The Geartrade Tent Buyer’s Guide
If it’s been a hot minute since you’ve bought a tent, you’ll be delighted to know they’ve come a long way since the hulky, heavy behemoths most of us slept in on family campouts when we were kids. Of course, modern tents can look a little complex with all their bells, whistles, and ultralight flourishes.
But if you don’t know if you need fiberglass poles or aluminum poles, or whether a footprint matters, or what the hell a vestibule is, don’t worry. We’re on the up and up, and we’re here to help!
Types of tents: seasons, shapes, sizes, and weights
When you’re deciding what tent to buy, take these basic considerations first.
Pretty much every manufacturer explains their tent sizes as “one-man,” “two-man,” “three-man,” etc. Keep in mind that there’s no governing body telling them how many square feet each person ought to have inside that tent—so one brand’s interpretation of “two-man” might feel a bit more confined than another’s.
If you’re bringing a lot of gear, planning on spending a lot of time in the tent, or bringing a dog or kiddo along, definitely pad the size a bit.
On the other hand, if you’re solo and moving fast and light, find a one-man tent, which is minimalist, low profile, and easy to pack. You can even go ultra minimalist with a bivy sack (short for “bivouac”), which is basically a weatherproof bag-like structure that goes over your sleeping bag to protect you from the elements.
Most tents are labeled “three-season” or “four-season.” (There are a handful of “three-to-four season” hybrid models out there, too.) Three season tents are designed for your average moderate temperatures of spring, summer, and fall. The fabrics are a little lighter (and thus less warm) and there are lots of mesh windows for ventilation.
By contrast, four-season tents are designed to handle inclement, snowy, and windy weather you’ll find in wintry or high-alpine environments. A bit heavier, sturdier, and with less windows, these tents are bulkier to carry but you’ll thank your lucky stars it can protect you from the howling winds and frigid temps on your next mountaineering trip
The majority of tents on the market today are roughly dome-shaped, which is a relatively simple shape to assemble, and it sheds snow, wind, and rain nicely.
You may also see some “cabin-style” tents out there, which, rather than having more rounded roofs like a dome tent, have four upright walls and a roof on top. This can create much better headroom—and even standing room. Some cabin-style tents may be spacious enough for luxuries like divider walls or roomy vestibules. But, since they’re not as sleek as dome-shaped tents, they don’t shed wind, rain, or snow as well, and are typically bulkier and heavier to lug around.
Some ultra lightweight tents come in more creative shapes like pyramids draped over a trekking pole, or tarps draped over a center cord. If the weather looks reasonable and you’re not afraid of being up close and personal with bugs and critters, these can be a great solution for fast and light travel.
Speaking of bulk and weight, it’s one of your biggest factors to pay attention to when tent shopping. If you’re just going to use the tent for car camping, it matters less if it weighs a ton and takes up half the back seat of your car even when packed up. But if you’re going to backpack, travel, or deal with a ton of bulky gear, it’s immeasurably helpful to minimize your tent’s weight and packed size. Most manufacturers’ tech specs will give you a good idea of how heavy the tent is (including all its parts), and how much space it takes up when in its stuff sack.
If you’re backpacking, see if you can get your tent weight down to just a few pounds, then split the components among your group. One person can carry the tent body while the other carries the rain fly, poles, and footprint.
A glossary of features and when they matter:
Type and number of poles
Tents typically come with aluminum, fiberglass, or carbon fiber poles. Each has their own merit. Fiberglass poles are typically cheaper and heavier. Aluminum poles are strong and light. Carbon fiber poles are superlight and fairly strong, but can lack the resilience of aluminum.
Also, consider how many poles a tent has and how complicated it looks to set up. If there are fewer poles involved, you’ll be doing less pole calculus at your campsite at 10pm. Some elaborate or fancy designs involve more poles than you’d expect, being used in inventive ways to hold the fabric out and create more living room inside. This is great, but make sure it doesn’t feel like an impossible puzzle to recreate every time.
Pockets and “gear lofts”
Most tents have sewn-in pockets that serve as a convenient spot to stash small items like your headlamp, book, contacts case, etc. You’ll read in the tech specs how many pockets there are and where they’re located. They may also reference a “gear loft,” which is a storage net hanging overhead from the ceiling. This cool feature gives you bonus space to store items in clear view so they don’t get lost on the floor.
Rainfly & footprint
Your tent has a main body, but it likely also comes with a rainfly, which is the waterproof cover you put on top to keep water and snow out (or help keep the heat in). Always carry this with you if there’s even the teensiest chance of rain or cold.
Your tent also is built with a fairly resilient floor fabric, but the dirt, rocks, and sand out in the wilds can be really tough on your tent floor. (And you don’t want any tears, which cause wretched leaks in stormy weather.) This is where a “footprint” comes in. Manufacturers make a footprint for every tent, which works like an ultralight little tarp that’s shaped just the same as your tent floor. This means it’ll protect the floor without sticking out so far that it’ll collect rain water and puddle it under the floor.
Typically, your tent’s rainfly creates a little covered “porch” outside each door. This is great gear storage space under the shelter of the rain fly, keeping the clutter out of your sleeping space. Usually, a tent will have a vestibule per door. Two doors are a great feature if you’re camping with someone else and don’t want to have to crawl over one another to get in and out.
Stakes & guy lines
Guy lines are lengths of cord extending from key points and corners of the tent, which you can pull away from the tent and stake down to the ground to keep the fabric taut. This does multiple good things—the fabric doesn’t rustle in the wind, the doors can fold out and affix to the vestibule, and the rain and snow shed nicely away from the tent body. They also add more structural resilience to the tent if the wind is getting after it.
Be sure to bring more than enough stakes (with a minimum of one per corner of the tent and one per guy line). Inexpensive stakes can be bulky and made with heavier metals or cheap plastics, while nicer stakes have a low, packable profile and sleek shape.
It’s incredible how much thoughtful engineering goes into tent design from the major outdoor brands. Whether you’re buying a new or gently used tent, search on the manufacturer’s site and video channels for some how-to’s and explanations of all their bells and whistles. You’ll probably learn about some feature you wouldn’t have figured out otherwise.
Then, make sure you assemble the tent at home before you head out into the wilds. Home is the best place to figure out if you’re missing a piece or need to troubleshoot something. Torn seams, busted zippers, and un-waterproofed seams can be fixed with special repair kits.
It’s still a great idea to bring a mini repair kit on the trail with you, along with more stakes than you expect to need, and perhaps a bit of extra para-cord to bolster the guy lines. Your tent is your home away from home, so it deserves to be taken care of while it’s on duty.
You can find any size, type, or purpose of tent here UnNew on Geartrade for a fraction of the original cost. Sellers are great about answering questions if you’re wondering about its condition or parts. And they can always help you get an idea of what types of adventures their listed tents would be perfect for.
Happy tent-shopping, and see you out there! We can’t wait to see what you came up with.
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.
Do you have Summer Hike & Camp gear? Tents, sleeping bags, bikes, and bike gear is in top demand right now. If you have perfectly usable gear gathering dust, list it and sell it. And, whenever you’re in the market for gear that’s in great shape and costs a fraction of new, we’ve got it. May the circle of gear life continue.
Have your own gear tips that you want to share? We would love to hear them. Follow us on Instagram + Facebook: Tag us @geartrade with the hashtag #unnewoutdoor #wearitout on your post or story for a chance to be featured on our page.