How to Buy a Tent

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How to Buy a Tent
The freestanding Copper Spur (courtesy, Big Agnes)

From single to double walls, ultra-light one-person bivies to multi-room backcountry Taj Mahals, from aluminum-construct tent poles to stand-alones to cavernous vestibules, the novice tent-buyer can easily get overwhelmed by the options. But you don't need a decoder ring to find your perfect outdoor shelter. It's as simple as determining how you plan on using the tent, then determining size, weight, and price. Follow our lead, and you'll be pitching the perfect tent in no time.

First Things First
Tent manufacturers work on tight margins—the price for tents is directly related to the quality and the durability of materials used. And since tent makers buy materials (fabric, zippers, and poles) from the same suppliers, there is not a lot of flexibility in price. Basically, you get what you pay for—with the caveat that, all other things being equal (like size and shape), you'll pay a premium for ultra-lightweight materials; a 2.5-pound tent may cost as much as $50 to $100 more than a three-pounder.

To start, plan on spending at least $100. While camping is supposed to be fun, a tent is really a survival piece of equipment. It provides shelter from bugs, rain, snow, and even sun. Sometimes, when bad weather hits, you can just pack up and go home. But if an unexpected storm blows through camp in the middle of the night or if you're literally miles from your car, the last thing you want is a collapsed wall or leaky roof.

Next, decide on what you expect from your tent. If your ambitions are focused on car camping, then weight is less of an issue (think two to three pounds per person). Assisted mobility—bike, kayak, or canoe—on the horizon? Weight becomes more of a concern. Carrying the full weight of the tent on your back? Then welcome to the wonderful world of ultralight shelters. In this world, a two- to three-person tent should hover at the four-pound mark on the scale.

If this is your first tent, versatility is key. You likely want a free-standing tent, so you can pitch it on rock, tundra, sand, or even snow. If long stretches of the AT are part of your weekend resume, then something lighter (say, something that uses hiking poles and ropes for support) might make more sense, but unless you've got a singular activity in mind, find something that would work for a wider variety of situations.

Finally, keep in mind that manufacturers want you to enjoy your experience. They are careful to include very exact technical specifications in their product literature. You can go online and compare size, shape, weight, and capacity—but do some on-the-ground homework. Most outdoor stores have tents already set up, so you can crawl in, stretch out, and familiarize yourself with the features. Ask about renting a tent before you buy—it is a great way to gauge how your needs relate to size and feature sets. By shopping around and comparing prices, size, and weight, you'll soon realize that for the price of a few tanks of gas, you can invest in a state-of-the-art shelter that is easy to set up, provides great ventilation, withstands all but hurricane winds, and won't collapse under a few inches of snow. Consider it an investment in your future. Like buying a house, buy the best one that you can afford.

Published: 26 Apr 2011 | Last Updated: 19 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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