Comfortable, dry and bug-free: How to pick the right tent

Friday May 18, 2012

This past weekend, my sweetheart, Marilyn, and I, along with our friends Susan and David Shedd, paddled our kayaks to "Fern Island," where we pitched our tents and spent the night.

We fished a little, swam (briefly) in the chilly water, napped. In the late afternoon, we picked fiddlehead ferns and mushrooms, which we sautéed and ate, along with chicken and sweet potatoes cooked over an open fire. After dinner, we settled into our tents for a long, deep, restful sleep. Breakfast was a huge pan of scrambled eggs and sausage.

While we were camp ed, we saw and heard dozens of species of birds; a beaver slap ped his tail on the water near the tents, clearly an noyed at us. Just-blossoming honeysuckle filled the air with sweetness. We found painted trilliums in flower, several Jack-in-the-pulpits, bloodroot and a number of other plants we don’t normally encounter.

In all, it was a wonderful getaway, a total change of pace from the stresses of everyday life and work. All the details could change of course, but the one thing that made the whole getaway easy and comfortable was a tent, or, more accurately two tents, one for each couple.

Simply owning a tent opens up new worlds. Whether you carry it in the trunk of your vehicle, in a backpack, on your bike, in a canoe or kayak, a good tent creates a comfortable, dry, bug-free place. There are hundreds of tents on the market. Some, of course, are better than others, and getting the right tent for you re quires several steps. Here’s how to go about it.

Some basics to start

Most modern tents have a floor of water-proof, coated fabric that will typically extend several inches up the sidewalls of a tent body made of a breathable fabric with windows for additional ventilation or of mesh for even more ventilation.

Over the whole structure goes another layer of water-proof material, called a fly. It’s important to have at least some air circulating between the tent fly and the tent body -- otherwise the vapor from your breath will condense on the fabric of the fly as the night cools and you can create your own miniature rainstorm right inside the tent. Condensation is the reason you can’t just build a whole tent out of water-proof fabric.

1. Choose a season

While the lines aren’t precise, tents basically fall into three categories: summer, three-season, and winter/expedition.

Summer tents are usually lighter, feature lots of mesh screening for insect protection and ventilation. Three-season tents are somewhat sturdier, to withstand more wind and weather, and usually have a breathable fabric body with zip-open, mesh-covered vents.

Winter/expedition tents are heavier yet, built to withstand high winds and snow, the fly is usually closer to the tent to provide an insulating air space (venting moisture isn’t as critical in dry winter air or higher altitudes).

For most people, a summer tent, (May through October in New England) is all they need.

2. Imagine uses

Are you going to be camping exclusively from a car or a canoe? If so, you can get away with a heavier/larger tent. If you’re backpacking, biking or kayaking, you’ll generally want lighter, more compact -- within reason. Just remember, a tent that will work for backpack, bike and kayak camping can also work for car camping, but you probably can’t backpack a big, heavy car camping tent. When in doubt, go for added versatility.

3. Pick a size

Tents come in all sizes, from tiny solo shelters to huge cabin tents. My personal bias is always toward the smallest, lightest tent that offers adequate useable space and comfort. That sometimes means putting one person in a small two-person tent, or two people in a small three-person. Small tents fit in smaller places and, in our woods, it’s often difficult to find a place to pitch a larger tent.

If you always travel alone, or with a friend, two solo tents are more versatile than one two-person tent, and most of today’s solo tents offer plenty of room for one person and some gear.

Some smaller "two-person" tents are really best for one person, but will sleep two friendly people in a pinch. For couples who always travel together, I always recommend either "two-plus" tents, (roomy two-person models) or lightweight three-person tents. For groups of three or more, multiple smaller tents are more versatile than a bigger, heavier, bulkier four- or six-person model.

If you’re having trouble making a choice, I’d go with an added few ounces and a little larger tent: more space can sometimes equal more comfort, better sleep, and you are likely to use a tent more if you are comfortable and sleep well in it.

4. Select the right features

Some tents are lighter, but lighter often means less sturdy and more expensive. Some are easier to set up -- but once you are used to a specific tent, most are easy enough. When you camp on ledges or very rocky ground, you want a tent that doesn’t need a lot of stakes to hold it up. But if you camp on hilltops, you may need a tent with a lot of stakes to hold it in place in the wind.

If there are two of you using the tent, a door on both sides is an awfully nice feature, so no one has to crawl over someone else in the middle of the night to go look at the stars.

Internal pockets may seem frivolous, but being able to find your headlamp and hygiene kit in the middle of the night is pretty crucial.

If you can, actually get inside a tent before you buy in. Imagine how your sleeping bag will lay out, where you’ll put your clothes and boots at night, where will you store stuff that needs to stay dry.

5. Enjoy!

This is the fun part. Set up the tent in your backyard a few times to practice, then start taking it out and enjoying those overnight outdoor adventures. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Tim Jones is the executive editor of the online magazine and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email:


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