack.

To reduce more weight & increase compactability, manufacturers reduce the amount of material used (e.g., fewer features, thinner fabrics, etc.) and, where possible, use more technical materials to prevent performance loss. For example, ultralight fabric used in clothing has to still be waterproof. These strategies create 2 general consequences

  • Lightweight gear tends to be less durable: Sometimes, light-weight gear is just thinner & so more prone to damage (even a more technical material may not fully offset the loss in durability)
  • Lightweight gear tends to be more expensive: While less materials = lower cost, the more dominating effect is often that thinner materials = more technical = greater cost

For these reasons, the lighter the gear, the more you should treat it as an investment! Is the price difference worth the weight or size savings? This depends on you & your trip.

While backpacking tents have the same general dimensions as you see in the Capacity section, they are less voluminous because, in an effort to save weight, the tent body tapers downward more severly, there's more mesh, and less pole support. As a result, even 2 average-sized people may find themselves pressed against the walls of a 2-person ultralight tent, which, depending on conditions, may create issues with water entry (see Usage section). Many people therefore move up to the next person capacity, as long as the weight is not a concern (which also underscores our strategy for carrying 1-person tents, described the above Capacity section).

Camping Multi-use style Regular Superlight Ultralight*

2-person

Capacity

Weight

5-8lbs

(2.3-3.6 kg)

3-4lbs

(1.4-1.8 kg)

2-3lbs

(0.9-1.4 kg)

Size

Could fit in...

Hiking backpacks at least 50L Carry-on luggage Regular backpacks for school or work, or some extra large purses
Effect on Price $80-$250 $200-$500 $350-$600

Why we do/don't carry it

= we rent

= we sell

Standard for most outdoor uses

On our Catalog, this is indicated with '(regular)'

We already carry the ultralight model

Our mission is to increase access to gear & we are proud to be the only company to rent as well as sell this type

On our Catalog, this is indicated with '(backpacking)'

4-person

Capacity

Weight

9-18lbs

(4-8 kg)

7-9lbs

(3-4 kg)

5-7lbs

(2-3 kg)

Size

Could fit in...

Hiking backpacks at least 70L Hiking backpacks at least 50L Carry-on luggage
Effect on Price $100-500** $300-400 $500-700

Why we do/don't carry it

= we rent

= we sell

Standard for most outdoor uses

On our Catalog, this is indicated with '(regular)'

Our mission is to increase access to gear & we are proud to be the only company to rent as well as sell this type

On our Catalog, this is indicated with '(backpacking)'

Much more expensive relative to the improvements in weight savings compared to the superlight model; also if weight & size are really important, 2 2-person tents is a better choice
Rationale for effect on Price Less technical material More technical material

*Extremely ultralight tents (1.5lb for a 2-person tent) may be equally extreme in terms of fragility. Early reviews have people (joking?) that you should file your nails before using! These tents are also excluded from the price (they qualify as the extreme high end in our methodology), and they push toward $1000

**Regular tents may be more expensive than superlight tents, because of greater features designed for group camping, further underscoring the point that most people don't bring 4-person tents backpacking

Methodology notes

Minor features that may be important

Here, we give you a list of questions to start thinking about minor features. We hope our approach of savings these features for last gets you to more critically think about what you need & not get caught up in the hype of what's cool and over-spend your budget.

  • How many doors are there & what's the placement?
  • How much mesh is there vs. solid fabric? If more of the latter, are there windows?
  • How well does it ventilate?
  • How many internal pockets are there & where are they placed? (e.g., at the ceiling, or on the walls)
  • Does the rainfly come all the way to the ground to create a vestibule for gear (see Anatomy section)? How much space is this?

What we carry

General Notes

  • We choose what we carry based on extensive research on what's the best value to our customers (e.g., price given performance & durability features) across all the top brands. We specifically do not carry every brand & model; for details on why we do/don't carry certain items in the How To Choose section
  • Buy prices are MSRP with tax, i.e., what you see is what you pay. Prices may differ in-store due to change in models or discounts, but this is rare. If we don't sell what we rent, we list MSRP value with tax
  • Rent prices are the starting prices; enter trip dates on our Catalog to get exact prices (based on total trip length, not per day!). We also don't charge sales tax, an automatic savings of almost 10%!
Type or Style Technical Specialist Camping Multi-use
Person capacity 2 1 or 2 2 4 6
Model Mountain Hardwear Tangent 1-person tent (backpacking) 2-person tent (backpacking) 2-person tent (regular) REI Camp Dome 2 Big Agnes Blacktail Marmot Tungsten 2 Half Dome 4 Big Agnes Big House 4 Marmot Limestone 4 Big Agnes Blacktail Big Agnes Tensleep Station 6
Mountain Hardwear Tangent 1-person tent (backpacking) 2-person tent (backpacking) 2-person tent (regular) REI Camp Dome 2 Big Agnes Blacktail Marmot Tungsten 2 Half Dome 4 Big Agnes Big House 4 Marmot Limestone 4 Big Agnes Blacktail Big Agnes Tensleep Station 6
Mountain Hardwear Tangent Big Agnes Fly Creek Nemo Hornet REI Half Dome REI Camp Dome Big Agnes Blacktail Marmot Tungsten REI Half Dome

Big Agnes Big House

Deluxe model

Marmot Limestone Big Agnes Blacktail Big Agnes Tensleep Station

Buy

MSRP with tax

+ footprint if sold separate (otherwise included)

$550

+$55

value

$380

+$76

$401

+$54

$150

+$22

value

$109

+$22

value

$260 $217

$240

+$33

value

$402

+$55

$391

+$55

$360

$543

+$60

value

Rent

includes footprint (see below)

$40+ $20+ $45+ $30+ $40+
Online rental Catalog name

2-person tent (backpacking)

Extremely limited availability, please call to reserve

1-person tent (backpacking)

2-person tent (backpacking)

2-person tent (regular) 4-person tent (backpacking) 4-person tent (regular) 6-person tent (regular)

Capacity

Largest mattress that will fit

Twin Twin Queen King
Standing height?

Weight

+ footprint

5lb 15oz + 10oz

2.7kg + 0.3kg

2lb 5oz + 4oz

1.1kg + 0.1kg

2lb 6oz + 7oz

1.1kg + 0.2kg

4lb 15oz + 9oz

2.2kg + 0.3kg

5lb + 11oz

2.3kg + 0.3kg

4lb 8oz + 8oz

2.0kg + 0.2kg

4lb 13oz + 7oz

2.2kg + 0.2kg

7lb 10oz + 14oz

3.5kg + 0.4kg

11lb 4oz + 14oz

5.1kg + 0.4kg

11lb 11oz + 16oz

5.3kg + 0.5kg

8lb 4oz + 11oz

3.7kg + 0.3kg

18lb + 1lb 7oz

8.2kg + 0.7kg

Carry size & notes Hiking backpacks at least 50L Regular backpacks for school or work, or some extra large purses Hiking backpacks at least 50L Hiking backpacks at least 70L Large carry-on luggage

When you rent online, we will pick a model for you. You can change the model if you pick-up in-store, subject to availability. On the Options page of our online order process, you can also select options or write-in any preferences. This section describes the majority of our models & options, but sometimes we carry others. We will only pick something else if it doesn't conflict with your choices indicated on the Options page; moreover, if there's a major functional difference (e.g., capacity), we will attempt to contact you first

Included

For sale
What manufacturer includes
For rent
What we package together
Body
The main room
Footprint
Protects the floor

Depends on the tent, but generally sold separately ($20-50 for regular tents, $50-100 for lighweight tents)

Either the footprint or a tarp
Rainfly
Covers tent body for more privacy & protection from wind & rain
Guylines
Adds structural support, especially important for heavy wind & rain or for semi-freestanding tents

Rented separately because many people don't know how to use them but they're easy to lose!
Poles
Create the structure & shape of the tent
Pole repair sleeve (or tube or splint)
Rented separately as part of tent repair kit
Stakes
Usually 4-6 for 2 or 4 person regular weight tents, then variable for other sizes or lightweight tents

We include 12 stakes for 6-person tents, then 10 stakes for all other tents. Usually more than you need, just in case!
Stake mallet
Rented separately

Anatomy diagram

Anatomy of a tent

Our anatomy applies to most Camping Multi-use & many Technical Specialist type tents, because we orient around the 3 main pieces of these tents: the body, rainfly, and footprint. You might wonder, why would a tent not have a rainfly or footprint? For some tents, these are integrated with the body, not separate pieces of fabric. Here's a quick overview of why:

  • Camping Multi-use: Not integrated for maximum versatility
  • Technical Specialist: Depends; if integrated, it's to maximize weather protection
  • Easy Pop-up: Integrated for maximum convenience
  • Canvas Luxury: Integrated because this tent mimics an enclosed hotel room

If you have a tent with all the parts integrated, the diagram can still apply, just keep in mind there aren't 3 separate pieces! When a rainfly is separated, the tent is referred to as a double-wall system (there's the mesh body, and the rainfly that goes over it); when the rainfly is integrated, the tent is referred to a single-wall system.

Tent body: the main part of the tent you're staying in!

  • Mesh: integrated into the body of most tents to increase breathability, minimize weight, and give you that sleep-under-the-stars experience.
  • Poles: gives the tent its structure. Made up of metal pieces strung together with elastic shock cord. Can be either clipped to the tent body, or run through sleeves on the outside of the tent body. Some rainflies use poles as well
  • Stakes: keeps the tent anchored down & well-tensioned (see Usage section)

Tent rainfly: covers the tent body to provide shade & protection from rain. If your tent has a lot of mesh, it may also offer more wind protection & privacy. Of course, if not needed, you can leave it off entirely (though we do always recommend bringing it on trips, rather than leaving at home or in the car, just in case)

  • Guylines: You can see how the guyline is pulling out the rainfly, adding tension, and making the fabric more taut. More info on the importance of guylines below
  • Vestibule: This isn't a "piece", it's the space that's created created if the rainfly of a tent goes down to the ground at an angle, such that there's a small covered space outside the tent body but within the tent rainfly. This space, called a vestibule, can be a good place to store gear or shoes. Not all tent rainflies create a vestibule, sometimes the rainfly just creates an awning over the door, or sometimes it goes down to the ground, but flush against the tent body. Generally people like a vestibule, but because it's another door that you have to deal with, sometimes in very basic car camping (e.g., festival) situations, people prefer without

Tent footprint (aka ground cloth): goes underneath the tent (most visible in the last image at far right the 'fast-pitch' mode, see Usage section) to further protect the tent from wet ground or from being punctured or damaged by rough surfaces. Sometimes sold separately (we include these with all of our rentals, or, if not applicable, a tarp).

Usage tips

Finding a site to set up

If you are car camping at an established campground, these steps may have been done for you, but you should still check!

  1. Find a place big enough to pitch your tent that is relatively flat. If it is going to rain, having a slight slope to the ground can be beneficial because it will keep the water from collecting and pooling under your tent. If you are on a slope, be sure to sleep with your head uphill. Sleeping with your head downhill can cause more blood to go to your head and can lead to headaches in the morning
  2. Be sure that the ground is durable like dirt, not plants
  3. Make sure your campsite is an appropriate distance from water, the trail, and not too close to any perilous cliffs!
  4. Check that none of the trees overhead are broken and in danger of falling (these are called “widow makers”)
  5. Clear out your space making sure that there are no rocks, pine cones, or glass where you are going to pitch your tent. If you are not in an established campsite you should scatter natural materials back over your spot before you leave (but please pack out or dispose of trash), following Leave No Trace principles

Setting up your tent

These are general instructions for most Camping Multi-use & Technical Specialist tents that are freestanding or semi-freestanding (more info on this below) & therefore apply to all the tents we carry. For instructions for your specific tent check the packaging or look up the instructions for your particular model and brand of tent online. If you're renting from us, we can send you a YouTube video we've found online with good step-by-step instructions. Protip pay attention to colors on straps, poles, etc., as tents often use color-coding to help you figure out what goes where. In the example below in the images for Steps 1 & 2, if you look carefuly, you can see that the grommet tabs on both footprint & body are green on one end (lower half of image) & white on the other end.

Step 1

Setting up a tent, step 1
Lay out your footprint (aka ground cloth) or tarp. For footprints, lay the glossy side up (shine to the sky, dull to the dirt!). When using a tarp as a footprint, make sure it is folded to be roughly 2in (5cm) smaller on all sides compared to the tent body's floor side, in other words, the tarp should not poke out beyond the tent floor. If it pokes out or is too large, it can collect water, that then pools underneath the tent. Of course if you fold it too small, it won't protect enough of the floor.

Step 2

Setting up a tent, step 2
Lay out the body of the tent on top of the footprint. The mesh parts, zippers, or any plastic clips (for poles) should be facing up

Step 3

Setting up a tent, step 3
Assemble the poles by putting the metal segments together (they naturally want to stick together!). Lay the poles over the body. The most common set-up is shown: 2 poles cross diagonally & attach at opposite corners. Poles may also need to go through fabric 'sleeves' on the body (not present in this case)

Step 4

Setting up a tent, step 4
Each end of the pole should go through a metal grommet found at the corners (in this type of set-up). Since the poles are so long, they'll curve for this to work

Step 5

Setting up a tent, step 5
Bring the curves upward to form the shape of the tent. Usually there's a main central 'clip' to hold X-pitch tents in place where the poles cross, as shown in the image

Step 6

Setting up a tent, step 6
Clip the remaining clips to the pole. A tent isn't done until it looks very tensioned out! Here you can see it looks a bit flat, and as well we have a shorter pole remaining

Step 7

Setting up a tent, step 7
In many models, there may be another pole that further helps create volume, in the case shown, the pole runs perpindicular to the X-poles

Remaining steps

These last steps vary a bit more based on circumstances:

Set-up the rainfly

  • The orientation is correct if the logo faces outward (i.e., it's readable as you're walking by) & the zippers on rainfly are lined up with the zippers on the tent body door
  • Some rainflies have grommets that should attach to the tent body poles as well
  • Additionally, some rainflies have their own poles to create more volume or support. Remember, generally whenever you see a grommet, it's made for a pole

Anchor the tent and/or rainfly & make sure the structure is taut

  • Use stakes or guylines
  • A stake mallet may be helpful to drive the stake into ground that's hard, be careful to avoid bending the stake
  • In a pinch, you can use heavy objects inside the tent to hold it down, but this will be less effective at providing the tension that you want the fabric to have to keep dry (see below)

Semi-freestanding tents

These tents can stand by themselves, but they may not fully expand to their entire volume. In the example below, the images are taken from above the tent, the bottom half of the image is the rear of the tent. You'll notice that at the top of the image (the front of the tent), the pole goes down to each corner, anchoring it out. However, the single "ridgeline" pole doesn't go to each corner at the rear of the tent. Therefore the rear looks very "collapsed". This would be an example of a semi-freestanding tent, the fact that the pole doesn't go to all 4 corners helps saves weight & size on this lightweight model. To correct this & expand the tent to its full volume, you need to stake out or guy out each corner, such that the tension helps create structure, see image at right. Thus, these tents may also be referred to as tension tents. Non-freestanding tents completely rely on tension or other structures to be pitched (kind of like how a hammock requires trees or poles)

Semi-freestanding tent, without tension
Semi-freestanding tent, with tension

Fast-pitch mode

This refers to just setting up a rainfly, sometimes with the footprint (see Anatomy diagram, at far right). A fast-pitch tent is primarily used to save weight & size (since the body is not needed), and approaches the territory of tarp tents (see Other products). Be aware, this mode is not possible with all tent models, check yours & practice at home before going outside!

Keeping dry

Stop water from getting in

The below components of a tent are designed to keep water out:

  • Rainfly: The raincover for your tent
  • Footprint (or ground cloth) or tarp: Serves as another layer between wet ground & the tent
  • "Bathtub" floors: The same waterproof material used on the floor of the tent body runs up around the edges, forming a lip to keep water out if it starts to really pool around your tent

The rainfly, the most important element, needs to be structurally pitched in a way that keeps water. Specifically it should not...

  • Sag: if the rainfly sags, water will just pool in the saggy part
  • Touch the tent body fabric: if the two fabrics touch, then through the physics of water transference, water will pass from the outside of the rainfly to the inside of the tent body

Both of the above mean that you need to keep the rainfly as taut or tensioned out as possible. This is why sometimes you need guylines to guy-out your tent. What this means is that you take rope, and pull outward on the tent fabric, stretching it to be as taut as possible & not touching the body, then tie the rope off to a stake or tree or other support. Why the fancy name? Imagine the wind suddenly changes direction, and you need to pull on the fabric in a different direction. With rope, you'd have to untie & redo the whole set-up. Guylines have a plastic tensioner piece that you can pull on to adjust the "tension" in the line, therefore making it easier for you to keep your tent taut in changing, inclement weather. For a great guide on how to use guylines, click here.

Don't push out the tent body to touch the rainfly, either! You've spent so much time getting a perfectly taut, no-touch rainfly, don't ruin it by pushing outward against the tent body fabric. This is also we mentioned that in smaller, ultralight tents, people sometimes size down (e.g., 1 person will sleep in a 2-person tent). Sometimes, with the exact capacity of people, it's very easy to push outward on the body when you move.

Can you use a tarp as a rainfly? Tarps are inherently water resistant or fully waterproof, depending on the model. When you use it as water protection, make sure it has not been used previously as a ground cover, since that could create lots of small holes that compromise water resistance (for this reason, our rental tarps shouldn't be used as water protection, since we can't guarantee that people have not used them on the ground). If you're using a tarp as rain protection for a tent it's best to string it up over the tent using nearby trees or vertical poles, like an umbrella. It's not as good of an idea to drape the tarp over your tent like a rainfly, because it's not cut to the shape & contours of your tent, so draping could leave lots of unprotected areas. Not to mention without the right structural support, a tarp could trap condensation or allow water transference from the exterior.

Manage condensation

Condensation is like water droplets forming on the outside of a cold drink. Water vapor in the air comes into contact with the colder container, and condenses into liquid. With regards to a tent, the cold container is the tent itself! The very thing giving you shelter is now keeping condensation in! But you can much better manage a little bit of condensation than a rainstorm. Here's some tips on how:

  • Open windows, doors, and vents in the tent body & rainfly. This is the most important thing to do. Try to face open windows, doors, and vents to the breeze, if possible. The more internal & external air mixes, the less of a temperature imbalance you have (this is what causes condensation). If it's raining, you'll actually have to balance out what to keep open vs. closed. If you've read our clothing protip, tent waterproofing is not also breathable, which is why venting is critical
  • Pitch under a tree. (But not a "widow maker", see above.) A tree keeps the air under it slightly warmer by trapping some heat radiating off the ground (thanks to the physics of insulation, which you can read more about in our gear guide on sleeping bags. This means your tent will be slightly warmer, which means condensation is less likely
  • Pitch on higher ground. Warm air rises, cool air sinks. If you pitch in a higher spot, the tent will be slightly warmer, which means condensation is less likely
  • Pitch away from a water source. Minimize humidity (i.e., water vapor) inside of the tent that could condense
  • Don't leave wet things in the tent. Minimize the water vapor in the tent that could condense
  • Get a double-wall tent. We define this in the Anatomy section. With a double-wall tent, moistures passes through the mesh and condenses on the rainfly, then rolls down to the ground. With a single-wall tent, condensation is kept inside. (Single-tents, however, are more insulating since there isn't a mesh layer. That's why campers sometimes have to balance insulation vs condensation--these are the technical trade-offs that some people live for!)

Troubleshooting Set-Up Problems

Shock cord end pulls out of tent pole

The image at far left below is not a broken set of poles. Sometimes the ends of the shock cord get pulled out from the pole. Just "tuck" the knot back in the pole, and continue pushing it in (see images from left to right).

Shock cord pulls out, image 1
Shock cord pulls out, image 2
Shock cord pulls out, image 3
Shock cord pulls out, image 4

Camping with babies & pets

Babies

If you will be using a Pack 'n Play, be conscious of size dimensions, especially height (i.e., you need height clearance to stand above it). A Pack 'n Play usually takes up the width of at least 1.5 people in a camping setting (e.g., roughly 2 sleeping pads, or 30 in/ 76 cm). For these reasons, we recommend at least a 4-person capacity tent, 6-person capacity for greatest comfort (since these will be standing height).

Pets

Camping with pets can be so much fun, and your pet will appreciate the new environment as well! In addition to checking park regulations on pet permissibility, also consider how your pet may interact with your camping gear. Gear is relatively fragile and we have stories of pets unintentionally damaging zippers, mesh, inflatable sleeping pads etc. when they're nervous or just being playful (those nails are sharp!). These damages can be severe, and necessitate replacement of the item entirely (we have a story of a dog chewing a hole through a tent entirely), so plan carefully to ensure a great time for all.

Maintenance tips

Repairing

Big Agnes & Nemo offer great repair services for their gear (most other brands will just offer warranty replacement, if available).

Poles: TentPole Technologies can repair almost any pole issues, from re-stringing when the shock cord snaps, or entire segments that are broken or too-bent, expect to spend ~$10 per segment replaced or $10 to do work such as re-stringing a pole set

Grommets: These are metal O-ring that you'll find at the corners, where the pole notches into. If they fall out, you can pretty easily repair this yourself with a grommet repair kit that costs <$10. If they fall out on trail, but there is still a hole, that's fine to use with a pole, it's just less ideal since it won't 'notch' on the metal

Zippers: If the zipper track isn't staying closed, this is usually because the zipper slider pull has 'widened' over time & is no longer effectively pressing the teeth together. If your track has 2 zipper slider pulls, a tailor should be able to remove the malfunctioning one. If you'd like to add a new zipper slider pull, the biggest challenge will be finding one, since gear often uses different, proprietary sizes. Once you have a slider pull, a tailor can add it easily (~$10). If you need to replace the entire zipper track (e.g., you can't find another slider pull or the track is physically damaged), be aware this can be very expensive, expect to spend $50-100. We also recommend seeing a luggage repair specialist, since they may have the larger zippers used for gear, or Narain's & Rainy Pass Repair.

Rips, tears, holes: For small ones, you can stick on a patch of Tenacious Tape yourself. For larger ones, you may need to sew on a replacement fabric patch; most tailors can help with this (if you're doing it yourself, most technical fabrics are rip-stop nylon and this is sold by many fabric stores; most meshes used in outdoor gear however is not widely sold). Remember, sewing compromises waterproofing, since it adds punctures. Ultralight gear with thinner fabrics may require specialists. Two repair specialists are Narain's & Rainy Pass Repair; both accept gear shipped in, expect to spend $30-100

Waterproofing: There are 3 components to waterproofing. It is entirely possible to buy these items & repair yourself, however unless you're treating a spot (in which case Tenacious Tape can work just as well), it can be difficult to get a large piece of fabric back to original performance integrity. (Honestly, this is true even for most manufacturers, who will often ask you to replace the piece that's no longer waterproof.) Rainy Pass Repair can help re-waterproof. As a benchmark, tent-sized fabrics may cost up to $100

  • Seam sealant: The seams where the fabric has been sewed together are water-proofed either by a seam tape, or a liquid seam sealant that's applied. With a tape, you may be able to visibly see it peeling away. While you can buy either to do at home, liquid seam sealant is more readily available & easier to use. Seam tape, which is more prevalent in clothing, requires you to match the exact fabric you're repairing, and each fabric has different application settings (e.g., appropriate temperatures to help the tape stick)
  • Waterproof coating: Sometimes, the seams are fine, but the fabric fundamentally is losing its resistance to water (you can tell if it's shedding or flaking out white stuff), which is derived from a polyurethane or silicon based coating treatment (different from the coating treatment below)
  • Water repellant coating: Called DWR (durable water repellancy), this is a coating treatment (different from the treatment above) that causes water to bead up & roll off the fabric. It can often be applied either as a spray or a detergent that is washed-in (we like products by NikWax or Granger's)

Cleaning & Storing

Gear not in use should be cleaned & dried and then stored loose & in a dark environment, check out our entire protip on the topic here.

We have a general protip on how to store & maintain gear that we highly recommend reviewing as well. If you send us video or a good photo series, we may be able to help you evaluate your repair needs.

Other products on the market

There are always novel innovations in the world of tents, because these are the primary gear item underlying so many outdoor adventures. Our Technical Specialist category is meant to be a catch-all bucket for any number of tents designed for very specific technical purposes, but that still have the general shape of a tent (i.e., an enclosed shelter). Most people will not use these tents because they're very specialized & therefore often very expensive. Below are some examples

Tree tent
Tree tents are non-freestanding tents (you can see they're fully based on tension, like a hammock) pitched between trees that hover above ground; sometimes they can be pitched on the water as a tent-raft hybrid as well
Overland tent
Overland tents belong to the field of overland camping, where you're often driving in a 4x4 to a remote wilderness area, and pitching the tent on the roof of the car itself
Portaledge tent
Portaledges hang off the side of a cliff. Who wants to do this, you ask? Rock climbers!

You may also see shelters that are completely divorced from the shape & form of a traditional tent. The most common examples of this (below) are dreamed up by ultralight hikers with specific needs & concerns around weight & size. (The picture shows them both in action, a tarp tent over a bivy sack.)

Tarp tent with bivy

Tarp tents: The name draws inspiration from the tarp but this is a different product entirely. For the diehard ultralight hiker, the smallest tents are too heavy. Thus, all they have is a special tarp (using a material much lighter than the traditional tarp we have a gear guide on) as a rain cover. These tarp tents (sometimes referred to confusingly as just tarps) require guying-out as tarps are non-freestanding & may require trekking poles to be set-up. Keep in mind there's a learning curve to pitching them well.

Bivy sacks: Have you ever thought, gosh why don't I just sleep in my sleeping bag outdoors, with some kind of covering against water or bugs? A bivy sack is exactly that! You can stuff a sleeping bag inside or just use the bivy shell on its own.

A hammock can potentially substitute for your entire essential set of tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad! Substitutability depends on the model of hammock, so do your research thoroughly to see if the hammock has rain protection or mesh (to simulate a tent), and any built-in padding or bedding for warmth & comfort. You'll also want to ensure there are plenty of trees where you're going. Finally, you might want to try taking a nap first, hammocks result in back pain for some & back pain relief for others, the last thing you want is to wake up after a long night in pain!

The exact numbers (e.g., weights, dimensions, prices, etc.) used were updated as of September 2019 . That said, there usually isn't dramatic change; we update & review the market roughly biennially.


Thoughts, ideas, questions? Let us know in the comments below! We're Last Minute Gear, the only outdoor gear shop where you can buy, rent, or borrow gear!