Tents come in all shapes and sizes… for summer sleeping, 3 season, or winter camping… with vestibules and rooms, with screened porches, some are super heavy and durable, some lighter than a loaf of bread… some hang off mountain sides and some attach to the roof of your vehicle. With all these options, choosing a tent can be a bit overwhelming.
For the purpose of this post, let’s assume you’re not hanging off mountains and that you’re simply looking for a good quality, practical family car camping tent.
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How will you use your tent?
- How do you plan to use your tent?
- What’s the climate in which you will be tenting?
- How many people will sleep in it?
- Will you want to use air mattresses or cots?
- Will you store clothing and supplies in your tent?
- Do you need to carry it any great distance?
- How much can you spend on a tent?
If you’re new to camping, and your intentions are to do some simple car camping with your family than a standard tent from the department store should be sufficient. However, if you’re looking for a backpacking tent or to use one in cooler temperatures, you’ll have more research to do.
Buying a tent doesn’t have to be a big deal, but for some it really is. I know that I’ve struggled to find the perfect family car camping tent… and I’m still not 100% satisfied with ours. But, we make do and it keeps us warm and dry and that’s what’s most important for our family right now.
Some tent terminology:
Rainfly: In terms of tenting, a fly is the outer layer of a tent. Most standard car camping tents come with a fly. It is this outer layer of tenting material that helps the tent stay both dry and warm.
If you are camping in hot weather, you can hang a tarp over the tent if you’re concerned about rain but don’t want the added insulation of the fly.
A properly fitted tent fly will not touch the main tent’s fabric. It is held out from the tent using poles, ties, and pegs. In a cool weather climate, you’ll want a fly that reaches right down to the ground to help keep heat in the tent.
In a warmer climate this is less of a concern and in fact, you’d probably be more comfortable with the increased air circulation a partial, or roof-only, rainfly provides.
Also, with many tents, it is the fly which creates the vestibule outside the door to the tent.
Vestibule: A tent vestibule is a covered entrance. These are particularly helpful in rainy or buggy weather. With a large enough vestibule you and your kids can enter this space to take off shoes and outer clothing without bringing that dirt and wetness right into the tent.
The vestibule is the perfect place to keep packs (or tubs) of clothing close by and out of the rain but out of the main sleeping area.
Some fancy tents even have a screened porch vestibule area.
Ground tarps: (Also called a footprint) There’s mixed opinions on whether or not you should be using a ground tarp under your tent. Most tents will not come with a ground tarp. Often this is an extra accessory that you would purchase for your particular tent.
If using a properly fitted and properly placed ground tarp it can help in keeping the tent dry in wet conditions. However, if your ground tarp is sized or placed incorrectly it can actually cause water to pool under your tent!
Ground tarps will also prevent the bottom of your tent from getting holes and rips if this is a concern for your particular tent. Some super lightweight backpacking tents are made from such fine materials that many people recommend the ground tarp to ensure longevity of their very expensive fancy tent!
We have never used a ground tarp when car camping.
Tent poles: In most cases these are hollow poles with an elastic cord running through them. You stretch the cord and straighten the segments making one long flexible pole which then forms the shape of your tent.
Aluminum poles are stronger than fiberglass. You’ll also find some tents use a color-coding system for matching poles to their placements and this is a handy feature. Another tip: the fewer the poles usually means the easier the set up.
Pegs: These are very important. You’ll use the pegs to secure your tent and your fly in place. Having extra pegs of a few different varieties on hand is always a good idea. This article gives you a good run-down on the various materials and benefits of different pegs.
What size of tent do you need?
How are tents sized?
Tents are sized by how many adults they sleep, meaning, how many adults can sleep side by side in that particular tent. There is often an accompanying photo of the suggested sleeping arrangement. Most 3 or 4 person tents have the ‘men’ side by side. But, larger 8 people tents might have them changing direction or in two rows.
In our experience, unless we’re backpacking and trying to go ultra-light, we find a larger tent sizing is usually on the small size. So, for example, with our family of 5, we like an 8 person tent. When we had 4 members in our family, we were happy in our 6 person tent. Years ago when it was just me and my husband we preferred sleeping in our 3 person tent to our 2 person tent.
How will you be sleeping in the tent?
Think about who will be sleeping in your tent: where they will be sleeping and on what? Two adults on sleeping pads take less room than 2 adults on an air mattress. But, two small children take less room than two adults, unless those two kids are on single air mattresses. In that case they may take more room than the two adults on one mattress.
You should also take note of the tent’s dimensions and the slope of the side walls. If a tent has steeply sloping walls it is harder to actually use the space against those walls than in a tent with more vertical walls.
How close people sleep to the sides of the tent is especially important in rainy weather. People and things touching the wall of the tent may become wet. In a steeply sloped tent, you’ll want to make sure there is generous space between the sleepers and the sides, especially if the sleepers are kids who move a lot during the night.
Cabin tents: these are often roomier tents with vertical sides.
Dome tents: these are sturdier in windy conditions and will have sloped walls decreasing the inside sleeping space.
Some tents will have separate rooms. Usually this is achieved with a piece of tent fabric falling down the middle of the tent with a zippered door to access either side. You may also be interested in a tent that has both a sleeping area and an attached screened in vestibule (or porch). If the bugs are bad where you plan to camp, a screened in area will be a welcome retreat.
There are even tents which have vestibules only accessible from inside the tent – perfect for the dog or for storing gear.
Another consideration is the height of your tent. Will you want to stand in the tent? It is convenient to be able to stand in a tent for dressing and moving around. However, a taller tent often also means a colder tent since there’s more space to heat.
When will you be using your tent?
Take a few moments to think about the climate in which you’ll be camping. Do the night temperatures tend to stay hot, are they comfortable, or do the nights drop close to freezing?
For hot weather camping, consider a tent comprised mostly of mesh. If you are wanting to use a fly on your tent find one with windows that you can zip open to allow for air circulation. Or choose a tent with a roof-only type rainfly.
For cool weather camping, try to find a tent with mostly solid sides and mesh only around the top. A fly that goes right to the ground will keep you warmer. Also, a smaller tent means less air to heat.
A 4 season tent is for those adventuresome families that want to do winter camping in the snow.
How much can your tent weigh?
For most of you the weight of your tent won’t be an issue. You’ll likely be hauling it to the campsite in the back of your van or perhaps canoeing it in. And, in both cases, the regular department store family tent should be fine.
However, if you ever plan to carry your tent to a campsite then weight becomes a big consideration!
An average department store 2 person tent can weight 20 pounds…. upwards of 40-50 pounds for fancy multi-roomed tents! But on the other hand, a special light-weight 2 person tent can weight a mere 2 pounds! When you’re carrying your tent on your back for 20 miles that makes a big difference!
But, we’re talking family tents here, so you’re probably looking at a 4 to 8 person tent… so, just remember that you could have a 30 pound tent to lug around. That large tent will also take a big chunk of your vehicle storage space as well.
This video is incredibly detailed with many great tips and pieces of advice. This guy’s spent a lot of time in tents… I would think!
A few last tent choosing tips to consider:
- It is very convenient to have space right inside the tent for everyone’s clothes tub or bags
- If you are planning a camping trip in the height of bug season or a rain storm consider that you and your kids might be escaping to the tent during the day.
- A vestibule can be a fun place for toddlers to play out of the sun and bugs and in a secure spot while you chop wood or tend to dinner.
- Putting a small mat or rug outside your tent door will keep debris from getting into the tent. Some family tents might even come with this accessory.
- Tents will vary in cost from a hundred to a thousand. Shop wisely with use and size in mind. If you are only planning to do a few trips each summer your regular department store’s tents should be sufficient.
- It is best practice to set your tent up at home after purchasing it. You’ll want to make sure all the pieces are there. Also, it’ll be so much easier to figure out how the tent works at home instead of at the campground while it’s threatening to rain and your toddler is having a melt-down because his sister sat on his invisible friend.
- You should never pack up your tent wet. If you do have to leave the campsite before the tent has dried, then unpack it at home to let it air out.
- Make sure your tent comes with a tent repair kit and if it doesn’t, you’ll probably want to pick one up. Something simple like this should be sufficient for car camping.
You should now have a pretty good idea of what needs to be considered when it comes time to buy a tent!
Here are a few more camping articles you might be interested in:
- Make sure you’ve got all the gear you need with this camping equipment checklist
- Really, what are the camping essentials?
- Camping activities to keep the family entertained