A tent is more than just a few synthetic walls—it’s a way to turn the great outdoors into your cozy mountain home for the night. Pristine landscapes and fresh mountain air draw us from the safety from our homes to sleep under the stars, and the right gear can make or break a night in the outdoors. So whether you’re car camping on the beach or on a multiday backpacking trip through the high Sierra, here’s a guide to help you find your perfect match.
Car camping: If you’re driving right up to your campsite, then weight isn’t much of an issue. With car camping I like to prioritize comfort—go big or go home! Large, cabin-style car camping tents are great for weekends where you’re posting up at a big site and staying for a few days. You’ll enjoy having room to stand up, plus you can invite your friends to huddle inside and play cards if the rain chases you away from your fire.
Backpacking: On an overnight trip where you’ll be hauling all of your belongings, weight starts to play a big part. Choose a lightweight backpacking-specific tent that separates easily so you can divide it between packs for the hike in. Backpacking tents are typically a little smaller, so it’s usually a good bet to buy a tent that’s one person bigger than your party. A four-person backpacking tent fits three people comfortably with a little extra room to store some gear. There’s no official industry standard for tent capacity so a two-person tent can vary in size depending on the brand.
Unless you’re camping in the high alpine or winter conditions, you’ll get along just fine with a 3-season tent. A 3-season backpacking tent will typically have mesh panels, lightweight fabrics and fewer poles to keep things simple and the weight low.
If you’re backpacking in the lush forests of the Northwest, you’ll want a solid rain fly and a vestibule to stash your gear to keep it dry. If you’re car camping in Moab make sure your tent has ample ventilation to promote airflow when the hot desert sun hits, but you can probably get away without a spacious vestibule.
If you’re heading out on a frosty wintertime adventure, you’ll need a 4-season tent. These sturdy winter tents can handle harsh winds and significant snowfall. The dome shape helps a 4-season tent withstand serious wind and shed snowfall to keep it from stacking up on the roof.
Rain fly: The fly is a standalone waterproof cover that you can fix to the roof of your tent. A rainfly offers protection from rain, wind, and chilly morning frost. It also adds insulation if you’re camping in a dry, cold climate. If you’re camping in the summer and temperatures don’t dip too low, it can be nice to leave the fly off for a little late-night stargazing, but don’t underestimate how much heat you’ll lose without it.
Vestibule: An extension of the rainfly. Vestibules give you sheltered storage for your boots, gear, or any items that are too dirty to stash inside the tent. Vestibules are essential in humid climates where there’s a chance of rainfall, or anywhere you’re concerned about your gear getting wet.
Loops and pockets: Once you’re inside the tent, pockets and loops come in handy for organizing your temporary home. Loops at the top are the perfect spot to hang a lantern for a few rounds of late night poker, and the pockets make a good place to keep stuff sacks and tent bags so you can locate them easily when it’s time to pack up.
Footprint: The footprint is usually sold separately and protects your tent floor from dirt, rocks, and water. It’s important to choose a footprint that’s been sized to your tent exactly—if it’s too big, rain collects and seeps into the floor. Consider investing in one because a footprint costs much less to replace than an entire tent.
Ventilation: Mesh panels promote airflow to keep your tent cool. In hot and humid climates, look for a tent with more mesh panels so you won’t overheat. If you’re camping in the cold, 4-season tents typically have less panels to enhance insulation so you don’t lose precious heat.
Doors: Multiple doors come in handy when you’ve got a few people crammed into a tent. It’s nice to have a few ways out so you don’t have to hop over everyone when you have to pee in the middle of the night. YKK zippers are generally more durable and will minimize snagging on your tent walls.
Ease of setup: If you’re backpacking, choose a tent that’s relatively simple so that it’s quick to put up when you roll into camp much later than planned. Cooking dinner, choosing a campsite, and setting up a tent in the dark is hard as it is. Don’t make it harder than it needs to be. Car camping tents often have more moving pieces than backpacking tents. This is usually fine because chances are you’ll have more hands to help and resources around, but make sure you know how to set up the tent before you go out. Many outdoor shops will let you construct the tent before you buy it.
Shape: Dome- and cabin-style tents are the most common shapes you’ll see. Cabin-style tents usually have more vertical walls and have more livable space, while dome-style tents are often lower to the ground. You’ll find that car camping tents are often cabin-style, with tall ceilings and sometimes room dividers. Dome-style tents survive better in rugged climates due to their sloped walls that shed wind and snow.
Choosing a tent can be overwhelming. But taking a little extra time to make sure you’ve found the right fit for your activity will make all the difference in the world when you’re setting up your new home in the woods. When you’re wandering through high alpine lakes on a multi-day traverse or snuggling up with that special someone on the beach, you’ll be glad to have a cozy and comfortable escape—with the proper tent, anywhere is home.
Cover photo by Erinn Hale at Finney Farm, WA.
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