Tents 101

Tents 101

While car camping and backpacking are entirely different outdoor activities, they have one thing in common; in both instances, you’ll need a tent. Your tent selection will say much about the type of trip you’re planning, and will dictate whether or not you’ll have a resoundingly positive experience. So, whether you intend on setting up at a campground for some r&r or if you’re feeling more ambitious by strapping on a loaded backpack, this article will help you find which shelter works best for you!

Let’s begin with the different types of tents for the different seasons of the year.

Three-Season Tents

Designed to be used during spring, summer and fall, three-season tents are the most popular category. Built to hold up against windy and rainy conditions, three-season tents can handle snowfall in early spring and late fall, and most have plenty of ventilation features to let the air in and minimize condensation during warmer weather. They are typically supported by two or three poles, made out of either aluminum or fiberglass. We’ll dive into more details concerning the differences between poles further below.

Four-Season/Winter Tents

While four-season tents are sturdier and built solely to withstand year-round conditions, their worth is truly tested during winter excursions. Due to the poles being thicker and that there are more of them, four-season tents are more resilient in extreme conditions, such as strong winds, torrential rains and heavy snow. To prevent snow from accumulating and thereby reducing the chances of a collapse, winter tents are typically a dome design. Keep in mind that these tents are heavier than their three-season counterparts.

Styles

Convertible Tents

Some four-season tents can be converted into three-season styles by removing additional poles and panels. Although not as sturdy as a true four-season, convertible tents provide an option for people who enjoy camping all year long.

Freestanding Tents

Freestanding tents are those that stand up on their own and don’t require any support such as stakes, guy lines, or ropes. However, it’s always best to stake down your freestanding tent if possible or weigh it down with something inside. Otherwise you may witness your tent bouncing across a field or the desert if the wind picks up.

Single-Wall Tents

Single-wall tents are made out of a single layer of waterproof/breathable material. Lighter and more compact than double-wall dome tents, single-wall tents are mainly used for alpine base camps, since keeping weight and bulk down is absolutely critical. However, be aware that single-walled shelters are more susceptible to collecting condensation.

Double-Wall Tents

Unlike single-wall tents, a double-wall tent uses a canopy and rainfly (to keep water out). Excess condensation has less chance of forming inside due to the ventilated canopy allowing moisture vapor to escape. The rainfly blocks wind, rain and snow, and air can circulate because of the gap between the canopy and rainfly.

Family/Basecamp Tents

Designed to accommodate groups of three or more people, some family tents have multiple rooms with room dividers. Others are one large room. Family tents are mainly used for car camping outings but can also be used in the backcountry such as canoe or rafting trips, especially the 3 to 4-person type. If you are carrying a tent like this, make sure to distribute the weight between all members of the party. However, larger sized tents, such as those designed for 5 or more people can be quite heavy and bulky and are best used for car camping only. Most, if not all, family tents are considered three-season tents since they are not built to handle harsher conditions during the winter months.

Backpacking Tents

Backpacking tents are used for camping in remote areas that can only be accessed by hiking. Since you will most likely be carrying your tent, usually for many miles over many days, a good backpacking tent needs to be light, compact and durable. It should also pack into a relatively small stuff sack and ideally weigh close to or less than 5 pounds. Most backpacking tents will include a vestibule, which allows you to store your gear outside of the tent while still keeping it dry, and can also be used in a pinch as an area for cooking (with a backpacking stove) in wet weather. If you decide to cook under your vestibule – make sure the vestibule is open to prevent steam from backing up into the tent, getting everything wet and also to provide ventilation so combustion fumes will not become a hazard. Some tents do not include a vestibule, which is not necessarily a negative, since condensation will be kept to a minimum with better ventilation.

Shapes

A-Frame

The classic A-frame style tent has been around for a long time. While A-frame tents are typically fast and easy to set up, the design renders it less sturdy in high winds, and the tent is inherently heavier compared to dome-shaped styles, which is why the dome version has become much more popular.

Dome Tents

Dome tents offer more head space than A-frame models, especially when sitting in an upright position. They are lighter in weight compared to the A-frame style, and can withstand heavier winds.

Cabin Tents

Because of the near-vertical wall design, cabin-style tents are the most spacious, easily maximizing livable space and in/out access. Some cabin tents include internal room dividers, which allow the tent’s interior to be configured to allow for personal space. The heaviest of all designs, cabin tents are the perfect choice for car camping.

Aluminum and Fiberglass Poles

Most tent manufacturers today make poles out of either aluminum, steel or fiberglass for all shapes and styles of tents. Most family tents include fiberglass or steel poles whereas backpacking and winter tents include aluminum poles. Why? Because aluminum is more durable than fiberglass and lighter than steel. Additionally, aluminum will not crack in colder temperatures as will fiberglass poles. Keep in mind that the price goes up on tents equipped with aluminum poles.

Tent Care

As with any piece of gear, tents must be cared for over time in ways such as applying a fresh coat of repellency with sprays or applying waterproof coatings as the coatings wear over the years. Through the wear and tear that comes with use,  your tent may need some repair work. You can find after-market repair kits for such things as new grommets, pole repair, screen or fabric tears, bad zippers, etc.

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