This seminar provides details to help participants select the right tent or shelter. Topics include tent styles, weather ratings, construction, setup, alternative shelters, and care/maintenance. After the seminar participants should have a much better working knowledge of tents and should be able to select the tent that is right for them.
Hello, and thank you for being here for my seminar on Picking the Perfect Tent. Let me introduce myself. My name is Tony Cataldo and one of my passions is photography. I especially enjoy outdoor photography. Taking photos of beautiful places requires you to first get to those places. I do hiking, camping, and road trips in order to get to photogenic and scenic spots. I have done some backpacking but mostly do road trip camping and day hikes. I’ve been at Cabela’s in the Camping Department for the better part of a year.
This seminar is to provide information about tents and shelters. My goal is to provide enough information so that you can choose the correct tent for your needs or know what questions to ask when choosing a tent. The subject of tents sounds simple but there are a number of factors to consider when selecting a tent.
Before I start I would like to give a quick shout-out to those who serve and protect us all. Could I have any active duty personnel stand. Now, would veterans please stand. How about first responders including police, firefighters, EMTs, and Coast Guard. Those standing have pledged to put themselves on the line for us. Please give these HEROES a round of applause. On behalf of all of us at Cabela’s I would like to give you all a very sincere Thank You!
- Different tents for different purposes
- Small & lightweight are intended to be carried
- Large tents can almost be used as portable cabins
- Most are somewhere in between
- Accurately access your requirement to choose the right tent
- Before discussing specific types of tents…
- Discuss of tent users
- Environmental requirements for the tents
- Types of tents available
There are different tents for different purposes. Some tents are small, lightweight, and intended to be carried. Other tents are very large and can almost be used as portable cabins. Others fall somewhere in between. You must accurately access your requirement in order to choose the right tent. Before discussing specific types of tents we must discuss the types of tent users, the environmental requirements for the tents, and then the types of tents available.
Just different people require different types of vehicles, different types of campers require different types of tents. Let’s start by discussing the different types of tent users.
- Many host outdoor events: wilderness, hunting, extended research, etc.
- Normally require large 4-season tents that can handle severe weather
- Group Campers
- May require larger 3-season tent for families or groups
- Want comfortable tent where users can stand
- May be into “Glamping” or Glamorous Camping
- Family Campers
- Larger tent for a small to medium sized family
- Want some comfort but don’t mind “roughing it” a bit
- May have smaller children and need extra room for supplies, toys, etc.
- Minimalist Campers
- Basic tent for weather protection and a place to sleep
- Does not need much in the way of space or comforts
- Tent is normally small
- Bikers are normally limited by space first and weight second (space is critical)
- Can distribute your tent to spread the load
- Casual Backpackers need strong and lightweight tents
- Serious Backpackers need an extremely lightweight shelter
Outfitters are normally people who host outdoor events such as backcountry wilderness trips, hunting trips, extended research trips, etc. Outfitters normally require large 4-season tents that can handle almost any type of weather that nature can throw at it.
Group Campers normally require a larger 3-season tent for larger families or groups. They normally want a comfortable tent where users can comfortable stand upright. Some Group Campers may be into “Glamping” or Glamorous Camping where they have many of the comforts of home.
Family Campers need a larger tent for a small to medium sized family. These user want some comfort but don’t mind “roughing it” a bit. They often have smaller children and need some extra room for supplies, toys, etc.
Minimalist Campers just need a basic tent for weather protection. The minimalist uses the tent as a place to sleep and does not need much in the way of space or comforts. There are also different type of minimalists including car campers and bikers. Those doing car camping need a tent that is relatively small to pack depending on their vehicle. Bikers are normally limited by space first and weight second. For bikers weight is important but the size of the packed tent is critical. Bikers must be particularly careful when choosing a tent that will fit in your packs. Later I will present a few tips for bikers and for packing tents to help maximize space and distribute weight.
Casual Backpackers need strong and lightweight tents that can be easily carried. The Casual Backpacker will go on short backpacking treks of a few nights. Weight is important but adding a few pounds to the pack might be OK.
Serious Backpackers spend longer periods of time on trails and need an extremely lightweight shelter. These users sacrifice weight for comfort and may even substitute a tarp, bivy, or hammock for a tent to reduce weight. These backpackers may spend weeks on the trail, will normally carry very heavy packs, and need to minimize weight anywhere they can.
- A tent provides protection from the environment (wind, rain, pests(,/li>
- 3-season tents work best in moderate conditions
- Most campers use 3-season tents
- 4-season tents can handle more extreme conditions (heavy snow/rain, higher winds)
- Outfitters, hunters, and some serious backpackers may require a 4-season tent
Before starting on tent types we need to discuss 3-season versus 4-season tents. Tents primarily provide protection from the environment including wind, rain, and pests. Environmental conditions vary dramatically and some tents are more suited for extreme conditions than others. Most tents are built for 3-season use and work best in moderate conditions. When properly prepared a 3-season tent should protect you from moderate wind, rain, and light snow. Most casual campers choose 3-season tents. 4-season tents can handle more extreme conditions including heavy snow and rain, higher winds, etc. Outfitters, hunters, and some serious backpackers require 4-season tents.
Types of Tents
Now, let’s discuss the major types of tents and shelters. I will present them from largest to smallest.
- Outfitter Tents
- Large, very strong, 4-season tents for multiple people
- Some resemble a soft-sided cabin
- Some offer a range of accessories (vestibule, floor liner, footprint, wood stove, roof protector)
- Built for harsh environments and heavy duty use
- May be used as a basecamp
- Some have vertical walls and high roof for more room and comfort
- VERY heavy and may weigh 60 pounds or more
- Cabin Tents
- Larger tents with vertical or nearly vertical walls and higher roof
- May be 3- or 4-season
- Variety of materials (denier polyester, ripstop nylon, canvas)
- Normally smaller and less rugged than the outfitter tents
- Some have multiple rooms
- Good for car camping
- Dome Tents
- Available in a variety of sizes and shape variations
- Square or rectangular floor with poles that form an “X”
- Tent sides then attach to the poles
- Stable and strong for their weight
- Larger domes have cross member poles for added strength
- Most include a rain cover (more on this later)
- Most tents that you will see are domes or variations on a dome
- A-Frame Tents
- Still widely used — simple and reliable
- Free-standing or use guy wires
- Large, rectangular walls less tolerant to snow and can be very noisy in wind
- Solo Tents
- Normally small to very small and designed to be very small and light
- Some are large enough to sit up in
- Some are not much larger than a sleeping bag
- Designed for easy carry with minimal size/weight
- A larger bag for your sleeping bag
- Protects you and your sleeping bag from moisture and wind
- Normally has a zip closure with mesh to allow airflow
- NOT comfortable but they are small and light
- Fabric sling suspended between two points
- Very lightweight
- Options: mesh to protect against bugs, sleeping bag, rain covers
- Not insulated well
Outfitter Tents are large, very strong, 4-season tents that normally house multiple people. These tents often look more like a soft-sided cabin than a tent. These tents often have a range of accessories available including vestibules, floor liner, footprint, wood stove, and roof protector. These tents are built for harsh environments and heavy duty use. Groups hosted in an outfitter tent often use this tent as a basecamp and then use their individual tents for shorter overnight trips. Many of these tents are equipped for a wood stove and have a built-in root vent and zippered area in the floor so a heavy wood stove can rest on the ground below the tent floor. These tent often have vertical walls and high roof for more room and comfort. Expect these tents to weigh in at 60 pounds or more.
Cabin Tents are larger tents and normally have walls that are vertical or nearly vertical and higher roof. Cabin tents can be 3- or 4-season and come in a variety of materials including denier polyester, ripstop nylon, or canvas. These are normally smaller and less rugged than the outfitter tents. Some have multiple rooms integrated within. These make good group tents when car camping.
Dome Tents come in a variety of sizes and shape variations. The classic dome tent has a square floor and uses straight poles The poles cross each other to form an “X” with the ends of the poles attached to the tent corners. The tent sides then attach to the poles. Dome tents are stable and strong for their weight. Larger dome tents have cross member poles that provide additional strength. Most dome tents include a rain cover (more on this later). Some dome-style tents are rectangular rather than square and some are more of an irregular shape. If you do an informal survey at campgrounds you will probably find a majority of dome-style tents.
A-Frame Tents are still widely used. These tents can be free-standing or they could require guy wires. A-frame tents are simple and reliable. The large, rectangular walls of A-frame tents make them much less tolerant to snow and they can be very noisey in wind.
Solo Tents range in size from small to very small. These tents are designed to be very small and light. Some solo tents are large enough to sit up in and others are not much larger than a sleeping bag. These tents are designed for the backpacker or road warrior that must minimize size and weight.
Bivy sacks are basically a larger bag for your sleeping bag. These are designed to protect you and your sleeping bag from moisture and wind. They normally have a zip closure with mesh to allow airflow. These are not comfortable but they are small and light.
Hammocks are a fabric sling suspended between two points such as trees or rigid poles. Hammocks are extremely lightweight and some include mesh enclosures to protect against bugs. Some include an integrated sleeping bag and some have rain covers. Normally when tent camping you use an insulated pad under your sleeping bag. Heat moves from a warm object to a cold object. This means that heat will move from you to the cold ground. Normally when tent camping you sleep on an insulated pad that helps block this heat transfer. Most hammocks do not have this insulated pad so you should plan accordingly by either using a hammock compatible pad or a warmer sleeping bag.
Tent Features and Accessories
- Single Wall Tents
- Double Wall tents have mesh on tent with rain cover
- Vestibule: area or enclosure attached to the tent entrance
- Footprint: additional layer used below the tent to protect the floor
- Floor Liner: used over the floor larger tents
- Wood Stoves can often be added to the outfitter tents
- Roof Protectors provide added protection around the stove jack in the roof
When choosing a tent you need to decide what features you need. Here is a list of common tent features and accessories.
Single Wall Tents use a solid fabric layer over the entire tent. These tents often include a zipper window, mesh door, and/or vents. These tents can be used without a rain cover in good weather and still offer some privacy. Single wall tents often collect condensation inside. Many old-school A-frame tents are single wall with optional rain cover. In fair weather you can pack the tent and leave the rain cover to reduce. If the fabric is sealed and water treated then it can withstand light rain without the rain cover.
Double Wall tents have mesh over much of the tent and the rain cover provides protection against wind and rain. Using the mesh tent along can be nice for warm, summer camping. With a double wall tent you almost always use the rain cover. Double wall tents provide more airflow which reduces the amount of condensation inside the tent. Almost all dome tents use double-wall construction.
A Vestibule is an area or enclosure attached to the tent entrance. Some tents have an integrated vestibule on the rain cover. Larger tents, such as outfitter tents, can have optional vestibules that attach to the entryway and the vestibule resembles a smaller tent. Vestibules can be used for added space, for storing gear, as a dining area (on outfitter tents), etc.
A Footprint is an additional layer used below the tent. The footprint protects the floor of the tent. When the footprint wears you can replace it without having to replace the entire tent.
A Floor Liner is used on top of the floor of outfitter and larger tents. If you are expecting heavy traffic then a floor liner can help preserve your tent. You may spend $100 for a replaceable floor liner that goes in your $1200 outfitter tent.
Wood Stoves can often be added to the outfitter tents. These tents normally have a stove jack, or hole in the roof, for the stove pipe. These tents normally have a zippered area in the floor to expose the ground. This way the heavy stove can be in contact with the ground rather than punch holes through the floor of the tent.
Roof Protectors provide added protection around the stove jack in the roof.
Selecting a Tent
- 3-season or 4-season
- Size: rated by the number of persons that it can accommodate
- Style: outfitter, cabin, dome, A-frame, lightweight, bivy, hammock
- Free Standing or supported
- Other Features: vestibule, wood stove, floor liner, etc.
When selecting a tent use a process of elimination. Start with the items in this list to eliminate the tents that will not work and then decide between the tents that remain.
3-season or 4-season: Do you need an all weather tent for hunting or expeditions or will a 3-season tent suffice? The choices for 4-season tents is much more limited. If you need a four season tent then do NOT try to convince yourself that a 3-season tent will be good enough. Nature can be cruel and unforgiving. Be sure to select the proper season rating.
Size: When selecting a tent it is critical to consider the size. Tents are rated by the number of persons that it can accommodate. This means that a two person tent will normally have enough room for ONLY two people with very little or no additional room. Unless weight is critical I generally recommend that you select a tent with a higher capacity rating than you need. For example, a four person tent will very comfortable house two people with some gear. Think of the capacity rating as a “will hold this many people as a last resort” value.
Style: What style tent would you prefer: outfitter, cabin, dome, A-frame, lightweight, bivy, hammock, etc. Do you want more vertical walls for greater volume, do you want to be able to comfortable stand inside the tent, do you want multiple rooms, etc.?
Free Standing or Supported: Most tents are free standing, meaning that you can setup the tent and it does not require guy wires or supports. Supported tents can be smaller and lighter but you must be able to anchor the supporting ropes. If you are camping in very loose soil then this could be an issue.
Weight: Do you need a very lightweight tent for backpacking or could you use a heavier tent? As the size and weight decrease the prices generally increase. Generally with backpacking supplies the more you pay the less you get. That is higher priced items are generally lighter and smaller. Consider the weight requirements carefully and look at both the packed and trail weights. Trail weight is normally the minimum weight if you do not include the rain cover and/or footprint. If you want lower weight then choose a tent with aluminum rather than fiberglass poles. Aluminum poles are significantly lighter. Tents with aluminum poles will be lighter and more expensive than tents with fiberglass poles.
Other Features: Do you need other features such as vestibule, wood stove, floor liner, etc. Many tents do not have these accessories available so these can help narrow your choices. Note that there are a variety of wood stoves available for outfitter tents. Some have integrated water tanks that provide a ready supply of hot water and these also retain heat after the fires dies.
Tent Care and Maintenance
- Stake Tent to the Ground
- Clean and Dry
- Pack it properly
- Seam Seal along the stitches
- Water Seal
- Patch Holes
- Setup and Inspect
When using your tent be sure to stake it to the ground. I have seen tents rolling down the road like big tumbleweeds in strong winds. Drive your stakes at an angle so that they are more secure.
Tents require some care and maintenance. If you take care of your tent then it can last a very long time. One of my tents is a Eureka A-frame style that I purchased in probably late 1970s and it still work just fine. To keep your tent in good shape be sure to give it some routine maintenance.
Clean and Dry the tent after your trip. Never store a wet tent. You can normally clean your tent using a hose or large tub of water.
Pack the Tent carefully when finished. Fold and roll it properly to help preserve the fabric.
Seam Seal along the stitches. Seam Sealer fills the puncture holes on the stitches to make then waterproof or water resistant. The most likely place to have a leak is on the stitches.
Water Seal the tent using a water repelling spray or sealer. Use the canvas cleaner and treatment if you have a canvas tent.
Patch Holes in the tent using patches, tenacious tape, etc. You can also have a tailor sew a patch. Inspect the patches before using the tent the next time to be sure that they are working.
Setup and Inspect your tent before each use. Check the fabric, seams, zipper, and grommets. Patch or sew tears or holes as soon as possible and be sure the tent is properly sealed.
This section contains some miscellaneous tent information.
ALWAYS setup your tent prior to using it. Some tents can be a bit tricky setting up the first time. You should be able to setup your tent with minimal light. Remember that it often takes longer than expected to get to your camping destination so be prepared.
Have repair materials including patches, sewing kit, pole splint, and tape. You should be able to make tent repairs in the field. A pole splint is a hollow cylinder whose inner diameter is slightly larger than the outside diameter of a tent pole. If a pole is bent or broken a pole splint can temporarily repair the pole (they cost around $5).
Carefully position the tent so that it is away from any fires and look for branches that could fall on the tent if you had unexpected rain, snow, or wind. Be sure to stake tent to the ground in case the wind increases.
Protect the tent floor using a footprint or tarp under tent. This is optional if you have to pack extra light.
If space is critical you can separate tent components. For example, bikers may fold the tent and rain cover separately so that they can distribute the components between paniers. You could also have one backpacker carry the tent and another carry the rain cover to distribute the weight.
Bivy sack and sleeping bag can be a lightweight alternative to a tent. These are not as comfortable but they could be significantly lighter.
Emergency bivy: can be used to protect you from the elements in an emergency situation. There are breathable and non-breathable emergency bivies. The breathable ones are more comfortable but offer less protection against water and wind. The non-breathable ones are small, less comfortable, but offer better protection against the elements.
Hammocks are lightweight, small, options include sleeping bag, enclosure, screen, etc.
A Vehicle can be used as a shelter. Vehicles work particularly well in bad weather or severe cold. They may not be comfortable but they offer a good degree of protection.
A Tarp anchored by paracord can become a makeshift shelter. You can also find materials and construct an improvised shelter if you have nothing else.
I hope that this seminar has been useful and informative. Please let me know if you have any comments both good and areas that could be improved.