Tips for choosing a family tent

Our family tent is currently an older REI Half Dome 4, it’s worked nicely for us over the past 6 years. We currently sleep 2 adults, 2 kids and a dog quite comfortably. I suppose we can even fit the new baby in there for awhile, but eventually we’ll need an upgrade.

I’ve been thinking about what kind of tent to get for the next phase of our lives, so when Joe got an email from a friend last week (hi Dave) asking him for advice on choosing a family tent, I realized I wasn’t the only one stewing over this. And thus, this post was born.

Here are a few things to consider when choosing a tent.

1. What kind of camping are you going to do?

  • Backpacking (or river trips): Obviously you will need to consider the weight and size quite seriously.
  • Car Camping: You can get something more roomy and a little heavier, but make sure to consider how much       space you’ll have available in your  vehicle.
  • Road trips: You’ll be putting the tent up and down a lot (sometimes in the dark, often by yourself while your spouse tries to keep the kids from running through a cactus patch), so make sure to get something with a simple design so it’s easy to set up. Also, campsite sizes will vary if you’re moving around a lot, so pick something on the smaller side.
  • Stationary camping: If you’re setting the tent up once, in a place your familiar with, and staying put you can choose a tent that’s bigger and more complicated to set up.

2. How much and what kind of space do you need?

  • Do you want to be able to stand up in your tent?
  • Do you want to store all your bags inside the tent, under the tent vestibule, or leave them in your vehicle?
  • Do you mind all being squished together or do you want something roomy? Two rooms perhaps?
  • Will you need enough room to fit some sort of pack-n-play device?
  • Need room for the dogs?
  • Again, how much space do you have in your vehicle to fit this tent?

3. How often do you plan to camp?

  • Once a year: Although I personally believe in getting a good quality tent, if you’re not going to use it very often you can probably go with a discount store brand tent. It’s better to get a cheap tent, than to not camp at all!
  • Several times a year: If you’re going to give your tent a lot of use, get a good one. Most higher quality brand tents come with warranties.

4. What kind of weather will you be camping in?

  • I’m canceling if it’s bad weather: If you don’t plan to ever camp in bad weather a good rain fly is not as important (although keep in mind the possibility of an unexpected storm).
  • I’m willing to camp in most weather conditions: Pay close attention to the rainfly. You’ll need one that keeps out precipitation and dirt/sand if it’s windy.  Make sure the bottom of the tent is like a ‘bathtub’, with raised sides and seams above floor level.  Also, you’ll need something durable.  Look into getting a 3-season or 4-season tent. Pay attention to the design of the poles:  Fiber-glass tent poles break fairly easily after awhile. Aluminum tent poles are lighter weight and fairly durable.  Think about the number of tie downs, and the quality of the tent stakes too!

5. How long do you want the tent to last you?

  • Quality: If your looking for something to last you well into the future it’s worth the investment to get a good quality tent (see more thoughts on quality below).
  • Family Size: Say you only have one kid right now. A 4-man tent will do just fine. But what if you want two more kids? Do you want to plan for that now, or upgrade when the time arrives?

6. Where and when do you camp?

  • Desert in the summer: You’ll need a lot of mesh on that tent to get the breeze blowing through–doorways on both sides are really nice too because they let the breeze flow through.
  • Along the coast: Mesh could be good here as well, but be sure to consider the possibility of wind storms on a beach, and all that dew that settles on your tent at night.
  • Mountains: Depending on the time of year a lot of mountain locations will be hot during the day and chili at night. You’ll want a well ventilated tent during the day (for naps) but has a good rain fly to keep the warmth in at night (depending on time of year, might also apply to deserts).
  • Winter: Get a good 4-season tent (or build a snow cave).

And two final pieces of advise.

Take care of what you get.
REI has some great advise on caring for your tent, but a few of the precautions we always take:

  • When setting up a tent make sure to close all zippers. It’s very easy to kink an open zipper and ruin it.
  • Sweep or shake out the tent before taking down. Try not to track a lot of mud/dirt in the tent. We keep a broom and dustpan near the door, and often throw an old piece of rug, or car floor mat in front of the entrance (if we’re car camping).
  • Make sure to thoroughly dry out your tent after use. I usually set mine up at home for a day or so after a trip to make sure all the moisture is out. If we’ve been camping at the beach I hose it off to rinse the salt spray.
  • Always use a footprint, you can even make a tent footprint yourself.

Buy quality.

I personally believe in getting a good quality tent. Quality doesn’t necessarily mean expensive, but the return on your investment will not only be comfort, but also peace of mind on a trip—fewer zipper problems, tears and pole breaking. Quality also has a greater resale value if you decide to adjust your equipment needs. Be sure to look into return policies and warranties, this is why we chose to get ours at REI.

Any other words of wisdom?

21 Comments so far

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  1. I wish I needed to buy a new tent… looks like fun!

  2. These are good things to consider. I want to get out backpacking with my kids this summer, and need to get a tent for that purpose. THere are a lot of things to think about! It’s good to hear what more experienced folks have to say. Thank you!

    • Jennifer – Oh good! You’ll love it. I definitely need to do more of that this summer myself.

  3. Stefanie

    For us, a tent that only takes one of us to put up is essential. Maybe that’s a given these days with most tent designs, but typically I am the one setting up the tent, while my husband works on setting up the rest of the campsite.

    • Stefanie – Hahaaa, oh yes! My husband actually suggest I add that bit of advice into the post last night, I totally forgot. Thanks for bringing up this VERY important piece of advice!

      • Stefanie

        :) Honestly – I’d rather tackle the tent than lug all that stuff anyway!

  4. The taller the tent, the higher the probability of it collapsing in snow, wind and even rain…You’ll notice that most higher end tents will not allow enough room to stand up in for that very reason.

  5. Great article with lots of good information.

    A couple tips I thought of…
    Renting! If you’re only going camping once a year, consider renting a good quality tent from an outdoor centre or store. You get a great quality tent, in the size you need. Some stores also have rental programs that if you decide to buy the tent, they’ll discount the rental fee – great for testing out a tent. It’s also great if you occasionally need a different tent. Most of our camping is car camping, so we got a great one for that purpose… when we go backcountry camping we’ll rent a lighter one for that purpose. (you can also rent other camping gear)

    If your camping in the mountains/cold climate is smaller is better – there’s less space to heat.

    Keep the great articles coming

  6. Brandi

    Excellent post, Lindsey. I agree with Dan that a low tent might be very important – I’ve done lots of desert camping and tall tents don’t hold up well to winds. I bought a larger backpacking tent about 7 years ago now – it’s a 2 man, Eureka. It’s on the heavy side for backpacking, but worth the extra room for me. I love it and it’s held up beautifully.

  7. Brandi

    Oh, forgot about renting tents. Most universities have outdoor gear for rent. At my phD university, you could get climbing gear and tents – UNR has skis, snowshoes, and kayak stuff, but I don’t think they do tents.

    • Brandi – Thanks for your thoughts on this. I actually really like your suggestion of renting a tent. It’d be great to try a few tents out before you make the financial commitment! Seems like some of the major sporting good stores have rental departments too… Hummm. Great thought!

  8. Bonnie

    Good post, Lindsey.

    A couple of thoughts–for a family tent (in my humble opinion) nothing beats a Springbar. A bit pricey, but easy to pitch, built to last and roomy. I can attest that it does well in a wind, but can’t speak to snow (being mostly a desert rat). Here’s a couple of videos to check out…

    My second thought involves camping in the winter in a large tent. When the temperatures are predicted to dip below zero, stuff a couple of extra old sleeping bags (not mummy bags) in the gaps when you pack the car. When you set up the tent, stretch a couple of bungie cords from the center to the corners or between opposite corners. Thread the sleeping bags over the bungie cords, between the tent and the cord, to create an insulated roof. Let them droop a little between cords so that roof moisture stays on the tent roof instead of soaking the bag. The tent will stay significantly warmer during the night.

    Speaking of which, you should do a post on winter camping….

    • Bonnie – I’ve often wondered about springbar’s. They look so homey, and remind me of the old canvas tents we used when I was growing up… only these look a lot easier to set up! Thanks for the suggestion. And yes, I agree, we do need a winter camping post.

      Thanks for the input!


  9. Andree Walker

    Have you seen this tent?
    I’m not really even sure how it works, but it looks crazy! And by crazy, I mean I might not buy it, but I’d love to try it out some time!

    • Andree – No way! I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s like something strait of the Ewoks! That would be cool to try. Maybe not with a 2 year old, but still…

  10. Pam

    Perfectly timed post. I was just trying to decide whether we should fix the broken cords in our tent poles, (someone folded them up from one end rather than starting in the middle), or use this as an opportunity to get a roomier tent since we’ve added another kid. If we stick with our old tent I’ll have to convince my husband to give up the air mattress, I’ll need a post explaining how to do that :).

    • Pam – Haahaa! I’m not sure how to get rid of the air mattress (a knife maybe?), I’ve heard that once you start down the path of air mattressdom, it’s a hard thing to give up! Good luck! :)

  11. Jana

    Our family goes camping a lot. We have tried many tents. The best one yet for us has been
    The ONLY thing I would say is a CON is that these tents are so large and heavy – you have to have enough room in your vehicle to transport them. (along with all your other camping gear) SO, it’s probably not the best tent for a minimalist or a backpacker/hiker.

    • Hey Jana – That’s the second suggestion for a springbar, they do look like a little home away from home. I like that. But ya, you’d need some extra vehicle space? I even just watched a video of a springbar in a windstorm, seemed to hold up pretty well. Have you ever been in a rain storm with one?

  12. Jana

    Yes, we have many times. They always seem to hold up very well. The sides have gotten slightly wet before because we were in a downpour, but all in all, the stay super dry inside! And you feel so safe in them!

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    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

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