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Camping First-Timer? Here’s What You Need To Know About Tents

Planning your first camping trip is both exciting and nerve wracking. For the best experience, set out with some experienced campers or at least consult with one before you head out on this adventure. And when you do, I suspect you’ll get the same piece of advice – don’t try to save money by skimping on quality!

I get it, I really do. Those cheap tents under $50 look like a pretty good deal. But it’s rare that they are, and you won’t look at it the same after you wake up in an inch of water after a night of rain.

So, if you don’t want to find yourself in this water-logged predicament, then let me give you some tips on what to look for when buying your first tent for a camping adventure. And instead of looking for ways to cut costs, think of this an investment for years of camping adventures with your friends and family.

What To Consider When Buying Your First Tent

friends camping

Whether you’re at a national park campsite or on the side of a mountain, your tent is your home away from home and should be a comfortable place for you to stay. That’s why it’s important for you to make a good choice when selecting your tent.

If you walk into your local REI, then you’ll quickly notice that there are a LOT of tent options on the market right now. You can find big ones, small ones, super lightweight ones, heavy ones, car camping ones, backpacking ones, and so on, and so on. For an amateur camper, this large collection can be overwhelming.

So, before you start the search for the best camping tent for your adventures, let’s go through some of the things that you’ll need to consider first.

Quick Tip: Want an easy-to-use instant pop up tent? See our recommendations here.

How Much Can You Afford?

You can find tents at pretty much any budget, so knowing what your limit is in terms of cost is a good idea. Obviously, the more you spend, the more you will get for your money.

But please, let me stress again the importance of not buying the cheapest tent that you can find at your local Walmart. If you end up with a low quality tent, this this will be a miserable experience for you.

If you can afford it, then I suggest budgeting for at least $200 on a tent. REI makes a decent dome tent at $100, but if you can spend around $250 then you end up with a much better tent. And remember, ideally this is something that you’ll be using on trips for years to come.

How Will You Use Your Tent?

The first thing that you’ll want to consider when tent shopping is how you will use it. Will your camping excursions just be simple overnight and weekend trips? If so, you can opt for something a bit heavier (which is the cheaper option) because you won’t be trekking too far with it on your back.

Or, will you be doing more backpacking camping and need something that is lightweight since you’ll be carrying it in your pack? If so, you need to focus your shopping on ultralight tents, which tent to be the higher priced options.

For most people, car camping style tents are likely going to be the best option for the common weekend and family camping trips. But for the more serious outdoorsy folks, those ultralight tents are what you’re after.

view from tent camping

How Many People Need To Fit In The Tent?

As you’ve likely noticed, tents come in a variety of sizes to fit several people or just one person. So, you need to know who you’re going to be camping with before you decide on a size. Plus, if you’re just going to be focused on car camping, then it’s best to go with the biggest tent that you can find for the most comfort.

And if you’re camping with kids or pets, then you definitely want to go with something bigger than you think you might need.

As a general rule of thumb, I think that it’s best to buy a tent that fits one more person/pet than you are taking on the trip. So, if it’s going to be you plus your dog and your boyfriend, then go with a 4-person tent for a comfortable amount of space for everyone. Just you? Then buy a tent that will fit two people. Even if you’re doing some thru-hiking or backpacking, I think you will find that the extra space in the tent is definitely worth the slightly extra room that it will take up in your backpack.

Does The Weight Of The Tent Matter?

Will you be car camping? If so, then weight won’t matter since you won’t be going far to your walk-in campsite. So, go with whatever freestanding tent meets the rest of your needs.

But if you’re doing some thru-hiking or backpacking, then you’ll definitely want to take the weight of any potential tents into consideration. Since the tent will add weight to your pack, ultralight weight is your best bet in this scenario. Look for a non-freestanding tent that doesn’t come with dedicated tent poles for ultra packability and weight-saving.

And remember, just because it’s heavier doesn’t mean that it’s sturdier than some of the lightweight models.

How’s The Weather Going To Be?

This seems to be the consideration that most surprises novice campers that I encounter. If you don’t already know it, then let me share an awesome tip – you can buy a tent that is designed for the season you’ll be camping in!

  • If it’s going to be a bit chilly, then get yourself a three-season tent.
  • If it’s going to be rainy, then get yourself a tent with a gear vestibule (or gear closet) to keep your gear dry.
  • If there’s a chance of heavy snow, then get yourself a four-season tent with a bomber fly.
  • If it’s going to be warmer, then get yourself a well-vented two-season tent.
Quick Tip: Want a waterproof tent recommendation? See our picks here.

I suggest that you go with a 3-season tent for camping since it is the most versatile option on the market.

tent camp site

How’s The Ventilation?

This is especially important if you’re camping in warmer weather because no one wants their tent to be a sauna. So, you need a tent that has vents, large doors, windows, etc. However, these things all come with a potential issue – more spaces for rain to seep in if the weather is bad. So, consider carefully what type of ventilation you’ll need in advance.

Is It Durable?

Again, this likely won’t be much of a consideration for car campers, but you definitely want to make sure that you’re getting a quality tent before you end up in the backcountry with something that’s not made well.

The easiest way to find durable, quality tent models is to stick with top brands in the industry and get reviews from sites like this and online stores like REI. Some of the best camping tent brands include:

  • Marmot
  • REI
  • The North Face
  • Kelty
  • Big Agnes
  • NEMO

Can You Stand In It?

The bigger the tent, the more ceiling height you get. And while that might not seem like a big deal to you as you’re reading this, I imagine your mind will change after you spend a weekend crouched over in a tent cause you can’t stand upright.

To check if you’ll be able to stand in a potential tent, check out the peak height of the model. This is the highest point of the tent.

How Many Doors Do You Need?

If you’re camping in a large group of people, then you’ll want to look at tents that have more than one door. But if you’re camping as a small family or couple, then one door should be plenty.

What Shape Do You Need?

While tents come in a variety of different shapes, I think that cabin and dome shapes are the best options for campers since they offer up the most room inside.

  • Cabin-style tents feature vertical walls, which gives you the most amount of living space inside the tent.
  • Dome-style tents offer less living space (and headroom) but tend to be more durable and strong.

Does It Have A Rainfly?

Never buy a tent that doesn’t have a rainfly.

It doesn’t matter what time of year you plan to go camping or what the weather will be like in the location, you should always get a tent with a rainfly so that you have that rain protection when unexpected storms or rain showers pop up – and they will.

How’s The Interior Storage?

When you’re comparing tent models, pay attention to the pockets and ceiling loops that are inside of it. You’ll need places to put your lanterns, cell phone, water bottles, etc. and that’s why this is an important consideration.

Freestanding Tents vs. Non-Freestanding Tents

I definitely recommend freestanding tents for most campers, but there are instances where non-freestanding might suit you better.

Freestanding tents stand on their own without the need for stakes, guy lines or ropes. Dome tents are probably the most common type of freestanding tent.

Non-freestanding tents cannot stand on their own and require guy lines, stakes, or ropes for support. A-frame tents are probably the most common type of non-freestanding tent.

Before You Use Your Tent For The First Time

dad and son tent camping

Now that you have your tent and you’re all excited and looking forward to the trip, you might think that your preparations are over. Wrong. Here’s a few things that you need to do before setting out from home.

How’s The Packability?

Once you have all of your camping gear, it’s time to see how it all fits in your pack. Now, for car camping this can probably be skipped since you won’t have to trek far to the campsite.

So, take some time to practice taking the tent out of it’s stuff sack and then putting it back in. See how that fits in your pack. Or, does the tent easily strap to the outside of your backpack for the hike to and from the campsite? You need to test all of this out before leaving home with it.

Can You Easily Set It Up?

You know what would suck? If you hiked in to your campsite and then couldn’t pitch the tent. That’s why you gotta practice pitching the new tent before you ever leave home with it.

This also gives you the chance to get inside of it and make sure that it offers enough room for you and whoever it is that you’re going camping with. Just be sure to practice pitching the tent enough days in advance of your trip that you can exchange it for a different model, if you need to do so.

Also try setting up the tent in the dark. Sure, we all envision a camping trip to have perfect weather where we arrive at the campsite with enough daylight left to pitch the tent. But experienced campers know that’s not how it always works out. If you’re ready to set up camp at 8:30pm and you can’t locate your headlamp, will you be able to pitch the tent? The answer here should be ‘yes.’

Are The Seams Sealed?

To prevent water from seeping through the seems into your tent, you need to check if the tiny needle holes from when the tent was stitched together have been sealed or not. Some brands are taped or sealed before they every leave the factory, but some are not.

So, unpack your tent and inspect all of the seams for signs of sealing. You’ll know it’s been sealed if there is a clear adhesive over the stitches. Likewise, you’ll know if it’s been taped if there is a clear tape that’s been bonded to the seams.

Sealed seams are more waterproof than taped seams, so if your tent’s seams are taped it’s still a good idea to go ahead and seal them. Just use a urethane sealer on the exterior seams for extra protection.

When you apply the sealer, be sure to overlap both sides of the seam by a few millimeters. Be thorough, and your sealant should last for several seasons.

Should You Use A Ground Cover Under The Tent?

tent camping spot
Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you are planning a camping trip, then you might want to consider adding a tarp to your list of essential camping gear.

Why? Because tarps are great for ground cover under your tent.

Do you have to put something down under your tent? Nope. But you should, and I’ll tell you why.

Tarps are an easy way to ensure that you do not get flooded inside the tent if it rains.

You can also use a tarp under the tent to prevent any damage to your tent bottom from a rough terrain.

Using that tarp effectively though depends on the type of terrain where you will be doing your camping. Different types of ground call for different methods of using the tarp for the best results.

If you’re doing your camping in a field or woodland area, then you need to fold the tarp under the tent so that it does not extend beyond its perimeters. Don’t do this and morning dew will end up pooled under your tent, which can then seep through any non-waterproofed areas of the tent bottom.

If you’re doing your camping at the beach, then you do not want your tarp under your tent. Instead, you want it inside the tent on the floor.

Another way to use your tent, regardless of the ground situation, is to place it over the top of your tent. This is a good choice when rain is expected and you’re not concerned with water seeping in from the bottom. Of course, you could put a tarp under the tent as well as on top of it. The reason that a tarp over the tent is a good idea is due to wind that can blow the rain sideways so that it hits areas of the tent that are not waterproofed. And no one wants to be a soggy camper, right?

If you follow these tips, in addition to choosing a camp spot that is on high ground, then you will not wake up in a pool of water if it rains while you are sleeping in your tent.

Now you’re ready to go camping! So head out to your local campground or signup for a discount at The Happy Camper Club and look for a great place for your camping trip.

image credits: Rawpixel, showpx, flashon, alebloshka (Deposit Photos)

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