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How to Choose a Tent

When my daughter was in girl scouts, my friend and I got roped into being the "Camping Moms". That is, we had to take this weekend training course so we would know how to properly instruct the girls in the "girl scout" way. After much grumbling about losing our whole weekend, we settled in to take notes. When they got to the point about tents, the trainers advised, never buy a tent and then bring it camping without first setting it up! Right, I scribbled in my note pad, test out tent before actually camping. Good advice. Several months later when we took our troop camping, my partner in crime brought out a tent still in its sealed box. She had bought it the night before, and worse, had never set it up. How hard can it be, we reasoned. Turned out, darn hard! So my first piece of advice to you is always do a practice run before you are out in the wilderness. Here are some other things I have learned over the years either through experience, research, or talking to other campers.

There are many types of tents. It helps to determine what your needs are. If you are going backpacking, and are literally carrying the tent on your back, then the tent should be light weight and packs small, and will probably accommodate one person. Are you going car camping or family camping? That is, will you drive to your camping spot and unload your tent from there? If so, you can pack a bigger family-sized tent, which should be spacious and have good ventilation. To help determine the size, determine the number of people who will be staying in it.

Most backpacking tents are single person, and really only wide enough for sleeping. A two person tent is just that. It has room for two sleeping bags, but not much else. Experienced two person campers sometimes get a three or four person to have room to spread out and store gear. For a family of four, a four person tent will do, but be tight, and they might consider a bigger sized tent.

Something a family might want to consider is multi-roomed tents. Multi-room tents have two, or three, rooms, separated by a wall with a zippered door. Some multi-roomed tents have screened in areas.  You can use this to store gear or have chairs and an area to go to when it rains.               

Types of tents
Although there can be many varieties, for two or more people, you can break tents down into domed tents, and A-Frame tents or cabin tents. The dome tent tends to be compact, well suited to different weather conditions and are relatively easy to set up. The ceilings tend to be low, though, so if you desire room to stand up, test them out in the store. The second category is a bigger tent, called cabin tents, or multi-roomed or even A-frames, due to how they are set up. These bigger tents, which take longer to set up, generally have separate rooms, higher ceiling, and bigger windows due to their larger size. I prefer the easier to set up dome tents. Again, your needs will determine which type.

Ready to buy-what to look for

Most tents have poles in two varieties, fiberglass and aluminum. Check for high quality in both. Aluminum works well and are durable, but are heavy. Fiberglass poles, also called "shock poles", are sections of poles linked together by a strong elastic cable. Shock poles are lighter in weight, which is a concern in carrying the tent. But, they can be more fragile and break more quickly than aluminum. The elastic can wear out, as well, but most camping stores sell replacement poles if this does happen. My camping friends have found that an A frame tents can be jury rigged easier then a domed tent, and a fiberglass section is more difficult to fix in the wild if it does break. Consider carefully, although I have had my domed tent with fiberglass shock poles for 15 years and it is still going strong.

Poor air circulation creates a build up of your breathe condensation inside the tent. This is very uncomfortable.  Your sleeping bag, pillow, clothes, and gear get clammy and cold.  To help solve this problem, look for a tent with a roof vent. Opening this at night will help create some air circulation and eliminate condensation inside your tent. And if it rains, the rainfly will keep you dry!

A rainfly is a tent's umbrella and sun shade rolled in to one. The bigger the better, as they say. Rainflies are waterproof, but tent walls are water-repellant.  Look for a fly that comes
blue bar
blue bar

well down the sides of the tent and extends past the tent walls, rather than just across the top of the tent. You also can open windows in the rain if you have a rainfly that covers more then just the tent in itself. Rainflies will also act as a barrier between the sun and your tent roof, thus keeping your tent cooler on warm, sunny days.

In olden days, tents were made exclusively of canvas. Canvas is very tough and durable and is hard to damage. But canvas is very difficult to dry, and if stored away even slightly damp, mildew will grow. Most tents now a day are made of synthetic materials such as nylon or polyester. Nylon is light weight and dries easily, as does polyester, which also stands up to prolonged exposure to sunlight. But these materials can rip much easier, too.

When looking at the material, pay attention to the construction as well. Concentrate on the stitching and seams, especially around the zippers, windows and doors. They get yanked on the most, so look for double, or reinforced, seams in those areas. To check seams, pull the material on either side of a seam and if you can see through the stitches, the tent will probably leak. You can buy seam sealer to water proof the seams, but it is better to buy a tent that is water resistant already. Don't forget to zip the zippers back and forth a few times. Make sure they are not only heavy duty and easy to use, but will hold up to frequent use.

Now look at the flooring of the tent. The floor should be made of waterproof material. The floor also should come a few inches up the sides before it is sown to the tent walls.  If the seam is higher up the tent wall, then water has less of a chance to seep in the bottom. More expensive tents have a ground cover built into the tent. You can skip this feature and just lay an inexpensive tarp under your tent to act as a barrier between the bottom of your tent and the ground. The tarp or built in ground cover also protects the tent floor form rocks and sticks, but be sure to tuck the ends under the tent so that rain doesn't gather onto the tarp and pool under the tent.

Most tents have some sort of guy or guide lines. Guide lines can hold down the rainfly, especially in high winds. It can be hard to sleep when your tent is flapping. Guide lines can also pull out the walls of the tent to give you more room. The guide lines attach to loops somewhere on the tent. Make sure the loops are sturdy and attached firmly to the tent. Also check that the loops are big enough to secure and unsecure the lines easily. Give it a try at the store. Guide lines that stretch out far enough form the tent can become a tripping hazard. Experienced campers either paint them or tie cloth markers, or in a pinch, attach aluminum foil to them, to make them more visible.

Care and Storage
Now that you have the perfect tent, here are just a few guidelines. Never store food in or around your tent, and never eat in your tent. The smell of food alone will entice animals to break into your tent. If your campsite has a picnic table, eat there and store food in your car. If you have a tent with an attached screen room, it is okay to eat there, but be sure to clean up thoroughly afterwards or you will be bothered by ants, bugs, and other critters. If you camp in an area that is prone to pests, consider buying a separate screen room to set up as an eating area.

At night, be careful not to pitch your tent too closely to camp fires. Sparks will burn the synthetic materials. Also, do not bring in candles or gas lanterns inside the tent. They too will cause burn holes or worse, set the tent on fire. Instead use battery operated lanterns, flashlights, or glow sticks as a night light.

When you returning from camping, set your tent up in the yard to air it out, and more importantly, dry it out. This will help prevent mold and mildew. Do not store your tent in its packing bag. Use the packing bag to pack your tent when going to and from the campground. Store the tent loosely in a dry ventilated area. This will help to prolong its life and give you many years of camping enjoyment.