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Selecting a Tent

Posted by Darren Bush on 10/16/2013 to Camping Skills & Tips

Your home away from home

Selecting a tent doesn’t have to be difficult. It is, like most gear, a matter of function, and choosing the functions that best fit the activities you want to pursue. The factors to consider are size, ventilation, and geometry.

How to Size a Tent

Until a few years ago, sizing a tent was easy. Length times width and you’ve got the square footage. Nowadays few tents are absolutely square, and with the addition of vestibules, it’s sometimes difficult to calculate how useful the square feet will be.

Think function. If you’re backpacking with minimalist gear, you’re not likely to find a lot of function for a large, free-standing tent that weighs in at 12 pounds. A two-person tent can be a one-person palace or a two-person prison, depending on the weather. How often will you be tent-bound for hours or days? How well do you like your tent partner? Sometimes a three-person tent is a great two-person tent if you like to spread out or if you have a lot of gear. How many doors do you want? Two is nice if you find yourself crawling over your tent mate at three in the morning to answer the call of Nature.

The point is, Think outside the box. If it says “serves 4” on the box, do you believe it? Some two-person tents are only such if Calista Flockhart and her clone are backpacking together.

Think about vestibules. It’s like a mud room for your tent–a place to keep nasty things like muddy boots and wet rainwear. If you string up a little parachute cord you can have a place to put wet things and keep them out of the dirt. It’s also a nice transition from outside (possibly yucky) to inside (very much not yucky). If you need to keep sand, snow, and other outside grime out, a vestibule is a good way to do it. And remember that larger vestibules might mean a smaller tent area, which means less weight to carry.

Lastly, think about height. A tent with a taller ceiling seems larger, and a tent with more vertical walls also seems to have more room to stretch out. Old style A-frame tents have plenty of sleeping space, but when you sit up you can get a face full of nylon if you’re off to the side of the centerline. Modern tents have more vertical walls and can make card playing a lot easier.


Tents vary greatly in their ability to circulate air. In the winter, the obvious problem is how to exchange humid, stale air with fresh air while maintaining some heat in the tent. Thing is, most people don’t camp in the winter, so the bigger problem is getting as much air exchange as possible while staying dry. Otherwise you have problems with condensation on the inside of the tent. Mountaineering tents have very small vents that limit circulation. They are, for the most part, unsuitable for summer use.

There is no clear way to measure ventilation other than the ol’ eyeball method. Take a look at the quantity of mesh and the location. Lots of mesh is good, especially lots of mesh at opposite ends of the tent.

Also pay attention to the fly, the part that covers the main body of the tent. If it sits close to the body, and if the poles are sleeved with solid cloth rather than mesh or clips, it’s likely that the tent, though it may have adequate mesh, doesn’t have the design or structure to allow the mesh to work.


I still remember back in 1977, when I was a wee little high school freshman, I learned of R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller, inventer of the geodesic dome, had worked with a tent company to design the first geodesic tent. I wanted one in the worst way, but they were three hundred and fifty 1977 dollars and I was fourteen. Sigh…

Anyway, that tent revolutionized tent making. Until then, it was your choice of the A-frame pup tent, the Conestoga wagon mountaineering tent, or some variation of the canvas tent. None of them were free-standing. The geodesic dome allowed tight pitches in windy conditions without stakes and lines everywhere, even in sand. Computer-aided design was applied to tents in the early 90s, and the weight of tents came down and their strength went up.

So how to you choose a design? Aesthetics can have a part. Choose designs you like to look at. Do you like a sleek, easily-pitched tent that sheds wind? Choose a low, dome-shaped tent with sloped walls. Do you like to be able to pitch the tent on shallow ground (like the Precambrian shield in the Boundary Waters or Quetico)? You’ll want a free-standing design that doesn’t necessarily need to be staked out. It’s all common sense, really.

Give us a call or come in if you’d like more personalized attention in selecting the proper home for your outdoor adventures. We pretty much live outside and love it.

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