What the best tent has
- Complete waterproofing. Nothing ruins a camping trip like water seeping in through the walls or floor of your tent. Look for sealed seams, a durable and full-coverage rainfly, and a bathtub-style floor that helps keep water from creeping in around the edges.
- Good ventilation. Tents should allow good airflow, even when they're completely closed up against the rain or cold. Poorly ventilated tents create condensation on the inside of the tent and may even make some campers feel claustrophobic.
- Wind resistance. The tighter you can pitch your tent and its rainfly, the stronger and more wind-resistant it'll be. Look for at least two guy points -- loops on the outside of the tent fly -- that you can tie to anchors to keep the tent fabric from flapping in the wind. The tent poles should be flexible so they'll bend under the wind, instead of breaking; and the doors, windows and edges of the rainfly shouldn't flap excessively in the wind.
- Easy setup. While no tent sets up instantaneously, even the largest tent should go up within about 15 minutes, and a backpacking tent should pitch taut within five to 10 minutes, once you're familiar with it. Even the largest cabin tents can be set up by one person if they're well-designed, although it's often useful to have a helper. For backpacking tents, external tent poles and fly-first pitch options make it easy to keep the inside of your tent dry during setup on a rainy day.
- Simple packing. Once you're done with it, your tent should fit neatly back into whatever pack or bag it came out of. Bags that open from the side and can be simply wrapped around the tent fabric are the easiest way to handle a large family or cabin tent.
Know before you go
What size do you need? Consider how many people you'll be sharing your tent with on a regular basis -- plus how much other stuff they'll bring, including gear and pets. Will you have your car available for storing extra gear, or will you have to store everything in the tent? Most tents are rated for use in very close quarters; often, campers will buy a tent that's rated for one or two more occupants than you typically plan to share it with, so you can have a little room to move around and stow extra gear.
What will the weather be like? If you're camping in harsh conditions, a low, rounded design sheds wind, rain and even snow, although that limits the usable space around the edges of your tent. If conditions are milder, you can get away with a tall, steep-walled tent that maximizes living space.
Are you comfortable with a non-freestanding tent? Tents come in two basic configurations: Freestanding tents, which have some integral structure of their own, and non-freestanding tents, which will fall down if they're not staked out. Freestanding tents are easiest for a beginner to manage, but almost anyone can learn to manage a non-freestanding tent with a little practice. No matter what sort of tent you end up with, always practice putting it up before you hit the trail or campsite: You'll always be faster the second time through, and the trial run ensures that you have all the necessary pieces.
Will you be carrying the tent? If you must carry the tent a long way to your pitch site, light weight and small size suddenly become your highest priorities. A quick, easy pitch is important here too, since the tent will be your only shelter against bad weather.
Do you understand tent weights? Often, tents will have several weights listed: The trail weight refers to only the tent poles, rainfly and tent body. Packed weight includes all of that, plus stakes, guy lines, stuff sacks, instructions and packaging. Realistically, backpackers will end up with an actual weight that's somewhere between the two figures, since you wouldn't take the instructions and packaging with you on the trail.