Ask yourself five key questions before buying a new shelter.
1. How big? Interior space and vestibule size will make or break your tent experience. It’s not just the number of people that matters, but what conditions you expect. Couples and ultralight zealots might love a snug two-person tent that would drive others crazy. Live in the Pacific Northwest? You’ll want extra space for storm lounging and storing wet gear. Shop with your most frequent camping partner so you can both climb in and gauge space.
2. How strong? Choose a tent equipped to handle the worst weather you expect—not the worst weather you imagine, just what you’re really likely to encounter (you can always rent a tent for Denali). For most hikers, three-season tents afford an attractive compromise between weight and protection. But there’s much variation between models when it comes to wind resistance and the ability to handle a shoulder-season snow load. Going high in the Rockies? Lean into the pitched tent to gauge wind-loaded stability. Expect to camp in heat and humidity? Prioritize mesh panels.
3. How light? Don’t let ounce-counting sucker you into a tent that you won’t be happy with in camp. General three-season shelter rule: Expect to carry about two pounds per person. More protection will add weight, and lighter materials increase price.
4. How easy? Freestanding tents are fast to pitch and easy to erect (and move, if necessary) on difficult-to-stake surfaces like snow or sand. Nonfreestanding designs typically save weight, but can be more difficult to set up. Tarps or trekking-pole shelters offer the most weight savings, but aren’t practical if bugs (or your knot-tying skills) are a problem.
5. What features? Determine your must-haves and be picky. Consider: ease of entry/exit and number of doors; vestibule size; tent color (bright and visible vs. blend-in earth tones); organizing and gear lofts; fastpitch (fly-only) setup for saving weight in moderate, bug-free conditions; ceiling mesh (for stargazing on fair nights).
Ask to unpack and pitch the tent yourself (politely refuse help from sales clerks). Is it quick to lay out and erect? Disassemble and stuff? Are you shopping for a two-person? Ask someone to climb inside with you. Bring your gear (or raid store shelves) and see how equipment fits in the vestibule.
Visit websites that allow you to view the tent from multiple angles (rei.com; most manufacturers). Do the walls angle sharply toward the ceiling? Do vestibule zippers look more than arm’s-length from the door? Do this simple reality check: Use masking tape to outline the floor dimensions in your living room, and place sleeping pads inside.