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Gear Reviews

Rip & Equip: Tents

Tips on buying the right tent for your backpacking style. Plus, cleaning and repair advice.

Shop Smart | Anatomy of a Tent | Care Instructions

Shop Smart

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).

Shopping Tips


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 (; 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.

Shop Smart | Anatomy of a Tent | Care Instructions

Buying Advice

>> Size right. Square footage isn’t as indicative of real-world space as a tent’s footprint and peak height, so check dimensions and shape. For a two-person tent, anything less than 50 inches wide will feel tight. To evaluate height, sit inside and attempt to don a pullover without hitting the walls.

>> Stump the salesman. You’ll get the best help from someone who actually camps. Ask him or her what tent they use and why, and what conditions they’ve seen. Don’t feel like you’re talking to an expert? Ask to speak with another associate—or find another store.

>> Find a bargain. Look for marked-down tents in Hilton’s Tent City Bargain Basement ( Jonesing for a particular brand? Watch for manufacturer-specific coupons (at press time, Sierra Designs tents were marked down 20 percent or more).

>> Skip the footprint. Save money and weight by making your own groundcloth out of Tyvek. Learn how at


Sleeves vs. Clips

Pole sleeves add strength by distributing tension across the fly, but threading them during setup can be frustrating, especially in windy conditions.

Pole clips enhance airflow under the fly and improve ventilation; they’re also lightweight and a snap to pitch.


Care Instructions

Shop Smart | Anatomy of a Tent | Care Instructions


Dirt and mold compromise waterproofing and clog zippers. But don’t wash your tent in a machine. Even on a gentle cycle or in a front-loader, the agitation damages the fabric and waterproofing. Instead, pitch your tent, spray it with a hose inside and out, and scrub off dirt with a soft brush or sponge and a bucket of water mixed with a drop of mild soap (Joy or Dawn work well). Rinse well so there’s no soap residue, let the tent air-dry, then treat any worn areas with a sealant such as McNett Gear Aid Tent to re-waterproof. When the canopy and fly are finished drying, stuff and store them. Before packing poles or stakes, inspect them for damage, scrub, and let dry.


>> Maximize airflow and prevent condensation. Use this high/low venting technique: Open the bottom of a door at one end and the top of a door at the opposite end.

>> Pitch your tent on a flat, well-draining surface. You don’t want water to pool underneath, even with a waterproof floor—the vestibule will still be a swamp.

>> Prevent UV degradation. Long-term exposure (think high-elevation basecamps) can cause coatings to peel and fabric to stiffen. Treat your tent with a UV protector such as Granger’s Tent and Gear Proofer; when possible, dry your tent in the shade.

>> Bombproof your tent by using every guy-out point. Fasten the pole attachments (on the inside of the fly) and stake them out securely. In snow and sand, tie the cord around rocks, sticks (turned horizontal), or fabric anchors, then bury them about a foot deep. To make the line adjustable, use MSR’s CamRing Cord Tensioners ($10;, or a tautline hitch (A). For a knot demo see

>> Keep snow and frost out. In wintry conditions, bring a tent brush and sweep out the white stuff before it melts.



>> Leaky seams Paint on a thin coating of sealer like McNett Seam Grip on problem areas (both inside and outside) and over seams.

>> Rips and holes For holes larger than a pencil eraser:

1. Wipe the area clean with water and an alcohol prep pad from your first-aid kit. Let dry, and trim away loose threads.

2. Cut an adhesive-backed patch (round the edges) to cover the hole by at least one-half-inch on each side. Try Tear-Aid’s Type A fabric patches (available at hardware stores).

3. Apply the patch to the tent’s inside and smooth out air bubbles.

4. For floor or rainfly repairs, patch both sides or seal the outside with Seam Grip (for PU-coated nylon).

>> Broken pole Slide a metal sheath onto the pole (your tent likely came with one sized for your poles) and center it over the break. Duct-tape it securely in place. When you get home, call your tent’s manufacturer for a replacement pole section.

>> Slack pole cord Remove the cap from one end, cut off five inches of cord, reknot the end back to the pole, and replace the cap.


Never Do This

>> Store a wet tent One word: mildew.

>> Snap pole sections together This chips and eventually splits segment ends, making it difficult to connect them. Instead, gently place the poles together.

>> Prime a liquid-fuel stove in your vestibule Runaway flames can easily melt the synthetic fabric.

>> Fold your tent the same way each time Creating the same creases over and over can compromise the DWR coating. Vary your folds, or stuff it.

Secret from the Pro

“Reality check: Once those ugly black mildew stains appear on your tent, they’re there for life. As for that rank smell that always comes hand-in-hand with mildew stains? Try this technique for removing it: Mix 1 cup of salt, 1 cup of concentrated lemon juice, and 1 gallon of hot water. Scrub the tent down using a vegetable brush or big sponge, then air dry it.”

— Excerpted from BACKPACKER’s Complete Guide to Outdoor Gear Maintenance

and Repair ($20,

Select Stakes

Learn to pick the best anchors for any con-dition at

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