Tent Buyer's Guide at Cabela's

Tent Buyer's Guide

Author: Cabela's Staff

With all the styles and sizes of tents on the market, choosing one can be a tough job. One of the first steps is deciding where and when you’ll use your tent the most.

Tents generally fall into four groups:

    •  Summer and Screen
    Summer and screen tents primarily provide shade for summer outings and the large space is perfect for family camping. The roof protects against light summer rains, and large mesh panels in almost every wall keep the insects out and breezes flowing in. While good for summer, the abundant ventilation can result in chilly times in the spring and fall. Also, on models without a complete fly, a combination of wind and rain can mean a wet outing.

    •  Three-Season
    Three-season tents offer shelter in spring, summer and fall. Usually, they have numerous options for ventilation such as mesh ceiling panels and windows. Plus, a sturdy rain fly protects against downpours, dampens the wind and holds in heat on cold spring and fall nights.

    Some three-season tents are convertible to four-season or winter tents with zippered nylon panels to block the ventilation panels. The drawback is the additional weight of the panels and zippers.
    •  Winter / Mountaineering
    The primary objective of winter and mountaineering tents is to protect you from severe wind and weather in winter or at high altitudes. When you need to batten down the hatches, a sturdy fly has attachments for numerous guy lines. Also, you will find few windows and limited ventilation. High-strength aluminum poles secure the tent.

    Before buying a winter or mountaineering tent, evaluate whether you will actually use it under the conditions it is designed for. A winter tent in warmer weather will most likely always be too warm, especially when donning the rain fly. Condensation in the tent will then cause your things to get wet. Also, the frame is much heavier.

Outfitter tents are designed to be outback lodges or base camps for hunting and fishing. Most of these tents are staked out with an internal framework of poles. Because they are used as portable cabins, guy lines hold sidewalls nearly vertical to maximize headroom. Usually, windows are kept to a minimum. Removable floor panels and a stove jack for the roof allow the use of a wood- burning stove.

Size and Weight
The biggest factor in choosing size and weight is how far you’ll be carrying your tent. If you are primarily a car camper, few tents will be too big and heavy. For backpacking, size and weight need to be carefully considered.

    •  Size
    Tent size is usually quantified by how many people can sleep on the floor. “Man” ratings can be misleading, so check the actual floor dimensions of each model. These ratings are based on positioning full-size, 20"- to 25"-wide sleeping pads side by side. Keep in mind, you’ll most likely be lying right next to your tent mates with your sleeping bags touching or even overlapping. If you want more room, select a larger model. Also, look at the floor plan. Some only allow room for campers, while others have nooks and crannies for storing gear and clothes.
    If you are car camping or have additional help hauling your tent such as an ATV, horse, or eager friends and family, weight is not a large factor. However, if you are carrying it on your back with a week’s worth of gear, every ounce counts, so look for a lightweight tent.

    As you look at each tent, consider if it’s worth its weight. Many three-season models have multiple doors or convertible windows, but each zipper and piece of material adds ounces or even pounds. A four-man tent may have more room, but do you want the extra weight?


Tent Styles and Designs
There are several basic designs and types of tents.

    •  Umbrella
    Primarily used in family and summer tents, the umbrella design offers a lot of headroom. Near-vertical sidewalls allow for great ventilation and take advantage of floor space, essentially making the tent a cabin.
    •  A-frame
    The original A-frame tents, based on pup tents, were lightweight, simple to set up and fairly inexpensive. They had rectangular floors with sloping sides and ridgepoles. However, they had low headroom and little elbowroom due to the sloping sides. The modified A-frame improved upon the original A-frame by adding a center hoop pole or diagonal center poles. This causes the sidewalls to curve outward, increasing space. Lateral stability also increases to help the tent hold up better in the wind.

    •  Dome
    While starting out as true domes, these tents, with up to 50% more room than A-frame tents, now come in numerous shapes slightly resembling curved domes. Curved sidewalls more easily shed rain and snow before it can accumulate. The number and strength of the poles determines the amount of structural stability. Some lightweight three-season tents have only two flexible support poles that crisscross, while others add a third or fourth pole to increase stability and space. Some heavy-duty mountaineering tents have up to eight poles in a geodesic dome form to fully support the fabric.

    Dome tents are free-standing. This allows you to put the tent together, and then position it on the desired location and secure it with stakes. In mild weather, staking keeps the floor taut. If you expect windy conditions, good staking and guying is recommended. One of the nicest advantages of a free-standing tent is easy cleanup. Before packing the tent, just pull the stakes, pick up the tent and shake out the dirt, sand and whatever else was tracked in.
    •  Vestibules
    Vestibules are the front or back porches of camp life usually created by an extension of the rain fly and have no floor. They provide additional dry areas to store packs, boots and other camp items, especially when they are wet or muddy. Some are more elaborate and roomy with additional support poles that actually create a small second room. Vestibules also allow thorough ventilation even when it’s raining by providing enough coverage to leave your tent door unzipped without getting wet.

    Cooking in a vestibule is possible, but can be dangerous and isn’t recommended. Remember you are cooking with fire, so be attentive. Provide adequate ventilation, and prime and light your stove outside the tent. Be aware, fried foods create small particles that rise and cling to the vestibule fabric. Not only does this create a cleaning challenge, it can affect the waterproof qualities of the fabric and create a fire hazard as well.

    •  Poles
    Poles are the foundation and frame holding up your tent. Most tents now use shock-corded poles. Tubular fiberglass poles are the choice for most campers as they are less expensive and perform well. These poles are easy to assemble, take down and store. The only drawback is they can become brittle, especially in severe cold, and possibly splinter.

    Steel poles are also used in family and cabin tents. They are strong and provide sturdy support, but add extra weight, making them suitable for mainly car camping.

    Aluminum poles are more expensive, but they are substantially lighter and offer greater strength. This is definitely a factor if you plan to pack into the backcountry. All aluminum poles are not created equal. They come in various alloys with different strength-to-weight ratios. A 6000-series alloy is definitely sufficient for most campers, but under severe conditions using four-season or mountaineering tents, a 7000-series alloy provides more strength.

    •  Tent Fabrics and Coatings
    One number you’ll probably see in tent specifications is the waterproof coating rating on the fabric. It will appear as “1,000mm P.U. coated fly, 400mm coated floor,” etc. These numbers are derived from water column tests performed on the polyurethane-coated fabric. Testers take a section of fabric and apply pressure against it with a column of water. The fabric is then rated at the height of the water column where three water droplets form on the fabric. A decent waterproof value is 1,000mm. However, if you plan to use your tent often in wet conditions and severe weather, you should look for a value of at least1,500mm. Some tent floors are even rated at 3,000mm. Don’t look for values any higher than 3,000mm, as material actually breaks down if it’s run through a coating machine enough times to achieve a rating greater than 3,000mm.

Arming yourself with this information will be helpful as you begin your hunt for the right tent for your needs.