I will use the term tent in this post, in reality I mean anything that resembles a shelter like a tarp, bivy, hammock or tent. All designed to give you safety and shelter during a night of sleeping somewhere outside.
Buying a new tent is a big thing. They are costly and there is a lot of different options in the market for lightweight tents by this day and age. Many of them look a like and the differences in design and use are for most of us miniscule. There are pyramids, domes, tunnels, pop-ups, camping/glamping, single pole, multiple poles, tarps, bivys, hammocks they all come in different shapes, sizes and configurations.
Here is my guide to the questions you should ask yourself before asking others for advice on type of tent you need.
Please feel free to give your advice or comment on my very subjective guide. With that lets jump into the questions, which can be rearranged in order of importance if you want to.
Am I going to use it for hiking or camping?
This could also translate into what is your preferred style when using a tent. Will you hike long days and only use the tent as a shelter for as little time as possible or will you tend to stay and live in the tent for prolonged periods?
Also, if you have absolutely no experience of tents. Then you should start out by borrowing one and build some experience with tents to find out if you are a hiker or camper.
A hiker will typically go for smaller and lighter tents versus the camper type, who would go for a more spacious tent. Bear in mind that the weather and environment will also be a factor in this, but more on this later.
- Under what conditions am I planning to use it the most?
This makes a huge impact on the type of tent you need and perhaps also on how many tents you need as there is no such thing as the perfect tent for all types of weather and environments. Personally, I use my tents all year round. Therefore, I encounter all types of conditions of temperatures, rain, snow, wind, humidity, mosquitoes, and ground conditions for staking it out.
My choice of tent is therefore flexible meaning one that I can add and subtract protection from. In non-bug times I tend to use only the outer fly without the inner tent. If it is very wet or snowy, I can add a groundsheet in tyvek or plastic to use under my sleeping mat. When the bugs are out, I can add an inner tent with full protection. My tent has sufficient tie outs that it can remain strong in wind, and it can pe pitched high or low depending on the humidity, wind and rain/snow conditions. In wintertime with snow, I can dig a wall on the wind side to protect against snow drifts.
If you are more the keep it easy type and require the same enclosed protection most of the time, then a simpler spacious tent that has it all would probably be more your style and better for you.
- Do I need more than one tent?
You need at least one if you are going to sleep in wild somewhere, and for most of us one is sufficient. However, if you are planning to use it in different conditions and seasons or are in a variable size of group, then you might want to own more than one. The more types of conditions you are venturing out in, the more niche tents you might want to have in your gear closet.
- How many of my hard-earned money am I willing to spend?
Tents come in all shapes, sizes, and prices. As a rule you get what you pay for. A low-cost tent is typically made of poor quality and poor fabrics that will not hold up for many years. On the other hand, an expensive tent will probably last you a long time, and often have a warranty repair or exchange offer with it, should you be so unfortunate to require that.
There used to be another rule that a reduction in weight would mean an increase in price, and lesser strength, durability, and waterproofness. This rule has almost been eradicated with the increased technology in fabrics and tent design in later years.
Typically, the three choices of fabrics today are nylon, polyester and dyneema composite fabric (DCF or formerly known as cuben). DCF, nylon or polyester is measured for thickness in a term called denier. The lower the thinner. The two latter fabrics is typically coated in either polyeurethane or silicone to make them waterproof. DCF is spun from polyethylene fibers and therefore already completely waterproof and very strong for its weight. It is also the most expensive of the three.
Low-cost tents are usually of a heavier denier polyester, and the more expensive tents are from premium brands in silicone nylon or DCF.
Again, if you are the keep it simple type then I would go for a medium cost tent in silicone nylon from a well-established brand name.
- How much space do I need in my tent?
You should also know that every tent manufacturer will twist reality to make their tent stand out in a marketing text. The lightest tent in the world is easy to make. It just has to be very small and only manage to fit a very small person. As a general rule, very light tents are very small in size. This might be fine if you are an ultrarunner that only requires a couple of hours of sleep for one or two nights in the lightest tent you can find. The rest of us likes to have a balance of livable space and weight.
If you are planning on using your tent is routinely bad weather conditions, then you need dry space to live in and room for all your wet gear inside the tent. This means more cover and a height that you can sit comfortably in (remember to measure your pad when checking for this). Also check that you can lie down with out having your head or feet touch the fly of the tent.
A tent for summer conditions below tree line can be smaller but still require enough space to give you a comfortable night’s sleep.
- How much fiddling about with it am I willing to put up with?
The most used tent in Scandinavia is probably the tunnel tent with two or more poles. The second most used tent is the dome tent again with two or more poles. The reason for this is user friendliness and adaptation to most conditions. The tunnel tent is good when pitched into the wind, but will flatten if the wind direction changes to a side wind. The dome tent structure is strong the more poles it has, and most mountain four season tents are of this type, because what ever the wind, rain or snow direction, they will usually hold up to a beating or a strong snowfall. Off course, this also means that they are typically heavier and sturdier in construction and less useful for lightweight hiking.
In the other end of the fiddling scale are the more dynamic tents or tarps, which can be configured more depending on the conditions for your type of use. Without a fixed shape, they can better match the weather and ground conditions, but they can also be much more time consuming and annoying if you don’t have the required knowledge and experience with them. Escially if trying to pitch them in inclement conditions.
- Will I spend time choosing a good campsite for my tent?
I spend time looking for a good spot to pitch my tent. This is for a several very good reasons, but all with the intention of giving me a good night’s sleep.
I tend to look for a flat grassy area big enough for my body and I will lay down on the ground before pitching my tent and mark out the place for my head with a twig or stone so I can get as accurate a pitch as possible. Nearby water source, a view and high dry ground is preferred. Depending on the conditions I will look for a sheltered area with enough tie out possibilities to keep my tent as stabile as possible. I will sometimes walk a kilometer or more off trail for a good spot.
If you are less bothered by this or tend to use your tent in low forested or sandy areas then you could go for free standing tent or even a hammock if you only camp in forests.