Choosing the right tent can make the difference between a successful, enjoyable camping trip and a divorce-causing night of hell. To get you ready for camping season, we've come up with a list of things you need to consider when shopping for a tent. This list is the result of years of 4x4 camping experience and too many nights of misery. So read it well and learn from our mistakes. Happy camping!
Since your 4x4 is carrying the tent, weight isn't a concern. That's good news because light weight tents cost more than their regular weight cousins. Bulk usually isn't a concern, either, unless you're considering a canvas-walled tent which can be very bulky due to the material thickness as well as the larger poles required to support the canvas.
Set Up Time
I have a bad habit of driving for as long as there's daylight and setting up camp at the last minute, usually in the dark...when I'm tired and hungry...and plagued by mosquitoes and black flies. For someone like me, a tent that sets up quickly without requiring help from anyone else is worth every penny. What often takes the most time is attaching the poles to the tent and then erecting the poles. If you're looking at a tent where you slide the poles through sleeves in the tent shell, I recommend using aluminum poles. They will be nice and smooth where they join together, so they won't catch on the tent fabric when being pushed through the sleeves. The other option is to choose a tent design where you set up the poles first, and then clip the tent shell to the poles. This is usually the fastest style of tent to put up.
Despite the weatherman's best intentions, he isn't infallible. That's why I strongly suggest choosing a tent that is water proof. You can buy single walled tents that use a water proof material such as silicon-impregnated polyester, but they can suffer from condensation problems. So look for a tent that has a water proof rain fly that covers the tent. Condensation will form on the fly but keep the inner shell dry and condensation-free. If you only camp during summer months, I recommend that the tent be made of mesh, or contain large panels of mesh, so you have better ventilation on those warm nights. A lot of people prefer to buy cheap tents and then throw tarps over them if it rains but that slows down the total set up time. Tarps are also noisy (nothing like the constant drip drip drip of water on a tarp to lull you to sleep ... not), and often go sailing away, along with half your camp gear, if a gust of wind hits them.
Take Down Time
This is the most critical piece of information I can give you: no matter what tent you buy, make sure you get a big bag in which to store it. The cheaper tents (ie: from Costco, Canadian Tire, Wal-Mart, etc.) come packaged in storage bags that require the use of a hydraulic press and vacuum chamber to suck the tent down into the required size. The number of hours of your life that get frittered away trying to squeeze your tent into that bag are gone forever. So if your tent comes with one of these ridiculous bags, BUY A BIGGER BAG!
The most common wear area on a tent is the floor. Small stones, roots and other ground debris will eventually poke a hole through the floor and thereby compromise the tent's ability to keep you dry. The easiest way to avoid this, besides thoroughly prepping your tent site prior to set-up, is to use a waterproof ground sheet. Put the ground sheet down first, and then put the tent over top of it. Choose a ground sheet that has about the same foot print as your tent. The more it sticks out from beneath your tent, the more water it will catch and funnel towards your tent if it rains. That's a bad thing. The other benefit of using a ground sheet is that your tent stays clean and you can roll it up and stuff it back into the bag without having to clean off the bottom. Cleaning dirt off of a silicon-impregnated tent bottom can be a real hassle because it has some kind of static cling or something that really holds onto dirt.
You can hose the ground sheet off when you get home. But for the duration of the camping trip, you can use it to protect the gear packed in your truck from rain or dust. Or simply store it somewhere in your vehicle where you won't care about how dirty it is.
Why a vestibule? Because stinky, muddy boots worn during a long day of four wheeling do not belong in your tent but they don't belong outside in the rain, either. The vestibule provides a dry storage area for your boots and other wet gear that is easily accessible. It's also a great place to for your dog(s) to sleep.
Your tent is already going to be littered with your sleeping bag, pillow, backpack, clothes, etc. Finding small items that are strewn around the floor is tough. So choosing a tent that has pockets and hangers is a very good idea.
Backpackers will choose low tents due to their light weight and stability in windy conditions. Us four wheelers don't need to worry about the weight and we have trucks to provide a wind block. So look for a tent that is tall enough to be comfortable. You don't need to stand up straight in it, but the taller it is, the easier it will be to change clothes inside it.
I know I said that the floor was the number one wear item on a tent but zippers run a very close second. You'll use them a lot and cheap zippers are going to drive you mad when they separate or their stitching comes apart. So you need to have a close look at the tent and choose one that has beefy zippers. This brings up another good point: you shouldn't buy a tent based on its photo on the box. Look at the tent itself. Most sporting goods stores will have demonstration models that are already set up.
Although a tent may be made of a water proof material, the manufacturer may have skimped on sealing the seams where the fabric panels were stitched together. If those seams are not sealed from the factory, you can always buy a can of seam sealer and seal them yourself. But you DO want sealed seams.
Heavy Duty Tent Pegs
The tent pegs that come with budget tents are a cruel joke. They will bend even when you're using your hand to press them into the ground. The stiffer, pointed pegs that come with higher end tents are an improvement but they're designed with backpackers in mind. Since you're carrying your tent in a 4x4, forget the lightweight pegs, no matter how good they are. Get the big, heavy pegs made from long galvanized nails. You can hammer these into virtually any ype of ground without damaging them. I don't know of any tent that comes with them, so they won't affect your choice of which tent to buy.
Fluorescent Guy Lines
This isn't a requirement but it's a nice-to-have: glow-in-the-dark guy lines. I've seen countless examples of people tripping over their tent lines at dusk or even in broad daylight. White rope is not visible enough. Fluorescent red or green ropes will fix this problem.
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