How to Pick Out a Tent for Car Camping

How to Pick Out a Tent for Car Camping

Campfire Guy Here.  We are planning a camping trip with some friends for this coming Fall.  During our correspondence (fancy way to say Facebook Messenger), they asked me, “we are new to car camping, where do we start with buying gear?” My inner gear dork squealed with glee.  Every time Campfire Guy gets to dispense gear advice, either an angel gets its wings or Campfire Wife rolls her eyes and groans.  I can’t remember, though I’m pretty sure it’s the wings thing.

Car Camping vs. Backpacking

I have definitely been on a backpacking gear kick lately.  Those trips were centered around minimizing pack space and carrying a lighter load.  With car camping, my gear selection is limited only by the capacity of my vehicle and how many times I can say, “I’ll grab this just in case” before I run out of space.

A good example of fast and light, my pack weight was about 25 lbs.

Home is Where Your Tent Is

Since I started camping in 2011, I have amassed quite a bit of gear.  I can camp fast and light on my own or outfit my family of six with most of the comforts of home.  Since your home in the woods on a car campout is most likely going to be a tent, I’ll start there in the upcoming series, “How to Gear Up For Car Camping”.

The heaviest game of Tetris I ever played. All the comforts of home, but too many pounds to count.

Car Camping is “In-Tents”

Of all the gear I’ve purchased and returned, tents gave me the most grief.  I am the Goldilocks of outdoor gear.  Either the tent setup was too cumbersome, door placement was bad, it leaked or something broke the first time I set it up.  More research would have helped me avoid a few embarrassing trips to the return line.  These are not hard and fast rules to tent buying, merely some guidelines to help you find tent bliss.

Be Wary of Tent Capacities

Listed tent capacities are bologna. Our REI Half Dome Two plus is comfortable for one adult, or two kids.  Our Mountainsmith Genesee Four is comfortable for two adults or three children.  I’m certainly not knocking these two respected brands, but tent capacities are for “average sized” humans.  If you have two adults and two kids, get a six man tent.  For my family of six, we have a no longer made, clownishly large, Kelty Parthenon 8.  In hindsight, we would have been better off with two decent four person tents.  Eight person tents are lavish but can be difficult to set up.

The beast in the background is the no longer made Kelty Parthenon 8.

Free Standing is Easier to Pitch

I prefer a freestanding tent rather than a tent that requires staking corners before you can set it up.  An easier set up is better.  I like to get the tent up as fast as I can since I usually have little ones (children or maybe small wooden creatures) running full tilt throughout camp as we try to set up.  A freestanding tent usually goes up faster and is easier to reposition should the need arise.  Freestanding tents are also more convenient to air out back home.  Even if you don’t get rain, you’ll likely have condensation and thus a wet tent at some point on your trip.  Always air out your gear post camping.

Marking your tent door location on the foot print also makes set up easier.

Try to Stick With Right Angled Footprints

I’ve seen a lot of oddball hexagonal tents.  They aren’t necessarily bad, but can be a little more confusing when trying to get all the parts aligned.  Most tent makers color code everything but there can still be some guesswork.

Gold pole goes into gold grommet.

Clips Are Better Than Sleeves

The recent trend in tent design is to use clips instead of nylon sleeves to secure tent bodies to the poles.  No longer must you gently feed the tent poles through sleeves, hoping to avoid snags or having the pole sections separate.  Most super cheap tents still have the sleeves.

Mountainsmith Genesee
Clips that attach the Mountainsmtih Genesee tent body to the poles are much easier to use than traditional nylon sleeves.

 Good Ventilation

No offense to Houston, but hot, damp and muggy is no way to go through life.  Make sure the tent has some form of cross ventilation, either in the form of pop up vents in the rain fly, or rain fly overhangs.  Moisture inside tents is no good.

Pop up vents at the peak of the REI Half Dome Two Plus help with air circulation.

Break on Through to the Other Side

The Doors on a tent can have a big impact on how you arrange your gear inside.  For a two person tent or larger, I recommend two doors.  If there’s only one door, make sure the placement works for you.  Set it up at home and lay out your sleeping bags.  You’ll figure out real quick if you can make efficient use of the space.  Having two doors will limit foot traffic inside and decreases the likelihood you accidentally step on a sleeping child in the middle of the night.  However, I make no guarantees that having two doors will keep a sleeping child from stepping on you in the middle of the night.

Two doors and vestibules on the REI Half Dome Two Plus will keep you from having to leap crawl over your tent mate to get out.

After Your Match Made In Camping Heaven

So, you’ve done your research, read all of my post,  poured over reviews and found that perfect tent.  Now, set it up at home.  Are all the parts there?  Did it come with enough stakes?  Does the stitching on the seams look tight and uniform?  Are there any holes in the tent body or fly?  Do the zippers all operate smoothly?  If you are happy with your purchase, the next step is to get some water based seam sealer and seal the “taped side” of any seams on the rain fly and the tent body.  This will help insure seams will indeed repel water.  You will most likely need to upgrade your tent stakes, as oftentimes, the stock ones are too flimsy. These are excellent stakes that I have had good luck with.  These are rubbish and broke the first time I tried to use them.  These steaks were just right.

Once I decided to keep the Half Dome Two Plus, I sealed the seams on the fly and tent body.  Photo courtesy of Tony Gutierrez.

One Size Does Not Fit All

What has worked for me, may not work for you.  If you stick with known brands, in the long run, they should serve you well.  Amazon and Academy have some super cheap tents, whose quality and longevity I cannot comment on.  Do your homework and allow plenty of time to make your purchase.

Recommended Brands

Two Person Tent Suggestions

  • REI Half Dome Two Plus – I did an in-depth review of the Two Plus a while back. I’ve owned this one for a while and love it.
  • ALPS Mountaineering Taurus (also available in a four person version) – While I haven’t used this, our Boy Scout troop uses ALPS tents and they have held up well. If you have time to wait on shipping, hikerdirect.com is an excellent source for highly discounted ALPS Mountaineering gear.

Four Person Tent Suggestions

Six Person Tent Suggestions

Eight Person Tent Suggestions

  • Coleman Evanston 8– I have not owned but Amazon gives it 4.5 stars and it is super cheap.  It only has one door and partial pole sleeves.
  • REI Kingdom 8 – I have not owned, but it reviews well and REI’s return policy is very friendly if you find it too cumbersome.

If you have any questions or comments, drop them in the comments section below. Happy shopping! This post contains affiliate links. Clicking on them and doing some shopping doesn’t cost you anything, but it does help offset my operation costs.  Clicking on the links doesn’t require your to recruit ten friends to sell stuff, in hopes of one day of quitting your day job and living the dream.

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