Tent Buying Guide

Tent Selection: A Comprehensive Buying Guide

The very first two decisions when determining what kind of tent you should get are: 1) How many people do you want to be comfortable in it? (its sleeping capacity); and 2) under what conditions do you intend to use it?

The first is obvious. You want a tent with room for everyone to be able to lie out a pad and sleeping bag and have reasonable room to sleep — and store a little gear — without invading another camper’s space. The second question focuses on the time of year, and the kind of environment in which you intend to use your tent.

Basically, tents are 3-Season or 4-Season tents. Both come in a variety of sizes, shapes and materials. Tents feature high pitches to roofs that shed water and snow. Dome tents are aerodynamic and designed to shed rain/snow and wind. Three-Season tents are designed to be used during the spring-summer-fall seasons, basically during milder, warmer, fair-weather — your basic summer tent camping.

Four-Season tents are usually more rugged, backcountry styles that offer optimum wind and snow shedding protection. They are designed to protect against an onslaught of severe weather elements throughout the entire year — summer and winter.

Tents are also classified as “backpacker” that range from very light, one-man fabric envelopes up to tents that are typically sized for up to three campers. A “family style” tent usually refers to one designed for four or more campers (these are most often the type preferred by “car campers”). Other factors that further defines the difference between the two are the overall weight of the tent and its components/accessories.

Shapes/Styles Of Tents

Tents can be sorted into three basic shapes or styles:

  1. Dome/Igloo: As the name suggests, these tents are rounded in shape, typically with an external framework. They can be small, ultralight backpacking models all the way up to huge mound-like structures. They shed wind/rain well and are easy to set up.
  2. Pyramid/Teepee: These are less common tents, typically with a center pole, offering high peak height and the walls may be vertical from the base up to a point where they taper to the peak; their high-pitched roof sheds rain and snow.
  3. Cottage/Cabin/Wall: These tents are the high volume, house-like structures, some of which even have dividers to compartmentalize the tent. A backcountry base camp wall tent is a classic example of this design type. Features include vertical walls, high ceiling, options for cots, stove, etc.

Once these elementary design options have been determined, other factors within each shape option become part of the decision-making process. These, too, will be based upon your intended us, the conditions you might encounter, and even the physical size of the campers using the tent.

Features, Factors To Consider Before Purchasing A Tent

Dimensions/Floor Space

The square footage of floor space or simply the length-x-width measurements don’t always reveal the comfortable camper space a tent might offer. First, the angle at which the walls rise from the floor may limit how close to the edge one can lay without rubbing the sidewall. Also, the size and location of vestibules may affect total usable sleeping area as well as the amount of gear that can be stored inside the tent, too.

Smaller tents for one to two people usually provide an average of about 20 square feet of space per person while “larger” tents classified for three persons up to six person tend to have only 15- to 17 square feet of space per person (but may offer more space for gear).

Manufacturers use the standard of 20 inches a person as the average width to determine the “sleeping capacity” of a tent. The shape of the floor will also determine how that standard is applied to the sleeping configuration: two tents with equal floor square footages, but different shapes may mean that campers can sleep shoulder-to-shoulder in one, but requiring them to sleep head-to-feet in the other.

Dimensions/Peak Height

The highest point in the tent, from floor to ceiling is called the “peak height.” In some tents (dome, teepee, wall), it is in the center of the ceiling. In others it may be off to the side. Backpacking/two-person tents provide enough room to be able to sit up, but not stand. Depending upon the shape of the tent, high peak heights will enable some campers to stand erect, but only in one place, while other designs might allow a camper to walk around inside the tent without stooping. More vertical tent walls optimize the ability to move upright around a larger portion of the interior without stooping.

Tent Panels/Roof & Walls

  • Tent roofs are typically a combination of fabric and mesh. These fabrics are waterproof/water-resistant and have degrees of UV protection. Three-season tents tend to have more panels that incorporate mesh into the sidewalls. Four-season tents tend to have all-fabric panels that provide more strength.
  • Fabrics used include polyester ripstop nylon, polyurethane-coated nylon, and other materials.
  • Ultralight tents often use a variety of synthetic, breathable fabrics such as Gore-Tex and other current technologies.
  • Wall tents are often made out of canvas, which has high breathability, but needs a protective coating to shed water.
  • Tents with mesh/insect netting that extends to/across the roof offer great ventilation, but need to incorporate a rain fly to protect the interior of the tent.
  • Some tent walls/panels have windows covered in mesh or clear polyethylene.
  • Light-colored panels tend to make the tent interior lighter; darker panels may offer a bit more warmth.

Tent Floor

Foot traffic in a tent pitched on a rough surface is one of the fastest ways to wear down a tent floor. Typically a tent’s floor is made of one of the following materials:

  • Nylon/poly taffeta: It is quiet and lightweight.
  • Oxford: Nylon or polyester, made of sturdy fibers that are water-resistant and durable. Offers a puncture-resistant floor, which is good for tables, chairs, cots.
  • Polyethylene: It has good water-resistance, but is heavy and noisy, and won’t pack down small.
  • Vinyl: It is very durable and water-resistant, and a good wilderness base camp material. However, it is heavy and doesn’t pack down small. It’s a good lean-to/groundcloth material, however.

Tent Floor Construction. Tent floors are either “bathtub” or “perimeter” style.

  • Bathtub floors are like a shallow pan of one-piece waterproof/resistant fabric that provides both the floor and a short sidewall up the sides of the tent. Depending upon the cut/construction/tautness of the tent, they can round up the edge of the tent, limiting usable floor space.
  • Perimeter floors, sometimes called “caternary,” have a seam at the edge of the floor that creates a taut edge all along the base of the tent. Some designs utilize both styles, using the bathtub edge alongside panels, and perimeter cuts at the entrances.
    In both cases, the use of seam sealing tape (where applicable) and high denier fabric add to the quality of construction and serviceability of the tent’s floor.

Tent ‘Footprint’ Vs. Ground Cloth Tarps

One issue with a ground cloth is that if it extends beyond the lower edge of the tent panels, water runs down the tent and flows out across the top of the tarp creating a wet surface beneath the floor. A “footprint” tarp is often sold separately for tents and is designed to be the exact shape or footprint of the tent floor — and slightly smaller so it doesn’t extend beyond the edges. A lightweight ground cloth/tarp can also be used for the same purpose if it doesn’t extend out beyond the cover of the tent’s side panels. You can create your own footprint using a sheet of water-resistant fabric such as a canvas tarp or nylon ground cloth.

[NOTE: Some camping experts recommend using a ground tarpinside your tent instead of a “footprint” tarp — to create your own removable “bathtub” floor. This interior ground cloth keeps you dry regardless of what the water is doing outside the tent. Each claim their preferred method also reduces the wear on the tent floor.]

Tent Poles

Tension and structural shape is maintained by the use of small, but strong and flexible tubes. The tent shell is connected to the framework via either sleeves through, which tubes are fed or along a series of clips that hook onto the tube across the body of the tent. Both provide tension that gives the tent its shape and strength. Tents with sleeves provide a bit more strength along the entire length of the sleeve, while clips tend to provide more ventilation between the tent roof and fly.

Poles are typically made of:

  • Steel: These are strong, but heavy, and tend to corrode. Many older, larger tents still have steel poles.
  • Aluminum: These are standard issue now with tents: they are lightweight, durable, strong; DAC aluminum poles have been developed to be stronger and use “Green” processes making them a more popular type of aluminum pole in today’s tent market.
  • Fiberglass: These are commonly used for their durability, but are not as rigid as aluminum.
  • Carbon fiber: These are extremely lightweight (mostly used in backpacking/ultralight tents).

Some tent poles are color-coded to match sleeves or staking points. Some tent poles are “hubbed” — connected or radiating out from a hub that joins two poles together, usually at a crossing point in the framework. They are considered stronger and reduce the number of separate, individual poles to handle.

Tent Fly

A tent fly is a roof-like panel that covers the tent providing extra protection against the elements. Tents either have a partial fly that covers only the roof, while others have a full tent fly that is like a fabric shell over the entire tent.

Partial Fly

Often used to protect just the top of the tent from the elements, particularly those with mesh panels in the ceiling. Since the fly doesn’t cover the sidewalls, they provide more ventilation and light to enter the tent and enable viewing out windows in side panels. Tents using partial flies mean their panels are exposed and should be seam sealed.

Full Fly

This is an outer fabric shell that complete encloses the tent for increased protection from the elements. Besides strategically placed ventilation openings, most flies are solid panels providing only one or two door entrances and no windows. A tent with a high percentage of mesh panels incorporates a full tent fly for protection and optimum ventilation.

A full fly typically has guy loops attached along seams and/or at vent flaps for use in adding guy lines to increase outward tension to the fly (tighten the shell against the elements, increase air flow space between fly and tent, etc.).

Polyurethane coatings are used to waterproof tent flies.

[NOTE: for optimum protection against moisture, a tent fly needs to extend out/down beyond the lower end of the tent shell otherwise water will run off the fly and flow down under the edge of the tent.]

Tent Tips

The ends/tips of tent poles are secured to the tent’s anchor points in two ways

  • Tip & Grommet: A tip insert in the pole tube fits into a grommet on an anchor point strap at the bottom edge of the tent (at corners and at strategic tension points along the outer edge).
  • Ball Caps: A ball on the end of the pole tube securely snaps into a socket connection at strategic anchor points along the tent perimeter. This type of connection is more secure in the wind.


Other features to look for in a tent include:


Typically an additional protected space at the entrance to a tent (like a covered porch on a house), or an additional space inside a tent for storage of gear beyond the sleeping space. Vestibules are often defined by the extent and shape of a full fly over the tent shell.


Panels covered in insect netting offer a view to the outside and provide portals for ventilation either as open weave (standard screen door size) or no-see-um insect screens. The smaller the mesh, the more restrictive the passage of air through the window. Some tents offer a clear poly’ sheet (a flexible window pane), which offers a clear view, but no ventilation. Tents with full flies may utilize mesh windows/panels to aid in ventilation, but provide no viewing option when fly is used.


Typically tents offer fabric pockets (usually mesh) for storage of small items within the tent. Some are sewn in along lower seams; other can be suspended by hooks in/near the ceiling. Other accessories include loops for small clotheslines or special hooks for hanging tent lighting.

Other Factors To Consider

Selecting a tent also includes an awareness of the tent’s overall weight based on access to your intended campsites; the options within your price range; the conditions in which you expect to be camping; the overall ease of pitching the tent; and its durability/wear over time. You even have options on a variety of tent stakes to consider.
Selecting the right tent requires that you do your homework, get the opinion of other campers (check out appealing tents next time you are in a campground), and work with reputable retailers, such as The Sportsman’s Guide. The days of floorless, center and poled pup tents is long past, modern materials and aerodynamic designs have made tents a significant piece of equipment in today’s high-tech outdoor industry.

Great! Now that you know what to look for in tents so you can make the best decision. Make sure you check out Sportsman’s Guide for the latest selection of tents.

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7 Responses to “Tent Selection: A Comprehensive Buying Guide”

  1. Michael Smith

    There should have some coverage on one person and bivy style shelters for the go it alone hikers and campers.

    • Tom Kacheroski

      Thanks for the feedback, Michael! One-person tents were referred to in the article, but we will have our camping expert Tom Watson dig a little deeper into the features and benefits of them. Thanks for being a customer of Sportsman’s Guide!

  2. Jeanene Arrington-Fisher

    Great info! Will be sharing!

  3. Patrick Bennett

    Dome/Igloo is only way to go, in my experience, unless it seldom rains where you camp. Tepees are super cool looking, but walls slope inward so much that you cannot stand , or even sit, in about 1/2 the tent. My wife and I and 6 kids used to camp about 3 WEnds a month. I found a pristine 10×18 cabin /wall tent with a lot of screened windows – it had an interior wall to zip in place, with one of the 9x10s a screen room until you zipped up the walls. The floor never leaked, none of the tent did. Sturdiest tent I’ve ever seen. And I “stole” it for $135! Loved it, like our chalet in the country. About the 8th time we used it , the rain came down in buckets and those huge almost flat roof panels would become huge bowls of 8#/gal water if someone didn’t stay outside in the downpour to keep drifting the water off. My job. Greatest tent, except for that; even high gusty winds didn’t bother it. I live in Florida, natural home of squalls and torrential downpours – – anyplace else except heavy snow areas, Its the best.

    • TOM watson

      Yup, horizontally flat sections of tent roofs tend to sag and collect water. One technique to minimize this may be to use a “Y” stick to stretch and tighten a section of the tent, giving it enough slope to prevent standing water and allowing rain to run off. A side benefit of this it to funnel that run-off into a collecting basin for a source of pure drinking water than can be filtered through a simple filter to get rid of any particles…it most likely will not be otherwise contaminated.

  4. John Ennis

    Many of the cheaper tents have a solid wall that extends a foot or more off the ground. This can cut off ventilation during warmer months but may keep you slightly warmer during cold temperatures.

  5. Larry Conklin

    The spagetti-thin so called tent stakes that come with most tents these days, are almost useless under most conditions. Too thin to tap into even moderately firm earth, they just bend, and then pull out at the first hint of a breeze. Throw them away, and go for the added weight of decent stakes of hard aluminum or steel. (or just wait till you get to camp and cut some good ones from hard wood.)