Tents are advertised as two man, four man, six man and so on. However, at best this is the maximum number of persons you can cram into the tent for sleeping in close company with no personal gear. This rating method might make sense for backpackers who are traveling light, but it is terrible for all others.
Why be cramped? Divide the advertised rating by two, and you will have the real capacity of the tent. Therefore, most four man tents are really only comfortable for two adults, or perhaps two adults and two very small children.
You should plan a minimum of 30 square feet of floor space per person. Make this even higher for longer camping trips, unless reducing weight is important.
Actual length and width are also very important. If you are six feet tall, you will need a space of at least seven feet in order to stretch out and not be crammed against the tent sides. You will need at least two and one half feet in width just for sleeping. This equals only 17.5 square feet. A “two man” tent might be advertised which measures five by seven feet.
Adding space for clothing, and a space to stand up without walking on your tentmate, will result in a more livable situation. Think more like eight by eight feet as a basic two man family camping tent. This gives you 32 square feet per person. Still not overly generous.
A ten by ten foot tent is ideal for two adults. You will have enough space for cots or a double air mattress, plus space to stand up when changing clothes.
Kids can fit comfortably in smaller tents. Once they are old enough, about seven or eight, they will probably want to sleep in a separate tent anyway. Parents will appreciate the privacy provided by this arrangement too. A five by seven foot tent is adequate for young kind. Teenagers should be considered as adults when fitting a tent.
Be cautious about tents that are larger than ten by ten. You will find three problems. First, it will be much more difficult to find a smooth and level spot large enough to set up the tent on. You need a spot as level as possible. Second, big tents can get heavy. This is not a problem for your car, but think about how much work it might be for you in loading and unloading the car. Finally, do you really want everyone to sleep, and dress, in the same tent. Privacy becomes an issue with the bigger tents.
The peak inside height is very important to you comfort. For most trips, try to have a tent that is tall enough to stand in. Plan for the taller persons in your group. A six or seven foot peak height is necessary for adults, and a four foot peak is about right for kids. Remember, the tent slopes downward at a sharp angle, so the actual spot where you can stand up will be small. Larger spaces will be provided in tents with taller peaks.
Tents come in four basic shapes: A-frame, umbrella, geodesic or “dome”, and wall. The A-frame is the common “pup” tent shape, but can also be quite large. The umbrella is a very commonly used family camping tent, as it has lots of standing room, with large windows and a rain fly over the top. The geodesic comes on many shapes, but all look like combinations of connected triangles. The wall tent is like an A-frame tent, but is generally much larger and has vertical side walls.
Tents with square floor shapes are more efficient when laying out sleeping and gear arrangements. Because of other factors, it is not always possible to have a square floor. If you buy a round floor, or nearly round like with the geodesic dome tents, you should allow some extra floor area to make up for the less efficient layout.
Poles are made from aluminum or fiberglass. Most tents have poles that are linked together with an elastic shock cord. This helps when setting up the tent. Poles can bend or break, so many tent manufacturers provide emergency repair links for you to carry along on the trip.
Nearly all tents are now made of nylon. Coated nylon is used for waterproofing. Nylon mesh is used for inner walls. No-see-um mesh is used for the window screens. Better tents use thicker fabric and rip-stop fabric.
When you are shopping, test the zippers. They should open and close freely, and should not catch and bind up on the tent fabric. The zippers should not be of a rusting type material.
Seams should be reinforced with nylon tape. The tape is stitched into each seam, and will make the seam stronger and more weatherproof. All waterproof seams in a nylon tent, such as on the fly and floor, must be waterproofed with a seam sealer. Your new tent should come with a bottle of seam sealer. Set up the tent in the yard before your trip, and apply the sealer. Let it dry before packing the tent. You will need to do this yearly.
Wind, rain, sun, heat and cold, all have different demands on the tent.
Windy areas will require sturdy poles, stakes and anchor ropes. Geodesic tents are excellent in wind. Their igloo-like shape reduces the wind’s effect, and their pole arrangement provides great strength.
Rain creates two considerations. First, keeping the rain out. Second, giving you enough room so you will be comfortable if you have to “weather” the storm by entertaining yourself indoors for a while.
Your tent should have a completely waterproof rain fly made of coated nylon. The fly should wrap around the tent and reach down the sides nearly to the ground. This will keep out all types of rain, even if it is windy. The fly should extend far enough over the door, so it keeps out the rain when you open the door to enter or leave.
The floor should also be waterproof coated nylon. This fabric should cover the floor, and turn up the sides for about six inches or so. There should be a few seams as possible. This is called a “tub” floor. It will keep out any water that runs down and under the tent.
Sun and heat create the need for shade and airflow. The rain fly will provide shade for tent. Large screened windows on opposite sides of the tent, or a screened window opposite a screened door, will allow air to flow through the tent.
Cold weather brings special needs. Unless you will be dealing with snow (when you would need a mountaineering tent), you can use a “three-season” tent that has good features. The most important features will be a rain fly that fully covers the top and sides, and an interior layer made from an open mesh fabric to allow water vapor to pass through it. In cool weather, warm water vapor inside the tent, from damp fresh air and moist air you exhale, will condense on the cooler surface of the tent’s exterior. The only way to prevent this is to allow the excess water vapor to escape from the tent by passing through the mesh fabric.
The tent size may also be a consideration if you plan to camp in cool weather. Your body heat will keep a small tent much warmer that outside. However, some campers will use a tent heater in their large tent. Heaters are not safe in small tents due the the closeness of the tent walls.
In general, the higher priced tents are made with stronger fabric, stronger poles, and stronger stitching. They will withstand higher winds and heavier rain. They will last longer. A good tent can last for many years.
However, not everyone needs this strength and durability. The milder and drier the climate, and the closer to home you camp (“just in case”), the more the least expensive tents will be very good bargains.
If you are just starting out in your family camping adventures, and don’t know if you will really like camping, then you might want to stick with the least expensive tents. Many families do. It is very likely that you will try your first trips when the weather is warm and dry, and will probably keep close the “civilization” until you gain some experience and decide whether you like camping or not. You can always upgrade to a better tent later, and keep your original budget tent for when conditions allow.