We found the best review of camping tents at Backpacker magazine, where editors report on field tests of 30 tents and name the Nemo Losi 3P (*Est. $400) as the best three-person tent for 2009. The review also identifies the best all-around tents in two other size ranges, as well as the best mountaineering or winter tent, picking the best ultralight and budget tents as well. Outside magazine also tests new tents each year, reporting in detail on seven of the best and giving the Nemo Losi 3P the 2009 Gear of the Year award. BackpackingLight.com provides even more thorough tent reviews, rating and ranking tents based on objective tests; a review compares 24 ultralight, single-wall tents.
REI.com is one of the best places to read owner-written tent ratings and reviews. We found useful reviews of bigger family tents for car camping there, as well as reviews of small, lightweight tents for backpacking. Amazon.com also publishes owner-written reviews of dozens of family tents. ConsumerReports.org hasn't tested tents since 2005, but some of the brand comparisons are still useful. Camping Life, a publication about family camping, also covers bigger tents, with one or two annual Editors' Choice picks.
Some well-reviewed, classic A-frame and wall tents are still on the market, but newer dome tents and modified A-frame have become more popular as of late. Newer tents use strategically placed mesh to improve comfort in hot weather and minimize condensation -- a perennial problem with tents. Color coding makes setup faster, and manufacturers continue to find ways to design tents for sturdy wind resistance while reducing weight. One of the latest technologies uses variable-diameter poles for strength where it's needed most.
The latest trend in family camping tents is to provide electricity for fans and lights with outlets and an included battery pack. Some tents just have a zippered flap insert an electrical cord in while keeping out insects. Others provide remote-control lighting or even 12-volt outlets inside the tent. However, tent reviewers say that other features -- such as a full-coverage fly to keep out driving rain -- are a lot more important.
For example, the Eureka N!ergy family of camping tents is getting a lot of attention because they include an 12-volt electrical outlet that's powered by a rechargeable lead-acid battery pack. The tents have earned mostly favorable owner-written reviews, but it's clear that the system is designed just for small devices like a fan or light. One owner reviewing the electrical system at Amazon.com says it will run a laptop computer for about an hour, and a small television set for 30 or 40 minutes.
However, field tests at Camping Life criticize the four-person Eureka N!ergy 9 Tent (*Est. $165) for its more basic aspects. The fly covers the tent's sides well, but not the front and back, so rain can be driven in by the wind. The N!ergy 9 tent also lacks a vestibule, so you won't have a place to store muddy boots and gear. For that reason, reviewers recommend it only for use in light rain -- which limits its usefulness. A review at GearReview.com finds the Eureka Copper Canyon tents built more sturdily than the N!ergy tents, though both tents lack full-coverage rain flies.
Quite a few tent manufacturers and retailers offer lifetime guarantees. Still, the guarantee isn't much comfort if you're out in the woods with a leaky tent or a stuck zipper. Quite a few owners complain about leaks and tears in tents sold under the REI brand, though that retailer offers refunds or exchanges for all products it sells. We found a few complaints about rips, even in very expensive tents made by Paha Que. Not surprisingly, owners complain most about leaks, tears and snagging zippers in inexpensive family tents with short warranties made by budget brands such as Coleman, Ozark Trail and Wenzel.
Reviews note that when manufacturers rate a tent for a certain number of people, they're packing narrow mummy-style sleeping bags together like sardines in a can. For real camping comfort, reviews suggest buying a tent rated for one more person at the very least. A couple will be comfortable in a three-person camping tent, while four adults usually need a six-person family tent.
Vertical space can be important too -- waiting out a long storm in a tent isn't as much fun if you can't at least sit up without bumping the ceiling. The best family tents have plenty of headroom for standing up and moving around inside. There's a trade-off, though, between headroom and aerodynamics -- so dome tents are a good compromise because of their superior wind resistance.