5 Tips for Buying Family Camping Tents

You have many factors to consider before you select a tent for your family camping trip.
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Buying a family camping tent is like buying a vehicle: You should think about your family's needs and wants.

When it comes to vehicles, if you're going to be hauling children and their gear, you go for the minivan or SUV rather than the small, sporty car.

With tents, if you'll be backpacking your equipment long distances, you'll need the lightest-weight tent that will still protect you from the elements. You might choose one- or two-person tents, and let each camper carry his or her own shelter.

But if you're driving to within a few yards of where you'll pitch your tent, and you want adults and children together, then you want a family camping tent.

Then, other questions arise. Will you be camping only during the summer? If so, you will be interested in a tent with plenty of mesh windows and vents. Most tents are made of some combination of mesh and nylon or polyester, with different combinations for different seasons.

Are you more interested in having an inexpensive place to stay near vacation destinations, or in having a back-to-nature experience? Will you break camp frequently and drive to new destinations, or will you pitch the tent once and spend the whole vacation there? The answers to such questions might help you decide whether you're more interested in how easy the tent is to pitch or in how spacious it will be.

Even if you're likely to use the tent only once a year, it's important to choose one that will make camping a pleasure for the whole family. Read on to learn more about your choices.

5
Trying it on for size

Togetherness can be great, but don't overdo it. Make sure the family's tent is big enough; each person needs about 24 square feet (2.2 square meters) of space. Choose a tent that could hold at least one more person than you'd expect. If you camp with children, the tent may be living room as well as bedroom -- especially if it rains. You'll want space for the children to play games, read and move around.

Stored size can be a factor. Consider how compactly the tent and poles fold and whether they will fit into your vehicle. Vertical space can be almost as important as horizontal. Do you want everyone to be able to stand up inside the tent? Do you care if adults can stand only in the middle? Will people need room to change clothes?

There are three basic styles of family tents:

  • Dome-style. These are strong and resist wind and rain well. On the other hand, they have less headroom and usable space because of the slope of the walls.
  • Cabin-style. They have the most space and headroom. They're easy to get into and out of. Some have room dividers. However, they can be harder to put up and may not be as reliable in extreme weather.
  • Screen-rooms. Often used to cover picnic tables or sitting areas, screen-rooms with weatherproof roofs protect against bugs but not rain. They can expand the living and sleeping area in good weather.
4
Make it easy on yourself
Nothing ruins a camping trip faster than poor planning.
Nothing ruins a camping trip faster than poor planning.
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Here's how to get a camping trip off to a bad start: Arrive late after a tiring trip with hungry kids in tow, and struggle for a long time in the dark to pitch the tent.

Therefore, when choosing a tent, look for setup ease. Most tents have poles on the outside, which leaves more room inside. The difficulty depends largely on how many poles are involved. The fewer the poles, the easier to set up. Most poles are segmented and held by shock cords so they can be folded for storage. It's easier to attach poles to the fabric by clips than to thread poles through fabric sleeves, but sleeves make the structure stronger. Some tents have a combination of clips and sleeves.

Here are some other ways to make camping easier:

  • Easy access is important. Somebody will have to go to the bathroom at night. Someone will wake up early and slip out to watch the dawn. Do you want one door or two? How easily do the zippers work? How noisy are they?
  • Letting moisture out of the tent is vital. Condensation from people's breathing and wet clothes and gear can gather inside a tent, with drenching results. Ventilation is important, especially in summer. Look for ceiling vents and plenty of mesh panels in doors and windows.
  • Buy a rainfly. You'll need a separate, waterproof cover that goes over your tent but doesn't touch it. If your tent doesn't come with a rainfly, you will need to buy one. Even if it doesn't rain, the fly is important for keeping out ultraviolet rays. If you'll camp only in summer, you may want a fly that covers the tent's roof but doesn't come all the way down the sides, so there's more ventilation. The fly should be quick and easy to pitch.
3
You get what you pay for

It's possible to get a family camping tent that's very inexpensive. But even if you'll be taking the family camping only once a year, it's wise to consider quality. You don't want to be miserable.

  • Poles should be easy to attach to the tent; they should fold down so they're easy to transport. Most segmented poles are connected by shock cords so you won't lose any of your belongings in inclement weather. Strength is important. Metal-tipped fiberglass poles may be cheaper, but aluminum is sturdier and won't rust.
  • Backpacking tents are usually made of nylon because it's light, but polyester, which protects against ultraviolet rays better, works well for family tents. Check seams to make sure they overlap well or are taped and sturdily stitched. For summer camping, look for plenty of mesh panels for cross ventilation. Denser fabrics are better in extreme weather. Rainflys and tents may be waterproofed with silicon or polyurethane.
  • The zippered doors of family tents will get a lot of use, not always careful use. Make sure the zippers work easily and are durable.
  • The tent's floor should be one piece and a "tub" or "bathtub" style, so the seams that join it to the sides are several inches above ground level. Otherwise, moisture may pool and seep inside.
  • Many tents are freestanding -- they are raised and supported by their external poles without the need for stakes. Even these should be staked at the corners and sides, or they can blow away. Look for strong loops of nylon webbing and stakes of titanium or aluminum. There are special stakes for sand. High-quality tents will also have guyout loops so you can attach guy lines in rough weather.
2
Check the extras
When you're looking for a tent, pay attention to all the extras that would make you and your family more comfortable as you rough it.
When you're looking for a tent, pay attention to all the extras that would make you and your family more comfortable as you rough it.
Andersen Ross/Getty Images

The family is snugly tucked into the tent, and there's enough room for everybody. But what about all the boots, shoes, daypacks, jackets and other gear? A vestibule is a great addition, like your mudroom or porch back home. This separate area for storage may stand alone or be built into the rainfly.

Other extra touches that can make camping more pleasant:

  • Mesh side storage pockets that give campers a place to stow glasses, books, flashlights and other small items inside the tent but off the floor are handy.
  • A mesh interior shelf that holds larger items inside the tent can be useful, especially when camping with children and their toys and other paraphernalia.
  • The footprint -- made of nylon or plastic -- is like a groundcloth, but it's custom-made to fit your tent. The idea is to have it just slightly smaller than the tent floor, so that there's no area where water can pool around the tent floor. The footprint will add an extra layer of protection against moisture. It also will protect the tent floor from wearing out because of the rocks and twigs under it and the big and little feet walking on it. The footprint may be sold separately but is worth having.

Ready to shop? There's one more thing to keep in mind: Bring the whole gang.

1
Try it out

When it comes to buying a family camping tent, don't shop alone. The whole family will be camping in the tent, so the whole family should be involved in the selection process.

You can go to specialty outdoors and camping stores to shop for a tent. You can also find reasonably good tents for sale at your local big-box or discount store. Wherever you go to buy a tent, don't rely only on the specs on the box or tag. Read those details -- and take the time to learn about the material, waterproofing, number of people accommodated, peak height and other factors.

Talk to the salesperson as well. But make sure you do your own research before you go shopping as well.

An essential part of buying a tent is to give it a try. Just as you wouldn't buy a family vehicle without taking it for a test drive, you shouldn't buy a tent without seeing how it works. You can't borrow it for a weekend in the woods, but you can ask that the store's staff set it up while you watch.

Once the tent has been pitched, go inside. Take the kids. See how much room you have. Check out the storage space and headroom. See if the door arrangement is something you can live with. Let the kids work the zippers several times. They'll be using them plenty once you go camping. A stuck zipper in the store isn't nearly as serious as a stuck zipper at the campsite.

If the tent passes the family test, you're on your way. Happy camping!

Read on for lots more information.

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Sources:

  • Brinson, James C. Wildlife biologist and outdoorsman, Henderson, Nev. Personal interview via e-mail, Nov. 24, 2010.
  • Camping Tent Guide. "How to Choose the Right Camping Tent."http://camping-tent-guide.com/ (Dec. 2, 2010)
  • Dick's Sporting Goods. "How to Buy a Tent."http://dickssportinggoods.com/info/index.jsp?categoryId=222952 (Dec. 3, 2010)
  • Family Camping Gear. "Choosing a Camping Tent."http://www.familycampinggear.com/generic14.html (Dec. 9, 2010)
  • REI. "How to Choose a Family/Base Camping Tent."http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/family+base+camping+tent.html (Dec. 2, 2010)
  • Stevenson, Jason. "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking & Hiking." Alpha. Indianapolis, Ind. 2010.
  • Tawrell, Paul. "Camping & Wilderness Survival: The Ultimate Outdoors Book." EXXA. Lebanon, N.H. 2001.
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