I’ve tried a few tents in my time, from affordable options to expensive castles made of poles. As my needs change, my camping gear does too. Your tent is arguably one of the most important pieces of gear when you go camping, unless of course you plan to sleep in your car then really just ignore this whole article. But seriously, this is the shelter you will live in while you’re in the woods, so best to pick something that ticks off all your boxes and will last you awhile. In this blog, I’ll help you figure out exactly how to pick a tent.

Decide on a Budget

Before you choose anything, you should have a budget in mind. If you decide what you want to spend, you’ll be able to choose a handful of options within your price range to see in person. Tents can be expensive, and you might wind up with something that has all the bells and whistles you won’t ever use, while another budget-friendly option would’ve worked just fine for your needs.

Be Realistic About What You Really Need

Ask yourself candid questions about your camping style. Am I strictly a car camper? Do I really only want to go backpacking once or twice in a season? Will I only camp in fair weather? Be honest with yourself to make sure you get the best tent. But, let’s be real, the folks at REI are going to try and up sell you regardless. So write down what you’re looking for, do some online research, then go check it out in the store so you don’t get sidelined by a shinier option from a salesperson. 

Map Your Wants

Everyone has different wants and needs when it comes to picking their backcountry tent. I wanted enough space to fit two tall humans, two dogs, and a mound of gear at any given time. I also wanted something light enough to backpack with, but roomy enough to double as a car-camping shelter. You might want something ultra-light for long-haul treks, while someone else could be eyeing something sturdy and durable for high winds and inclement weather (if you’re into that sort of type-2 fun). Or you might just be looking for something with four walls that won’t leak if it rains.

orange tent in front of mountain view

What to Look For

When going to buy a tent, especially your first tent, you might be overwhelmed by the details and the jargon. Here are a few important things to look for and what they mean.

  • Freestanding: most tents are freestanding, meaning they stand on their own with the use of poles.
  • Vestibule: a protective awning to store gear and other things. You want more than one and you want them to be a decent size.
  • Ventilation: you’ll want a tent with good ventilation to keep you warm, otherwise condensation will leak into a sealed tent.
  • Seasonality: unless you are planning to winter camp, chances are a 3-season tent is just what you need.
  • Pockets: a tent without pockets is like a pizza without cheese—sad. Pockets give you a place to stick things like your cell phone, headlamp, snacks, etc.
  • Guy lines: knots of cord that attach to different points on the tent to create stability. If these are reflective, even better—nothing like tripping over a taut cord on your way to the bathroom at night.
  • Vertical walls: allows people more room to stand up and move around, while tents made for backpacking have a lower profile for the elements, meaning less head room.
  • Footprint: if your tent doesn’t come with a footprint, you should seriously consider purchasing one or using a tarp. This will keep the bottom of your tent clean and dry and prevents wear and tear.
dog sitting outside green tent

My Favorite Tents

Alps Mountaineering Zephyr 3 – $143.99

The first tent I bought was the Alps Zephyr 3-person tent on sale for $115. This little orange tent traveled all over the U.S. and never wavered. It’s seen snow storms, thunder and lightning, insane winds, and curious animals. I love Alps brand tents—they are durable and affordable, making a great first tent for camping novices and families who want a good tent without breaking the bank.

dog peering out of orange tent on winter day

MSR Hubba Hubba NX-2 – $449.95

I purchased this tent before we’d gotten Kita and I thought it was pretty roomy for a 2-person tent. It was super easy to set up and had great ventilation for those cold nights and warm mornings. Really the only reason we gave up this tent was because our little family grew and we needed something bigger.

Big Agnes Manzanares HV SL3 mtnGLO – $399.95

When we got a dog, I wanted to upgrade to something bigger. I tested a few different tents and really liked this tent. It was light enough to backpack with, but roomy enough for a little family to use when car camping as well. In the end, we decided to go with a larger option.

Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 2 – $449.95

This tent is the gold standard in backpacking. It’s got great head space and length for taller people and it’s less than 4 lbs! I liked this tent a lot, but didn’t love the extra-light (read: thin) material as I’d have my excitable husky and her claws in there. I’d hate to spend $400 on a tent just to have her rip holes in the floor, but I also know people who haven’t had an issue with it.

MSR Papa Hubba NX-4 – $699.95

Don’t be fooled by the hefty price tag on this season’s model! I found last season’s model for around $450, which is what you’d pay for the 2-person version.  So far, this tent has been great for our little family. I’ve used it both backpacking and car camping and it’s withstood heavy winds and rain without an issue. I love all of the guy lines and extra points of contact on this tent as we camp a lot in areas with high winds.

Whatever you choose, the most important thing is that you get outside and have a great time. Did this article help you pick your next tent? Let me know in the comments!

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