Car camping with family or friends is a regular summer pastime for many of us. Whether the campground itself is the main attraction or it’s simply your base camp for nearby activities, here’s how to find the right home-away-from-home.
Types of Family Tents
Cabin-style tents: These upright styles offer the easiest in/out access. Their near-vertical walls create much livable space, which is a nice advantage. Some models come with family-pleasing features such as room dividers and an awning (or a vestibule door that can be staked out as such).At REI, tents that can sleep four or more campers comprise the “family” or”base camp” category. (Backpacking tents are discussed separately.) Here are the basic design options:
- Dome-style tents: The larger cousin of the classic backpacking domes, these offer superior strength and wind-shedding abilities, both of which you’ll appreciate on a stormy night. They stand tall, but their walls have more of a slope which slightly reduces livable space.
- Screen rooms and sun shelters: They usually cover the camp picnic table or are pitched for a day at the beach, though they can double as sleeping shelters if needed. With all-mesh walls, screen houses excel in warm conditions and keep occupants shielded from bugs, but not rain.
Weight is far less of a concern for a family camping tent than it is for a backpacking tent, as most family tents are carried only from car to campsite.
Shopping by Price
Family tents are sold at discount stores across the land, sometimes at amazingly low prices. Outdoor specialty stores, meanwhile, can carry models that can cost upwards of $500. They look about the same, so what’s the big difference?
As is often the case, you get what you pay for. In calm weather, a bargain tent may serve you just fine—for a while. The real difference is the quality of materials, which tends to become apparent in bad weather or after your first few outings. Here are some tips to compare a tent’s quality:
- Poles: Aluminum is stronger and more durable than fiberglass
- Zippers: YKK zippers resist snagging and breaking better than others
- Materials: Higher-denier fabric canopies and rainflies are more rugged than lower-denier ones.
- Rainfly: A full-coverage fly offers better weather protection than roof-only styles.
- Detailing: Guyout loops let you batten down the hatches in bad weather.
- Floor design: Seam taping and higher-denier fabrics reduce the chance to leakage from below and from corners.
Bottom line: If camping is an annual activity for your group, consider the long-term advantages of having a quality tent. Similarly, if you camp in areas where wind and storms are a threat, the same advice holds.
Tent Setup and Livability
This is listed as “peak height” on spec charts. If you like being able to stand up when changing clothes or just enjoy the airiness of a high ceiling, then look for a tall peak height.
Ease of Access
Does the tent have one door or two? What shape is the door, and how easy is it to zip open and shut? Cabin-style tents tend to shine in this area.
Ease of Setup
A tent’s pole structure usually determines how easy or hard it is to pitch. Fewer poles allow faster setups. It’s also easier to attach poles to clips than it is to thread them through “continuous” pole sleeves. Many tents offer a combination of both clips and short pole sleeves in an effort to balance strength, ventilation and setup ease.
A rainfly is a separate waterproof cover designed to fit over the roof of your tent. Two types are common. Roof-only rainflies are designed to cover mesh roofs, while relying on the tent’s waterproof walls to block rain. Full-coverage rainflies offer far more dependable rain protection, but slightly reduce ventilation. In nice weather, you can always opt to skip the rainfly for stargazing and waking up with the sun.
How big is the tent when packed? Small-car and motorcycle campers find this spec especially important.
Mesh panels are often used in the ceiling, doors and windows. This allows views and enhances cross-ventilation to help manage condensation.
Virtually all family tents these days are freestanding. This means they do not require stakes to set up. The big advantage of this is that you can pick up a freestanding tent (like a huge beach ball) and move it to a different location prior to staking. You can also easily shake it out before you take it down.
This shelter attaches to a tent for the purpose of storing your dusty boots or a keeping your daypack out of the rain. It can be either an integral part of the rainfly or an add-on item that’s sold separately.
Interior Loops and Pockets
A lantern loop is often located at the top-center of the ceiling to allow you a handy place to hang your lantern. Gear loft loops on tent walls can be used to attach a mesh shelf (sold separately) in order to keep small items such as keys or a headlamp off of the tent floor, or to a attach a clothesline to air out wet items. Similarly, interior pockets can help keep your tent organized.
Higher-quality tents will include loops on the outside of the tent body for attaching guy lines. Guy lines allow you to batten down the hatches during high winds.
A footprint is a custom-fitted groundcloth (sold separately) that goes under your tent floor. Tent floors can be tough, but rocks, twigs, grit and dirt eventually exact a toll. A footprint costs less to replace or repair than your tent itself. For a family tent that gets a lot of in/out foot traffic, this is especially useful.
Also, because footprints are sized to fit your tent shape exactly, they won’t catch water like a generic groundcloth that sticks out beyond the floor edges. Water caught that way flows underneath your tent and can seep through even tiny holes in the floor fabric.
Most tents come with a few attached pockets to let you keep small items off of the tent floor. A gear loft is an optional interior mesh shelf that can tuck a much greater volume of gear out of the way.
Other Optional Nice-to-Haves
- Stakes for sandy-soil campsites
- Broom and dustpan
- Inside/outside floor mat
- Battery-powered ventilation fan
Once you know what size tent you want, your biggest decision is really quality. For occasional outings in placid weather, an inexpensive tent might suffice. But if camping is a frequent summer activity for your crew, you’d be wise to invest in a quality tent to better ride out storms and provide years of dependable use.