How to Buy a Tent
|The non-freestanding Contrail (courtesy, TarpTent)|
Modern tents are marvels of super-strong materials—much lighter and more durable than ever before. New tents are easy to set up (if an eight-year-old can't erect the tent in your back yard then take it back!). Tents now have excellent ventilation thanks to new methods of seam welding and taping. Zippers have improved immeasurably in the last decade—they should run smoothly, not stick, and never break. If the tent materials seem cheap, don't buy it.
As you'll soon realize, there is a multitude of styles (from arch ceiling domes to simple A-frames to cabana-style multi-room mini-mansions). Some tents have lots of head room and are comfortable for those rainy days when you lounge around camp. Others are built for fast and light mountaineering expeditions when weight is an issue and the design must withstand 50 mile-per-hour winds and feet of snow. But it all beaks down into two options:
- Non-Freestanding: This style dominated the tents of yore (boasting an A-frame design with a central pole and lots of rope that lashed the tent to the ground via stakes), but new designs, made possible by new materials and sewing techniques, are antiquated no more. The tents still gain their structure via ropes, stakes, and tensioned guylines, so you'll need solid ground or tree cover—and sometimes soggy ground will make this tricky—but these tents are also almost universally 1 to 1.5 pounds lighter because they commonly use less material. And newer, backpacker-friendly designs employ hiking poles as the main support. There even a few sleeping "backcountry" hammocks out there, which we'd add to this group. Non-freestanding shelters are, however, less durable in extreme conditions.
- Freestanding: These are most common today and typically are dome-shaped. They're more durable in extreme weather, aren't dependant on stakes or rope to pitch, go up faster, and often boast more space than non-freestanding tents. The basic design has two poles that crisscross at the apex of the tent and anchor down at the four corners, though more elaborate pole configurations are only limited by the tent-maker's imagination. Ideally you'd stake down the four corners so that a gust of wind doesn't send it spinning like a synthetic tumblewee, though in most cases a sleeping bag or pack will weigh down the tent when you are not inside. Many freestanding tents come with two entries, which is great when you have multiple occupancy.
Most tents these days are "double-wall," a nylon and mesh main tent and with a separate waterproof/breathable rain fly. This configuration fits 99 percent of most situations, and gives you options: If there's no foul weather forecasted, you can leave off the rain fly and enjoy the cool breeze and gaze at the stars. Many double-wall tents also have vestibules, which are spaces outside the inner tent that are protected from the elements by the fly. The covered, floorless space can shelter muddy shoes, excess gear, and sleeping dogs.
Single-wall tents are typically lighter and more expensive. They boast high-quality waterproof/breathable laminates as well as strategically placed mesh sections to allow for ventilation. Most also a have small vestibule at the tent opening for cooking and gear.
And don't forget to think about the little details like internal mesh pockets for your headlamp, keys, glasses, and other close-at-hand essentials. Pockets add weight, but a few well-placed ones make tent-life more enjoyable.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication