How to Choose a Tent

Family camping tents come in all shapes and sizes. The right one for you will not necessarily be the right one for someone else, hence the wide variety being sold in stores and catalogs. Do not let photos fool you. See the tent in person if possible!


  1. 1
    Choose your tent size.

    • Determine how many people and how much gear you'll be traveling with and what kind of use you need the tent for. Tents are advertised as two-person, four-person, six-person and so on. This is the maximum number of people that can sleep in closely with no room for personal gear. This rating method makes sense for backpackers who are traveling light, but is terrible for all others. Divide the advertised rating by two, and you will have a more realistic tent capacity. Therefore, most four man tents are only comfortable for two adults, or perhaps two adults and two small children and a pet.
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    • Plan for a minimum of 25 square feet of floor space per person. Make this even higher for longer camping trips, unless reduced weight is important.
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    • Consider actual length and width. If you are six feet tall, you will need a space of at least seven feet to stretch out and not be crammed against the tent sides. You will need at least two and one half feet in width just for sleeping. This equals only 17.5 square feet. A "two-person" tent might be advertised which measures four by seven feet. An eight by eight foot tent is ideal for two adults. You will have enough space for cots or a double air mattress, plus space to stand up when changing clothes. Kids can fit comfortably in smaller tents. Once they are old enough, they will probably want to sleep in a separate tent anyway. Parents will appreciate the privacy provided by this arrangement too. A four by seven foot tent is adequate for children. Teenagers should be considered as adults when fitting a tent.
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    • Add space for clothing, and a space to sit up without crawling over your tent-mate, which will result in a more livable situation. Think more like eight by eight feet as a basic two man family camping tent. This gives you 32 square feet per person.
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    • Be cautious about tents that are larger than 8'x8'. Large family tents are bulky and heavy, so they should not be considered for backpacking, bicycling or motorcycling. Family tents often have removable fabric walls inside to form rooms for privacy. They also have generous space for camp furniture such as cots and chairs. Their main advantage is generous space and sizable windows and doors, which provide great ventilation. Some even come with smaller pet doors and small porches (vestibules). However, large family tents are more difficult to find a big enough spot to set up. Big tents can also be heavy and hard to carry to your campsite, so they should only be considered for car camping. Third, bigger tents are harder to heat and keep warm on cold days because of their interior volume. Fourth, bigger tents can be less stable in high winds unless guy lines are used. Fifth, large tents are more difficult and time-consuming to set up. Occasionally, pitching a large tent can be a two-person operation. Consider bringing several smaller ones instead for large groups.
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    • Consider peak inside height. For car camping and most trips where carrying the tent is not a consideration, try to have a tent that is tall enough for you to stand up in. Plan for the taller person in your group. A six or seven foot peak height is helpful for adults, and a four-foot peak is about right for kids. Remember, the tent walls slope downward at a sharp angle, so the actual spot where you can stand up will be small. Larger spaces will be provided in tents with taller peaks. For most backpacking tents, a height of 40 inches (101.6 cm) or more is provided so the occupants can sit up instead of standing up. Some small one-man tents are only slightly bigger than a sleeping bag and sitting up is not an option. Pick the size which best fits your needs and intended purpose. Generally pick the smallest, lightest tent you can live with if you're backpacking or biking. If you are uncomfortable in small spaces, opt for the larger size.
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  2. 2
    Choose your tent's shape.
    • Tents come in four basic shapes: A-frame, umbrella, geodesic or "dome", and wall. The A-frame is the common "pup" tent shape, but can also be quite large. The umbrella is a commonly used family camping tent, as it has lots of standing room, with large windows and a rain fly over the top. The geodesic comes on many shapes, but all look like a combination of connected triangles. The wall tent is like an A-frame tent, but is generally much larger and has vertical sidewalls.
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    • Tents with square floor shapes are more efficient when laying out sleeping and gear arrangements. Because of other factors, it is not always possible to have a square floor. If you buy a round floor, or nearly round like with the geodesic dome tents, you should allow some extra floor area to make up for the less efficient layout. Dome tents often have hexagonal floors and the triangular corners are usually used for gear storage.
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    • Doors and windows are important considerations. For hot or humid conditions, choose a tent with generous screened window areas. Make sure your tent has a way to close these windows with a Velcro flap, zippered panel, or drawstring closure. Cheaper tents will not have these options. A tent for two or more people should have two doors on opposite sides so a person can exit the tent without climbing over another person.
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  3. 3
    Choose tent poles.
    • Most tents come with either aluminum or fiberglass poles and most are linked with an elastic shock cord. This helps prevent lost poles and makes the setup faster and easier. Poles can bend or break, so many tent manufacturers provide emergency repair links for you to carry along on the trip.
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    • Some poles on more complex tents have pivoted joints or bent sections. It's critical that you understand how to properly set up your tent without applying excess force to the poles to prevent damaging these pivoted joints.
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    • Always set up your tent first at home as a test before using it in the field. It's far better to set it up in good conditions first than try to pitch it on a cold, dark, wet night for the first time.
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      • Usually the maximum pole length will determine the maximum packed length of your tent. Consider this if you will be packing the tent on a bicycle, motorcycle or in a backpack. It is possible to re-section tent poles into smaller lengths so they will pack easier. A professional camping outlet can explain how this it done and sell you the necessary parts or do the work for you.
      • Some tents have inflatable tubes which serve as tent poles. This makes set up and compact packing very simple and easy.
      • Tent poles are attached to the tent in one of three ways: With enclosed channels, clips or hooks or from inside the tent itself. Some good alpine climbing tents will have poles that can be set up from inside the tent, so severe weather is not a consideration. Enclosed channels, which the poles are threaded through, are used on many 4-season tents with full-length flies to minimize air movement between the tents, fly, and provide a smoother, more leak resistant profile. Most modern tents use plastic clips to attach the tent to the poles. This makes the setup and teardown quick, simple, and easy.
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    Choose a good fabric. Nearly all tents are now made of nylon. Breathable nylon is normally used for tent walls. Coated nylon is used for the fly and floor for waterproofing. No-see-um mesh is used for the window screens. Heavier tents use thicker fabric and rip-stop fabric. Keep in mind that tent weight will increase if you choose thicker and denser fabrics. This may be unacceptable if you have to carry your tent on your bike or back. Remember to pack your tent when dry, if possible. If you must pack a wet tent, open it and dry it as soon as you get home, using Lysol, or other disinfectant spray to prevent mildew.
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    Test the zippers. They should open and close freely, and should not catch and bind up on the tent fabric. Zippers should not snag on nylon flaps or frayed fabric. Plastic or brass zippers will not corrode. Steel or aluminum zippers may corrode when wet but are stronger. You can lightly lubricate zipper mechanisms with clear spray silicone to keep them in good working order. When setting a tent up always remember to stake the tent out with the zippers closed so the openings will not be tight and difficult to close later.
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    Seams are often reinforced with nylon tape; however some designs do not require this. The tape is stitched into each seam, and will make the seam stronger and more weatherproof. Waterproof seams in a nylon tent, such as on the fly and floor are waterproofed with a seam sealer or heat sealing process. Your new tent may come with a bottle of seam sealer. Set up the tent in the yard before your trip, and apply the sealer. Let it dry before packing the tent. You should make sure the seams are properly sealed before each trip.
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    Consider potential weather. Wind, rain, sun, heat and cold all have different demands on the tent.
    • Windy areas require sturdy poles, stakes, and guy lines. Geodesic tents are excellent in wind. Their igloo-like shape reduces the wind resistance and their pole arrangement provides great strength. If your tent comes with a vestibule, be sure to set the tent up so it faces away from the wind.
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    • Rain creates three considerations. First, keeping the rain out. Second, giving you enough room so you will be comfortable if you have to "weather" the storm by entertaining yourself indoors for a while. Third, providing enough ventilation with the increased humidity to keep everything dry inside the tent.
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      • Most tents have a waterproof rain fly made of coated nylon or other material. Some high performance backpacking tents use waterproof and breathable wall fabrics so they don't require a fly. The fly should cover the breathable portions of the tent. Some tent flies will only cover a few inches of the top. Others will extend all the way to the ground. The intended tent use dictates this. The fly should keep out all types of rain, even if it is windy. The fly should extend far enough over the door, so it keeps out the rain when you open the door to enter or leave.
      • The floor should also be waterproof coated nylon. This fabric should cover the floor, and turn up the sides for about six inches or so. There should be as few seams as possible. This is called a "tub" floor. It will keep out any water that runs down and under the tent.
      • Be sure to buy a footprint (groundcloth) to go with your tent. This will not only protect the floor from rocks and debris, but can prevent ground condensation inside the tent if you pitch your tent on a cold, damp site. Many tents are available with a matching footprint that can be snapped or clipped to the bottom of the tent.
    • Sun and heat create the need for shade and airflow. The rain fly will provide shade for the tent. Large screened windows on opposite sides of the tent, or a screened window opposite a screened door, will allow air to flow through the tent to prevent condensation.
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    • Cold weather brings special needs. Unless you will be dealing with snow (when you would need a mountaineering tent), you can use a "three-season" tent that has good features. The most important features will be a rain fly that covers the top and sides, and an interior layer made from an open mesh fabric to allow water vapor to pass through it. In cool weather, warm water vapor inside the tent, from damp fresh air and moist air you exhale, will condense on the cooler surface of the tent's exterior. The only way to prevent this is to allow the excess water vapor to escape from the tent by passing through the mesh fabric.
      • The tent size may also be a consideration if you plan to camp in cool weather. Your body heat will keep a small tent much warmer than outside. However, some campers will use a tent heater in their large tent. Heaters are not always safe in small tents due the closeness of the tent walls. If you use a catalytic heater, remember that these consume oxygen and require adequate ventilation. If you do use a heater, remember to open any tent windows or vents to allow air to circulate. In smaller tents in cold climates, consider using a sleeping bag with a colder temperature rating or a safely suspended enclosed candle lantern instead.
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    Keep cost in mind.
    • In general, the higher priced tents are made with stronger fabric, stronger poles, have stronger stitching and more features. They will withstand higher winds and heavier rain. They will last longer. If well cared for, a good tent can last for many years. However, not everyone needs this strength and durability. In milder and drier climates and close to home ("just in case") the least expensive tents are good bargains.
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    • If you are just beginning your family camping adventures and don't know if you will like camping, then you might want to choose lower cost tents. It is very likely that you will plan your first trips for warm, dry weather and will probably remain close to "civilization" until you gain some experience. You can always upgrade to a better tent later, and keep your original budget tent for when conditions allow.
    • Try to borrow a tent or purchase one used if it is your first time camping.
    • Learn from your experiences with your first tent for when you upgrade to a better one.


  • Generally speaking, do not have an open flame inside your tent. Nylon is combustible and ignites easily. You do not want to wake up in a burning tent! If you're using a candle lantern instead of a flashlight, make sure it's fully enclosed and suspended from the tent ceiling by a long cord so it's not close to the tent ceiling or walls. Open the tent chimney flap (if equipped) and any windows. Never place a candle on the tent floor where it can be knocked over. Only use catalytic heaters in large tents with adequate ventilation. Never use a camp stove inside a tent!
  • Don't be afraid to mark poles, grommets or other parts to make them easier to use. A piece of colored tape on a pole can make setup easier in the field.
  • Use a tent footprint (groundcloth). This will protect your investment and provide an extra insulating layer between you and the cold, damp ground.
  • Retain the original assembly instructions that came with the tent. Insert a copy of the instructions into a zip-lock bag or have them laminated to keep them dry and extend their life. This comes in handy when you are setting the tent up for the first time at the start of each camping season.
  • Most tents should not be washed in a washing machine with detergent. This will damage the coated nylon used on the floor and fly. If you do need to clean your tent, consult with a professional dry cleaner.
  • Don't forget to bring stakes! Even with freestanding dome tents with personal items inside, a strong wind can loft your tent and contents. If weight is a consideration, you can omit a hammer and use a large rock, but stakes are important.
  • Pack a small repair kit. This should include a few sewing supplies, seam sealer, pole repair parts, and waterproof tape.
  • A small tent light or flashlight with a suspension hook that you can hang from the ceiling is very useful.
  • Before you take your new tent out for your first trip, set it up in your backyard. This way, you will be familiar with how to pitch it, and you will know that you have all the parts. You can also spend a night in it, so you can see if it does suit your needs. You don't want to be in the woods, when it's cold, dark and wet trying to figure out which pole goes where, or finding out there's a piece missing.
  • Prep the tent site before pitching the tent. "Sweep" the area for any sharp rocks, sticks, glass or other debris. If the site isn't perfectly level, remember to sleep with your head elevated - not your feet.
  • Always fully zip up your tent door. Spiders and other bugs will end inside if you don't.
  • Always bring the tent fly, even if the weather report is good. Better to have it, not need it, than need it, and not have it. Also, remember that a tent fly does more than just keep rain off a tent. It also provides an insulating vapor barrier to keep the tent warmer and can provide more privacy on tents, which utilize large screen panels.
  • Be sure you take plenty of materials, food and water.
  • Pack your tent when it's dry. If you must pack a wet tent, be sure to set it up when you get home to let it dry out. You can use Lysol or other disinfectant to prevent mildew.


  • This wikiHow is designed for campers, not a backpacker. If you intend to backpack long distances, bicycle tour or motorcycle camp - opt for smaller, lighter, more compact tents, since space is not the primary concern.

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Categories: Tents