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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Tent Buying Guide

Shopping for a tent is like shopping for a home: there are dozens of styles, designs, sizes, and features to consider. In this guide, gear editor Kristin Hostetter shows you how to pick the right one for any outing.

by: Kristin Hostetter, Illustrations by Supercorn

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Tent Types

Tents fall into five basic categories:
  • Summer/Screen
  • Three-Season
  • Convertible
  • Mountaineering/Winter
  • Tarp

These tents are designed for maximum ventilation and bug protection in steamy summer months. Good ones--with strong skeletal systems and full-coverage rain flies--can handle weather from moderate breezes to summer thunderstorms. Summer tents feature large swaths of mesh (as opposed to nylon), so when you peel back the fly, air flows freely through the shelter.

Aimed at keeping you dry and cozy in any conditions, from spring through fall, three-season tents are structured to handle strong winds (but not snow loads), and the walls are made from a combination of mesh and ventilation, which strikes a good balance between ventilation and protection.

This type of shelter is aimed at campers who dabble in all types of conditions. It's a hybrid design that features pole, vestibule, and rainfly options that allow you to strip it down for summer trips or fortify it for stormy adventures. Walls often feature mesh windows with solid nylon panels that can be zipped close when weather hits. The tradeoff for all that versatility is weight. These tents are typically heavier than other options.

With tough fabrics, sturdy pole structures, and plentiful external guy-out points (loops affixed at various key points on the tent's fly), these tents are built for the harshest conditions. They typically have low, boulder-like shapes to help shed wind, and large vestibules for gear storage.

Geared toward ultralighters who will sacrifice anything to save weight, a tarp is one solid sheet of nylon or polyester that can be rigged to trees, roots, boulders or trekking poles. Good knot-tying skills are essential to get the most out of this type of shelter and since there are no walls or floor and bug protection is sacrificed, but if rigged properly, tarps can be surprisingly weather-resistant.

Backpacker Tips: Selecting the Right Tent
When shopping for a tent, you'll find a ton of specs and numbers, which can be confusing and often misleading if you don't know how to analyze them. Here, our checklist for getting the most out of your money.

  • Floor Space: When looking at floor space, check the dimensions, not just the square footage. Tall guys need a longer layout; stout hikers need more elbow room.
  • Headroom: Total headroom will be dictated by wall slope ("hubbed" or short "eyebrow" poles often mean steeper sidewalls and better living space). Think about how many people you'll be camping with and what kind of weather you might be dealing with. Think you might be tent-bound for days in bad weather? Tents with consistent headroom from end to end are great for foul weather card games. Concerned about weight? Ultralight designs--often low ceilinged or sloped at the foot--are better for sleeping than sitting.
  • Shape: Aside from the square footage of your tent's vestibule, consider the shape. High-roofed rectangular designs offer more dry storage and a safe place to cook in wind and rain. See more on shape below.

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