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Choosing a Tent

Dome 4 person Tent

4 Person Dome Tent

Joe Kegley

While some camping gear can be improvised using common household items, folks should not skimp on their shelter. This is the piece of equipment that must keep you, and sometimes your other gear, dry and protected from the elements.

Fortunately quality tents are very affordable and can be purchased from most on-line and brick-and-mortar outdoor retailers.

Tents come in a variety of shapes and sizes as does their functionality. This article concentrates on tents used for car and canoe camping, both allow transportation of camera equipment and comfort items not associated with backpacking.

Shape designs:

  • A-frame - These are generally smaller tents. A-frames have been around for a long time. Some of these are free-standing, while others require the tent to be staked to retain its shape. Pros -sheds water well. Cons - the slanted walls minimize usable floor space, can be noisy in the wind from flapping depending on direction.

  • Dome - A small to medium sized igloo shaped tent. Pros - more usable floor space compared to A-frame tents, more head room than A-frame tents, easiest to set up, all are free standing, sheds wind and water well. Cons - none.

  • Cabin or "walled tent" - These are the larger tents which are shaped like a small cabin with almost perpendicular walls to the ground. Pros - largest with most useable floor space of all tent designs, bunked cots can be set up. Cons - difficult to set up, usually requires more than one person to set up, difficult to manage in the wind, heaviest tent design, cabin tents are typically not free-standing, hard rains may be problematic.

Functional designs:

  • Summer or two-season tent - These tents are designed to protect you from the occasional shower and stiff wind. They usually have a lot of mosquito netting allowing excellent ventilation. Very light weight.

  • Three-season tent - Three-season tents are designed to stand up to weather encountered spring through fall. They are the most versatile of the functional designs. These tents offer a good combination of mesh and mosquito netting for ventilation while protecting you from weather conditions encountered during non-winter seasons.

  • Four-season tent - These tents are designed to withstand snow loads and hard winds. Usually they have a different pole configuration (more poles) than that of a three-season tent to ensure there are no weak points. They are typically heavy and not well ventilated.

For car and canoe camping, dome three-season (and summer/two-season) tents are the preferred tent style. They can be quickly set up by just one person and offer the desired protection, ventilation, and storage needed.

For solo, choose a 2 person to 4 person tent. For two, choose a 4 person tent.

Characteristics to look for when selecting a tent:

Kiwi Camp Dry

Kiwi Camp Dry

Seam Sealer 3

Seam Sealer 3

  • Must stay dry inside - The tent floor and the rain fly (or the top and sides of the tent if there is no rain fly) must be waterproof. Most tents are made from strong nylon construction. You should look for a floor that has a bathtub like design with heavier material on the floor that extends a few inches up the sides of the tent. This will ensure no moisture is soaked through from the ground or splattering rain.

    For all practical purposes, the nylon used for rain flies and tents is waterproof ... but the seams are not. It is a good idea to setup a tent before actual use and seal the seams using one of the various sealants available. These products usually come as spray-on or rub-on.

    Kiwi Camp Dry is a popular spray-on sealant and can be used for the stitched seams and tent fabric. This sealant is frequently used to waterproof boots also. The rub-on products are generally meant to waterproof just the stitched seams of the tent, which are the most vulnerable to moisture penetration.

  • Ventilation - Select a tent that has an open mesh top and uses an additional rain fly placed over the tent to protect from wet weather. Ensure the doors and windows also have screen options. These same door and windows should offer flaps that allow them to be closed for privacy or during driving horizontal rain. Without proper ventilation, sleepers inside the tent will release enough moisture to dampen the inside walls through condensation.

  • Two-person, three- person, and four-person tent labeling - A two-person tent is not for two people and gear. A tent labeled two-person means it will fit two people with no gear. The same logic applies for a three- or four-person tent. If you intend to store gear in the tent a good rule of thumb for going solo is use at least a two person tent. For two people, use a 3 or 4 person tent. This will allow adequate space for gear storage surrounding the sleeping area.

  • Size - In addition to the two-, three-, and four-person labeling, one should take into account other factors in the size of the tent. Do you wish to be able to stand up in the center for stretching or changing clothing? Are you going to use an air mattress (which normally comes as a double at a minimum)? One should pay attention to the footprint of the floor and the center height dimensions. If you need to be able to stand you'll want about 70 inches (5' 10") or higher for center height assuming you are an average-sized male. If you plan to use an air mattress, then its dimensions should be obtained before selecting the floor size of the shelter to ensure it will fit properly.

  • Ease of setup - Most small to medium-sized dome tents are easy to setup. You don't want something complicated when it's raining or after dark and you need to pitch your tent. In addition, you don't want to waste time on a complicated setup when you could be out exploring.

    It is a good practice to set up your new tent at home before taking it out into the field. This allows you to take your time and figure out the steps before being placed in a less forgiving environment. You can also seal the seams at this time.

  • Free Standing - Most tents (especially dome style) are free standing, meaning they don't need to be staked down to retain their form. Free standing is something to consider if you will be camping on something other than the ground, such as the camping platforms found in the interior of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge or the Wilderness Waterway in the Everglades National Park. These camping platforms are merely wood decks built above the water. One can tie their tent down using rope to keep it from blowing away, but there is no way to stake a tent.

  • Reinforcement of stress points - Look for tents with reinforced fabric at stress points such as seams, corners, zippers, and ring attachments.

Additional items to consider:

Tent Stakes

Tent Stakes

  • Added features - Many tents have loops and pockets on the tent walls for storage. Some tents offer built-in "extras" such as a line for hanging clothes or a battery operated tent lantern.

  • Stakes - Not all stakes are created equal. While a free standing tent does not need stakes to retain its form, it may need them to keep the tent from blowing away in windy conditions. Tents usually come with small diameter metal stakes. These are good for packed forest soil but not loose sandy conditions. If you will be camping on loose ground material such as a beach, then you will want to purchase additional wider plastic stakes (typically yellow in color). You may even want the extra long plastic stakes or maybe extra long metal stakes with ridges.

  • Mallet - A rubber or plastic mallet for hammering in the tent stakes may be needed. Some mallets designed specifically for tents come with a tent peg-remover built into the handle.

  • Tent pad (also called a ground cloth) - A tent pad provides important protection for the bottom of your tent. Typically when you purchase a tent it will not come with a tent pad. Some manufacturers make available, at an additional cost, tent pads sized specifically for their tents. A tent pad adds another waterproof layer of protection against sharp sticks/gravel, cold, and moisture. Tent pads increase the tent's life span. A tent pad is typically a rugged piece of waterproof plastic or tarp.

    Note: A properly fitted tent pad should be slightly smaller in dimensions than the footprint of the tent floor so as not to extend beyond the edges of the tent. If the tent pad extends beyond the edges of the tent then water coming from the sides of the tent will collect between the tent pad and the tent floor. If necessary, fold the tent pad about an inch under the edge of the tent floor.

  • Weight and/or packed volume - This is mainly important to backpackers. One might want to take into consideration the packed volume displacement if canoe camping.

  • Color - A lighter colored tent lets in more natural light. Look for tans, yellows, whites, or light blues.

Important tent preparation step.

Seams are the most vulnerable areas of a tent for leaks. After purchasing a tent one should seal the seams to keep out water before actual use. Set the tent up and wait about an hour to let the holes in the seams stretch wider. Then apply seam sealant to all seams. Allow the sealant to dry before storing the tent.

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